Dugongs in Southeast Asia: Sentinels of the Sea in Trouble

A murky picture into which the gentle giants could silently fade away

By: Gregory McCann

Dugongs, also known as “sea cows,” may be listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as globally vulnerable, but there can be little doubt that within Southeast Asia they are endangered, if not critically endangered in many countries.

A 2003 study, including overflies and village interviews, found no dugongs along the Cambodian coast, and when Thais in Trat province were told that a handful of the great gentle sea creatures were spotted in their provincial waters, such was their surprise that they hosted a “welcome back” party for the lovable long-lost sea grass dwellers. IUCN maps show the dugong’s range hugging the Vietnamese coast and ringing China’s Hainan island, but there are no recent records of this species in either country’s waters. They are threatened throughout their range by direct hunting, as bycatch in nets, by the destruction of their preferred seagrass habitats, and by accidental boat strikes.

Mistaken by lonely sailors for mermaids in the days of yore, dugongs—at least from a distance—look more like huge, tied sausages floating near the water’s surface. They are, nonetheless, beautiful creatures up close—appearing like big cuddly sentinels of the sea. In truth, they are peaceful herbivores like their Florida cousins the manatee posing no threat whatsoever to humans. They belong to the order Sirenia, linking them to the “sirens” of Greek mythology, and they live mainly in ever-shrinking pockets of sea grass in coastal waters, as well as in estuaries, rivers, and swamps—all threatened habitats. The word dugong derives from the Malay term “duyung,” which translates to “lady of the sea.”

Extirpated or vastly reduced in Indochinese waters, that leaves Thailand, Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, and East Timor as possible refugia for this species in Southeast Asia.

With the exception of Trat province in the Gulf, the last hope for dugongs in Thailand is off Ko Libong island in Trang province on the Andaman Sea. There is a cliff on the island from which herds of dugongs can be seen, and a large group was recently spotted in the vicinity. The fact that they usually congregate in one spot should make them fairly easy to protect. Thais also seem to have a genuine affection for these lovable creatures, as evidenced in the rearing of young animal nicknamed “Marium” who was found alone and stressed in the nearby waters of Krabi province. Marium became an Internet sensation in Thailand but died within a few weeks with a stomach full of plastic.

But while Thais may have a soft spot for these koala bears of the blue, protecting them would mean coming to loggerheads with fishermen and the tactics they use to ply their trade, which include an assortment of nets that dugongs often get caught up in and killed. They also get hit by boat propellers, as manatees do in Florida, and that would call for no-go zones in their sea grass habitats, something fishermen are loath to agree to. 250 dugongs are thought to inhabit Thailand’s waters (which is about the same number of Indochinese tigers that still prowl the Kingdom’s forests), which would give them a listing of Critically Endangered (CR) in the Kingdom.

Malaysia says it is serious about dugong protection, turning a Pew fellow’s research into an action plan to save the species. Fewer than 100 are thought to live in the coastal waters of Johor, their stronghold in the country, and massive Chinese development plans there cannot be helping them. Although they also are found in Sabah, there are no solid population estimates for dugongs in Malaysian waters.  

One bright spot for dugongs is on Calauit Island north of Palawan in the Philippines. Here, a dive center specializes in taking ecotourists into dugong habitats for a chance at seeing and swimming with the legendary marine mammals, where around 30 live and the friendliest have been named. According to an article in Rappler, “Sizeable herds of dugongs once plied the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat destruction reduced numbers. Populations still hold out in Isabela, Mindanao, Guimaras and Palawan, but encounters are extremely rare.” Endangered (EN) or CR here.

The situation in Indonesia is much grimmer. Dugongs were found chained in underwater cages off North Maluku island for the pleasure of snorkeling tourists—the aquatic equivalent of tamed juvenile sun bears performing tricks for tourists. In regard to the species’ status in the wild, Dugong Conservation, a leading body in the study and conservation of dugongs throughout their range, states on their web site: “Very limited scientific information is available on the abundance, distribution and behavior of dugongs in Indonesian waters, but they have been observed throughout Indonesia, including in the coastal waters of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali, Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT), Maluku and Papua Barat.”

The picture regarding dugongs in Indonesia—Southeast Asia’s most sprawling nation—is murky, like the brackish estuary waters near mangroves and sea grasses that dugongs prefer—but the apparent lack of conservation commitment for these unique, imperiled Kings of the Blue, is worrying. Almost certainly EN here.   

While overflies in search of dugongs have taken place in Brunei, and interviews with local fishermen regarding cultural perspectives on these sea animals have been carried out, much like in neighboring Indonesia, solid info on population numbers is apparently lacking, adding to the murkiness. Their status in the Sultanate is data deficient, likely in decline.

Is there a ray of hope to be found for dugongs in East Timor? Dugongs reportedly inhabit Nino Konis Santana National Park, and while there are no solid populations numbers to refer to, there are hopes that ecotourism focused on dugongs can help spur conservation in the marine park. Their status here is data deficient as well, likely in decline.  

Amazingly, the wily odd dugong still transits through Singapore’s waters.

Sea cows are considered endangered in Myanmar, and are found in just two locations on the Rakhine coastline. A study published in 2008 titled “Interviews about dugongs and community conservation in the Myiek Archipelago” states that: “The largest dugong population is in Australia, but elsewhere they survive only in fragmented population groups. Neither the number of dugongs remaining in these groups nor the range of their habitat is known outside of incidental sightings and the reports of fishers.” What do you know about their existence outside of the two groups in Rakhine? All that can be said with certainty is that they have been seen near the islands of Lampi, Clara, and the Sisters Islands, where they live alongside the Moken sea gypsies and Karen refugees. Dugongs from the Mergui (Myiek) Archipelago could also migrate to and mix with Nicobar Island populations.

Although outside of Southeast Asia, a couple of other East Asian locales are noteworthy. Dugongs are now extinct in Taiwanese waters, and have been reduced to just a handful of individuals in Okinawa, thanks in part to US military activities. The giant cousin to the dugong—Steller’s Sea Cow—once inhabited the waters of the Russian Far East and was hunted to extinction just 36 years after it was described by the young German scientist Georg Wilhem Steller during Russia’s Second Kamchatka Expedition that went out in search of Alaska in the 18th Century.   

While the IUCN range map might make it look like dugongs have plenty of room to maneuver in SEA, the reality in the sea grasses is different. The Trat-possible Cambodia group is a marooned population probably suffering from a lack of genetic diversity. Perhaps there are a few stragglers ranging from Can Tho up to Hainan, and if so, their days are numbered. This means that large sections of the IUCN range map for dugongs can be erased. Unless governments soon take action to protect the sea cows swimming peacefully along their coasts, they will fade away into the murky waters forever.

Gregory McCann is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel, he organizes wildlife surveys in Southeast Asia, and is the author of the book Called Away by a Mountain Spirit: Journeys to the Green Corridor.