The recent killing of an adult dugong at Neil Island in the Andamans is not a one-off incident. Like in other parts of the world, in India too, dugongs are fighting desperately for their survival despite being on the Schedule-I list of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act. They are the only surviving specie of Sirenia (an order of aquatic, herbivorous mammals) and are referred to in the Bible as ‘sea cows’.
The killing of the adult dugong at Neil Island could have far-reaching consequences. A week before the killing, snorkellers had spotted a dugong calf at the same beach. If the killed dugong was the mother, this calf won’t survive for long because young dugongs are dependent on their mothers for at least two years.
The public’s reaction to such killings/poachings has been tepid. Locals generally stay away from such incidents, possibly fearing detection while local leaders and hoteliers hold fishermen from other islands responsible. In reality, dugong meat is a delicacy for most islanders even though they are well aware that killing/poaching a dugong is a legal offence.
According to a study, 22 dugongs were reported dead in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the last two decades. These numbers are of concern as the population of dugongs in the islands is estimated to be less than 100. In addition to increased vigilance, State-sponsored awareness initiatives, involving local communities, incentives for groups concerned and setting up of regular monitoring exercises are essential for saving dugongs and the effective implementation of the law. There is also a need for scientific research on the mammal and for assessing the predominant threats to its survival. Mapping of sea grass beds, demarcation and monitoring of dugong habitats are also crucial for conserving this endangered species.
(Vardhan Patankar and Elrika D’souza are with Mumbai-based Reef Watch Marine Conservation)