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Gentle giants

Silvia Radan / 3 March 2012

It is said that Christopher Columbus, upon seeing three manatees, expressed his disappointment for the ugliness of “those sirens”.

Indeed, dugongs and their relatives, the manatees, have been taken for mermaids since mythological times all the way from the Arabian Gulf to the cold Irish seas.

In Western and Eastern folklore, these creatures are said to have fooled lonely sailors into mistaking them for mermaids. Since ancient times the Japanese believe dugongs are the keepers of balance between sea and human beings. According to stories and legends, they warned coastal villagers of impending tsunamis, but if fishermen showed no respect for the sea and abused its creatures, dugongs placed heavy curses upon them.

Even their popular names suggest that dugongs inspired the sirens’ myth. In Egypt they are known as arusa el bahar — the maid or the beauty of the sea; in Kenya they are called the queen of the sea, and in Indonesia they go by as the princess dugong.

“Dugongs are indeed remarkable creatures. They posses great genetic value, but also a great cultural value. Here in the Emirates they have always been part of the maritime traditions and folklore,” said Dr Thabit Abdessalaam, executive director of Marine and Biodiversity at Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD).

“In the Emirates too, dugongs are called arusa al bahar, but it is not very common. In the past, some fishermen associated them with mermaids.”

It was this old belief that gave dugongs and manatees their family name — Sirenian. In truth, the dugongs’ close relative is a pretty real creature — the elephant. As it happens, both mammals are considered by wildlife experts threatened with extinction for quite the same reasons: they both have a slow reproduction rate, both suffer from habitat loss due to human developments and both are hunted by people. Saving them would mean not only keeping the sea healthy, but preserving a cultural heritage too.

“In the 50s and 60s fishermen used to catch dugongs here. Partly, catching one was considered to bring good luck, but their flesh tastes good so people would also catch them for food,” explained Dr Abdessalaam.

Dugong hunting stopped in UAE in 1999, when they became protected by law, but despite their extinction threat in poorer villages along the Arabian Gulf, Asia and Africa, dugongs and manatees are still being hunted.

Furthermore, because of climate change worsening by the year, fisheries start to collapse too, resulting in more bush meat consumption, of which Sirenians are part of.

Of course, it doesn’t help that dugongs are restricted to coastal areas, which are heavily abused nowadays by human developments. They eat sea grass - being the only vegetarian marine mammal - which needs light to grow, so these gentle giants are always seen near the shores, and they have one of the slowest metabolisms among animals, a gut passage that takes up to six days to pass the food. As marine mammals, they breathe both under and above water, surfacing every six minutes and diving again after a few minutes.

The few that make it to old age reach 70 years old. At adulthood dugongs get to 2.7 metres long and up to 300kg in weight. Females get their first calf anytime between seven and 17 years old, depending on the feeding conditions. Mothers rarely give birth to twins, the norm being just one calf, after 13-15 months gestation, which is nursed for at least 18 months. It takes another three to seven years for a female to get a second calf.

Such a long period of reproduction means that even in the most optimistic conditions, with low natural mortality and no human-induced mortality, the maximum annual increase rate in population can’t be higher than 5 per cent. And, only to maintain the existing dugong population, the survival of adults needs to reach 95 per cent per year.

“Dugongs are by nature very shy, so it is very difficult to gather information about them,” pointed out Dr Abdessalaam.

“For example, we still don’t know why they travel long distances, why some live in pairs and some alone, and there is still a debate about where females give birth.”

EAD is planning to begin a survey this year to establish the latest dugong population in the UAE. Ever since they became protected by law, their numbers increased, and the last survey in 2004-2005 showed that from about 2,100 there were about 3,000 dugongs.

“We don’t know for sure, but we believe that their numbers in Abu Dhabi waters have increased mainly because they emigrated from Bahrain and Qatar, where they lost habitat due to constructions, and not because their population got bigger,” said Dr Abdessalaam.

Because of the sea grass beds, the vast majority of UAE dugongs are in Abu Dhabi emirate, concentrating around Bu Tinah, Marwah, and other mainly small, unpopulated islands off the coast of mainland Abu Dhabi.

Even though 3,000 dugongs don’t seem like much, especially since habitat conditions are pretty good here, this is already the second largest population after Australia.

Dugongs may now be safe from hunting, but many of them still die an early age largely because of illegal fishing nets and destroyed habitats. Since 2000, EAD counted 102 dead dugongs, 73 per cent of them drowned because of fishing nets. In UAE waters, the average age of death for dugongs is 47 years old.

“Why is it important to save them?” asked Dr Abdessalaam.

“Because they are part of our heritage. They are an indicator for our fisheries. They keep the sea grass healthy which, in turn, keep the fisheries healthy,” he answered, giving just a few examples.

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