According to legend, the mermaid is inspired by an elusive marine mammal that is so shy that it runs away at the first sight of a human.
It is an animal that features heavily in Southeast Asian folklore, where many cultures believe it was originally part human, and many languages use the synonym mermaid to refer to it. To the wider world it is known as the dugong.
“Dugongs are sea cows. They’re closely related to manatees, and their closest land relatives are elephants,” says Christopher Marshall, assistant professor of marine biology at Texas A&M University. “They’re unique among marine mammals because they’re herbivores—they only eat sea grass and other aquatic plants.”
Marshall admits that the connection to mermaids might seem like a stretch, though “that’s what their scientific name suggests—they’re in an order called ‘Sirenia,’ and siren is another word for mermaid. There’s a lot of interesting cultural mythology around them.”
However, not all of it is benign. Their tears are sold in bottles as love potions or aphrodisiacs, and several of their body parts – including bones, teeth and penises – are collected for their alleged medicinal properties. Their teeth are used to make cigarette holders. They have also been hunted for meat and oil for thousands of years, which combined with habitat loss has greatly reduced their numbers. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) designated the dugong as a vulnerable species in 1982, but says the extent to which dugong numbers have declined is unknown.
Dugong habitats are found along the Indian and Pacific coasts of more than 40 countries. Last summer, however, they were declared functionally extinct in China, and populations are rapidly declining in places such as Kenya, Japan and Indonesia, according to the UN Conservation Programme.
“These animals have two main vulnerabilities,” Marshall explains. “One of them is habitat loss: sea grasses are disappearing all over the world. And two, bycatch: This is a huge problem for dugongs in the Gulf.
The Persian Gulf has the world’s second largest dugong population after Australia. About 3,000 individuals live on the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, where a conservation program is currently restoring coastal ecosystems.
“We have been studying dugongs for the past 20 years,” says Maitha Mohamed Al Hameli, a marine biologist at the Abu Dhabi Environment Agency. “We started by monitoring them to understand their distribution, and based on this information we have been able to identify some marine areas that were later declared protected – that’s where we have the densest dugong population.”
The emirate has already restored 7,500 hectares of mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs in a project that targets both land and sea, and aims for another 4,500 hectares by 2030. It has also introduced a fishing ban on the use of gear that catches dugongs as bycatch. .
“The restoration project is huge. In addition to protected areas, we have laws and regulations that protect the critical habitats that support these animals. Our population has remained stable for the past 20 years, and based on our biannual aerial surveys, it is actually increasing,” says Al Hameli.
The program is expected to have positive cascading effects on other creatures, including dolphins, turtles and hundreds of fish species. “The restoration of mangroves, sea grass and corals also has a huge impact on fishing. Most of the mangrove and seagrass plants act as breeding grounds for fish, especially commercially important fish, at the beginning of their life cycle,” says Al Hameli, who adds that the increase in mangrove and seagrass farms also increases the amount of carbon they bind. from the atmosphere.
The chance for dugongs is not only a guaranteed food source – Marshall says they need to eat 10% of their body weight every day – but also more space in which to safely breed and nurse. “Dugongs don’t mate if they don’t feel the population is safe,” says Al Hameli. “They are very stupid. They have a strong flight reflex. If they are approached, they will swim away or dive… So a sense of security and plenty of food are key factors in their reproduction.”
Because dugongs are shy, ecotourism can hardly be built around them, which makes it difficult to raise awareness about conservation efforts, says Marshall. “Unfortunately, we tend to conserve only what we can actually see and things that are charismatic or really cute. The group in Abu Dhabi, they are way ahead of others in the region and I fully support what they are doing in terms of habitat restoration,” he says.
“They’re smart about it because there’s a relationship between mangroves and seagrasses and coral reefs, so you really have to restore all three to keep the seagrasses around, which the dugongs rely on,” he adds.
“It’s a really long, uphill battle, but it really has to be done.”