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A Gentle Giant: The Dugong in Australia

30 Aug sourced from My Seek website

Mermaid, marine horse, pretty girl and spirit of the sea. These are the meanings of the name dugong. A gentle giant of the sea, it lives in the shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, but the population is in danger. Unfortunately population growth is extremely slow: a 5% increase per year at maximum rates. This is due to a long gestation period of a year and high death rates where development is occurring.

dugong from ng

sourced from the National Geographic website

Internationally, dugongs are listed of Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, meaning that they are threatened with extinction.

Why are the dugongs vulnerable?

Traditional Hunting

The hunting of dugongs is an ancient tradition of the indigenous people of Australia. The dugong is hunted for its meat which is used in traditional cuisine, which may be used in ritual ceremonies. The meat was also considered a medicine against many diseases (the meat is similar to beef) and is even associated with aphrodisiac powers. Dugong skin is used as leather and the oil can be used for cooking, fuel and medicine. Other uses include ornaments and jewellery from the tusks and bones of the animal. The hunting of the dugong is seen as an expression of aboriginal identity in Australia. It therefore seems that nothing of the dugong goes to waste, probably one of the most efficient uses of a carcass and it is claimed that this is how the aborigines ‘express their identity’. Unfortunately these practices are maybe more than ‘expressing’ themselves. The hunting used to be carried out by using dynamite and is still done this way in the Philippines and some Indonesian islands, even though these countries including many others signed the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats throughout their Range in 2007-2010. When the dugongs come up to the surface to breathe, dynamite is thrown into the water blast them to death (this also commonly causes destruction of the coral and sea grass, of which the dugong feeds off). In Australia, the hunting is carried out with a harpoon. This involves, to be clear, the dugong being struck twice, once in the neck and another time in the lower back, then the animal is tied to the boat after a long and tiring chase with its head held in a way so it drowns. Sometimes a shot may be taken to the head which reduced the time it takes for the animal to die. It still may take a few minutes for the dugong to die. This is supposed to be an ‘expression of identity’, and although traditional practices can be respected and made allowances for, how far can we respect this? It is important to note that very few dugongs are being killed in this way, but it still has an impact and that the hunting of dugongs is allowed under the Native Title Act for domestic or personal needs.

Fishing Pressure

The practice of fishing causes the greatest deaths of dugongs. The use of large, nylon nets in industrial fishing can catch dugongs and causes them to drown when sharks are meant to be caught. Between the 1970-80s around 550-1000 dugong annually were being caught in these nets. Trawler nets are used illegally often in shallow areas and not only trap the dugongs, but destroy the sea grass and there is mass habitat degradation. Often the Australian authorities have to contend with illegal fishing boats coming from Indonesia and Taiwan.

Filipino fishermen helping a stranded dugong back into the ocean. Sourced from Wildlife Extra website

Filipino fishermen helping a stranded dugong back into the ocean. Sourced from Wildlife Extra website

Habitat Loss and Degradation

There has been extensive habitat degradation in the last 50 years in all countries that dugongs inhabit, due to coastal development. Where development occurred, so an increase in traffic of ships, ferries and boats was experienced, making the shallows more crowded than ever before. The increase in traffic lead to an increase in pollution, which also came from dumping of rubbish from on-shore facilities.

One of the greatest impact was the pollution from the use of pesticides, herbicides and other toxic chemicals. In 2010, 96 dugongs washed up in Queensland in one summer, compared to 76 in 2009 for the whole year. The dugongs were believed to have died from starvation when the pesticides, sediment and freshwater from floods decimated the sea grasses.

Pollution has also come from large industries, dumping hot water and toxic chemicals that alter the balance within the sea, resulting in loss of seagrasses and possible of bio-accumulation in the fatty tissues in the dugong from mercury.

The loss of seagrass can be devastating and particularly for pregnant dugongs, who may calve later and produce fewer offspring, which is a problem when population growth is so slow.

Vessel Strikes

Unlike manatees, the dugongs stay well clear of boats, but in busy ports with many recreational boats in Australia, dugongs are always injured and sometimes even killed. Of the 96 dugongs that washed up on the shores in Queensland, 6 had died from injuries from vessel strikes.


In Queensland there are 16 dugong protection parks where fishing, large boats and dumping of any waste is strictly prohibited. The dugongs and turtles along the Great Barrier Reef have received greater protection under a $5 million plan announced by the Coalition on 15th August 2013 and there are many campaigns to make any hunting, for any reason illegal. Australia is a signatory to both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the Convention on Migratory Species where work is occurring to make traditional hunting sustainable and more humane and to protect dugong habitats from coastal development.

There are many threats facing the dugong. However, it seems that we are long off the species becoming extinct. There are around 85,000 animals in Australian waters, but increasing development may cause mass deaths. There is more concern over the practices of indigenous hunting and whether it is humane. It is justified because of cultural and social values, but the for example, dog fighting and bear baiting have been stopped because it was immoral. Even in indigenous communities, underage girls are not married off any more as this is not tolerated. It may be time to ask the question: is this humane? They are gentle giants and at some point, there has to be a line drawn.

See also:

Protect Australia’s dugongs

Bob Irwin- the Australian dugong

WWF – how you can help

The War of the Rhinos

28 Aug Rhino, Kruger

Africa is under siege. A war on a huge scale is being fought and although we understand and think poaching is cruel and horrible, can we understand the extent of what is happening? 553 rhinos have been poached this year alone. In 2012 the total was 668. This means by the end of 2013, 900 to 1000 rhinos will have been murdered, and for what? Their horn: i.e. keratin (the substance our hair and fingernails are made of) and for who? The Asian market, specifically China and Vietnam. This has been going on for a while though.

rhino 3poached rhinorhino 2

(Above: Sourced from the Stop Rhino Poaching Website)

Between 1960 and 1994, black rhino populations declined by 97.6% due to intensive poaching to fuel the high demand from Asia. Numbers reached an all time low of 2,410.  To put this into perspective, the world’s population is roughly 7 billion, if our own population declined by 97.6%, the total remaining population would be around 168 million people, which is the current population of Nigeria or less than a half of the USA’s current total population. The situation did begin to change and in the 1980-90s Taiwan, South Korea, Japan banned the import of rhino horn under the Pelly Ammendment to the Fishermen’s Protection Act of 1967 from pressure from the USA (citing sanctions on countries that undermined international species conservation).  Previously rhino horn had been readily sold over the counter. In 1980 Japan and South Korea ratified the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, there is another surge in demand and it began in 2008 and it is looking like it may be the end for these rhinos.

Why Rhino Horn?

Rhino horn is made up of keratin (the same as our fingernails) yet it fetches a higher price than gold per kilogram. In the 1970-90s rhinos were poached to support the demand for medicine and jambiya dagger handles in Yemen. The rhino horn has been classified as a ‘heat clearing’ drug that would be added to other medicinal drugs to treat many illnesses. It was even believed that rhino horn could act as chalices to detect poison. In Vietnam specifically, the trade of rhino horn is directly proportional with the economic development and with the rapid growth Vietnam has experienced in recent years, the horn has become a status symbol, an icon of wealth. The horn is ground into a powder, then mixed with water and drunk. To add to all this, a Vietnamese politician claimed that rhino horn cured his unnamed cancer and this has only fuelled the idea that the rhino horn has great medicinal power. It is widely believed that rhino horn is an aphrodisiac and is bought to improve men sexual prowess.

The Fight

The war is under way and it may be more serious that we can fully understand. President Barack Obama announced in July of 2013 a new $10 million Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking. Unfortunately this seems like a drop in the ocean. No better place knows this than Kruger National Park of South Africa. This year alone 345 rhino have been poached in the park, more than double the number killed from January to October in 2012. Their first response in 2008 was to increase ranger patrols in the park, however this could not hold back the poachers coming in from Mozambique in droves, nicknamed ‘triggerman’ with heavy-caliber hunting rifles (Kruger NP shares a border with Mozambique which is partly unfenced). Typically one man will take the shot, one man will carry the horn and another two will guard the others with these guns. These men will be paid typically 100,000 South African Rand or £10,000 and the incentive is huge when a lot of the country is in poverty. Of course a fire fight began and there were fatalities. More poachers came in and a brutal cycle of ramping up arms on each side began.

Unfortunately many South Africans resent the rangers as they see them working for white farms and white people and see the actual poachers as the ‘robin hoods’ of Africa, taking from the poor and giving back to the poor. In 2011 the South African National Defence Force deployed 265 troops in the park to help the effort. Spotter planes, helicopters and military drones have been donated and bought to tackle the rhino poachers. Google funded WWF $5 million to help gain information about the location of poachers by using patrols, drones, electronic tags and better communications. Diceros is a company that uses U.S. and South African military style technology to better protect the rhinos, including microphones, radar and drones.

Since 2008, 23 poachers have been shot dead by rangers in Kruger NP, however the poachers are dispensable and like a drug dealer, will be replaced by another poacher the next day because of the huge demand. This is one of the reasons that poaching persists. What is not known so widely, is that the poaching is actually run by huge and clever criminal groups, sometimes terrorists such as al-Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army. They are the ones running the show; the poachers are the puppets. Poaching has become so sophisticated that the use of helicopters, veterinary medication and high-powered weapons have made  law enforcement incredibly difficult. Smuggling the horn out of the countries is actually the easiest part. Often they travel in suitcases and when controls were tightened at Johannesburg airport, the poachers looked towards the national airport of Togo which lacks any tight controls and due to the entire loss of Togo’s rhino population, the horn clearly comes from elsewhere,  When poachers are actually caught, the sentences are incredibly light, even when it is a very high-profile case such as when the former U.S. defence attaché, David McNevin was caught in Narobi airport with illegal ivory. His fine was $350.

(Above: Rhinos in Karongwe, South Africa)

(Above: Rhinos in Karongwe, South Africa)

What can be done?

Apart from ramping up rangers with guns and sending them out every day to face the poachers in a battle of bullets and rhino horn, what can be done? Some private game reserves have increased security but have also resorted to poisoning the horns with a toxin that cannot harm the animal itself such as a plant-based toxin that is deadly for humans. Others have looked into dye as a purple or pink horn to an Asian consumer is not quite as appealing. However, unless this is made a public notice, the poachers will still take the rhino, unwittingly knowing that the rhino has a poisoned horn. An even more drastic solution is the removal of the rhino horn altogether. Namibia was the first to adopt this programme and in 1989 to the early 1990s dehorning occurred. Not a single dehorned rhino was poached. In the Zimbabwe Lowveld conservancies, the rhinos have a 29.1% better chance of survival than their horned companions and in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa, where nearly all reserves have been dehorning their rhinos, of the 33 killed from 2009-2011, only one was dehorned. The horn could also be farmed and therefore supply the market. The problem with dehorning rhinos is that the stub of the horn left is still of value and in some cases, it is thought that dehorned rhinos are killed to stop them being tracked again. In overgrown areas especially, often the rhino horn cannot be seen, as rhinos may be killed unnecessarily. It is extremely costly as well, at $620 in Kruger NP and for all to be dehorned in the park, it would total over $7 million. It has been suggested that better media campaigns including the use of celebrities will reduce the demand. This is well illustrated with the campaign for shark fin soup, where consumption dropped 70% after WildAid’s video featured celebrities asking Asians to stop eating it.

The global population of rhinos globally is fewer than 30,000. At the start of the century the population was 500,000. It’s not hard to work out the maths: rhinos will be extinct in the next decade. Two rhinos everyday are being slaughtered to feed the demand from Asia. Africa is no stranger to crisis and war, but this has to be one of the most unnecessary wars in the continent, and it is being lost. The stakes of these animals are ever-increasing and it is time to stop the massacre of the rhinos. They won’t make it without us.

See Also:

Donation and Information About Save The Rhino 

How to Help Stop Rhino Poaching 

The Ethics of Africa’s Ecological Economy

Virunga Under Threat: Gorillas, Oil and the Congo

23 Aug Virunga National Park Gorilla


Virunga National Park (formally known as Albert National Park, after the King of Belgium of the time of 1925) was the first national park of Africa. Situated in the eastern Democratic Republic  of the Congo, where Rwanda and Uganda are borders, the park covers 7,800 square kilometres. It became a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site in 1979 due to its extreme biodiversity and endemic mountain gorilla population of around 240. However, this designation has been altered to ‘endangered’ as the severe conflict in the country has led to the decimation of the wildlife. After 1960, when the Congo was granted independence from Belgium, the state entered into disarray and conflict. Over the years Virunga has been plagued by the civil war and continual siege. Since the 1980′s, when the Mobutu regime lost its hold on the country and chaos ensued, the park has suffered. Militia have entered the park from the most recent Kivu War of the Congo and rebel forces have taken over the park headquarters. To add to the parks demise refugees from Rwanda came and with it came down the park forests. In 2008, the future of the park looked doomed. Virunga has since begun to rebuild and become again a national park, yet on the 1st August 2013, it was reported by the BBC that ‘tourism in Virunga is currently suspended due to insecurity in the region, with armed groups continuing to operate’. Virunga has come under siege time and time again, yet now, it is under an all together different threat: oil.

Those who have ventured onto the WWF page I am sure have come across a rather disturbing appeal to stop Africa’s oldest national park from becoming an oil drilling site. I was shocked that this may happen, but found the facts rather lacking and decided to do some of my own research. It became more shocking as I read the pages and pages of information on Virunga and the situation seemed to become even more unclear and complicated.

The British company proposing to search for oil is Soco International PLC (a FTSE 250 company), which is currently evaluating the resources present.  They have a licence to explore for oil in an area named Block V in the southern part of the park. The licence was given by the DRC which includes a permit for an aerial survey over Lake Edward, therefore there is a contractual agreement. The DRC government commissioned a Strategic Environment Evaluation of Block V to assess the potential petroleum resources. Two thirds of Block V is made up of the area of Lake Edward and the other third in Uganda. It is important to note that no drilling has been planned or is warranted and Block V is not located in the mountainous region of Mikeno Sector where the Mountain Gorillas call home. All the activities seem quite consented and controlled. However, if Soco International were to find petroleum, it seems unlikely that the DRC would not begin to drill deep into the park to extract every drop of black gold. As already explored, the DRC has a long running history of conflict, which is typically funded by mineral resources. It would not be presumptuous to conclude that if oil was found, it would become a source of conflict. This idea was made public in the International Crisis Group’s 2012 report Black Gold in the Congo.

Sourced from Virunga National Park tourist website.

Sourced from Virunga National Park tourist website.

WWF certainly is concerned. They are calling Soco International to abandon the search for oil. WWF are concerned that the exploitation of oil concessions in the park may cause long-term and widespread environmental damage, that would be perpetuated by a resurgence in conflict. This conflict and the constant threat of poaching has also ended in the death of 140 rangers working in the park. The huge sacrifices of these people and the battle Virunga has constantly faced has left WWF no other option but to “Draw the Line” against the commercial gain of Soco searching for oil. WWF have already had triumph after the French oil and gas giant Total agreed to not explore for oil in Virunga and the pressure is on Soco. After the efforts of WWF, the Norwegian oil fund has withdrawn their investments of over $33 million in Soco, another huge gain for WWF.

The reasons that WWF are concerned:

1) Lake Edward has a huge fisheries industry which up to 28,000 people are depending on. The value of these fisheries is at around $30 million but could increase to over $90 million if the stocks and hippo population (which is still recovering from decimation from the civil war) were better managed.

2) A third of the Mountain Gorilla population of the world lives in Virunga. Although the exploration and possible future drilling is not where the Gorillas live, it is close enough to have a significant impact on them due to new infrastructure and with that, possible increase threat of poaching.

3) The birds of Lake Edward would hugely suffer from the constant noise and seismic vibrations from the possible future drilling.

4) The local anglers will lose their jobs and it is unlikely that they will be employed by Soco in the future due to a lack of education and skills necessary. Not to mention, the pollution of drilling will also cause jobs to be lost as stocks plummet.

There are both long-term and short-term effects if drilling were to be carried out and if no other warning was needed, you only have to look into the environmental disaster that oil giant Shell caused in the Niger Delta 100 million barrels of oil were spilt (1960-1997) into the Niger delta, a 20,000 square kilometre wetland and gas flaring led to 50% of its industrial carbon dioxide emissions. The effects of this natural disaster may not be repaired for many, many years.

It must be tempting for the DRC to begin drilling and gain so much from the revenue of oil, but there are incentives to not drill. WWF have stated that without drilling, Virunga could generate $1.1 billion annually and 45,000 permanent jobs could be created through tourism, fisheries and investments in hydropower. The revenue generated from the tourism to come and see the famous Mountain Gorillas varies from country to country but in the DRC, a tourist can pay up to $400 for one hour. The maximum possible annual revenue (If the maximum number of tourists per year visits) that can be generated by one gorilla family is US$1,152,000. A UN backed programme named REDD+ aims to value the carbon stored in large forests and could conclude in a complex carbon market that would result in billions of dollars for the DRC if Virunga’s forests remained untouched. This money could be vital to the DRC and will be environmentally beneficial as well. The DRC needs to appreciate the value of Virunga and see that in the long run, it will be beneficial for all involved if the area remains protected and tourism is once again allowed in Africa’s oldest national park.

By Penny Banham

See Also : 

WWF :  Virunga Anti Oil Petition : Help Draw the Line 

Save Virunga : What Governments and International Organizations Said About Oil Exploration In Virunga National Park 


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