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April 09, 2001


Going, going, dugong

The beautiful dugong, native to Thailand's temperate waters, was once bountiful-but as mass tourism seeps into rural areas, the already much depleted creature faces an uncertain future


Hunting and irresponsible fishing practices have put the dugong (Dugong dugon) on the verge of extinction. With the tourism industry cruising into the species' final stronghold in the Trang sea, the dugong now has to brace itself for the worst.

In the past, the marine mammal used to thrive in coastal waters both in the Andaman and the Gulf of Thailand. According to local old timers, sometimes hundreds of individuals could be seen in a single herd. These days, aerial surveys show that only a small number still survive here and there along the Andaman coast from Phangnga to Satun provinces. In the Thai gulf, the most "promising" sign of the species' presence is occasional find of lifeless ones washed up onto the shore.

On both sides of the peninsula, about a dozen dugongs are found dead each year. The mammal needs to come up to the water surface to breath every few minutes, and most of those that died got trapped and drowned in fishing nets. Over the past three months, four such deaths have been recorded.

The largest remnant population of dugongs is that thriving in the sea off Trang province, especially near the beds of seagrass, the species' main diet, around and between Koh Muk and Koh Libong. The highest number of dugongs spotted in one day by a researcher flying above the area in a microlight plane last year was 66. However, it is estimated that the actual number of dugongs in the Trang sea could exceed 100.

This particular dugong population, which consists of both adults and calves, owes its survival to a joint effort by the fishermen of Ban Chao Mai and those in nearby villages, together with academics and NGO workers.

Over the past several years, these people have put life back to the once dying seagrass habitats-which serve as natural nurseries for fish and other marine creatures, the villagers' source of income-by banning dangerous fishing practices in the area, such as the use of the "push net" which uproots everything in its path.

Also, as a result of an education and conservation campaign, intentional killing of the dugong for food and medicine has become rare.

But here comes a new challenge for the conservationists-large-scale tourism.

With the sea of Trang being promoted worldwide as a new destination for tourists trying to avoid the crowded beaches of nearby Phuket and Krabi, more and more tour boats, large and small, are appearing in this quiet part of the Andaman. Many of them even venture into the dugongs' seagrass grazing grounds.

Resorts and restaurants-many of them not equipped with proper waste and sewage treatment-are popping up on beaches both on the mainland and on islands. Facilities-roads on Koh Libong, for example-are being improved in preparation for future tourist influx.

To tackle the unstoppable arrival of the tourist industry, the Koh Libong Tambon Administration and local villagers have planned to build a pier at Ban Chao Mai. The project, for which a budget of 27 million baht has been approved by the Harbour Department, is expected to enable locals to compete with capitalists from outside.

However, wildlife researchers have expressed fear that it would also increase traffic and pollution in the dugong habitats which are just a few minutes away by boat.

So far, studies on dugongs have focused only on their populations and locations. Little is known about the species' behaviour and biology. Systematic assessment of the impacts on the animals of underwater noises and other sorts of pollution that mass tourism would bring along is non-existent.

The situation is not hopeless, however, if all the "stakeholders"-ie villagers, the business sectors, the authorities, researchers and NGO's-could put their conflicts of interest behind them and, instead, put their heads together to draw up a master plan that will benefit everybody, including, of course, the dugongs and other marine life.

Rules and regulations that ensure sustainable business-possibly including designation of off-limit zones-need to be realised. The Yadfon Association, a local NGO, plans to hold such a meeting later this month.

With the tourist season ending in May because of the upcoming southwestern monsoon, Trang locals have a few months to get themselves ready before the next, and larger, waves of visitors start to storm in around November. The fate of the last dugongs depends on how their human friends define "ready".


Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2000