DUGONGS IN Thailand's waters face extinction unless their habitat and food sources are protected, according to a recent study.
One of the most gentle marine mammals, dugongs are facing a serious threat as recent research by the Marine and Coastal Resources Department showed that only about 200 of the animals live in Thai waters. The species has a low birth rate and approximately eight dugongs die every year.
Trang's Had Chao Mai National Park chief Manoj Wongsureerat said that in order to save dugongs in Thai territory, a proper survey on the animals' behaviour, habitat and feeding grounds was essential so authorities could designate a protected zone.
"In all Thai territory, Trang has the highest dugong population. In this province alone there are around 160 dugongs. However, of this number, about five die every year and at this death rate, the dugong population is in danger in the long term," Manoj said.
"An in-depth study of dugongs is important, because right now we do not know much about their behaviour and habitat, and cannot precisely designate a safe zone for them."
He said the national park was working with the National Science and Technology Development Agency on a dugong GPS tracking system, with three dugongs in Had Chao Mai National Park having already been fitted with tracking devices.
"This project is still in the initial phase and has to extend to the entire dugong population in Trang's sea, so we can track them and understand their behaviour, which will lead to the creation of a safe haven," he said.
However, the future of the project was uncertain because of budgetary issues, he said, urging authorities to provide funding for more tracking devices.
Dr Nantarika Chansue, director of the Sea Animal Diseases Control Centre at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Chulalongkorn University, said the most commonly identified causes of dugong deaths were fishing equipment and collisions with boats.
"Most of the dugong carcasses that we found were killed by becoming trapped in fishing equipment. This is because their habitat is also fishing grounds and a water-navigation route. Recently, a female dugong and her cub died from being trapped in a fishing net in Trang," Nantarika said.
She added that every death was a serious blow because dugongs' fertility rate was so low.
"Dugongs are like elephants. The pregnancy period is very long and females also nurture cubs for a long time, so the birth rate is very low. Moreover, we still cannot breed dugongs in captivity," she said.
"It is very important that we have a preservation zone for dugongs where fishing and navigation are limited, to save their lives." However, Nantarika, who recently gained nationwide acclaim for her efforts to help sea turtles, said the most important factor in safeguarding the population was to preserve fields of seagrass, which is the animal's principal source of food.
"We have learned from the vanishing of dugongs along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Thailand. The vast industrialisation and the busy sea navigation destroyed seagrass fields in the region and caused the extinction of dugongs," Nantarika said.
She gave the example of a bay in Rayong called Ao Phayoon, or "dugong bay", where dugongs were wiped out long ago after seagrass fields were devastated, leaving only a barren, muddy seafloor. She said dugongs still existed along the Andaman coast because of the relatively abundant seagrass fields in the area.
Dugongs are listed as one of 19 protected wild animals in Thailand, according to the Wild Animal Reservation and Protection Act.