03 Dec Dugong Sighting Recorded in the Lease Islands MPA

Good news from Maluku. Our Learning Sites team spotted a dugong swimming in waters near Booi Village in Saparua Island. At the same time, other team members also discovered dugongs’ feeding trails in the seagrass meadows around the islands, indicating that the charismatic animal may have a good chance of surviving and reproducing in the Lease Islands marine protected area (MPA).

The encounter with this marine mammal happened when the team conducted a biophysical survey to assess dugong habitat in four villages: Porto, Booi, Mahu and Ihamahu, on Saparua Island – one of the three main islands in the Lease Islands MPA. The team was attempting to monitor the appearance of dugongs for four consecutive days, from November 28 to December 3, 2022, using visual observation, manta tow, and aerial survey methods. The survey was part of a new project called ‘Kalesang Dugong’ that aims to increase local awareness and capacities in the protection of dugongs and their habitat.

The reported dugong sighting, on the other hand, is a major breakthrough for the Lease Islands MPA, as dugongs are an indicator species of healthy marine ecosystems. The presence of dugongs in the area indicates that its waters are supporting a thriving ecosystem with ample food sources to sustain them. This also signals positive hope for other endangered species, such as sea turtles, sharks and whales that inhabit this newly established MPA.

Encounters with the ‘sea cow’ are becoming increasingly rare for local coastal communities in Saparua. Due to factors such as plastic waste, marine transportation and fishing practices, dugongs are now rarely seen swimming or grazing in the shallow waters of Saparua. Even for CTC, whose staff are conducting scientific surveys on a regular basis, the last dugong sighting in the Lease Islands MPA was reported in 2018, or more than four years ago.

The population of dugongs in Lease remains unquantified as the last study in 1992 only recorded 22 to 37 individuals being found alive in the islands. Funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF), the ‘Kalesang Dugong’ project, run collaboratively by CTC and the Baileo Foundation, will update data and information about the population, distribution, and observation of dugongs, as well as the seagrass ecosystem, through advanced biophysics surveys and regular resource use monitoring (RUM) surveys. It will also result in the development of a citizen science mechanism to support the existing marine conservation database systems at local, regional and national levels.

The CTC team also noted several findings of dugong feeding trails among seagrass beds in the villages of Porto and Ihamahu. Some of the trails appeared to be quite new, raising hopes that there are still dugongs living in the waters of Saparua. This was also confirmed by a report from Porto Village staff, who claimed three dugongs were seen swimming in shallow coastal areas by local fishermen.

CTC also delivered a short training on the management of stranded dugongs and marine mammals to local community members in Saparua on December 2, 2022, in addition to the biophysical survey for dugongs and seagrass ecosystems. The one-day training was attended by 23 participants, 16 men and 7 women, from various elements of the community, including village leaders, customary (adat), youth, women, and local community surveillance groups (Pokmaswas).

A consultant from ‘Yayasan Lamun Indonesia’ employed by CTC as the lead trainer for the training. By using a combination of verbal, visual and audio-visual training methodologies, participants could understand the contents of the training material very well. This was further demonstrated by a 70% increase in pre-test and post-test scores. Eventually, it is hoped that participants will have a better understanding of the reporting protocol and what to do if they see or find a stranded dugong.

CTC will run the ‘Kalesang Dugong’ project for two years, starting from July 2022 to June 2024. In 2023, CTC and the Baileo Foundation will work together to draft a village regulation that can protect dugongs and their habitat in the Lease Islands MPA.

Text: Yoga Putra
Photo: Purwanto/CTC, Kasman/CTC, Sarah Talaksoru/Yayasan Baileo

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