Native to the Indo-Pacific region, especially around Australia, the dugong (Dugong dugon) is a herbivorous marine mammal which grazes on submerged seagrass – giving them the name ‘sea cow’. The dugong belongs to the order Sirenia (which also includes manatees) and is actually more closely related to elephants than to other marine mammals such as porpoises and dolphins.
Dugongs can be easily distinguished from manatees by their large, fluked tail – whereas manatees possess a paddle-shaped tail. Their cylindrical body has no dorsal fin or hind limbs and their downturned, muscular snout helps them to uproot delicious seagrass from the seafloor. Somewhat resembling a mermaid, the dugong is certainly not as beautiful as Ariel but they are still a truly unique mammal, being the only living member of the Dugongidae family. Some believe that the dugong was actually the inspiration for the mermaid myth. They can reach up to an impressive 10 feet in length (just over 3 metres) but their large size and dense bones do make them rather slow-moving, unfortunately not as elegant as Ariel.
Sadly, the dugong has been hunted for thousands of years for its bountiful meat, skin, bones and oil; they are consequently considered a vulnerable species by the IUCN and with a year-long gestation period only producing one calf, it will be a challenge to boost their numbers. Many cultures actually once revolved around dugong hunting, for instance, the dugong was fundamental to the lives of some Australian aborigines. Furthermore, in Kenya, many communities refer to the dugong as the ‘queen of the sea’.
Due to the dugong being under serious threat, some countries have made efforts to conserve their population: Kenya, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have all banned the hunting of dugongs within their waters, marine parks have been established along the Red Sea in order to preserve their species and habitat, and India and Sri Lanka have banned the hunting and selling of dugongs and their products.
Although hunting is still a large cause of the dugong’s low population, in modern times, they are also threatened by fishing-related fatalities and habitat destruction. Moreover, extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones can annihilate hundreds of square kilometres of seagrass meadows and even wash dugongs ashore. With the present issue of climate change, these once sporadic weather events will occur more frequently and more violently. The dugongs are yet another vulnerable species which may struggle to survive our changing planet.