The Last Dugong Hunter on Bintan Island
MUNSA waved his hand while directing the mid-sized wooden fishing boat, called a pompong, to dock in front of his house in hamlet I, Air Glubi (Island) village, Bintan Regency, Riau Islands. This old man had just returned from seeking bait for fishing at night. He invited Tempo into his permanent concrete house, standing right by the sea. Munsa opened his sweater and changed his long pants to a checkered sarong, sitting cross-legged in the living room of his house.
In his village, Munsa is famous as the last dugong (Dugong dugon) hunter. He inherited this skill from his father, a member of the Laut tribe. He has been a dugong hunter since he was a teenager. He estimates that he is 75 years old. He has passed on his dugong hunting skills to two sons from among his 12 children. This expertise, he said, cannot be passed on outside the bloodline. “My friends have tried spearing dugong, but they never succeeded,” he said on Sunday, October 29.
Munsa did catch dugong by spearing. Not wanting to be considered a dishonest dugong hunter, he hurriedly took the spear stored in his kitchen. It was a 2.5-meter-long wooden pole with a finger-length sharp iron tip resembling a fishing hook at the end. There is a hole at the base of the spearhead to attach a plastic fishing line. The line could be up to 80 meters long. “I haven’t used this spear for a long time,” said Munsa while caressing his spear.
Munsa has not used that spear in almost six years. In 2018, he made an agreement to cease dugong hunting with the local government and the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project (DSCP) Indonesia. The DSCP is an international effort to improve conservation of dugong and seagrass ecosystems in eight countries in the Indo-Pacific region, including Indonesia. The DSCP was funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and supported by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Dugong Conservation and Management Memorandum of Understanding (Dugong MOU).
In Indonesia, the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries carried out the DSCP program in four regions: Bintan, Riau Islands; West Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan; Tolitoli, Central Sulawesi; and Alor, East Nusa Tenggara. In its implementation, the government partnered with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB University), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia, and the Indonesian Seagrass Foundation. “In 2018, I stopped (hunting dugongs). This certificate is proof of that,” said Munsa, while pointing to a certificate of appreciation from the DSCP displayed on the wall.
According to Munsa, at that time, the government could only ask him to stop hunting dugongs without providing alternative livelihood solutions. “Luckily, there were foreigners who paid me to stop hunting dugongs,” Munsa said about his job as an educational dugong tour guide for a resort owned by a Singaporean entrepreneur on Cempedak Island, Bintan. At that time, Munsa received a monthly payment of Rp1.5 million (around US$103). However, he added that the assistance only lasted for a few months. After that, the compensation dropped to Rp250,000 (US$17) per month. “That too was paid once a year.”
“My life became miserable because I don’t spearfish dugongs anymore,” Munsa said while lighting a cigarette. Indeed, his life changed 180 degrees after he quit hunting dugongs. Usually, in a day, Munsa could catch four dugongs or a minimum of a dozen dugongs in a week. “I would lose count. In the past, there could be tens of dugongs in a month. I have been hunting dugongs since I was young,” he said. Munsa earned the most from selling bones, teeth or ivory, and dugong tears. Dugong teeth could be sold for up to Rp15 million (US$1,000).
“Dugong ivory is very useful. It can be used for medicine, cigarette pipes, or necklace pendants. This is especially sought after by people from Singapore,” Munsa said. The same goes for dugong tears, which can be priced at tens of millions of rupiah. He did not mention the nominal value of the dugong tears he had sold. “Basically, when I go hunting, there are always people coming to look for those tears,” he said. However, he was scammed several times. Buyers took the tears but did not pay him.
Munsa at Bintan Pesisir, Riau Islands, October 29. Tempo/Yogi Eka Sahputra
As for the price of dugong meat at that time, it was Rp30,000 (US$2) per kilogram. The weight of one dugong can reach up to 500 kilograms. Not only was it sold, but Munsa’s caught dugong meat was also often used as a dish by the local residents, especially during the Idul Fitri end of fasting month celebration. “Since it is prohibited, (dugong meat) can no longer be found. It is replaced with beef,” said Munsa. Dugong meat, he continued, has a softer taste and no odor, unlike beef, which has a gamey flavor. “When I hunted, everyone here was eating dugong,” he said.
Munsa recounted the difficulties of hunting dugongs. “Anyone can spearfish, but approaching dugongs is what’s challenging. There’s no special knowledge. It’s passed down through generations,” he said. Dugongs, he added, are shy animals that are very sensitive to sound. That is why Munsa did not use a motorized boat, he just rowed the boat manually. “Dugongs are afraid of any sound. They can even flee upon hearing a cough,” said Bahar, Munsa’s eldest son.
When Munsa was young, and his children were small, he hunted dugongs with his wife paddling the boat. When they spotted a dugong, he threw his spear from atop the boat. The distance between Munsa and the targeted dugong could reach 30 meters. Once struck with the spear, with its hook-like tip, the dugong would not be able to escape. Munsa would throw three spears, then drag the wounded dugong to the shore.
Munsa and Bahar already know how to find dugong, including signs of when they will appear in the southern wind season. “It is good to hunt them when the moon is bright,” said Bahar. According to him, several good hunting locations are found along the coasts of the Air Glubi, Pangkil and Numbing Islands, to the waters of Sembulang at Rempang Island. “There are also a lot of dugongs in the Kawal Sea. That is where I used to look for dugongs,” said Bahar about the clusters of seagrass where dugongs are found.
Munsa and Bahar can still find dugongs when they go out to sea for fishing. “My father is still upset when he encounters dugongs, to the point where he dreams of hunting them again. But he is patient, and his resolve is still strong,” said Bahar. About two weeks earlier, said Bahar, he encountered dugongs at sea. He does not agree that dugongs are endangered.
Moreover, during spearfishing, they never took dugong calves. “We already know which ones are adults and which ones are calves. The adults are at the back, those are the ones we spear,” explained Bahar. Adult dugongs are targeted because they have more teeth. Bahar also understands how to determine the gender of dugongs. Males have a longer body, while females are shorter and larger. “Sometimes I encounter a dugong, and two or three weeks later, it already has calves,” Bahar said, thinking he saw the same dugong.
Bahar said that life for him and his father has become increasingly difficult since they stopped hunting dugongs. Moreover, going to the sea is no longer promising. Fish are increasingly difficult to find. From a day at sea, Munsa or Bahar can only earn Rp150,000 to Rp200,000 (US$9.7 to US$13). “That amount of income can only be used to buy boat fuel. Catching fish is also farther now,” said Bahar. The two hope that the government will help them find a better livelihood.