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Indonesia trains its citizens to deal with sea-mammal strandings

Dolphins swimming off the northern coast of Indonesia's Bali island. Image by Willem van de Kerkhof via Flickr.

  • The waters around Indonesia serve as both a habitat and an important migratory route for dozens of species of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
  • These cetaceans, however, are often found dead on Indonesian beaches, or alive but unable to return to deeper waters themselves.
  • To prevent the deaths of marine mammals that strand themselves on its shores, the government has sought to establish a network of first responders equipped with the knowledge and training to deal with problem.
  • Experts say what’s more important than providing an adequate response is to reduce the threats that lead to the strandings, including by improving the management of marine habitats and tackling pollution in the sea.

DENPASAR/JAKARTA — In November 2017, when locals spotted 10 sperm whales stranded on a beach on the island of Sumatra, they had no idea what to do.

Stuck in shallow waters, the sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) were vulnerable to dying from injury, suffocation or organ failure. Eventually, government reinforcements arrived to help push the enormous creatures out to sea, but not before four of them died.

Such strandings are common in Indonesia, home to the longest coastline in Asia. Its waters serve as both a habitat and an important migratory route for dozens of species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. These cetaceans, however, are often found dead on Indonesian beaches, or alive but unable to return to deeper waters themselves.

A pod of sperm whales was stranded in November 2017 on a beach in Sumatra’s Aceh province. Image courtesy of WWF-Indonesia.

The incident in Sumatra was one of 54 recorded sea-mammal strandings in Indonesia that year, according to Whale Stranding Indonesia (WSI), a group that logs such events. But little is known about why they occur — or, when it comes to Indonesians living near the coast, how to respond when they do.

Indonesia is hoping to change that. To prevent the deaths of animals that wash up on its shores, the government has sought to establish a network of first responders to deal with strandings. With the help of civil society groups, more than 900 people have been trained in some 30 workshops across the country, mostly in Borneo and Bali. Government officials, law enforcers, veterinary students, fishermen and others are taught how to safely return whales, dugongs and other animals to the sea, or how to otherwise provide preliminary care while they wait for the authorities to arrive.

“There’s still a lot of people who are clueless [about how to deal with a stranded sea mammal], so a rescue effort can instead become an opportunity for a selfie,” Gustaf Mamangkey, a marine scientist at Sam Ratulangi University in North Sulawesi province, told Mongabay. “Or a rescue has to wait for officials and becomes very ceremonial. It would be very unfortunate if this continues to happen.”

Indonesians in West Sulawesi found the beached body of the dugong (Dugong dugon). Two fishermen were arrested after trying to sell parts of the carcass. Image by Muhammad Yusri for Sahabat Penyu (Friends of the Turtles).

Mysterious cases

The first known report of a sea-mammal stranding in Indonesia was produced in 1987 by Whale Stranding Indonesia. Over the next 16 years, the group recorded 203 strandings in the country, an average of more than 12 a year.

Those figures jumped in 2013, when the group improved its tracking efforts with the launch of an online, open-access database on stranding events. Over the past six years, the database has recorded hundreds of cases, with a peak in 2017 (54 strandings). Thirty strandings were recorded last year. Most of the reports are submitted by WSI itself based on news articles or tip-offs, though it also relies on crowdsourcing.

“Right now in Indonesia, we can’t say strandings are increasing — what’s increasing are reports of strandings,” WSI co-founder Putu Liza Kusuma Mustika told Mongabay. “I think we’ll be able to see a trend when [the database] has run for 10 years.”

The big question is why these strandings are happening. More often than not, the answers are buried along with the bodies.

Indonesian authorities typically do not conduct a necropsy — an autopsy performed on an animal — due to limited funds, a lack of biologists on hand, or even simply a lack of understanding of why the post-mortem examination is important to do in the first place.

General theories for why strandings occur include starvation due to a stomach full of marine debris, such as plastic or fishing nets; offshore underwater activities that use sonar, like submarine excursions or oil-and-gas exploration, which can disrupt sea mammals’ echolocation; and getting struck by boats while passing through busy shipping lanes. But for the marine biologists trying to combat the problem, theories aren’t enough.

“Suppose there’s a murder; you need to do an autopsy to figure out why they died, right? It’s the same with whales and dolphins,” Liza said. “When we can figure out exactly why they strand, then we can work on the root causes of the problem.”

Many coastal Indonesian communities remain unaware of what to do when a marine mammal strands itself. Image courtesy of the East Nusa Tenggara Conservation Agency.

A new approach

The plan to establish a network of first responders arose after a pair of mass strandings occurred within a week of each other in 2012.

The two strandings saw a total of 57 short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) wash up on beaches in the Savu Islands, which lie between the larger islands of Sumba and Timor in the Sawu Sea. Only six of the creatures survived.

An account of the two incidents produced by the Indonesian fisheries ministry said locals tried to rescue the whales by “carrying” and “dragging” them into deeper water, but it proved to be an impossible task. The whales were too heavy.

The ministry also noted that a team of experts from Jakarta, more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the Savu Islands, had arrived late to the scene because they “couldn’t get flight tickets.” By the time they showed up, parts of the animals had been severed by locals who wanted to eat the meat or make oil from the skin to use as a substitute for kerosene or pesticide.

The whales were eventually buried near the coast, since heavy equipment needed to move the bodies elsewhere couldn’t reach the area, and authorities didn’t want to dump them in the ocean. At the time, experts speculated that more of the animals might have survived if the people living nearby had known how to care for them while they waited for the authorities to show up.

“Imagine having a large pod of stranded whales in one location and nobody knows how to handle it,” said Februanty Purnomo, a cetacean expert with WSI. “Imagine the smell, the potential for disease to spread, and the environmental contamination.”

The incidents helped catalyze a growing realization that something needed to be done. That year, the fisheries ministry drafted guidelines on how to deal with strandings, and in 2013, two major conferences involving government officials, wildlife experts, veterinarians and civil society groups paved the way for a nationwide initiative to establish a network of first responders to deal with the problem.

The fisheries ministry, through its Marine and Coastal Resources Management Agencies, or BPSPL, has assumed the mantle of running and funding the first-responder initiative. Groups such as WSI and WWF-Indonesia provide trainers for the workshops, which are staged with the help of big conservation groups, universities and even local surfing and scuba-diving communities.

I Made Jaya Ratha, a veterinarian working on sea turtle conservation in Bali, was one of the first to receive the training. He is now one of the most seasoned volunteer trainers for the national first-responder network, which doesn’t have an official name.

“For the trainings, the target participants are those who are highly likely to be involved in the network, as the first people who will handle a stranding event,” Jaya told Mongabay at a turtle conservation center on Serangan Island, just south of Bali.

Training on how to handle marine mammal stranding is targeted at fishing communities, government officials, conservationists and veterinarians. Image courtesy of Whale Stranding Indonesia.

How to save a beached whale

So what should Indonesians do when they come across sea mammals washed up on their shores?

For smaller animals, like dolphins and dugongs, first responders are taught to carry them back to sea using their bare hands or a large cloth. In the workshops, participants learn how to do this safely.

“You must not pull the fins or tail because they are important for swimming,” Jaya said. “If they’re broken because of our handling, then it’s useless to bring it back to the sea, and we’d end up harming the animal further.”

If the creature is too big for several people to carry, they’re supposed to report the incident to local authorities, who will usually call in heavy equipment to do the job. In the meantime, the citizens who arrive on the scene need to ensure that the animal stays hydrated.

“We should cover parts of the animal’s body with clothing drenched in saltwater or dig a path around it so saltwater can enter and surround the animal,” Jaya said.

Sometimes, saving an animal means getting creative.

“One time, we had to use a political party’s campaign flags to carry a stranded dolphin back to sea,” Jaya said.

If the stranded marine mammal is found alive, keeping it hydrated by covering it with towels drenched in seawater is important before returning it back to the sea. Image courtesy of Whale Stranding Indonesia.

The typical training lasts for at least two days. Participants are taught the characteristics of the animals they are most likely to encounter, and how to identify an animal’s condition, the first step in treating it. “Identifying the animal’s condition is important so when you contact the local authorities, you can describe it well and they get a better idea of how to respond,” Jaya said.

There are five identification codes, each giving a description ranging from whether the animal is still alive to it being dead and already decaying with missing body parts. Each scenario comes with guidelines on how best to handle the animal, such as keeping it hydrated if it’s still alive, or ensuring that locals aren’t taking parts of the body as it may be contaminated by bacteria that can cause health problems if consumed.

How locals should respond largely depends on the animal’s condition. For living creatures, the main goal is to safely bring them back to the ocean. If the animal is too weak or badly injured, it might be best for it to go to a rehabilitation center for treatment.

“But that kind of facility is rarely available in Indonesia,” Jaya said. Neighboring countries like Thailand and the Philippines, he said, are more advanced in terms of the resources available for treating stranded sea mammals.

Participants are also taught how to bury a dead animal. Proper burial is required to reduce bacterial or viral pollution, and samples can be taken to study the causes of the animal’s death, Jaya said.

However, the theories and simulations given at the trainings don’t always play out in reality, Jaya said.

“The situation when there’s a stranding event can be very different from what happens in the training,” he said. “In reality, the equipment shown in simulations isn’t always available; not all of the procedures can take place accordingly because of the fact that the location is remote and inaccessible; and getting heavy equipment is difficult.”

The typical result of a workshop is the establishment of a new first-responder network. Bali, the Bornean provinces of East and West Kalimantan, and the Sulawesi cities of Kendari, Makassar, Toli-toli and Palu are some of the regions that now have such networks in place. Others include Sumatra (Lampung and Padang provinces), Java (Serang, Yogyakarta, and Surabaya cities), Papua (Sorong city), West Nusa Tenggara (Lombok Island), and East Nusa Tenggara (Kupang city).

A chart of the recommended procedures for handling stranded marine mammals. Image courtesy of Whale Stranding Indonesia.

Scaling up

Some are calling for the initiative to be accelerated. Gustaf, the marine scientist in North Sulawesi, called for one to be established in the province, where strandings are commonplace.

The WSI recorded 13 strandings in North Sulawesi between 1996 and 2018, more than any other province on the island of Sulawesi. In Aceh province in Sumatra, where the 10 sperm whales washed up in 2017, 27 strandings were reported from 1987-2018.

“Indonesian waters are so expansive that the establishment of a focal point in every province will be very helpful [to handle marine mammal stranding],” Gustaf said, adding that help should not have to come all the way from Jakarta as time is of essence for the beached animals.

Gustaf said budget constraints and a lack of sea mammal experts locally are the main reasons for the absence of first-responder teams in some areas.

The locally driven initiative could use more guidance from the national level, said Februanty, the WSI cetacean expert. She called for the government in Jakarta to issue a decree formally mandating the establishment of first-responder networks across the archipelago, which would spur local governments in more areas to get with the program.

“Even though there are already local networks established, there’s no sense of urgency at the national level,” she said.

Dealing with strandings after they occur is only one part of the ideal strategy for combating the problem, said Jaya, the Bali veterinarian. More important, he said, was to reduce the threats to the species by improving management of their habitats. Last November, the government launched its national action plan for marine mammal conservation through 2022.

Brahmantya Satyamurti, the director-general of marine planning at the fisheries ministry, which oversees the BPSPL agencies, said his office was committed to expanding the first-responder network across the country.

Brahmantya also called for more veterinary students to specialize in sea mammals, and said local authorities should be more flexible and less bureaucratic when handling cases like strandings that involve several government institutions.

“Not a lot of people [in Indonesia] are experts in [marine] megafauna,” he said. “Indonesia’s oceans diversity is huge, almost every marine megafauna is present in Indonesia, and it will be a great thing when Indonesia has a lead in that sector for veterinarians who can manage marine megafauna.”

The training for handling stranded marine mammals attempts to be as practical as possible. Image courtesy of Whale Stranding Indonesia.

The government-led initiative isn’t the only one that has cropped up to deal with strandings.

In May 2018, the Indonesian Association of Veterinarians (PHDI) established a team called the Flying Vets, with 19 veterinarians across the country who are on call to respond to strandings in remote areas.

The initiative got off to a fast start. In July 2018, a member of the Flying Vets helped with a preliminary necropsy of a stranded dugong in southern Bali. That same month, another flying vet helped with the necropsy of a baby dugong found on the western coast of Java, and another helped with a dead sperm whale in Kupang, on the island of Timor.

Ida Ayu Dian Kusuma Dewi, the head of the Flying Vets, said the biggest challenges are bureaucratic. Veterinarians in Indonesia are technically under the authority of the Ministry of Agriculture. But it can take ages, she said, to get a permit to help handle stranding cases and to get samples from the animal for necropsy.

She said there are veterinarians under the Ministry of Environment and Forestry who are more flexible when it comes to helping with stranding cases, but they’re often not trained to deal with marine mammals like whales and dugongs.

“I also hope that there will be more veterinarians who can dedicate more of their time and skills to help with these strandings,” Dian said.

For Jaya, more workshops and first-responder networks to handle strandings must happen to save beached animals, and ultimately to help Indonesia better understand why sea mammals wash up on the country’s shores and prevent more such incidents.

“The government might not consider this as a top priority, but we hope they still pay some attention to marine mammal protection and management,” he said.

A dwarf fin whale (Balaenoptera omurai) was spotted in 2016 in the waters off Indonesia’s eastern province of Maluku. Image courtesy of Ilham Arch via Instagram.

Banner image shows dolphins swimming near the northern coast of Indonesia’s Bali island. Image courtesy of Willem van de Kerkhof via Flickr

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