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Dugong in East Malaysia

Historically, dugongs were common in shallow coastal waters of East Malaysia and were hunted, particularly in Sabah. Today, their occurrences are rather occasional. Due to the unknown population status, the main purpose of this research is to create and compiles information on dugong distribution and abundance, and highlight threats affecting the animals in the area.

Between 1996 and 2001, we conducted boat, aerial and interview surveys, and site investigations on stranded or trapped dugongs along the coast of Sabah and Sarawak. No dugong was sighted during boat surveys. During aerial surveys, 7 sightings were made at 3 different areas. Three sightings were in Brunei Bay, one in Labuan, and three off Kudat, with a total of 18 dugongs. All dugongs sighted were very close to shore. Five sightings were of a single dugong and two sightings in Brunei Bay were of 6 and 7 dugongs, respectively. In addition, there was also in 4 occasions where a single dugong was observed from shore within the Kota Kinabalu harbour limit.

During the survey period, we also investigated 9 strandings and 4 incidental catches of dugongs in the west and north coast of Sabah. The numbers of standings and incidental catches are considered low and not randomly distributed due the facts that many cases in other areas were not reported. All strandings and incidental catches were of a single dugong with mean size of 2.26 ± 0.43 (n = 10) meter. Most of the stranded dugongs were moderately decomposed and a number of human-related causes were suggested. The use of gillnets and kelongs are found to be the main factor for the incidental catches of dugongs. Caught dugongs were either found dead or alive, but later slaughtered for local consumption.

Many older fishermen and villagers interviewed in Sabah, Labuan, and Lawas, Sarawak reported had seen live dugongs before. They indicated that dugong populations have declined significantly in the past few decades, however, they believed the animals are still presence in a very small number. Traditional hunting for meat, starvation, vessel collisions, dynamite fishing, entanglement in fishing gear, disease, and degradation of seagrass areas caused by sedimentation and pollution from coastal development and palm oil plantations are amongst the reasons given for the decline. Therefore, dedicated efforts to educate the publics and the implementation of realistic conservation management strategies should be given high priority to avoid dugong extinction.