Dugongs extinct? The clash between indigenous custom and global conservation, scientists and marine management agencies warn controls are needed urgently! AWPC Newsletter Volume 9Number 1 April 1998
Dugongs are large grey mammals which spend their entire lives in the sea. Fully grown, they may be three metres long and weigh 400 kilograms. The dugong resembles an overweight dolphin. However, it is actually more closely related to the elephant!
They are often called the “sea cow” for its habit of grazing on seagrass meadows.
Unlike whales and dolphins, dugongs are not predators, they are strictly herbivorous marine mammals. Because its seagrass diet is hard to digest, the dugong has an extraordinary large intestine. It’s as thick as a fire hose and stretches some 30 m long!
Dugongs have a similar lifespan to humans, living up to 70 years. The female has her first young, called a calf, between 12-17 years of age. Only one calf is born per pregnancy, which lasts up to 14 months, and pregnancy occurs every three to seven years.
Dugongs have played an important part in traditions and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people for thousands of years, and are still harvested today.
Dugongs are subject to a range of human-caused threats throughout their global distribution, including entanglement in shark and fishing nets (e.g. mesh and gill nets),marine debris, and also through loss and degradation of important habitat such as seagrass meadows, unsustainable traditional use and boat strikes). Australian waters are home to at least three-quarters of the global population and are a vitally important stronghold for the species.
Protected dugongs and sea turtles are being cruelly slaughtered in Queensland’s Torres Strait to supply an illegal meat trade, an investigation by ABC’s 7.30 report has found.
The program has aired confronting footage that shows the brutal methods used to hunt the animals, with turtles being butchered alive and dugongs drowned as they are dragged behind boats. The investigation throws into sharp relief the conflict between Indigenous Australians and animal rights activists over traditional hunting methods and exposes a black market in animal meat.
Activist Rupert Imhoff spent a fortnight in the Torres Strait, filming the hunting of the turtles and dugongs, both listed as vulnerable to extinction. He used a secret camera to film scenes of animal cruelty, including the slow death of a sea turtle. “It didn’t actually die
until they took off the bottom shell, actually peeled off the shell,” he said.
Read and watch video …
Indigenous elders agree to changes in cruelty laws that LNP are committed to changing.
Turtles and Dugong
Traditional hunting occurs in far-flung places that policing the practice is “diabolically difficult” without co-operation of indigenous communities, federal Environment Minister Tony Burke says. The Queensland government ordered an immediate investigation into allegations of cruelty, after confronting footage was aired showing hunters on the Torres Strait slaughtering a turtle and dugong. Mr Burke backed Bligh government’s investigation, but an election promise by Queensland’s Liberal National Party to close a loophole in the state’s cruelty legislation was unlikely to make a difference on the ground.”Allowing local community leadership is more respectful — it’s more decent and it’s the only method that has half a chance of having outcomes on the ground,” Mr Burke said, adding that many communities already had self-imposed hunting restrictions.
“Unless the LNP are promising a massive injection of enforcement funds, I don’t see how changing the law actually makes a difference on the ground. “I’ve acknowledged that the remoteness of the area makes the law diabolically difficult to enforce without co-operation of communities.” Traditional hunting is enshrined as a right under the federal Native Title Act. Since footage aired on ABC TV, there has been a political stoush about which level of government could stop alleged cruelty to hunted animals.
The LNP plans to scrap an exemption for traditional hunting in state animal welfare legislation, which it says would allow for criminal prosecution for cruelty.? Former Premier Anna Bligh has said that would not work because it would be overridden by federal law. In March 2012, a spokeswoman for the federal Attorney-General’s Department said it would depend on the “nature and terms of the amendment” proposed. “The Queensland act could only be amended in a way that does not conflict with the Native Title Act,” she said. The spokeswoman confirmed the federal law did not refer to cruelty.
Biosecurity Queensland says no-one will be charged following allegations of cruelty to turtles and dugongs aired on the ABC earlier this year. However, Thanks to the efforts of Animals Australia supporters and other caring Australians the Queensland government has removed animal cruelty exemptions for ‘traditional’ hunting of turtles and dugongs.
The $2.6 m plan, to boost indigenous ranger programs to stop illegal and turtle poaching, and for programs to clean up marine debris, was among several green policies announced by the Queensland Coalition in Cairns in October this year.
This is a huge win for turtles and dugongs in Far North Queensland, who will now be fully protected under the Animal Care and Protection Act and spared the suffering caused by cruel ‘traditional’ hunting methods.
- We support Native Title for indigenous peoples, but this does not over-ride animal welfare and mean that ocean animals are resources for human use, and thus need to endure torture, torment and killings.
- Dugongs are threatened by sea grass habitat loss or degradation because of coastal development or industrial activities that cause water pollution. The status of animals as Endangered needs to make extinguish Native Title.
- The traditional custodians of this land need to be made responsible for the protection of native animals, and ensure their humane treatment and survival. They should be funded as such to quash the black-market in dugong and turtle meat.
- There should be no fishing or nets in Dugong territories, and their seagrass feeding grounds need to be protected habitats.