- Two dugongs stranded earlier this week on an island in eastern Indonesia, but only one survived and returned to the sea.
- With conservation authorities unable to go to the site due to COVID-19 restrictions, some locals reportedly cut up the dead dugong’s body and distributed the parts for use in traditional medicine.
- Dugongs are a protected species under Indonesian law, and possession of their body parts, even after a natural death, is a crime.
- Strandings of marine animals, particularly sea mammals, are common in Indonesia as its waters serve as both a habitat and an important migratory route for dozens of species.
AMBON, Indonesia — Conservation officials in Indonesia have deplored the cutting up of a dugong that had died in a stranding incident this week, with its body parts reportedly destined for use in traditional medicine.
Two dugongs (Dugong dugon) beached on the morning of Aug. 18 on Kelang Island, in the eastern province of Maluku. One of them managed to return to sea, but the other didn’t, despite the efforts of locals to push it back out into the water. The animal reportedly died with multiple wounds.
“There were some wounds all over its body: a couple on its head and another on its leg,” Mohammad Aswan, a resident who witnessed the incident, told Mongabay Indonesia. “There wasn’t any official team deployed to identify the dugong, maybe because of the [COVID-19] pandemic.”
According to reports gathered by Mongabay Indonesia, the locals cut up the dugong after it had died and distributed the parts among themselves for use in traditional medicine. The rest of the animal’s carcass was buried near the stranding site.
The dugong is a protected species under Indonesian law, and possession of its body parts, even after a natural death, is a crime punishable by up to five years in jail and 100 million rupiah ($6,900) in fines.Indonesian marine conservation authorities have deplored cutting up the stranded dugong for consumption by locals as it may be contaminated by bacteria that can transmit to humans and cause health problems. Dugongs are also protected by the Indonesian Conservation Act. Violation of the law can result in a maximum of five years imprisonment and up to 100 million rupiah fine.
“Even though it’s already dead, it’s still prohibited to be used,” Santoso Budi Widiarto, head of the coastal conservation agency in Sorong, West Papua province, whose jurisdiction also covers Maluku province, told Mongabay Indonesia.
Santoso said his office was unable to deploy a team to evacuate the dugong body due to COVID-19 restrictions, but urged locals to report to authorities any marine animal stranding.
He added that in addition to being illegal, distributing the dugong body parts for consumption could pose a health risk to communities.
Strandings of marine animals, particularly sea mammals, are common in Indonesia, home to the longest coastline in Asia. The archipelago’s waters serve as both a habitat and an important migratory route for dozens of species. But little is known about why these strandings occur. Some expert theories include starvation due to ingestion of undigestible marine debris; offshore underwater activities using sonar, which can disrupt sea mammals’ echolocation; and ship strikes in busy shipping lanes.
Indonesia has recently been training locals to carry out immediate rescue operations for stranded marine animals to keep them alive while waiting for conservation authorities to arrive. However, the initiative has not yet reached many of the locations where strandings are common, due to budget constraints and a lack of marine animal experts at local levels.
Dugongs, a close cousin of manatees, are the only herbivorous marine mammals that feed exclusively on seagrass. Their global population has been hammered by hunting for their meat, hide and oil, and also by habitat loss, such as the silting of seagrass beds. They’re slow breeders, with a year-long pregnancy and calves dependent on the mother’s support for several months after birth. The species is currently listed as globally vulnerable on the IUCN Red List, but its conservation status is highly variable in different locations, which means it could be endangered or critically endangered in some parts of its range, according to a 2019 study.
Plön, S., Thakur, V., Parr, L., & Lavery, S. D. (2019). Phylogeography of the dugong (Dugong dugon) based on historical samples identifies vulnerable Indian Ocean populations. PLOS ONE, 14(9), e0219350. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0219350
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