India: Rare Dugong population is on decline

Times of India 2 Jun 12;

AHMEDABAD: Gujarat Ecological Education and Research (GEER) Foundation has suggested that a study should be taken up with the help of deep sea scuba divers to estimate the exact population of Dugong along the India coast.

The population of this rare sea cow is on a decline along the Indian coast.

The Dugong population off the coast of Lakshadweep Islands seems to be extinct as there have been no recent sightings in the region. Officials also said that Dugongs were common in Andaman & Nicobar Islands during the British era, but populations steeply declined later due to poaching and habitat destruction. Dugongs are reported in Ritchie's Archipelago, North Reef, Little Andaman, Camorta and Nicobar Islands. However, large populations are no longer seen and numbers are believed to have been falling since the 1950s.

Officials said that observations made by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute and various other organizations in India have revealed that the dugong populations all over India are declining. At present, it seems that the largest population of dugongs in India is in Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay region followed by Andaman and Nicobar Islands, although the population size is presumed to be very small.

The 2004 tsunami had damaged much of the dugong habitats in the Nicobar regions. Dugong population in Gulf of Kutch is also endangered.

A senior officer said that among the decline of Dugong population was mainly because of vessel strikes, habitat loss and degradation, disease, chemical pollutants, hunting, and incidental drowning in nets.

Dugongs are vulnerable to anthropogenic pressures as dependent only on sea grasses in coastal areas which now have been seriously damaged by fishing, trawling, and dredging. Dugongs have also been hunted for their meat, oil, hide, bones and teeth.

Officials said that the feeding grounds, sea grass beds are highly degraded due to change in the fishing technology. With mechanized boats replacing the non-mechanized boats for fishing in the shallow water there has been a degrading of the sea grass beds and destroying their habitats. Moreover, water pollution and siltation have also hampered this unique dugong habitat.

Officials said that the there was a need to identify other important and potential dugong habitats in the country and to bring them under the Protected Area Network for better conservation planning.