Dos and don’ts in handling ‘dugongs’ out soon
What are the odds of finding a dugong (sea cow) or a whale at your doorstep?
While the answer could be one in several dozens of digits, the head of a conservation group and a bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources are preparing guidelines on how to handle the animals. Just in case.
AA Yaptinchay, a veterinarian and head of the Marine Wildlife Watch Philippines (MWWP), has teamed up with the DENR-Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) to draft guidelines on the rescue and retrieval of dugongs stranded in shallow coastal areas.
The guidelines, which will be ready next year, would give people step-by-step procedures on the rescue of dugongs and turtles, Yaptinchay said. PAWB will also conduct awareness campaigns in coastal towns and teach residents the basics of giving first-aid to beached marine animals, he added.
Reports abound about the dugong, the largest sea-living mammal in the Philippines, getting caught in fishing nets, being stranded and drowning. They also have been hunted down, PAWB said. According to Yaptinchay, beached whales, dugong and turtles have become common sights in some areas of the country.
Unaware that these animals belong to protected species, some residents simply gawk at the animals while recording their last breath on the cameras of their mobile phones. Others kill stranded creatures for their meat and shell, Yaptinchay said.
He said recently, several dugongs have drowned after getting caught in fishing nets in Mati, Davao Oriental. “Early last year, up to four dugongs died during a three-month period,” he said.
“The release of turtles is commonly seen in the news, but a lot of them are not done properly. Hopefully this will be corrected with the issuance of the release guidelines,” he said.
Yaptinchay reminded communities that dugongs, whales or turtles caught in fishing nets should be released immediately to the sea. A stranded animal, on the other hand, requires more attention.
If you see a beached whale or dugong, the first thing to do is to assess its condition, Yaptinchay said. A beached animal should be protected from the sun. Residents could put a shade or a wet cloth over it, he said. It is vital that the skin of the species be kept wet. People should also be careful not to cover or put sand or water over the animal’s blow hole or nose. A superficial wound does not require major treatment, the vet added.
If the animal is injured and cannot be released, call an expert to handle it, Yaptinchay said. Residents should immediately report the beaching to the nearest DENR or PAWB office and also report data on the animal such as its size and injuries.
Dead animals, on the other hand, should be turned over to the DENR for disposal, Yaptinchay said.
He also urged residents to report incidents like these to MWWP through its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/marinewildlifewatchofthephilippines) or to PAWB at telephone number (02) 9246031.
The dugong, which used to abound in Palawan and is found in lesser numbers in Zamboanga City, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental, General Santos City, Surigao City, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Guimaras and Polilio Island in Quezon, have been under threat because of increasing disturbances in the ecosystem, the PAWB said.
Aside from threats from fishermen, climate change is also a daunting challenge for the survival of these animals. These include changes in sea temperatures and storm surges that have put the dugong and other marine mammals at higher risk of beaching than ever.
Yaptinchay said dugongs may not be iconic or cuddly, but they play a vital role in the country’s marine ecosystem. “Green turtles and the dugong are the biggest herbivores in the sea and [contribute] to the nutrient cycle in the oceans. They affect seagrass beds through cultivation grazing, making seagrass beds more productive and nutritious,” he said.
“The turtles and dugongs have been around for millions of years and have been important players in the balance of the marine ecosystem. If we lose them, there will be some serious effect on the ecosystem which provides us with so many benefits including water, oxygen, food and even medicine,” he added.
A gentle sea creature, the dugong can measure up to 3 meters from snout tip to tail when fully grown. Breastfeeding mother dugongs are said to have inspired myths of mermaids.