Australia’s Sea Cows Struggle to Survive Poachers

The dugong, a cousin of the Florida manatee, also faces threats from habitat loss, boat collisions, and fishing.

(Photo: Doug Perrine/Getty Images)

Oct 3, 2014· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

It sucks to be a sea cow.

Like the manatees of Florida, dugongs in northern Australia encounter numerous threats. These lumbering marine mammals face a gauntlet of man-made obstacles, including boat strikes and fishing net entanglements, and when their sea grass beds disappear because of coastal development and pollution, starvation can set in.

But dugongs face dangers even manatees can’t relate to: poaching and the illegal trade in their meat. The problem has become so bad in recent years that the Australian government just pledged $4.4 million to protect the animals and stop the illegal trade in dugong and turtle meat.

Dugongs are protected as an endangered species in Australia—and international law also bans the trade in dugong meat or other products—but indigenous peoples are allowed to hunt the animals. Many of Australia’s native communities depend on dugong hunting for a large part of their diet, and the meat is an important part of ceremonial feasts.

But Environment Minister Greg Hunt said poachers, many of whom come from the impoverished native communities, have exploited the “good name” of native populations.

(Other ocean species, such as sharks, are also in danger because of fishing and human predators, who cut off their fins so they can be made into shark fin soup. A mission to hunt down and stop some of these illegal shark finners in Costa Rica appears on the season finale of The Operatives, a new television series that airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Pivot TV, the television network owned by Participant Media, TakePart’s parent company.)

With the legal hunting, illegal poachers and traders have flourished, in part because there are no official records or controls over how many dugongs are killed. Wildlife activist Colin Riddell, who works with the Bob Irwin Wildlife & Conservation Foundation, recently claimed that 1,600 dugongs are killed in Australia’s Northern Territory every year. According to the nonprofit organization Save the Dugong, 2,000 are killed annually in Queensland, another Australian state.

Official numbers on dugong deaths don’t exist. They were last officially tallied back in 2003, when hunters reported 1,619 dugong takes in the entire country. But Alan Shore, director of communications at Save the Dugong, said in an email that this “is only a fraction of the actual number of dugongs butchered every year,” as “very few hunters bother to report their kills.” Meanwhile, a 2012 investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation uncovered a thriving black market for dugong and turtle meat, finding cruel butchering and hunting methods such as “turtles being butchered alive and dugongs drowned as they are dragged behind boats.”

Native communities are fighting back against the anti-poaching plan, claiming dugongs are plentiful. Northern Land Council CEO Joe Morrison, who represents traditional landowners, also questioned why the conservation plan doesn’t involve getting indigenous communities to help combat poaching.

“People who are most concerned about these matters are indigenous people who have to live with the consequences of animals becoming threatened or extinct, especially when they are so spiritually significant and when they provide protein in the diet,” Morrison told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Despite the disagreements, there has been progress. In July, three traditional people groups in Australia agreed to place a moratorium on dugong hunting in areas near the Great Barrier Reef. Dugong populations have declined by as much as 97 percent in some areas of the reef, according to a recent government report, but hunting is just one of the causes of the decline.