Legend has it that the inspiration for mermaids comes from an elusive sea mammal, so skittish that it flees at the first sight of a human.
It’s an animal that features heavily in the folklore of Southeast Asia, where many cultures hold the belief that it was originally part-human, and many languages use a synonym for mermaid to refer to it. To the wider world, it is known as the dugong.
“Dugongs are sea cows. They’re closely related to manatees and their closest land relatives are elephants,” says Christopher Marshall, an associate professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University. “They’re unique among marine mammals in that they’re vegetarians — they only eat seagrass and other aquatic plants.”
Marshall admits that the connection to mermaids may seem like a stretch, although “that’s also what their scientific name refers to — they’re in an order called “Sirenia,” and siren is another word for mermaid. There’s lots of interesting cultural mythology around them.”
Not all of it is benign, though. Their tears are sold in bottles as love potions or aphrodisiacs, and several of their body parts — including bones, tusks, and penises — are harvested for purported medicinal properties. Their teeth are used to make cigarette holders. They’ve also been hunted for meat and oil for thousands of years, which, combined with habitat loss, has greatly reduced their numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the dugong a vulnerable species in 1982, but says the degree to which dugong numbers have dwindled is unknown.
Dugong habitats are found along the coastal areas of the Indian and Pacific oceans, spanning more than 40 countries. However, they were declared functionally extinct in China last summer, and populations are rapidly declining in countries such as Kenya, Japan and Indonesia, according to the UN Conservation Programme.
“There are two main vulnerabilities for these animals,” explains Marshall. “One is habitat loss: The seagrasses are disappearing all over the world. And two, bycatch: That’s a huge issue for dugongs in the Persian Gulf.”
The Gulf hosts the world’s second-largest population of dugongs, after Australia. About 3,000 individuals live along the coast of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, where a conservation program is currently restoring coastal ecosystems.
“We’ve been studying dugongs for the past 20 years,” says Maitha Mohamed Al Hameli, a marine biologist at Abu Dhabi’s Environment Agency. “We began by monitoring them to understand their distribution, and based on that data we have managed to highlight some marine areas that were later declared protected — that’s exactly where we have the highest density of dugong population.”
The emirate has already restored 7,500 hectares of mangroves, seagrass meadows and coral reefs in a project that targets both land and sea, and is targeting a further 4,500 hectares by 2030. It has also implemented a ban on fishing gear known to trap dugongs as bycatch.
“The restoration project is huge. In addition to the protected areas, we have laws and regulations that protect the critical habitats that support these animals. Our population has been steady for the past 20 years and based on aerial surveys that we do bi-annually, it is actually increasing,” says Al Hameli.
“A sense of security”
The program is expected to have positive cascade effects on other creatures, including dolphins, turtles and hundreds of species of fish. “The restoration of mangroves, seagrass and corals has a huge impact on fisheries as well. A lot of the mangroves and seagrass beds act as nurseries for fish in the beginning of their life, especially commercially significant fish,” says Al Hameli, who adds that an increase in mangrove and seagrass patches will also increase the amount of carbon they can sequester from the atmosphere.
The prospect for dugongs is not only a guaranteed food source — they must eat 10% of their body weight each day, according to Marshall — but also more space where they can safely breed and nurse. “Dugongs will not mate if they don’t feel that the population is secure and safe,” says Al Hameli. “They’re very skittish. They have a strong flight reflex. If they’re being approached they will swim away or dive … So a sense of security and an abundance of food are key drivers for them to breed.”
Because dugongs are shy, hardly any eco-tourism can be built around them, making it harder to raise awareness for conservation efforts, Marshall says. “Unfortunately, we tend to only conserve what we can really see and things that are charismatic or really cute. The group in Abu Dhabi, they’re way ahead of anybody else in the area and I fully support what they’re doing with the habitat restoration,” he says.
“They’re being smart about it, because there’s a relationship between mangroves and seagrass and coral reefs, so you really need to be restoring all three in order to keep seagrasses around, which is what the dugongs rely on,” he adds.
“It’s a really long, uphill battle, but it’s something that really needs to be done.”