Herds of dugongs, or sea cows, once grazed extensive seagrass meadows along Thailand’s southern coastline. Today the large, shy, slow-moving marine mammals that some people believe to be the fabled mermaids of sailors’ tales are rarely seen here — only about 200 frequent the warm waters around the Thai peninsula.
For the past 10 years, Thai biologist Pisit Charnsnoh, 60, has campaigned to save the dugong from extinction in Thai coastal waters. For him, the dugong’s decline and the hardships of life in the small fishing villages along the Thai peninsula are symptoms of the same problem: the destruction of coastal ecosystems. His enterprising remedy is to teach the villagers to know and love the dugong, then involve them in local projects to restore its coastal habitat, for the benefit of the dugong itself, other marine species and the people who rely on them for their living.
For this project that will bring benefits to the environment and to the local people, Pisit Charnsnoh has been selected as an Associate Laureate.
Helping His Community
Charnsnoh graduated from Khon-Khaen University in 1969, determined to use his newly acquired knowledge to help Thailand’s rural poor. "I didn’t want to work in a government office," he says. "I wanted to work with the local farmers."
His first job was with the Foundation for Thailand Rural Reconstruction, one of Thailand’s first non-governmental organisations, raising levels of health, education and self-government for rice farmers 200km north of Bangkok.
In 1978 he left the foundation because of political tension with the then military-dominated government. He moved to the north of Thailand to work on a joint leadership-training project run by a non-governmental organisation and an educational institute.
In 1985 he decided to move south with his family to his wife’s home village on the Andaman Sea coast of Trang Province. There, he founded his own environmental organisation, the Yadfon (Raindrop) Association.
Restoring the Mangroves
Yadfon’s first initiative was to involve fishing communities in restoring a 94-hectare mangrove forest. In the past 50 years, about 50 per cent of Thailand’s mangrove forests has been destroyed, either for timber or charcoal production or to make room for shrimp farms.
Mangrove forests are vital elements of the ecosystems of coastal areas worldwide. Yadfon and Charnsnoh, along with journalist Alfredo Quarto, played a key role in the establishment in 1992 of the Mangrove Action Project, a network of 800 organisations and 250 scientists from 60 countries dedicated to protecting mangrove forests.
By trapping nutrient-rich sediments from coastal rivers and streams, mangroves sustain diverse communities of fish and crustaceans. Loss of the mangroves increases sediment and nutrient inflows into coastal waters, upsetting the delicate balance of a complex ecosystem.
In southern Thailand’s clear inshore waters beyond the mangrove zone, sunlight fuels the growth of lush seagrass pastures for grazing dugongs. The pastures also provide food and habitat for the fish, crabs, prawns and molluscs that feed and sustain the economies of the local fishing villages. By absorbing residual nutrients, seagrass protects nearby coral reefs against overgrowth by algae.
Large trawlers fishing illegally in the inshore zone have exacerbated the problems caused by mangrove loss; their push-nets scour the seabed, destroying seagrass and clouding the water. The destruction of the seagrass pastures, combined with fishermen’s treacherous floating gill nets, have taken a heavy toll on dugong numbers.
Dugongs Under Threat
The Dugong dugon is one of three surviving species of an ancient group of marine mammals, the Sirenia. Exclusively herbivorous, dugongs grow to 5m and 400kg, and can live for up to 70 years. But females do not breed until their second decade, pregnancy lasts 13 months and the young may suckle for two years. Merely maintaining a stable population requires 95 per cent of adults to survive every year.
Between 1979 and 1998, 75 dead dugongs washed up on the southern Thailand coast. Charnsnoh believes these figures are a substantial underestimate. Most had drowned in gill nets. A few were killed by large fishing boats or tourist vessels; others probably succumbed to stress or starvation caused by noise, pollution and habitat destruction.
For the past 10 years, Charnsnoh and his five Yadfon staff have been working with villagers to replant Trang Province’s mangroves. "The mangrove forests were in poor condition, so people asked the government for permission to manage them," says Charnsnoh. "Compared with nearby mangrove forests managed by the government, they’re getting better and better. People are happy with these activities, and they’re also protecting the seagrass meadows in front of the mangrove forests, because they have learned from our seminars that large areas of seagrass bring them more fish and crabs."
Villagers now mark out the seagrass pastures to keep commercial fishing boats out — fishing is still permitted, but destructive practices like push-netting are forbidden. Dugong numbers are increasing in the restored areas.
The dugong has become a symbol of the improving coastal environment of Trang Province, but, for Charnsnoh, it is also a practical instrument for protecting the area and improving people’s lives.
Protected by Legislation
Thai bureaucrats sometimes show little interest in the plight of impoverished coastal communities because poverty is common here. But they listen to requests to save the vulnerable dugong — it is protected by national legislation and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
So Charnsnoh has chosen the large, marine mammal as the flagship for his two-year campaign to take Yadfon’s message to eight other provinces where dugongs survive.
He will use his Rolex Award to fund the campaign that aims to reach 15,600 villagers in 52 fishing communities and 5,800 students in schools and colleges.
He plans to establish a national network of community groups and associations that will work with government agencies to develop projects to protect mangroves and local seagrass beds. He will use workshops and lectures by dugong experts to make villagers, students and the public aware of the dugong’s plight.
"We help people to understand and love the dugong," says Charnsnoh. "They are then motivated to protect its habitat, and as the habitat improves, the number of fish increases, and people earn more income."
Published in 2004