Dugongs in Malaysia
Dugongs were once common throughout the shallow coastal waters of East Malaysia (northeast Borneo). The hunting of dugongs, particularly off the coast of the state of Sabah, represented an important aspect of the local culture. Today, sightings are rare, the local dugong populations having been dramatically lowered by a congruence of factors. Locals lend anecdotal support to what the data overwhelmingly shows; dugongs are now rare in regions where less than a generation ago they were common. They do still exist off the coast of Malaysia, but the population is estimated to be around 200 individuals and is facing anthropogenic threats that will continue to push the population to the brink of local extinction. Concerted public efforts and government programs to educate the local residents and implement realistic conservation management strategies are essential if further population decrease is to be prevented.
In the summer of 1999, the Malaysian government announced that it would establish a dugong sanctuary, in concert with the Australian government, off the coast of the Johor state (in southern peninsular Malaysia). The announcement followed the sighting of a group of approximately 60 dugongs off the southern coast of Johor; according to the government, this was the first sighting of dugongs off the mainland Malaysian coast since 1974.
Known locally as duyung, or mermaid, local folklore claims the marine mammal originated from man. The dugong has also been known in the region as babi laut (sea pig) or lembu laut (sea cow).
Traditional Local Uses
Local residents commonly consume dugongs that are stranded on land or unintentionally caught at sea, the dugong’s meat is considered to be better tasting than beef; historically, in some regions within Eastern Malaysia, dugong meat was a necessary delicacy at important at celebrations, including at weddings. Dugong bones are used in traditional local medicine for the treatment of asthma, internal pain, fever, and poor eyesight. Although hunting the creature is illegal, a minority of locals continue to hunt the rare dugong, generally with a harpoon.
Traditional hunting for meat, starvation due to loss and degradation of sea grass habitat (the dugong primary food source) due, in part, to sedimentation and water pollution from coastal development and runoff from palm oil plantations are a few of the threats facing the Malaysian dugong population today. Entanglement in fishing nets, disease (which can be exacerbated by small population sizes), and loss of animals as collateral damage of dynamite fishing (an act that is illegal throughout Malaysia, yet remains relatively commonly documented) also contribute to falling population levels of this majestic marine mammal.
References and Further Reading
This article was partially researched by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.