Every year, we dedicate the 2nd to the 8th of October as the ‘Wildlife week’. It is during this period that we reflect on our countries’ rich biodiversity and the services it provides us. While we celebrate this week here, in the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, there is a greater reason to fete our success and evaluate our failures in protecting our very own State animal, the dugong.
The dugong or ‘Panisuwar’ has a long history of existence in these islands. Old fishers recollect sighting herds of 10-15 dugongs just a few decades back when there were over two hundred animals inhabiting these waters. Most people in the islands believe that dugongs are found only in Dugong creek in Little Andaman. Contrary to this, dugongs have been and continue to be reported (although few in numbers) from islands in North Andaman (Reef, Sheame and Landfall), South Andaman (Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, Chidiatapu), Ritchie’s archipelago (Neil, Havelock and Inglis), Little Andaman and around the Nancowry group of islands.
Sadly, hunting in the past and accidental entanglement in fishing nets has led to drastic declines in dugong numbers making it rare to sight an animal in the wild in recent years. Recognising this fact, in 1992, the Ministry of Environment and Forests amended the status of the dugong, giving this marine mammal legal protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act. In 2002, the dugong was declared the State animal of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. At the national level, a Dugong Task Force was constituted in 2008 and in 2011, a project was approved to recover the species under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, for a period of five years.
The Department of Environment and Forests here in Port Blair along with scientists at the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysore have been working together ever since, to develop a management and protection plan for the animal. Over the years, this effort has been headed and managed by officers at the Department like Mr. D.V. Negi, Mr. G.N. Sinha, Mr. S.S. Garbyal, Mr. K. Ravichandran, Mr Ajai Saxena, Mr A.K. Paul and Mr B.P. Yadav.
As researchers of the project, we identified important dugong habitat during the first two years of the project. Over 50 seagrass meadows are present in the shallow waters of the island, but animals appeared to feed in only eight of these meadows. The selective diet of the dugong and presence of their preferred seagrass species at these sites is the main reason. We monitored seagrass meadows over two years and learnt that dugongs repeatedly feed in these sites throughout the year, rarely abandoning the site. Only seventeen individuals have been sighted till date, of which three were mother-calf pairs. The low numbers are alarming and monitoring and protecting these select habitats and the remaining individuals has become important for the animals survival.
It has been four long years since the start of our joint efforts. While we have gathered the basic information needed to protect the species and manage its habitat, there have been several roadblocks. These have been mainly due lack of continuity in sanctioning of funds, delays in fund release when sanctioned and insufficient funds when released. While these hindrances have not discouraged efforts from the department, it has surely affected the momentum of work and increased the time frame for achieving the set goals.
After a year’s lag, this financial year seems promising, with the Ministry sanctioning funds. In the months to come there are plans to identify clear terms of management intervention, establish a monitoring programme for the species and its habitat, and help further clarify aspects of the species biology, behaviour and ecology, that would be critical for its rational conservation.
Besides increasing our understanding of the dugong, there are also huge practical challenges to conserving the species. Fishing nets and high-speed boats in dugong habitat and hunting by communities who believe in the totemic and cultural value of the animal are a few of these. A major community-based conservation programme with the joint effort of all stakeholders over an extended period is a must and. The declaration that accorded it the status of the State animal will otherwise, amount to nothing more than a mere symbol.
An edited version of this article published in Andaman Chronicals:
Elrika D’Souza & Vardhan Patankar