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What the Dugong is this Creature?

They have always fascinated those who have been lucky enough to witness them. But what is a dugong?

By Arwa Lodhi

This creature is probably not an animal you are too familiar with–not just because it lives underwater, but mainly because it is so close to extinction. So, what is a dugong, exactly?

A cousin of the manatee and closely related to the elephant, this gentle, intelligent sea creature is unique in that it has a split (whale-like) tail and can “sit up” underwater on its tail in order to keep its head above water. Maybe because of this ‘sitting’ ability, the dugong is thought to have inspired ancient myths about mermaids.

In fact, the word “dugong” derives from Tagalog, adopted from the term Malay  duyung, meaning “lady of the sea”. Other (less elegant) names for this creature are “sea cow”, “sea pig” and “sea camel”.

what is a dugong

A species in decline

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species limits or bans the trade of dugong-derived products, but nonetheless, one of the main causes of the decline of this species is, sadly, hunting.

Dugong meat and oil  are traditionally valuable foods of Australian aborigines and Torres Strait Islander, and their body parts are also used as food, medicine, and even as decorations. In the Philippines, parts of dugong’s body are used to ward off evil spirits, and in areas of Thailand, there’s a rather twisted belief that the gentle dugong’s tears form a powerful love potion.

But one other terrible threat faced by this sweet creature is, of course, pollution.

Perhaps the most tragic example of this is the baby dugong that became famous in Thailand.

The tiny creature, named Marium, was found in April 2019 off the coast of Krabi, southern Thailand, and photos of her nuzzling marine biologists quickly went viral. When a second orphaned dugong was found, subsequently named Jamil by Thailand’s Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya, the pair became huge internet stars.

Fans could watch Marium on a live feed, receiving veterinary treatment, and being fed up to 15 times a day. Shortly after her ‘discovery’, however, Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) posted on Facebook that the dugong was sick and refusing food.

what is a dugong

Tragedy…and it’s our fault

Marium died shortly after she refused to eat, and an autopsy revealed plastic debris in the intestine, resulting in inflammation and the accumulation of gas, as well as a respiratory infection and a buildup of pus. Vets were able to treat the respiratory infection, but could not remedy the buildup of plastic waste.

The post announcing the death of “little angel” Marium has been shared almost 40,000 times at time of writing, with tens of thousands of comments expressing grief and shock. And yet, if we know this tragic ending was met by a ‘famous’ dugong, imagine how many others in the wild have suffered the same fate. And it’s our fault.

These interesting and rare mammals, which forage for sea vegetables with their trunk-like snouts, play an important ecological role in coastal marine ecosystems, but are further endangered due to destruction of their native habitats, getting caught in fishing lines, and of course, due to plastic pollution. They’re just as smart as elephants, and just as sweet and playful. We rarely here much about these magical creatures, but it’s time to spread the news about their decline.

if you’d like more information about them – and how you can help them survive – please click here.

Chere Di Boscio

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