Sumatran dugong hunter struggles to adapt to changing times
- The herbivorous dugong was classed as a vulnerable species in 1982 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- Hunters like Munsa in Bintan, a cluster of islands between Sumatra and Singapore, have retired from hunting the mammal in response to conservation initiatives.
- However, Munsa complains that the family’s income has plummeted, and that he needs government to provide alternative livelihoods.
BINTAN ISLAND, Indonesia — Ever since Munsa was a young man, he would quietly paddle a small boat past the mangroves on Air Glubi Island into the Kawal Sea armed with a harpoon.
“Anyone can spearfish, but approaching dugongs is what’s challenging,” Munsa said at his home in the Bintan Archipelago, a clutch of islands around 50 kilometers (31 miles) east of Singapore.
The dugong (Dugong dugon) is one of four surviving species in the Sirenia taxonomy (the other three are African, Amazonian and West Indian manatees). However, global populations of dugongs have declined, owing to demand for the animal’s meat, oil and ivory.
In an average week, Munsa would sneak up on a dozen of the herbivorous mammals, which feed on grasses growing on the seafloor throughout East Africa and the Indo-Pacific region.
Munsa used to receive up to 15 million rupiah ($1,000) from traders at a time just for the animal’s “tears,” which hunters gather from the animal’s eyes and are considered by some to be an aphrodisiac. By his own admission, he was a prolific hunter of the vulnerable animal.
“I’d lose count — in the past, there could be tens of dugongs in a month,” Munsa said. “I have been hunting dugongs since I was young.”
Today, in his mid-70s, Munsa is known to people in his village as the last of the community’s dugong hunters.
The dugong was classed as “vulnerable” in 1982 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a conservation organization. Research has attributed the increase in the threat level to decades of destruction of seagrass habitats, blast fishing and human predation by hunters like Munsa.
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Zoological Society of London determined in August 2022 that dugongs were functionally extinct in China.
Sekar Mira Cahyopeni, a marine mammal researcher from the Oceanographic Research Center at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said there was no contemporary estimate of the dugong population in Indonesia.
“In Bintan, it’s rare to see them, but sometimes they get caught in a kelong or get stranded,” said Mira, referring to a trap used by fishers to snare a catch.
However, Iwan Winarto, the manager of Pengundang tourism village, which is located around 35 km (22 mi) north of Munsa’s island, said local fishers often saw dugongs in the area.
The skeleton of a dugong that became stranded on Pengundang Beach has been preserved by students from Bogor Agricultural Institute, a university south of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. The students arranged for the skeleton to be displayed in the village hall to raise local awareness, Iwan explained.
Among that group of students at the time was Juraij Bawazier, who today is secretary of the Indonesian Seagrass Foundation, a civil society organization.
“Dugong predators include sharks, but the most significant threat is human actions directly impacting dugongs, such as hunting,” Juraji explained.
“There are also gradual threats like habitat destruction due to human activities. That’s why when we campaign for dugong protection, the easiest thing is to preserve its habitat.”
Indonesia was one of eight Indo-Pacific countries to implement the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project (DSCP), a multilateral initiative to conserve dwindling populations of dugongs and protect seagrass habitats.
Bintan was selected as one conservation project in part because it was the site of a precursor to the DSCP, the Trikora Seagrass Management Demonstration Sites, known as TRISMADES.
One of the achievements of Trismades, which took place from 2007-10, was the establishment of a community-based seagrass sanctuary, as well as village regulations on seagrass protection in the villages of Berakit, Malang Rapat, Pengudang and Teluk Bakau.
Muhamad Firdaus Agung Kunto Kurniawan, the director of conservation and marine biodiversity at the Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said Bintan was chosen for dugong rehabilitation efforts owing to the prevalence of seagrass and frequency of dugong sightings.
“Bintan is one of the areas with the most reports about people exploiting dugongs,” Firdaus said in an interview at the ministry’s office.
More than five years ago, the fisheries ministry enacted its Dugong Conservation Action Plan 2018-22, which outlined six targets across 53 separate conservation efforts.
“Out of those 53 activities, only 60% have been implemented,” Firdaus said.
After more than a year’s delay, the government established a working group to oversee the conservation work in 2020, but the new oversight body was immediately constrained by the pandemic.
“The plan’s activities were hindered by budget and human resource constraints due to budget cuts for Covid-19,” Firdaus said, adding that the ministry was working on a successor to the 2018-22 plan.
In 1999, Indonesia published a regulation classifying the dugong as a protected species. A goal of Indonesia’s DCSP project was to raise awareness of this protected status among fishers — and to protect the seagrass beds that dugong rely on.
Fransiskus Xaverius Tintin, chief of the Laut community in Berakit village, said local people had ceased hunting dugongs in his area of Bintan.
Tintin said the Laut people in Berakit took part in awareness-raising programs convened in 2009.
Today, customary rules prohibit members of the Laut community from using nets and arranging fishing gear in the seagrass fields where dugongs are commonly sighted.
“If they found a dugong or encountered a dead one stranded, they used to eat it,” Tintin said. “Now, it’s no longer the case.”
Tintin, 31, said there were still many dugongs in the waters off Berakit, from the north to the northwest of Bintan Island.
“They usually appear during the morning tide, before the day gets hot,” he said. “I often encounter them. Sometimes the dugong is taking their calves to feed along the coast.”
‘My life became miserable’
In 2018, Munsa made an agreement with the local government and fieldworkers from the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project to cease dugong hunting.
Munsa said the government could only ask him stop killing dugongs, and that they did not provide any alternative for him to earn the same living.
However, a Singaporean entrepreneur hired Munsa as a guide to take tourists to see dugongs around Cempedak Island, for which he was paid 1.5 million rupiah ($100) every month. But that work petered out after a few months, he said, and from then he was paid just $17 a month.
“My life became miserable because I don’t spearfish dugongs anymore,” Munsa said, lighting a cigarette.
Munsa’s son Bahar said the family faced new economic pressures owing to the depletion of fish in the waters around Bintan. A day at sea earns around 150,0000-200,000 rupiah, between $10 and $13.
“That amount of income can be used only to buy boat fuel,” Bahar said. Both men called on the government to step in.
Munsa guides his boat to dock outside his waterfront home on Air Glubi Island and unfastens a 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) harpoon stored away in his kitchen.
“I haven’t used this spear for a long time,” Munsa said.
Munsa has a dozen children, two of whom he taught to spear dugongs, knowledge that Munsa said must remain in his bloodline.
No one in Munsa’s family hunts dugong around the Bintan Archipelago today, but the family says it is paying the price for conservation.
“As a researcher, I want to say that dugongs still exist in Indonesia,” said Juraij, of the Indonesian Seagrass Foundation. “And our task is to protect them before it becomes like in China.”