In 2015, the MIHARI network incorporated the conservation of dugongs, or “Lamboara” in Malagasy, into its national strategy as a member of the GEF funded project: Enhancing the Conservation Effectiveness of Seagrass Ecosystems Supporting Globally Significant Populations of Dugongs Across the Indian and Pacific Ocean Basins (Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project).
Dugongs in Madagascar
North West Madagascar is the remaining hotspot for the endangered dugong, and where seagrass habitats, on which they rely on for food, are abundant. Although little is known about this species amongst the general population, they arouse great fascination, and many consider them sacred animals.However, populations of dugongs have dramatically declined due to directed hunting, and bycatch in fishing nets.
While hunting of dugongs was common in the past, given the animal’s character, an interesting set of rituals developed to guide hunting : two people were required to kill the animal, one of whom had to be a traditional religious figure; the body was hidden with a veil, because the act in itself was considered so shameful that it was necessary to hide it from the Gods.
Maromina, a fisher’s wife living in Sahamalaza, is one of the few people the MIHARI team has met who has seen a dugong in the wild. This was several years ago. Her explanation for the decline in population numbers was, "All parts of the dugongs body are considered medically important in Malagasy customs. I am certain that apart from its delicious taste, the reason the Dugongs are in danger of extinction is because of their use in traditional medicine. Bones were used to decrease swelling on the body, their oil to for hearing problems and alleviate stitching pains. I still have a dugong bone in my house that I use to treat swelling of my foot.”
Dugongs are particularly susceptible to the effects of overfishing because they usually give birth only once every 5 years.
Conserving dugongs and seagrass
The plight of the dugong is of critical importance, not only because communities can have a significant role in safeguarding their future, but because they can also act as flagship species to promote the protection of key seagrass habitats. Seagrass is vital for the life cycle and growth of many coral reef and key fisheries species, yet it can be difficult habitat to build enthusiasm and protection for.
The Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project, of which MIHARI is one of 4 partner projects, aims to enhance the conservation effectiveness of seagrass ecosystems and globally significant populations of dugongs across the Indian and Pacific Oceans basins. The work of MIHARI focuses on :
Enhancing the Conservation Effectiveness of Seagrass Ecosystems Supporting Globally
Significant Populations of Dugongs Across the Indian and Pacific Ocean Basins:
- Improving knowledge on dugongs and seagrass across Madagascar and at the local and national level;
- Raise awareness on the importance of dugongs and seagrass conservation for livelihoods and ecosystem health;
- Building governance structures for communities involved in the conservation of dugongs and seagrass to support local management of marine areas.
A special session at the North West Regional Forum
Regional forums are part of MIHARI Network’s core activities, and are organised annually in all the four regions where LMMAs are concentrated. The North West forum took place from the 4th-8th July this year, in within the Nosy Hara Marine Park in the DIANA region. The park is considered to be one of Madagascar’s remaining strongholds for dugongs and seagrass. To celebrate this, a special day dedicated to the importance of dugong and seagrass conservation was organized, with C3, with presentations, entertainment and activities.
“This was MIHARI’s first activity to support the conservation of dugongs and seagrass. I hope that LMMA participants, have gained both theoretical and practical knowledge to help protect both. The next step would be to identify main sites where MIHARI would carry out awareness and education activities on Dugongs, participatory maps to improve knowledge on dugongs and seagrass beds in the north west of Mada, and to review the Dina would require inclusion of the conservation of dugongs and seagrass.”, said Vatosoa Rakotondrazafy, MIHARI’s National Coordinator.
The forum was well placed to engage many people, with 16900 people living across the park. The DRRHP of the Diana region, Mme Sylvie Raharimalala, highlighted in her speech that the day was a great way to stimulate LMMA communities to conserve important keystone species, as well as marine resources in general: “This special day will bring success, motivation and knowledge about Nosy Hara biodiversity. The conservation of biodiversity and the development of ecological tourism constitute a nucleus or a lever for a sustainable development of our country.”
Further festivities to celebrate the conservation of dugongs were organised by MIHARI member COSAP Sahamalaza, in the village of Nosy Berafia, in October. Each forum provides great opportunities to share best practices betweens NGOs in relation to dugong conservation and marine resource management.
Jimmy, the president of LMMA Andilamboay, who also remembers seeing dugongs in the sea, “Before, it was easy to see dugongs when we went to sea. Now, we do not expect to come across them. Today, I am convinced that we should change our behavior towards this marine mammal. If we see one again, we will not eat it anymore because we know it is an endangered species."
“LMMA communities are more aware of the threats to dugongs and are willing to change their behaviour. I was really impressed by the testimony of one LMMA representatives from Nosy Berafia, who is the son of a dugong hunter but is now leading education and awareness sessions on dugongs within his village”, stated Vatosoa Rakotondrazafy after the festival.
The community of Nosy Berafia are now ready to work together to protect dugongs.
Maromina, promised: “Thanks to my new knowledge on the importance of saving dugongs, I will act differently if I find a dugong sold at the market or if I find fishermen capturing this animal.”
Raising awareness nationally
MIHARI has also taken opportunities to raise awareness on threats and importance of dugongs at the national level, during the National Day for Fishing and Aquaculture (JNPA). It is clear from speaking to people in Antananarivo at the event , that very few people know what a dugongs is, and even fewer know dugongs can be found in the north of Madagascar! ed.
To capture the audience’s imagination, we put on two shows at JNPA, in partnership with C3. To grab adult and children’s attention a playful sketch about a fishermen highlighted changes in attitudes towards dugongs.
To support the conservation of dugongs and seagrass in Madagascar, MIHARI will focus on four priority sites in the North West, working with partners at each site: Nosy Hara (C3), Sahamalaza (COSAP Sahamalaza), Barrens Islands (Blue Ventures) and Ambaro Bay (WCS).
MIHARI will bring human, financial and technical support to partners for educational and awareness activities and also Dina enhancement. Some of them are already doing such activities but MIHARI could extend it into a national level. In return, MIHARI is planning to setup a MOU (Memorundun Of Understanding) with the 4 partners which would give the network the opportunity to learn from their methodologies and approaches and then create a standard approach that would bring theirs all together.
We believe these initial three events, and the partnerships developed, are the first step to increase local protection. We have seen that after a year of running education and awareness sessions, that LMMA communities have a greater awareness of the threats faced by dugongs and are willing to change their behaviour to protect them!
We would like to thank our partners for their interest, and support from our funders, including the GEF through UNEP under the Dugong and Seagrass Project, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and the MacArthur Foundation.