Sat, 03 Jun 2000

Little-known dugong center stage at Sea World bash

By Jihan F. Labetubun

JAKARTA (JP): Many people think the strange creature with the Latin name dugong dugon is a fish, and it is indeed the stuff of myth.

The dugong, along with the now extinct sea cow and the endangered manatee, is believed to have been the inspiration for sightings of mermaids by seafarers who, after many months away from their loved ones, mistook its form for enticing sirens of the deep.

In fact, the dugong (duyung in Indonesian) is a mammal. It gives birth, breathes through lungs, has a couple of milk glands and bristles of hair, although its growth is insignificant compared to many other mammals.

The animal, now rare in much of its range, is being showcased in Sea World Indonesia's sixth anniversary celebration.

The opening of the dugong exhibit on June 3 will also feature wildly popular child entertainer Joshua, who is expected to draw other children to the cause of conserving marine life.

Sea World Indonesia has made wildlife and natural resource conservation a priority. Its main objectives have been education, conservation and recreation. It is also a marine education resource to promote the richness of resources in the world's largest archipelago.

Sea World came by chance into possession of its lone dugong. The facility received news on Oct. 7, 1999, that a male dugong was trapped in a net in Bojonegoro, East Java. Sea World sent a team to the location and the animal was found to have several wounds on its body.

Two veterinary surgeons provided intensive care of the animal at the site for seven months.

"The treatment of this sea mammal was similar to other mammals, even human beings," explained one of the vets, Dr. Sumitro. "We provided the same medicine as other mammals are used to consuming, such as hydrogen peroxide to clean the wounds and to avoid infection, and also multivitamins."

It was decided in May that the animal was well enough to be moved to an aquarium at Sea World Indonesia.

"The supporting facilities provided by Sea World Indonesia include an aquarium that meets international standards with 28 cubic meters water capacity, 24-hour water circulation, rapid sand filter to maintain the water clarity, a gravity sand filter and ozone," said Sea World Indonesia's director Arief Wiriyadinata.

The captive dugong is about four meters long and its weight is estimated at about 420 kg (scientists believe dugongs and manatees are related to the pachyderm family, which includes elephants). They can live up to 75 years and use their flippers to navigate along the sea floor, grab seaweed and hold their offspring.

Dugongs can reproduce by the age of 10 with a gestation of 13 months to 14 months. Newborns are usually less than 1.5 meters in length and weigh from 20 kg to 35 kg. There is usually only one birth in a three-year to seven-year period.

The animal's range spans from East Africa through the Pacific Ocean, from China to New Caledonia and Australia. It is mostly found off Sulawesi and the Aru islands in Indonesia.

Like its relative the manatee, the dugong's numbers are declining, with hunting, oil pollution, land reclamation and other human activities the causes. Its long gestation period compounds the problem.

The animal is dying out when little is known about its habits.

A report dating back to 1979 tells of 1,000 dugong dying after being trapped in shark nets. More recent research says the animal is finding it increasingly difficult to obtain the marine plant cyrimodium that is essential to its diet. Once a diurnal mammal, the dugong is now nocturnal as it forages for food.

Sea World Indonesia general manager Sukiman Hendrokusumo said the animal was categorized as an endangered species by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) with the status of Appendix I.

Sea World Indonesia has recruited Casio as a corporate sponsor for the exhibit. Members of the public will be able to help out as Casio is contributing 15 percent from the sales of its products to the cause of saving the dugong.

It is, of course, a noble effort, but there is always the uneasy feeling about putting such a critically endangered animal on show, and keeping one precious member of the species in captivity when so few of the animals remain in the wild. It is important not only to raise awareness and concern for the animal's plight, but also to help out the dugongs remaining in the wild.