The Decline of Dugongs in Indonesia
FRANSISKUS Xaverius Tintin, Chief of the Laut Tribe in the Panglong neighborhood of Berakit village, Bintan Regency, Riau Islands, is very confident that local residents no longer hunt dugongs (Dugong dugon). The facilitator of learning at the Indonesian Archipelago Care Foundation said that the members of his tribe have been aware since the outreach about the protected and endangered wildlife, which was intensified by the village apparatus with the assistance of academics and researchers. “I guarantee that the Laut tribe here no longer hunts dugongs,” he said while preparing to teach on Saturday, October 28.
Tintin, who became the chief of the tribe, replacing his father, Bone Pasus Boncit, who passed away in 2015, explained that people of the Laut tribe in Berakit took part in the dissemination programs in 2009. Most of those teaching about the necessity of protecting dugongs are university students at Raja Ali Haji Maritime University in Tanjungpinang and researchers from the Center for Oceanographic Research at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences. “There was none from the provincial or central government,” said Tintin, who works as a tour guide.
Tintin also prohibits members of his tribe from using nets and spreading fishing gear in the location where dugongs are found, such as in seagrass fields. “In the past, before the dissemination, the community did hunt dugongs for consumption. If they found a dugong or encountered a dead one stranded, they would eat it. Now, it’s no longer the case,” said the youngest of six siblings born to Bone Pasius Boncit and Veronika Saknah, the first members of the Laut tribe to land in Berakit in 1962.
Tintin said there were still many dugongs in the waters of Berakit, from the north to the northwest of Bintan Island. “They usually appear during the morning tide, before the day becomes hot. I often encounter them. Sometimes the dugong is taking their calves to eat along the coast,” said the 31-year-old young man who still occasionally goes out to sea to fish. Tintin’s statement was corroborated by Ari Juliandi, a Berakit fisherman who is not from the Laut tribe. Ari claimed to have recently seen a dugong. “Its fins and back are different from other marine animals,” said the 25-year-old man.
Sekar Mira Cahyopeni Personal Doc.
Regarding the dugong population in Bintan, Sekar Mira Cahyopeni, a marine mammal researcher from the Oceanographic Research Center at the National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN), said that there is still no estimate of the dugong population in Indonesia. According to Mira—as the researcher is commonly known—the hotspots for dugongs in Indonesia are still unknown. What large-scale research projects like the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project (DSCP) can produce is a map of dugong distribution based on sighting reports and incidents of entanglement in nets and stranding.
The DSCP is the world’s first global effort in dugong and seagrass conservation across the Indo-Pacific countries, namely Mozambique, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu. DSCP is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Memorandum of Understanding on Dugongs under the Convention on Migratory Species. The project and implementation partners in each country are coordinated by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund.
The Indonesian Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (KKP) carried out the DSCP in four regencies, namely: Bintan (Riau Islands), West Kotawaringin (Central Kalimantan). Tolitoli (Central Sulawesi), and Alor (East Nusa Tenggara). It was done from 2015 to 2018. The government is partnering with BRIN, the Bogor Agricultural University (IPB University), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, the Indonesian Seagrass Foundation, and regional governments. “Those four regencies were chosen through a national symposium that mapped the areas where dugongs exist,” said Mira, who was involved in the DSCP from the beginning.
Mira explained that Bintan was selected because it has many seagrass beds, which are the feeding habitat for dugongs. Additionally, a decade before the DSCP began, Bintan became the location for the Community-Based Seagrass Management Demonstration Site project in Trikora Beach (Trismades), which was also funded by GEF/UNEP. One of the achievements of Trismades, which took place from 2007 to 2010, was the establishment of a community-based seagrass sanctuary and village regulations on seagrass protection in the villages of Teluk Bakau, Malang Rapat, Berakit, and Pengudang.
Apart from being a rich feeding habitat for dugongs, Mira continued, in Berakit and Pengudang, dugongs often enter kelongs, fish traps made of wood. Kelongs can be fixed on the seafloor or floated in the sea near the coast. “So, people rarely see dugongs by chance in Bintan. In West Kotawaringin or Tolitoli, people can see dugongs every evening,” she said. “In Bintan, it’s rare to see them, but sometimes they get caught in a kelong or get stranded.”
According to Mira, many dugongs enter fishing gear because there are still communities that consume them, as seen in the Lingga Regency. As for Berakit and Pengudang, “Hopefully, they have become former dugong hunters,” said the doctoral candidate from Leiden University’s Institute of Environmental Sciences (CML). Mira is currently studying the role of dugongs in seagrass distribution and collecting samples in seagrass beds near Pengudang and Malang Rapat.
Iwan Winarto, the manager of Pengundang Tourism Village, confirmed that there are frequent incidents of stranded dugongs in his area. The skeleton of a dugong stranded on Pengundang Beach is now preserved and serves as an educational display in the village hall. Iwan explained that the dugong skeleton, displayed since 2015, was assembled and preserved by IPB students. The dugong that stranded and died was buried about a year before the display.
Juraij Bawazier, Secretary of the Indonesian Seagrass Foundation, said he was one of the individuals who excavated and assembled the dugong bones. At that time, he was a biology student at Padjadjaran University, Bandung, West Java, researching seagrass as dugong food. “I came to Bintan in late 2014. Fishermen who often discussed with me admitted to burying a stranded dugong eight months earlier,” Juraij said via Zoom on Monday, November 13. “I then contacted my friends at IPB who were interested in marine mammals.”
According to Juraij, having the dugong skeleton significantly helps educate and raise awareness about dugongs as marine species protected by the Biological Resources Law, the Fisheries Law, and Government Regulation No. 7/1999 concerning the conservation of plant and animal species. “Indeed, there are many community stories about mermaids and dugongs being a human incarnation because they have five fingers on their hands,” he said. “Dugongs are mammals, they must have fingers on their hands. If it’s said that their tail has fingers, that’s not true.”
According to Iwan, the regency or provincial government must issue a decree or regional regulation on the rescue and protection of dugongs, especially since this rare species is endangered and has become the flagship and icon of Bintan Regency. “The government is not serious about this. Even for the issuance of the decree for Pengudang Tourism Village, we had to push for it. We hope that the government will take the initiative to find solutions to problems like this,” he said.
Kamali Labosa, chief of Pengudang village, confirmed information about the absence of village regulations or regional regulations regarding dugong conservation. “Currently, there is a village regulation on seagrass conservation. There is no specific regulation for dugong rescue,” said the 59-year-old man when met on Saturday, October 28. However, according to Kamali, his village is an important location for dugong research. “Some time ago, researchers from BRIN came here. They found dugong tracks on the Pengudang coast, even though they didn’t encounter the dugongs.”
Muhamad Firdaus Agung Kunto Kurniawan, the Director of Conservation and Marine Biodiversity at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, stated that Bintan was selected as the DSCP location because, besides representing Sumatra geographically, this regency is home to the main grouping of dugong and has rather extensive seagrass beds. “The conditions indeed require intervention in the form of education and increased awareness. Bintan is one of the areas with the most reports about people exploiting dugongs,” said Firdaus in his office on May 5.
The first of the four DSCP Indonesia projects is to strengthen and implement national policies and conservation action plans for dugongs and seagrass. The project’s goal is to facilitate the implementation of Government Regulation No. 7/1999, which designates dugongs as a protected species, especially in areas where the community is unaware of this status. Therefore, the development of long-term strategies and national action plans for dugong and seagrass conservation is needed.
According to Firdaus, his ministry has compiled and established the National Action Plan for dugong and habitat conservation through Ministerial Decree No. 79/2018. The period of that action plan, Firdaus explained, is from 2018 to 2022. “The Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries is in the process of preparing the next period’s dugong conservation action plan, which begins with an evaluation of the previous plan,” he said. In the Dugong Conservation Action Plan 2018-2022, he added, there are six targets outlined in 53 activities.
“Out of those 53 activities, only 60 percent have been implemented,” said Firdaus. Based on the evaluation, he said, the causes of the delay in implementing some activities include the delay in forming a working group for the marine mammal action plan. “It was delayed by one and a half years. Then, when the working group was formed in early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic emerged,” he said. “The plan’s activities were hindered by budget and human resource constraints due to budget cuts for Covid-19 handling.”
Regarding the lack of data on dugong populations in Indonesia, which is one of the targets of the Dugong Conservation Action Plan, Firdaus said there is a challenge due to the vastness of Indonesia’s waters. “So, it requires significant, continuous efforts and appropriate methods to estimate the dugong population in its main distribution locations. Dugongs are found in almost all waters in Indonesia, from Aceh to Papua,” he said.
The vastness of Indonesia’s maritime territory, added Seckar Mira Cahyopeni, indeed poses a challenge in researching dugong hotspots and populations. “Actually, questions about populations can be easily answered using remote (satellites) sensing technology,” said Mira when met at her office on November 14. “Unfortunately, the best satellite spatial resolution right now is 0.5 meters. If a dugong is three meters long, it will only appear as a line of six pixels,” she explained. “It means it’s still very difficult to detect, distinguish them from other objects.”
A village official clean the dugong skeleton at the Multipurpose Building of Pengudang village, Bintan, Riau Islands, October 18. Tempo/Yogi Eka Sahputra
Mira said that the use of satellites is only a matter of time because technology continues to advance. She revealed that larger marine mammals like whales are already monitored using Maxar Technologies’ WorldView-3 satellite. “But for now, we can only rely on localized monitoring,” she said. The problem, according to Mira, is interpolating localized data, which is not easy because the methods used have not been agreed upon. “This is what we are trying to reconcile.”
Mira refused to mention an estimate of the dugong population in Indonesia. So far, the reference has been data from Helene Marsh, Professor Emeritus at James Cook University, Australia. In the Dugong Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories published by UNEP in 2002, Marsh mentioned that in the 1970s, the dugong population was estimated to be around 10,000, and in the 1990s, about 1,000. “I asked Helene, where did those numbers come from? She said they were just estimates,” said Mira, who completed her Master of Applied Science in Marine Biology at James Cook University in 2012.
In her paper, Marsh emphasized that both population estimates are mere conjectures and should not be considered as evidence of a decline in subsequent periods. For Mira, the inclusion of dugongs in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as ‘vulnerable’ is sufficient evidence of their decline. “Vulnerable means globally less than 1,000 individuals, and over the past decade, the population has declined by 30 to 50 percent,” she said.
Mira added that the dugong population in Indonesia tends to decrease due to increasing threats to this shy marine mammal. However, she noted that the reproductive cycle of dugongs is very lengthy. “Dugongs mature at the age of six. Their gestation period is one year and two months, and they only give birth to one calf. They nurse their offspring for almost two years,” she said. “Meanwhile, environmental disturbances continue unabated, including ocean noise, mining activities, shipping traffic, reclamation, and land changes.”
Juraij Bawazier concurs with Mira regarding the most significant threat to dugongs, which is human activities. “Dugong predators include sharks, but the most significant threat is human actions directly impacting dugongs, such as hunting. There are also gradual threats like habitat destruction due to human activities,” said Juraij. “That’s why when we campaign for dugong protection, the easiest thing is to preserve its habitat,” he added. “If the habitat, its feeding grounds, and primary activity areas are sustained, would the dugongs move elsewhere?”
According to Juraij, sightings and occurrences of dugongs in Indonesia are still comparable to the past. He mentioned that there are areas that no longer have dugongs, such as Banten. However, there are also areas that were once believed to have no dugongs but have reported sightings due to technological advancements. “So, it’s not that there are no dugongs there, it’s just that no one has encountered them,” he said. “As a researcher, I want to say that dugongs still exist in Indonesia, and our task is to protect them before it becomes like in China.”
Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Science and the Zoological Society of London announced in August 2022 that dugongs are functionally extinct in China. The study included interviews of 788 fishermen in Hainan, Guangxi, Guangdong and Fujian, who said that they had not seen dugongs since 2008. This was despite the fact that the Chinese government had designated dugong as a Grade 1 National Key Protected Animal, the highest level of protection since 1988. Will Indonesia’s dugongs face a similar fate to their counterparts in China?