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Dugongs hang on, with help from geographer

July 7, 2005

Photo of a dugong at the Toba Aquarium in JapanEllen Hines wasn't in Thailand when the December tsunami hit, but people, places and creatures she cared about were. A good deal of the assistant professor's research for the past five years has been conducted along Thailand's coastlines, including its hard hit western beaches.

As a geographer, Hines studies the interaction and distribution of people, plants, animals and cultural features of Thai coastal communities. Each year, in collaboration with the Marine Endangered Species Unit at the Marine Biology Center in Phuket, she conducts an annual aerial survey from a chartered plane to track the local dugong population.

The dugong is one of the most endangered creatures on Earth. Large, pale and pectorally robust with arm-like appendages, the dugong was what Homer mistook for sirens. A vegetarian, its ecological role is that of a marine landscaper, devouring sea grass with a mouth the shape of a wide vacuum cleaner nozzle. One of the most rapidly disappearing populations dwells in shallow waters along the Thai coast. It is difficult to predict what effect, if any, the disappearance of the dugong population would have on the Thai coastal ecosystem. But Hines said the dugong has always been a prominent figure in the local folklore. At the very least, the culture would be forever altered.

At last count the Thai population of dugong numbered 200. When Hines made her annual trip to the region within weeks of the December tsunami, she found that conditions could have been much worse for these animals.

"Only 10 percent of the sea grass, the dugong's sole source of nourishment, was destroyed in the tsunami," Hines said.

She was both relieved and surprised by the discovery. "Seismic activity, any kind of turbulence … can darken the water long enough to interrupt photosynthesis and completely destroy the sea grass," she said. In that scenario, the entire Thai dugong population could have starved to death.

The bulk of Hines' data is collected through personal interviews with the people who live and work on the Thai coastline.

"Most of the people I interview invest all they have in a fishing boat," Hines said. "But life is getting very desperate in these places. ... overfishing is a serious matter."

She added, "Destructive fishing techniques and the harvesting of sea grass are the dugong's biggest threats."

But the slow-moving, 880-pound adults are also prone to being caught and drowning in fishing nets. Dugong tusks and bones are still used as aphrodisiacs and medicines in many parts of Asia, and the meat is considered a delicacy, she added. Though the sale of tusks and internal organs is outlawed in most parts of the world, the black market for the items is lucrative.

While it is still too early in Hines' research to determine if there is a statistical downward trend in the Thai dugong population, most villagers told her there aren't as many as there used to be. Oddly enough, Hines has never gotten very close to the live, wild dugongs. "The only ones I've really seen close up were the two at the Toba Aquarium in Japan," she said, the only two dugongs in captivity in the world.

Natural disasters and the continual search for funding aside, what keeps Hines going is her conviction that the integration of basic principles of conservation in industry can lead to more successful and healthy populations of human and animal life.

"My mission has always been to conduct research that can be used for community-based conservation planning in the developing world," she said.

Already, some of her findings have been used to convince the Thai government to establish its first marine life sanctuary. Hines hopes her research can also shed light on ways to prevent the collapse of Thailand's ocean ecology and improve life for all of its coastal communities.

-- Denize Springer


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