A Tale of Two Dugongs


The corral was not very big. Within a few fin strokes we reached the first pole. From there we swam slowly, following the rope. I could see it now: it was a dugong, a big bull. I took the first picture less than a metre away from its restrained tail. It was scarred all over, fresh cuts still bleeding. Was it my presence, the shutter release or just instinct that started the panic? I'll never know. In a powerful rush he headed away, lifting a cloud of silt. His flight came to a sudden, violent halt. End of the rope. He managed a muddy change of course and disappeared out of sight in the sea grass. One of many hopeless attempts to swim to safety.

The second captive, a little female named Jamila, was also tied to a rope, out of reach of her mate. Pak Sabtu, their keeper, stood in the water, belly deep. Grabbing the rope, he pulled Jamila closer. There she was, in a rather weak state. He grabbed her, pulled her out of the water, and proudly posedfor the camera, blind to her desperation. Flapping madly she managed to wiggle herself out of his grip and dropped back in the water, only to be pulled and grabbed again. Not to add any further to the distress of the two prisoners, we returned to the boat. We paid Pak Sabtu and left.

For the last three months the two dugongs had been kept by the villagers of Arkan in a shallow enclosure, a few yards from the shore, on the northern edges of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The pair were inadvertently caught in fish traps and the Kampala, the elected village chief, misguidedly decided to keep them as a tourist attraction to increase the village's income.It proved a poor investment, with only two foreign photographers paying to visit the corral.

The modern world has brought the dugong near to extinction as they share their habitat with motor boats, pollution and fish traps. They appear on the CITES list of endangered species, with the tigers, gorillas and grey whales. Dr. Batuna, the owner of the Murex dive centre south of Manado, who accompanied us to Arakan was worried: 'Only a few months ago, I bought another imprisoned dugong for 65,000 Rupees (£25) and set it free. This should not happen again, or the prices will go up and encourage the locals to capture marine mammals for ransom.'

We briefly considered freeing the dugongs under the cover of darkness, but this would have seriously offend the Kampala and his fellow men. So, the next day we turned to the environment department, a sub-section of the Forestry ministry, and started the complicated negotiations to free the dugongs.

Arakan is one of 20 villages caught within the boundaries of the Bunaken Marine Park. It is neither a reserve nor an area of strict conservation, but a multi-usage marine park, the first national park in Indonesia. And while the original studies and mapping were done by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the running and funding of it depends on the Indonesian authorities. Not an easy task with 22,000 people living within the boundaries of its 80,000 hectares. It lies 15 km away from Manado, North Sulawesi's state capital, which is home to around 300,000 people.

Until 1988 the local fishermen used to supplement their diet with the occasional dugong. Now the authorities want fishing and other traditional activities to work together with the growing tourism industry: the Bunaken reef attracts increasing numbers of divers from all over the world. 'We have the difficult task of educating the locals and helping them evolve toward more environmental ways. Dynamite fishing had become a commonly used technique,' says Dr. Batuna. Each village has voluntarily set aside specified breeding areas where fishing is totally banned. 'Species of fish that were about to disappear are coming back,' says Graham Usher, the English adviser at the environment department. 'Operators and tourists need to be aware of local feelings and needs, especially the divers, who often want unrestricted access by motor boats and covet the sites for their exclusive use.Dive boats can do a lot more damage than the frail skiffs still used by local fisherman. Divers should try to be role models and respect the beautiful environment they have come to visit, and avoid breaking corals or taking shells.'

While the authorities want cooperation between tourism and the local people, they hadn't envisaged the ingenuity of the people of Arakan.The gap between the world of international tourism and local life was poignantly illustated by the captured dugongs. The Kampala thought he was pleasing possible newcomers, who seem so interested in the marine life he took for granted. It had to be delicately explained that the dollar bearing tourists, in fact, would be shocked and upset to see dugongs treated in this way.

A delegation of forestry department officers travelled by boat to Arakan. Armed with a letter written by the head of the department, they explained to the Kampala, that 'Developing dugong tourism with animals tied up by the tail is not likely to be very successful, because foreign tourists regard this as cruel!' The Kampala finally agreed and Pak Sabtu was asked to cut the ropes. The fisherman cried as the two dugongs swam free. I'm still wondering whether it was for the loss of hoped-for dollars or because of a more noble empathy with the 'mermaids'. The mysteries of the Orient!

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