The Dugong on the Wall

dugong philippines

I write this article to report on a curious thing I recently experienced. A few days ago I attended an evening fundraiser for biodiversity held here in Quezon City. The event, known as EndDanger, was an exhibit that had on display numerous works of art portraying the different animals currently under threat of extinction in the Philippines. As I work for a non-profit organization helping to conserve the country’s rich biodiversity, I felt that the event was a neat opportunity to meet and get to know people of similar interests.

The fundraiser was the latest expression of Artists for Nature, a group of young artists closing ranks for the benefit of the environment. Theirs is a grim task of sorts because the exhibit, to put it bluntly, was a collection of the doomed; an artistic zoo of animals on the dreaded hit list of species extinction. The animals featured in the event included heritage species such as the Philippine Eagle, the Philippine Crocodile, the Irrawaddy Dolphin, the Palawan Bearcat and the Philippine Mouse Deer and many others — too many for my liking. This was death row on a species scale captured on canvas and paper.

Not all the art on display at EndDanger moved me in the same way (a good handful I actually found cute). But there was one work in particular that caught my eye and stoked in me an emotion I always loathed: the fear of plausible inevitability. The source of my sudden and most unwelcome disconcert was that of Allan Calingasan’s “Dugong”, a 24 by 30 inch acrylic on canvas painting. I swear the thing was looking at me.

And it wasn’t pleased.

I wasn’t exactly happy making its acquaintance either and I would have shrugged it all off as I have countless other unwelcome omens if not for one unfortunate bit of knowledge that I happen to be aware of. This had happened before, for real, to the dugong’s cousin, the Steller’s sea cow.

The Steller’s sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), belonged to the same sirenian order as the dugong but unlike its still existing cousin, the Steller’s sea cow is no more. Named after the German naturalist Georg Steller who discovered the species in 1741, the Steller’s sea cow would disappear by 1768 — a shocking 27 years. The species was driven to extinction by anthropogenic factors (that’s work-speak for ‘it tastes like chicken’). The tame, slow-moving marine mammal was heavily hunted for its skin and for food. But more importantly, and here lay the gist of my discontent, the Steller’s sea cow exits  today only in the form of artistic illustrations and paintings as a reminder of its previous existence. Its bones are still available though, and can be found (again), on display in exhibits and museums in Europe.

Will the dugong end up the same way as its unfortunate cousin the Steller’s sea cow? Awareness of the issues helps and events such as EndDanger work well towards this end. But awareness should be matched by effective conservation action at the local level. Already there are places where this has happened too late. In the waters off Mauritius, the Maldives, the Seychelles, parts of Cambodia and Vietnam and yes, even in the Philippines, there exists on record, local extinctions of dugongs. The threat is real and is actually happening to this day.

As I left the fundraiser I thought of the consequences that await should all the animals featured in the exhibit do slide into extinction. Perhaps I should give Artists for Nature a call and commission Allan Calingasan to create a new painting of another threatened mammal for display in their next fundraiser. I imagine that it should be a 24 by 30 inch acrylic on canvas phenomenon carrying the title… “Human.”