The dugong

DugongThe dugong is one of fifteen reserved wild animals of Thailand, and the only one of the sea.

The dugong, or “sea cow,” is a mammal which inhabitsthe temperate oceans ranging from the coasts of eastern Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Andaman Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, the Philippine Sea, the Sulu Sea, the Celebes Sea, the Island of Java, all the way to Oceania, though usually dugongs avoid murky waters.

A dugong in shape is similar to a large seal, with paddle-like flippers for maneuvering its body and for digging out food. It has small eyes and around its mouth, hair. During adolescence, some dugong develop a pair of incisors (tusks), which emerge from the mouth much like the tusks on an elephant, and which are then used when fighting for a mate.

Females have two teats for nursing infants. The color on the animal’s underside is dark grey. Because they use lungs not gills, they must breath every 1-2 minutes at the water’s surface.

Once they reach the age of 9-10 they can reproduce. Gestation period lasts between 9 to 14 months, usually resulting in 1 or 2 offspring. The offspring consume milk and sea-grass and will eventually live for up to 70 years. The mother will take care of her offspring until fully grown, whereupon they will measure 2-3 meters in length and weigh no more than 300 kilograms.

Dugong can hold their breath for around 6 minutes. When sleeping, dugong will leave their bodies in a vertical position and sleep motionless on the sea floor for a few minutes before ascending to breathe again.

Dugong consume sea-grass which grows along coastal areas and shallow waters. They eat during the daytime for up to 8 hours per day. Foraging behavior of the dugong is similar to that of pigs as they use their flippers, chest and mouth to continuously drive a furrow in the sand. This can at times leave a long path that can be seen from the beach’s edge.

As for traditional beliefs about dugong, some hold that the flesh, bones, and tusks of the dugong have immortalizing properties. The tusks, in black market circles, are called “sea ivory.” Both the tusks and the bones can catch high prices for their use in jewelry, much like the barb of the stingray. The tears and the tusks of dugong are also believed by some to have powers as an aphrodisiac.

Currently dugong are endangered in Thailand. Due to serious threats to their natural habitats, their foraging behavior has changed from group-oriented to solitary. Their last remaining habitat is in the sea around Trang province, where they are most commonly found around the island of Ko Libong. It’s been estimated that around 210 dugong remain, according to data collected during January of 2014 at Ko Libong, at which 60-70 percent of dugong live and where they are seriously threatened by poachers who wish to sell their meat, bones, and tusks for use in the occult. It’s been calculated that if a per year a mere 5 dugong die in the territorial waters of Thailand, within 60 years they will disappeared entirely from the country.