Sunday, August 02, 2009

Dugong Hunter Turns Protector

Nguyen Van Khanh used to be known as "The Dugong Slayer of Phu Quoc"

The 44 year-old fisherman learned how to fish dugong from his father when he was 19. Since that time, he has caught about 200 dugongs weighing from 150-800 kg (~300-1600 lbs). His father, who was also a famous dugong hunter on Phu Quoc island, Vietnam, caught even more dugongs during his lifetime. "If my family caught 500 dugongs alone, then Phu Quoc fishermen must have caught into the thousands," said Khanh, who long longer hunts dugong. Photo from

The IUCN Red List has classified the dugong as "vulnerable to extinction", primarily due to overhunting, pollution, and unsustainable development. The mammal has already disappeared from several of its natural habitats. But, the dugong's endangered status is only part of the reason why Khanh stopped hunting the endangered cousin to the manatee.

Khanh says he stopped hunting dugong in 2002 due to a more personal experience. "I saw a baby dugong squealing, like it was crying, while watching its mother entangled in our net. The mother couldn’t do anything but stare back at its child with sad eyes." Although he had heard about the marine mammal's "deep maternal love" since he started hunting, Khanh had never experienced it first-hand. "I then swore not to hunt dugong anymore."

The southwestern Mekong Delta province of Kien Giang, which includes Phu Quoc, has banned the hunting of dugong and other rare species. Khanh now works for a World Wild Life Fund marine conservation project on the island. He spends his days visiting local villages to help increase awareness of the dugong's endangered and protected status. Although many fishermen stopped hunting dugong after the ban, some still take dugongs illegally. "I advise any person who is still hunting for dugongs to quit," said Khanh. "Some listen to me, but others get angry with me, saying I’m poking my nose into their business ...but I’m not discouraged, because this is how I pay my debt to the sea."

Poaching continues to be a serious problem for sirenians (manatees & dugongs) in poor countries around the world where they are hunted for their bones, tusks and meat. In Vietnam, a pair of tusks can bring the equivalent of $500-$900 US dollars. In Ghana, one West African manatee can sell for the equivalent of a year's income and similar situations exist in Central and South America for West Indian and Amazonian manatees.

Because manatees and dugongs are long-lived, have a low reproductive rates, and long generation times, females investment a great deal of energy in each offspring. Calves remain with their mothers for up to two years, nursing and learning to navigate among activity areas suitable for feeding, resting, mating, and giving birth. In some cases, this includes long migration routes.

Even under the most optimistic conditions (e.g. no human-induced mortality) a sirenian population is likely to increase at no more than 5% per year. This makes manatees and dugongs extremely vulnerable to over-exploitation. For example, Steller's sea cow, another member of the Dugongidae Family, was hunted to extinction in 1768, just 27 years after it was discovered by modern man in the Commander Islands of the North Pacific.

The modern dugong’s range spans at least 48 countries and an estimated 140,000 km (~87,000 mi) of coastline in the Pacific and Indian Oceans from Okinawa, Japan, to Mozambique, East Africa. Although the total size of the global population is unknown, local populations are thought to be declining in at least one third of the range.

Sirenian International is dedicated to the long-term conservation of manatee and dugong populations and our shared aquatic habitats around the world through research, educational outreach, and capacity building. You can read more about the dugong project we supported in Con Dao, Vietnam online, just click the hyperlink above. And please remember us when budgeting for your charitable donations. Adopt a Mermaid Ambassador or Donate online at View great photos of dugongs and dugong hunting activities by Doug Perrine online at

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