Fact: Having Dugongs Around Is a Good Idea

I take my job very seriously. It’s a life and death kind of thing. People suffer if I fail or do poorly at the office. Perhaps not right away, but they will for sure. This is because I save dugongs (Dugong dugon) for a living. Well, sort of.

The dugong has had a relatively short if abrupt history of disappearances in the Philippines. Historically, the animal used to be seen in the waters of almost all the islands in the archipelago. That was until the 1970s when they started disappearing. Today dugong numbers appear to be sparse and scattered, with Palawan being considered as one of its remaining strongholds. The vagueness and uncertainty of dugong populations in the country is a major concern. We really just do not know how many of them are still left out there. This presents quite a hurdle for those who make it their business to find ways to attain sustainable dugong conservation in the Philippines.

My part in the great work of dugong conservation covers the Busuanga Island area of Northern Palawan. Essentially, Busuanga is my beat. I work for a non-government organization where we are doing the necessary research and training to capacitate local stakeholders in conserving their natural heritage – the dugong included.

Let’s deal with the facts, and here I will focus on three. First, it is a fact that there are still dugong sightings in coastal waters of Busuanga Island. Second, it is also a fact that they might not be there for long. Let’s see what’s killing them.

The laws are in place and you have to be out of your mind if you were to brag about having dugong for breakfast, as this is a sure way of being thrown in jail. But sustained enforcement of environmental laws is a challenge in itself here and though I have yet to meet a person in Busuanga who would claim he eats dugongs for breakfast, I worry that the opportunistic killing here and there might still be happening somewhere albeit discretely. Then there are the accidental threats such as boat strikes and dugongs getting caught in fishing gear. Add habitat degradation from the combined effects of coastal development, land-based pollution, and the illegal practice of blast and cyanide fishing to the mix and you have an idea of why it’s not too easy being a dugong these days. This is why one death is so tragic: the animal is long-lived (70 years or more) but has a very slow-breeding rate (a gestation period of 13-15 months) and births are few. With its biology like that, the arithmetic can be brutal for species survival.

Why the need to protect them? The ecological importance of dugongs can never be stressed enough. I’ll keep it simple: Dugongs keep seagrass beds healthy and healthy seagrass beds mean healthy fisheries. And that is where disappearing dugongs can hurt most. A collapse in the local fishing scene not only means less fish to be bought at the local wet market, it also means less jobs for people in the industry – people with families with needs to be met. Rural coastal communities are usually made up of folks who stare poverty at the face on an almost daily basis. They just want to have less things to worry about, like staying healthy. Keeping dugongs around is a very good idea if one intends on improving the quality of life for people in these rural coastal communities in particular and every one else in general.

Whenever I am in situ (work-speak for being ‘out in the field’) I always tell my staff: “listen, we have a lot of work to do for our dugong project and I am counting on you guys to deliver here… ” I always say this with as much enthusiasm and rabid energy as I could muster. And why not, they’re not all dead yet (the dugongs that is), and that is one last fact that I feel we should all be excited about as we can still do something about it.