Conservation of the Dugong {Dugong dugon) along the Andaman Coast of Thailand; an example of the integration of conservation and biology in endangered species research




Hines, Ellen Marie

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This project investigates the integration of scientific methodology with community and other locally relevant management issues using dugong research on the Andaman coast of Thailand. I examine the role of science, the scientist, government, and the community in wildlife conservation issues. I then make recommendations for an integrated conservation management process for marine mammals and their habitats that are directly endangered by human activities. The dugong {Dugong dugon) is classified as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) based on declines in occurrence and quality of habitat, as well as human exploitation. The dugong was once common along tropical coasts from East Africa to Australia, but is currently considered rare over most of this range. In Thailand, dugongs are now largely confined to seagrass areas off the Andaman coast. The dugong is close to extinction in Thailand, and has been declared a reserved and protected aquatic species under the Thai Fisheries Act since 1947. Although the overall population consists of small groups scattered along the coast, I observed up to 89 animals in aerial surveys at Muk and Libong Islands in Trang province. In 2000 and 2001, I carried out aerial surveys using strip transects in areas with known dugong presence based on interviews, as well as previous aerial and seagrass surveys. The estimated minimum abundance in Trang is 123 animals, with a maximum of 13 calves. The largest group seen is 53 dugongs in the seagrass beds southeast of Libong Island. I also completed seagrass surveys at 10 sites along the Andaman coast. Interviews were conducted with 146 villagers along the coast to determine the modern and historical role of the dugong in the areas that border populations. While interviews showed an awareness of conservation issues in the various communities, the dugong is caught in the middle of a conflict between small-scale coastal fishers and commercial trawlers that deplete local fishing resources and destroy seagrass beds. These commercial trawlers are also responsible for a high rate of incidental catch of dugongs. It is estimated that at least 10 dugongs are killed each year by being trapped in various types of fishing gear. Only a small percentage of these incidents are reported. While sample size and frequency is not sufficient for statistical population trend analysis, it is reasonable to assume that this level of mortality is unsustainable to a population this small. Australian researchers have estimated that dugongs can only afford to lose 1% of adult females per year if they are to survive. If problems of incidental catch, habitat destruction, and the use of dugong body parts as medicine and amulets are not resolved, the extinction of dugongs along the Andaman coast is a strong possibility. This is an example of the imminent need for integrated conservation planning that includes communication and collaboration among scientists, government, management, educators, and the community. In any conservation process, it is necessary to understand the historical and socioeconomic perspective interactions between people and nature. For example, in Thailand, historical conflicts between small-scale and commercial fishers have created a level of desperation and environmental degradation that places the dugong at risk. Local non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) have played an important role in educating communities about the near-shore environment. Focal species concepts and the designation of marine protected areas can be used as tools in a conservation process. Effective use of focal species such as indicator and flagship species can create a structure to combine biological assessment with an awareness of socio-economic context. The use of marine protected areas has been shown to be most effective when based on a foundation of ecological knowledge as well as the support of the surrounding community. Communication between scientists, government, and the community is crucial for effective conservation planning. Scientists can be a catalyst for social change by communicating the importance of the implications of their research, and collaborating with agencies, users, educators, local scientists, and NGO’s.



Endangered species, Thailand, Health and environmental sciences, Endangered species