Legend has it that the inspiration for mermaids comes from an elusive sea mammal, so fierce that it flees at the first sight of a human.
It is an animal that features heavily in the folklore of Southeast Asia, where many cultures believe it was originally human, and many languages use the synonym mermaid to refer to it. To the wider world, it is known as dugong.
“Dgongs are sea cows. They are closely related to manatees and their closest land relatives are elephants,” says Christopher Marshall, associate professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University. “They are unique among marine mammals in that they are vegetarians: they eat only sea grasses and other aquatic plants.”
Marshall admits that the connection to mermaids seems like a stretch, though “he also mentions their scientific name: they’re in an order called ‘Sirenia’, and sirena is another word for mermaid. There’s a lot of interesting cultural mythology around them.”
All is not good, however. Their tears are sold in bottles as love potions or aphrodisiacs, and various parts of their bodies—including bones, horns, and penises—are collected for their supposed medicinal properties. Their teeth are used to make cigarettes. They have also been hunted for meat and oil for thousands of years, which, together with habitat loss, has greatly reduced their numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the dugong as a vulnerable species in 1982, but says the extent to which dugong numbers have declined is unknown.
Dugong habitats are found in the coastal areas of the Indian and Pacific oceans, distributed in more than 40 countries. However, they were declared functionally extinct in China last summer, and populations are rapidly declining in countries such as Kenya, Japan and Indonesia, according to the UN Conservation Programme.
“There are two main weaknesses for these animals,” explained Marshall. “One is the loss of habitat: sea grasses are disappearing all over the world. And two, catches: that’s a big problem for dugongs in the Persian Gulf.”
The Gulf is home to the world’s second largest dugong population, after Australia. About 3,000 people live on the coast of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where a conservation program is currently restoring coastal ecosystems.
“We’ve been studying dugongs for the last 20 years,” says Maitha Mohamed Al Hameli, a marine biologist at the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency. “We started tracking them to understand their distribution, and based on that data we managed to highlight some marine areas that were later declared protected; that’s where we have the highest population density.”
The emirate has restored 7,500 hectares of mangroves, grass meadows and coral reefs in a project that targets land and sea, and aims for a further 4,500 hectares by 2030. It has also imposed a ban on fishing gear because they catch dugongs. .
“The recovery project is huge. In addition to protected areas, we have laws and regulations that protect the critical habitats that support these animals. Our population has been stable for the past 20 years and based on our biennial aerial surveys, it is actually increasing,” says Al Hameli.
The program will have positive ripple effects on other creatures, including dolphins, turtles and hundreds of species of fish. “Recovery of mangroves, sea grasses and corals also has a great impact on fishing. Many mangroves and seagrass beds act as nurseries for fish early in their life, especially commercially significant fish,” says Al Hameli, adding that increasing mangroves and seagrass patches will also increase the amount of carbon they can sequester from the atmosphere.
The chance for dugongs is not only a guaranteed food source – they need to eat 10% of their body weight every day, according to Marshall – but more space to breed and grow safely. “Dugongs will not mate unless they feel the population is safe and secure,” says Al Hameli. “They are very honest. They have a strong flight reflex. If they approach you, they will swim away or dive… Therefore, the feeling of security and the abundance of food are the key factors for reproduction”.
Because dugongs are shy, it’s almost impossible to build ecotourism around them, and it’s harder to raise awareness about conservation efforts, Marshall says. “Unfortunately, we only preserve what we can really see and the charismatic or very beautiful things. The team in Abu Dhabi is ahead of anyone else in the area and I fully support what they are doing to restore the habitat”, he says.
“They’re being smart about it because there’s a relationship between mangroves and seagrasses and coral reefs, so you have to restore all three to keep the seagrasses around, because that’s what the dugongs rely on,” he added.
“It’s a really long and uphill battle, but it’s something that really needs to be done.”