Delayed ban a death sentence for Thai dugongs
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has finally woken up to the plight of critically endangered dugongs by turning Marium, the nation's sweetheart, into a poster child.
Cared for since April after being found abandoned by its mother, Marium died on Saturday of an infection exacerbated by ingesting marine plastic waste. Just hours after her death, Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa announced a national dugong conservation master plan dubbed "Marium Action".
The plan entails symbolic activities such as the nomination of Aug 17 as National Dugong Day and the preservation of Marium's body for educational and awareness-raising purposes.
Meriting more attention, however, is the plan's "1+11 Dugong Project" to create 12 dugong conservation zones modelled after Koh Libong in Trang province, where Marium was cared for.
Sea-grass habitats on which dugongs graze will be expanded in the conservation zones while certain kinds of fishing gear, including drag nets, will be banned.
Certain fishing methods have been blamed for causing deaths of dugongs. Some 90% of dugongs that become entangled in fishing nets die.
The most interesting aspect of the Marium Action project is that it will be driven by local people while officials play a supportive role. For example, fishermen will decide what types of fishing gear to ban and will monitor compliance.
One remark made by Mr Varawut was particularly significant: "The conservation of dugongs must not create an economic burden on local people. Conservation does not mean prohibition. It must come from one's acknowledgment and appreciation of the value [of dugongs]. Conservation of dugongs can only be achieved with the participation of local people," he said.
Indeed, local fisherfolk have done a remarkable job in protecting dugongs. The best example comes from Koh Libong, the country's largest dugong sanctuary.
Of the 250 dugongs believed to be living in Thai waters, 200 inhabit the sea around Koh Libong. Apart from its rich sea-grass meadows, Koh Libong has become a precious sanctuary for dugongs because of conservation efforts by local fishermen over the past three decades.
The Yadfon Association, one of the country's highly reputed conservation groups, has meanwhile played a key role in the preserving the dugong population in Trang.
A number of researchers have visited Trang to study the conservation model and learn from local people. Dugongs are also woven into the local culture, celebrated as characters in traditional likay stage performances.
The people-centred aspect of Marium Action reveals a change in the ministry's approach to conservation.
In 2014, the ministry's Marine and Coastal Resources Department launched a project to tag dugongs with satellite-tracked devices for research. The project sparked concern among local people and conservationists about health and well-being of the duguongs. They also said the ministry failed to inform them before implementing the project. After a month-long protest by local fishermen, the ministry finally bowed to their demand that the tagging project be scrapped.
The ministry perhaps learned from that experience that conservation efforts don't function well without the cooperation of local people. This time round, I believe the ministry's dugong conservation will yield results.
While the ministry deserves a thumbs-up, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's response to the dugongs' plight was dramatic but also disappointing.
After Marium's death, Gen Prayut on Tuesday vowed the government's inclusive development policy would also cover animals. "The government will not leave anyone behind -- and that includes animals, not just humans," he said.
To prove his love of animals, he told the Marine and Coastal Resources Department that "Yamil", a rescued baby dugong under its care since July, must not die.
However, Gen Prayut failed to capitalise on the moment by rolling out an immediate ban on single-use plastic bags. Instead, he delayed the move until 2022, meaning Thailand lags behind many countries which have already banned single-use plastic bags and straws.
Some may ask what difference three years will make. Think of this: Each year, about 90 tonnes of waste, most of it plastic, is dumped into Thailand's seas.
About 80% of the trash in seas is generated on land.
So, waiting for another three years means allowing hundreds more tonnes of plastic waste to flow into our seas, risking the life and health of dugongs and other marine animals.
Anchalee Kongrut is an assistant news editor of the Bangkok Post.
Assistant News Editor
Bangkok Post's Assistant News Editor