Famine threatens Australia's gentle sea cows

Extreme weather has destroyed the dugong's feeding grounds – just the latest menace facing this already endangered species

A A A

An underwater famine is posing the latest threat to one of Australia's most endangered marine species, the dugong, which lives entirely on sea grass. At least 100 have starved to death in recent months and many more are likely to follow in the absence of their only food source.

Torrential rain and storms, including Cyclone Yasi earlier this year, have destroyed vast swathes of sea grass from northern Queensland to the New South Wales border. More than 1,000 miles of coastline which once provided the perfect habitat for these oddly shaped and gentle creatures are now denuded of the dugong's natural foodstuff.

Known as sea cows because of their total dependency on sea grass, numbers have plummeted over the past decade as they struggle to cope with extreme weather conditions, escalating industrial activity, and hunting by indigenous fishermen. Turtles, too, have fallen victim to the seagrass famine with several hundred reported washed up dead along the coastline.

"This is a national environmental disaster," says Professor Ellen Ariel, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townsville. "What's happening now is they have nothing to eat and it's not going to change in any way soon. Sea grass takes between two to three years to recover, if there are no other extreme weather events in the meantime."

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is similarly concerned, recently launching a campaign to protect dugong and green turtles which it predicts will die in record numbers. Forced to stray from their regular foraging areas in search of food, the two species are much more vulnerable to disease, injury and death. A major industrial development at Gladstone on the mid-Queensland coast is also increasing pressure on the marine habitat.

A multi-billion pound gas processing plant on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef has already attracted criticism. Last month Unesco's world heritage committee expressed its extreme concern at the Queensland and federal government's backing of the project. For her part, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has pledged to make a comprehensive assessment of the plant's environmental impact.

In addition to climatic and industrial threats to the dugong population, indigenous fishermen have also been accused of endangering the species. Next month a television campaign will be launched by animal activists who believe Australia's Native Title laws are allowing the "uncontrolled" and "unmonitored slaughter" of dugongs and turtles. Australians For Animals has accused some aboriginal groups of "appalling cruelty".

Campaign organiser Colin Riddell says: "We have a confirmed report of a dugong calf being tied to the back of a boat, its cries bringing in the mother so they can both be killed. We have reports in our office of indigenous groups going out in motor boats with a GPS to find dugongs. Once found, they radio their mates and entire pods of dugongs are slaughtered."

Dugong hunting has been an accepted part of Australia's indigenous culture for thousands of years. Their ivory and bones are used in traditional crafts and their meat, which is said to be similar to high quality beef, is regarded as a delicacy. The Native Title Act allows dugongs to be caught by aborigines for personal, domestic or non-commercial needs, but, according to Mr Riddell, some are being sold for profit. He claims the meat sells for nearly £100 a kilo and is even being exported.

Now he is urging the government to call a moratorium on dugong hunting until population numbers are established. "I don't have a problem with Native Title hunting if it's done sustainably," he insists. "But let's just see how many are left."

The dugong's placid nature and slow swimming style make it easy prey for predators. Spending their entire life at sea, they swim by moving their broad spade-like tail in an up an down motion and by the use of their two flippers. The large grey mammals which are up to 10ft long, can live for decades but take time to reach sexual maturity and do not breed rapidly. Without the sea grass they will simply starve to death.

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone