Twenty-three countries unite in Abu Dhabi to conserve the dugong

The two-day meeting kicks off a week-long series of events in Abu Dhabi to focus global attention on the need to protect threatened dugongs, protect their seagrass habitats and empower governments, researchers and local communities in working on conservation projects.

Dugongs are found off the coasts of 40 countries. Courtesy Matthieu Juncker / Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
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An international meeting in Abu Dhabi begins a week-long series of events to help conserve the sea cows around the globe. A new website aims to foster collaboration.

ABU DHABI // What animal do Emirati fishermen, Australian Aboriginals living off the Great Barrier Reef, and cave dwellers in Malaysia from 5,000 years ago have in common?

The answer is the elusive and mostly shy dugong, a sea cow whose existence is now under threat.

On Monday, the descendants of the three groups of people gathered in Abu Dhabi to discuss conserving the species.

Delegates from 23 of the 40 countries that are home to the dugong also came together in the capital to find better ways to protect the animals.

The delegates’ two-day meeting kicked off a week-long series of events in Abu Dhabi to focus global attention on the need to protect the dugongs and their seagrass habitats, and empower governments, researchers and local communities to work on conservation projects.

To that end, the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals launched a website that encourages volunteer conservationists around the world to share their findings and gain access to wildlife protection agencies' databases.

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To help countries develop a strong scientific basis for achieving this goal, the two organisations on Monday launched the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project website.

“Community projects are vital to conservation in general because it’s spreading awareness of what exciting wildlife we have in this region that we should be proud of and are vital to the rest of the ecosystem,” said Arabella Willing, Park Hyatt’s head of conservation.

The website will provide a platform for communities in the 40 countries that are home to dugongs to work together.

The sharing of information on the website will help scientists and conservation groups to better assess the wellbeing of dugong populations and figure out how best to help them.

“For example, some communities trying to assess dugong populations in a certain area will find out from a different community around the world that they can save a lot of money by opting to ask fishermen instead of renting expensive aerial and drone technology,” said Helene Marsh, professor of environmental science at James Cook University in Australia.

Everyone – from community organisers to research universities – can contribute to the website and improve public knowledge of conservation programmes. That means that the public can collaborate with scientists to make more data available.

Dugongs, which are found on the coasts of the Indian Ocean from eastern Africa to northern Australia, are central to the cultural heritage of many coastal communities.

Protection of dugongs, along with the conservation of seagrass meadows which they feed upon, benefits marine biodiversity.

Seagrass meadows are among the richest marine habitats on Earth, home to as many as 600 species of marine life and nursery grounds for fish that people harvest.

Over the past 20 years, the conservation efforts of Abu Dhabi, which is home to the second-largest population of dugongs, have led to the species’ thriving community in the wild today, state news agency Wam reported.

“Our waters are home to more than 3,000 dugongs. Because we recognised early on that any possible threat to seagrass beds poses a threat to dugongs, our country’s dugong population is stable,” said Dr Thani Al Zeyoudi, Minister of Climate Change and Environment.

The UAE’s ranking in the Marine Reserves Sub-Index in the Environmental Performance Index, published by Yale University, rose to the top spot in 2014 and last year from 33rd position in 2012.

“If we can also encourage fishing communities to adopt practices that don’t destroy seagrass and accidentally catch dugongs, we will have helped to secure the future of dugongs, the seagrass and those communities,” said Razan Al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi.

Dr Bradnee Chambers, executive secretary of the convention, said the meeting in the capital was a prime example of the type of ‘dugong diplomacy’ fostered by the convention’s long-standing partnership with the UAE.