Manatees and Dugongs

This past month we’re celebrating Manatee Awareness Month, an awareness campaign that was initiated by past Governor of Florida, Bob Graham in November 1979. His reasoning then, as now, was simple. Every year at this time, Florida’s population of West Indian manatees migrate south to warmer waters and in doing so put themselves in danger of fatal collisions with motor boats. Bob’s idea to create awareness of and offer protection for, these languid giants was prophetic, for while collisions with fishing boats remain a real danger today, there are more devastating factors at play. Marine pollution, the demise of the seagrass they feed on, the loss of warm-water habitats on which they depend, and drowning whilst caught in fishing nets and lines are all contributing factors.

These slow-moving creatures that prefer shallow water are pretty much the stuff of legend and have inspired the myth of mermaids for eons. It was Christopher Columbus on his first journey to the Americas that wrote in his Journal: ‘On the previous day [8 Jan 1493], when the Admiral went to the Rio del Oro [Haiti],he saw quite distinctly three mermaids, which rose well out of the sea; but they are not so beautiful as they are said to be, for their faces had some masculine traits.’ An explanation for this could be, that manatees and dugongs are known to rise out of the sea like the alluring sirens of Greek myth, in order to breathe and perform ‘tail stands’ requiring shallow water to do so.

And so, it follows that in Greek mythology sirens are portrayed as aquatic and mermaid-like, while from Spain to France, Poland to Portugal and even Italy, the word for mermaid is Sirena, Sirene, Sirena, Syrene, and Sereia. A further twist in the (mermaid’s) tale is that the biological name for the order to which the dugong and manatee belong, is called Sirenia, while the name dugong translates to ‘lady of the sea’ in the Malay language.

There is much that is fascinating about Manatees and Dugongs but what is most notable is that their closest living relatives are not whales or dolphins but elephants. This can be traced back to an ancient order of African mammals known as the Afrotheria, a superorder that includes seven groups of animals thought to have shared a common ancestor around 100 million years ago. This group includes manatees, dugongs, elephants, the aardvark, hyraxes (African shrewmouse) golden moles and tenrecs.

Commonly known as “sea cows,” manatees and dugongs are slow-moving mammals that prefer shallow coastal waters where they graze peacefully on sea grasses. Found predominantly in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans, they can be found as far north as the coastal waters of Okinawa in Japan and as far south as Mozambique’s Bazaruto. Today, thanks to conservation efforts, Florida’s manatee population is considered a keystone species and is a stable population of some 6 600 individuals. Mozambique’s dugong population however is in decline with recent aerial surveys and population estimates putting the population in the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park at just over 200. As the last remaining viable population in the Indian Ocean, the survival of this protected species is critical. Their biggest threat is local commercial gill netting for shark fins where dugongs inadvertently become bycatch. It has been estimated that if two reproductive females are killed a year, the population will not survive long term, particularly as the species has a slow rate of reproduction with females giving birth to one calf every two to seven years.

We’re heartened by the fact that, with the past support of Save our Species and current support through a global Seagrass and Dugong Conservation initiative funded by the Global Environment Facility, The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), together with Dugongos.org and Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, have strengthened the partnership with the Bazaruto Archipelago National Park. Their aim to formulate a strategic and integrated protection program within and outside the National Park to prevent Dugong bycatch and habitat loss is making steady progress. ‘As the death of Dugongs is closely linked to the local fishery, we have been working to develop innovative tools to capacitate the fishers to better manage their fishery as well as systems to improve the marine protected area monitoring,’ says Isabelle Giddy, project coordinator for EWT. ‘While we are still getting reports of Dugongs being caught as bycatch, just this month in November, we were delighted to sight 58 dugongs in one aerial survey, a very promising find.’

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