The case of Si Tenang the baby dugong captured national attention in 1999.
Atan Hussin (Pak Atan), a fisherman in southern Johor, had accidentally caught a baby dugong in his net. Finding that it had been bruised, he decided to take care of it at his kelong (a floating raft house with nets). He and his family grew fonder of this baby marine mammal and named it Si Tenang.
However, within two weeks, the authorities asked him to release the dugong into the wild. Pak Atan did so, but he kept looking out for Si Tenang, hoping that it would come back to visit him.
But within 48 hours, he was heartbroken when Si Tenang was found dead after it had been tangled up in other nets (dugongs are mammals that need to regularly surface to breathe).
The public should know that dugongs are facing many threats that may lead to their extinction, underlined Dr Leela Rajamani, a dugong specialist from Universiti Sains Malaysia.
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In Johor, the main problems are rapid coastal development, accidental entanglement in nets, boat collisions, and destructive fishing methods (such as trawling and rawai longlines full of hooks). In Sabah, Leela said there is the added problem of fish bombing.
Seagrass specialist Dr Jillian Ooi of Universiti Malaya said the dugong is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This means that certain dugong populations are greatly reduced in size, hurt by human activities, and in danger of local extinction.
On April 21, a dugong was found dead at Pulau Tinggi near Mersing.
“The Fisheries Department thinks it was probably caught in a longline or rawai because there were hook scars on it,” said Ooi.
Rawai are floating death traps which can stretch for hundreds of metres and have up to 2,000 hooks.
“This type of fishing gear needs to be prohibited because they are so dangerous to marine life. The worst damage occurs when the longline breaks off and floats around in the sea, cruelly hooking anything that lies in its path, including turtles, sharks and dugongs.”
Leela explained that dugong conservation in Malaysia took off after the Si Tenang incident.
“The Government allocated funds for research on these creatures and on seagrass. Expertise development was also one of the priorities. I benefited from this with an ample research grant and PhD scholarship. The Department of Fisheries has also drafted a dugong management plan.”
But she noted that much more needs to be done. For starters, more research is needed on seagrass, since this is the main source of food for dugongs.
“Seagrass has not been properly mapped out except in small areas of Sabah and the eastern islands of Johor. So there is a lack of information for a proper dugong conservation plan.”
She added that issues remain with the enforcement of existing legislation, for instance, not allowing trawlers to come closer than five nautical miles to marine parks.
“Dugongs are a charismatic, flagship species. They act as an umbrella species to conserve other species in the habitat where they live.”
She stressed the need for education programmes about dugongs targeted at different audiences such as corporations, rural people (who live close to dugongs) and city folk.
“I hope that more Malaysians will develop a sense of pride and compassion towards these gentle creatures.”