Dugongs on brink of extinction, poaching continues in India

P Oppili Times of India 12 Jul 15;

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CHENNAI: The Union government's Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) on Wednesday declared that dugongs among the five species to be the focus of conservation, but the marine mammals, ironically called the 'angel of the sea', continue to be poached for their meat.

There are just 250 dugongs in the Indian seas, according to a study by Zoological Survey of India in 2013. Conservation in other places like Australia has seen their population crossing 85,000. In the Gulf of Mannar, the dugong population ranged between 77 and 158, said the survey. In Andamans, there could be 41 to 81 dugongs, and in the Gulf of Kutch, some 10 to 15, said ZSI director K Venkataraman.

The species has been categorized in the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Natural Flora and Fauna (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) had classified it under Appendix I, implying that the mammal is under threat. They are poached for their meat.

Feeding on sea grass, dugongs are found in sea grass beds, sheltered waters, lagoons and bays. Fourteen sea grass species are found in the marine waters in the country of which 13 are found in the Gulf of Mannar and Palk Bay areas. Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute records showed that in 1983-84 more than 250 dugongs were killed in Keelakarai and Periapatnam villages in Ramanathapuram. Researchers said a section of people in villages believed that the dugongs carried boxes full of money in their stomach and poached them indiscriminately.

As dugongs had been brought under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act, the punishment for poaching is imprisonment, but seldom is anyone punished. "The offenders would get the same punishment as that of killing tigers, leopards or elephants," said a senior officer.

Human intervention, fishing activities, pollution, mixing of excessive nutrients from agricultural fields that gets drained into the coastal waters and mixing of sewage are some of the direct threats to dugong habitats.

More cooperation among countries in the South Asian region is needed to protect them from extinction, says Venkataraman. Sri Lanka has made efforts to protect its small dugong population that migrate from the Gulf of Mannar.

Threat evaluation, putting an end to illegal and incidental captures, reducing marine pollution through serious monitoring are some of the measures researchers suggest to protect dugongs from extinction. CAMPA has announced 4 crore each for conserving five species including dugongs, sangai deer, Gangetic dolphins, wild water buffalo and the great Indian bustard.

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