Dugongs: Threats and Legal Protection

August 31, 2021Lu Shegay


The dugong is the only living species of the Dugongidae family and can be found in 40 range countries throughout the Indo-West Pacific. This species’ closest relative, Steller’s sea cow, was hunted to extinction in the 18th century. The dugong has been hunted for their meat and oil, and the traditional type of hunting had a cultural significance in some countries, such as Australia and the Pacific Islands. Some populations of these mammals are believed to be close to extinction. This species is protected in many countries and internationally, however, the threats to these animals do not stop due to various reasons.

"Dugong in sea grass meadow, Marsa Abu Dabbab" by Ruth and Dave is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Dugongs are migratory animals that are known to disperse over long distances, meaning that their survival depends on the conservation efforts and management of the population in a wide range of marine and coastal habitats. Human activities are a major threat to these and other aquatic animals. A lot of human activities threaten dugongs due to the nature of the dugong’s life cycle and its reliance on seagrass habitats. Anthropogenic activities may be exercised both directly and indirectly affecting the dugongs’ habitat, and, thus may destroy or alter the places the dugongs inhabit. The threats to these animals include coastal development, pollution, fishing activities, vessel strikes, unsustainable hunting or poaching, uncontrolled mariculture, and tourism.

When the dugong’s population was bigger and during the times when dugongs inhabited more countries, many of those range countries were considered “least developed,” where levels of poverty were too high and rural coastal communities depended on natural resources for their survival and livelihoods. The incidental and deliberate capture of dugongs in artisanal fisheries is one of the most serious and widespread threats to the dugong’s survival. Dugongs are generally caught in different types of nets, but capturing them in gill nets is one of the most common problems and not only among these animals. Rural communities in those developed countries lack alternative methods of livelihood, so their fishing resulted in over-exploitation of marine resources and the use of destructive harvesting practices.

According to the last assessment of the IUCN Red List in 2015, dugongs are resident in Australia, Bahrain, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Cocos Islands, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mayotte, Mozambique, New Caledonia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, Thailand, Timor-Leste, UAE, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Yemen. In the Maldives, dugongs are considered either extinct or if the origin was not certain. It is also uncertain whether dugongs are present in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Oman.

"Dugong" by flickkerphotos is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Legal Protection

Dugongs are classified as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List. According to the last assessment of the IUCN Red List in 2019, there are only 10 mature individuals of dugongs left in the world, and the population continues to decrease. During the times when the population of dugongs was higher, they could have been found in many countries, but now they can only be found in Japan.

As for indigenous hunting, there were some discussions if banning this type of hunting will not save dugongs. Some welfarists tend to provide that there can humane slaughter of farmed both land and aquatic animals, but state that humane killing is not possible when it concerns conservation and management of wildlife population.

“The management of common property resources, such as dugong, by Indigenous Australians has become a difficult and complex task since settler colonization and the “development” of Australia. Dugongs’ food is seagrass that grows mostly in shallow coastal waters, and development has made their lives precarious. They are vulnerable to damage to seagrass beds from trawling, build-up of silt caused by mining, poor catchment management or coastal development, boat strikes, entanglement in fishing nets and lines, coastal and marine pollution, as well as hunting.

These human impacts were all raised in the Australian Government’s Sustainable Harvest of Marine Turtles and Dugongs in Australia—A National Partnership Approach in 2005, yet were never fully addressed. This left Indigenous institutions and their common property resources vulnerable.

There are better ways to ensure the sustainability of hunted dugong populations - and to ensure humane methods are used - than prohibition or top-down enforcement. Dugongs, like whales, are “natural flow resources”. Like other wildlife that humans use, they are renewable and can be managed to yield goods and services sustainably over extremely long periods.”

Read more: Banning Indigenous Hunting Won’t Help Dugongs

Currently, the dugong is listed under Appendix I of CITES, which provides the highest protection in trade. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction and trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances.

Dugongs are also included in Appendix II of the Bonn Convention (Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals). Appendix II covers migratory species that have unfavorable conservation status and that require international agreements and international cooperation for the specified animals’ conservation and management. Moreover, those animals that have a conservation status that would significantly benefit from the international cooperation that could be achieved by an international agreement are listed in Appendix II of the Bonn Convention. This Convention encourages the range of countries of the certain species listed in Appendix II to conclude global or regional agreements for conservation and management.

Many dugongs’ habitat falls within the proposed marine mammal areas. “The challenge of addressing threats to dugongs and seagrass ecosystems in these countries necessitates a multi-faceted, strategic approach that incorporates poverty alleviation into conservation planning. Conservation planning must therefore include objectives to develop alternative livelihoods; to improve public understanding of dugongs and their seagrass habitats, and to consult communities in the development and implementation of relevant incentives to change destructive harvesting behavior and engage in sustainable practices.”

Dugongs are animals that possibly inhabit a wide range of countries, although it became challenging to monitor their population, likely due to the significant decline. Dugongs’ close relative, Steller’s sea cow, has already been hunted to extinction a few centuries ago, and this poses a serious threat to hunted wildlife animals. What can range countries do to give hope to conserve this species is to cooperate and make additional agreements or annexes that would benefit the protection of dugongs. Unfortunately, the law is not sufficient, there also must be strong enforcement and prosecution present. And this concerns the protection of all categories of animals.

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