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With almost 3,000 dugongs, Abu Dhabi has the world's second-largest population. Australia has the largest.
With almost 3,000 dugongs, Abu Dhabi has the world's second-largest population. Australia has the largest.

Dugong to be taken off the menu

A programme to help developing nations to protect and not eat the shy marine mammal, also known as the sea cow, was launched yesterday in the capital.

Saving the dugong from extinction has as much to do with tackling poverty as it does conservation work, scientists say.

A programme to help developing nations to protect and not eat the shy marine mammal, also known as the sea cow, was launched yesterday in the capital.

"The problem for dugongs is that most live offshore from developing tropical countries," said Professor Helene Marsh, the technical adviser for the Dugong, Seagrass and Coastal Communities Initiative.

"In those countries, people are often hungry and dugongs are worth much more dead than alive.

"They are long-lived and slow-breeding, very accessible to people and delicious to eat. If I gave you some dugong meat, which would be highly illegal, you would probably say it was veal."

The programme, organised by the office of the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). Their branch in Abu Dhabi services the Dugong Memorandum of Understanding, which was signed by 21 of the 40 states where dugongs live.

The Abu Dhabi office is funded and hosted by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (Ead).

It aims to start community projects in Mozambique, Papua New Guinea and the Gulf of Mannar, between India from Sri Lanka. The idea is to help to improve the livelihoods of traditional communities, offering incentives to protect dugongs.

Dr Donna Kwan, the programme officer for the joint effort, said the initiative was looking for funding of about US$5 million (Dh18.3m) in the first three years.

Dr Kwan said that of the three projects, the one in Mozambique's Bazaruto Archipelago is closest to completion and could be running within a year.

While Abu Dhabi's dugong population is stable, the number of recorded deaths rose last year, said Thabit Al Abdessalaam, the executive director of the Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity Sector at Ead.

The annual average is seven or eight, but last year 13 deaths were recorded, Mr Al Abdessalaam said.

"It is still within the safe limits but it something we need to monitor and watch closely," he said.

Most of the deaths were recorded in the Western Region, and drowning in nets is the most common cause.

Dugongs can live for more than 70 years but if food is scarce they may not start breeding until they are 17.

Their metabolism is so slow it is comparable to that of the three-toed sloth.

That unique biology and dependence of sensitive seagrass beds mean only 13 in a population of 1,000 can be lost in a year if their numbers are to remain healthy.

With almost 3,000 dugongs, Abu Dhabi has the world's second-largest population. Australia has the largest.

vtodorova@thenational.ae

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