Mysterious death of a young dugong

An environmental group is investigating the death of a male dugong found floating off-shore near Palm Jebel Ali.

EMEG staff found a dead juvenile dugong at Palm Jebel Ali waterfront.

Courtesy of EMEG
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DUBAI // The death of a young dugong found floating off the waters of the Palm Jebel Ali this week remains a mystery for scientists.

The male marine mammal was discovered by staff of the Dubai-based Emirates Marine Environmental Group (Emeg), as they were carrying out routine monitoring on Monday.

The body was spotted near Waterfront, an offshore reclamation project by developer Nakheel. The project was once supposed to be the biggest waterfront development in the world, but work stopped following the economic and real estate slowdown in late 2008.

Laurence Vanneyre, project manager at Emeg, said that while many dugongs are usually killed by hitting boats or entanglement in fishermen's nets, this was not the case with this young animal.

"There were no marks or scars on its body," said Ms Vanneyre.

Shy, peaceful animals, dugongs need calm waters to thrive. With more than 2,500 of the mammals, the UAE has the world's second-largest population, behind only Australia. Most of the country's dugongs are in Abu Dhabi, in the shallow coastal waters surrounding the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve and other offshore islands.

Dugongs are listed as a species vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are also protected by federal law.

Despite their protected status, the number of dugong deaths recorded by scientists has been increasing.

In Abu Dhabi, the Environment Agency recorded three deaths in 2002. Last year 12 deaths were recorded. Scientists think the actual number of deaths could be 50 per cent higher, as not all are reported.

In the first three months of this year, there have been nine dugong deaths in Abu Dhabi. Many cases involved animals that were tangled in fishermen's nets. When this occurs, the animals usually panic and drown.

Other reasons for the population decline include destruction of the sea grass beds dugongs feed on.

Also known as sea cows, dugongs can eat the equivalent of up to 15 per cent of their body weight every day.

In Dubai, the case on Monday was the first of the year, said Ms Vanneyre. The animal's body was relatively well preserved, which meant it was probably living nearby.

Donna Kwan, programme officer for dugongs at the United Nations Environment Programme / Convention on Migratory Species Office in Abu Dhabi, was also present as the animal was examined.

Judging by its size - 133cm - the animal was between six months to a year old, she said.

Its stomach contents showed it was still feeding on its mother's milk. Ms Kwan said that separation from the mother could be one explanation of the death.

"They are very dependent on the mother for about three years," she said. "Perhaps she too died or is looking for him in the area," she said.

For the first 18 months of their lives, newborn dugongs feed only on milk from their mothers, gradually switching to a diet of sea grass over a period of one year.

The scientists took DNA samples from the animal and then buried it. The bones will be exhumed in a few months' time for further analysis.

While the find was not a happy one, Emeg's work in the area is a cause for optimism.

The offshore areas along the fronds of Palm Jebel Ali have become good habitats for sea grass, with three species - Halodule uninervis, Halophila ovalis and Halophila stipulacea - recorded in the area.

Since early 2010, the group has been studying the growth and spread of the sea grass beds. If the growth continues, the area may become an attractive feeding place for dugongs and green turtles, Ms Vanneyre said.