Bridging The Gaps - Community Conservation Of Dugongs In The Andaman Islands

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol. 42 No. 6, June 2022

By Swapnali Gole

Finding Neil

The persistent ‘tak tak’ sound distracted me from the photography session with my diver friends and their try-dive guests at ‘Anchor Line’, a shallow dive site in the pristine blue waters of Shaheed Dweep (in Ritchie’s archipelago), near Bharatpur beach. It was my friend Ajay Kumar, a dive instructor, beating his wide-open palm on his other, rolled hand (a characteristic calling signal used by divers), to grab my attention. I rolled on my back against the sea bed and peeped towards the surface. A giant dugong, around three metres long, passed by me, just a metre’s length away! Mesmerised, I swam toward the animal.

A few moments later, I realised I had left the others behind and was all alone with the dugong. It paused and approached me. Its body size refused to fit into my field of vision. It rolled, flipped, swam and returned for 45 minutes – perhaps the best 45 minutes of my life. As the dugong gently swayed its body to the rhythm of the currents, I noticed sharp cuts on its right flipper, resembling a predator bite. That’s when I realised, without a shadow of a doubt, that this beauty was ‘Neil’, one of our photo-identified male dugongs named after the island (Shaheed Dweep was formerly known as Neil).

Seagrass meadows are the favoured and only foraging grounds for dugongs, and thus limit their distribution. Seagrass habitat characterisation surveys by WII’s CAMPA Dugong recovery programme, involves assessing the seagrass meadow species composition, associated macro-fauna and health of the ecosystem. Photo: Ajay Kumar.

I was in the Bay of Bengal’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago. It comprises around 834 islands with white-sandy beaches, ringed by mangroves that protect rich, untouched tropical rainforests. Around these islands exist some of the world’s finest coral reefs that act as marine nurseries for all manner of fish, marine invertebrates and megafauna. Little wonder that diving and snorkeling are immensely popular draws for tourists. But this is a sensitive geography, with indigenous communities inhabiting many remote islands that are justifiably off-limits to visitors.

I was, of course, here to research dugongs. For years, however, besides a couple of boat-based sightings, I had not spotted even one under water, though tourists often reported (all too casually) that they had! I would often be asked the question I hated to answer, “How often have you sighted a dugong?” Under my breath I would answer, “Never!”

Mercifully, thanks to Neil, I would not have to respond in the negative any longer, having watched him that beautiful January morning in 2021.

The Beginning

Fifteen years ago, on December 19, 2006, the dugong was declared as the state animal of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Predictably, it soon became the Islands’ pride! Dugong conservation was no longer just the Forest Department’s or a wildlife researcher’s quirky mandate. It had become the collective responsibility of citizens. But we needed much more communication on why these incredible marine mammals, whose progenitors once lived on land, were important to local communities.

Dr. Sanjay Gubbi, a well-known conservation biologist put it well in an interview with Sanctuary, “Conservation,” he said, “is 90 per cent communication and 10 per cent science”. After six years of dugong research in the Andaman Islands, I can vouch for the veracity of that statement. My journey with dugongs and the communities in the Andaman Islands began in 2016, as a researcher with the CAMPA Dugong project of the Wildlife Institute of India. Often, on discovering that I worked on dugongs, I would be met with, “Oh, nice. Dolphins!” The gap in our understanding of the marine world, I realised, is one of our biggest challenges. That is why I am committed not just to studying and understanding wild dugongs in their vast seascapes, but also to targeting the right people, including Sanctuary Asia readers, to get involved and broaden the discussion on the need to protect these sirenians and their ocean habitats.

Through community and stakeholder interactions, I realised how ‘dugong’ is never the first name that strikes people’s minds when speaking or thinking about marine mammals, unlike the charismatic dolphins and whales. I still see perplexed faces when a dugong’s picture flashes on the screen, followed by a background murmur, “Dolphin hai kya?” (Is this a dolphin?). A massive sensitisation of people, across all age groups and professions was required. How could they be expected to protect a creature they did not even know existed?

A photo of Neil, one of the resident dugongs of Shaheed Dweep, Ritchie’s archipelago, with whom the author spent close to an hour. Identified as a male dugong, Neil is a people-friendly dugong, often spotted swimming close to the divers, and occasionally seen idling in the shallow waters. Photo: Swapnali Gole.

The Journey

The first step towards community engagement was to speak about dugongs and seagrasses on every available platform in the A&N Islands. We spoke to fishing communities, local and convent schools, Forest Departments, the tourism sector, marine police, and, for the first time, defence bodies like the Indian Navy and Coast Guard. Such programmes went way beyond sensitisation. We wanted nothing less than a massive citizen science network, and we got one! Today, the initiative so tentatively started, is known as the Dugong Monitoring Programme in the Andaman Islands! Our humble start, involving a small group of informants, has turned into a robust network comprising over 200 members from different stakeholder groups.

In the formative years (early 2018) of the Dugong Monitoring Programme, I remember when my colleague Sohini Dudhat and I waited for almost an hour for fishers to arrive at a dugong awareness workshop in the dust-laden Wandoor Community Hall at Wandoor village in South Andaman. We had been assured of an attendance of 20 fisherfolk at the very least. After another 30 minutes, the iron grills of the hall creaked open and our hopes soared! Sukumar Mondal, a fisher in his 40s turned up, followed by one more fisherman. That was it! Our first programme in Wandoor was conducted with just two fishermen! But we persisted and months later, as dugong sightings grew, we began to receive consistent dugong sighting reports from the community.

But nothing comes easy. In May 2021, we set up a meeting with members of the fishing community at a remote village in Diglipur (North Andaman). We had to call off the meeting because of zero attendance! Our facilitator said he ‘forgot’ to inform the others. We laughed off the wasted time because by then we had understood and lived this new normal. But the very next day, my colleague Sumit Prajapati found himself interacting with a Telugu-speaking fishing community about dugongs and seagrasses. Seated on discarded fishing nets in the community hall, the fisherfolk heard him out keenly. It was all we had wanted for five long years… just to talk and hear them talk.

WII researchers engage with the defence forces (Indian Navy and Indian Coastguard) to assist with dugong monitoring. This novel initiative has yielded sightings crucial to dugong research in the Andaman Islands. Photo: Prasad Gaidhani.

Over time, we targeted more seafarers beyond the fishing communities. We began with a pro-marine stakeholder group – ‘SCUBA divers’. They were our only source of underwater dugong footage. With over 30 recreational dive shops in the South Andaman Islands, it took patience and herculean persistence to choose, engage and convince reliable individual divers, but our plan worked and today we can photo-identify three dugong individuals from Shaheed Dweep. The best part is that SCUBA divers were able to deliver more than mere verbal confirmations. Through conversations and images, they helped us record specific body marks on the individuals they saw.

We also discovered to our delight that officers of the Indian Navy and Coast Guard, the protectors of our seas, were keen to interact and collaborate with us. This meant getting confirmations of aerial sightings across the Island seascape. We were overjoyed and disarmed during our initial interactions with some of the commanding officers who frankly said they had to Google the word “dugong” to understand exactly what we were talking about! Today, the same naval and Coast Guard units are key to our study. Because of their routine aerial patrols, they provide us with crucial dugong sightings, many of which have led to ‘eureka’ moments with reports of multiple herd sightings with calves. This valuable ongoing data is changing our understanding of dugong distribution, as well as their habitat preference in the Islands. It has also led us to believe that the social structure of dugongs in the Islands is changing.

Intertidal seagrass meadow and littoral forest view from the lighthouse at South Bay, Little Andaman. This area is a hotspot for dugong occurrence in Little Andaman, and the Wildlife Institute of India team has recorded feeding trails of the animals here after a direct encounter with one adult individual in February 2022. Photo: Sumit Prajapati.

Collaborative Beginnings

Last December 2021, a fisher from Guptapara, a village and a dugong hotspot in South Andaman, spoke agitatedly about the concept of Protected Areas. As I sipped on my chai, surrounded by fishers at a tea stall, I was surprised by these narratives. He described their ordeal, on how Protected Areas threaten the livelihood of small-scale fishers.

“Protected Areas mean no fishing,” he said. “Nobody considers the economic loss we incur to reach these ‘new’ fishing grounds. More fuel is needed, and the catch is low as mechanised boats from Port Blair take away most of the catch. We cannot enter the Jarawa tribal Protected Area in the North, but we see so many illegal fishing activities happening inside. Yet, nobody stops them. Why are we restrained from our basic right to fish then?” he demanded.

After six years of working closely with various stakeholders, my many interactions with local communities have helped me understand a few things. Both a bottom-up and top-down approach is needed for effective dugong conservation across the Islands, because all stakeholders, large and small, are inextricably entangled.

Local communities share space with dugongs (called ‘pani-suar’), with an overlap between fishing ranges and dugong habitats. It is imperative that the fishing community be again sensitised, consulted, convinced and benefited by our efforts to protect dugongs and their wild habitats (seagrasses), which also happen to be the breeding grounds for a host of marine organisms upon which the fishing community is directly dependent.

Local communities are key decision-makers. Without bridging gaps and ensuring their basic rights, views, narratives and opinions, dugong conservation plans are unlikely to succeed.

A dugong sensitisation programme in progress with local school kids, at the Government Middle School Guptapara. Such programmes help foster curiosity and healthy conservation attitudes toward this elusive state animal of the Islands. Photo: Swapnali Gole.

The Forest Department is, of course, a strong managerial force in the Islands, which are home to the largest number of Protected Areas in India! Patrolling dugong hotspots that fall under the Forest Department jurisdiction is critical. The frontline forest staff are an enthusiastic, on-the-ground force, but they need to be scientifically oriented, sensitised and enabled to implement marine conservation strategies.

In the A&N Islands, the tourism sector is another critical player and decision-maker as it happens to be the economic backbone of the Islands. Two of the all-too-few dugong habitats in the Andaman Islands, Shaheed Dweep and Swaraj Dweep, are major tourism hotspots. The primary measure needed here is strict boat-speed regulation. This is easier said than done when high-paying customers seek to open up the throttles of their high-speed dive boats and jet skis. With little hope of official supervision, it falls upon the tourism industry itself to work towards policies and practices that further marine conservation objectives. This is why we recommend that we win the support of small fishers, larger crafts, the A&N Administration including the Forest and Fisheries Directorates and even the small boat operators.

The large-scale fishing trawlers are another matter altogether. This is what is called the non-target fishery sector and it poses an existential threat not only to marine wildlife, including dugongs, but also to the livelihoods of small-scale fishers and of the many isolated fishing communities that dot the archipelago. Regulation of this sector is the mandate of the Fisheries Department. There are many different authorities with various mandates, but with overlapping control on the Islands and its natural resources. Therefore, the implementation of the best-drafted policies, which can support small fishers, the massive tourism sector and the mechanised fishing industry is difficult, but not impossible. It all boils down to India’s vision for today and tomorrow, particularly with the climate crisis bearing down on virtually every activity in the Andaman archipelago.

I feel that researchers are a catalyst for bridging these gaps. Our job is to collect narratives and perspectives of different stakeholders and make scientific interpretations of them. A multi-stakeholder project like this needs to consider everyone involved. The success of such projects will be measured by the involvement and sense of stewardship by local communities for the dugongs.

With each passing year, I see hope for dugongs in the Islands. The beginning of any conservation initiative can never decide how the end should be.

Acknowledgments: Thank you to my supervisors Dr. K. Sivakumar (Pondicherry University), Dr. J.A. Johnson (Wildlife Institute of India), and Dr. Himansu Das (Environment Agency, Abu Dhabi), for their guidance and faith in me and to my Andaman teammates; Sohini, Prasad, Sumit, Esha, Adithya, Aashish, Sagar, and Sohom for everything we have learned together! I also owe thanks to the Department of Environment and Forests, Indian Navy, Indian Coastguard, fisher-folks, Government school authorities, SCUBA divers, tourism sector, and the marine police force for their consistent support and encouragement. Lastly, I owe this piece to the communities of the Islands and the people who believed in seeing this project through.

Swapnali Gole A marine researcher and a Ph.D. scholar with the Wildlife Institute of India, she is part of the Dugong Recovery Programme. She studies dugongs, seagrass habitats, and works closely with local communities for dugong conservation in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

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