Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Dugong: a revered marine mammal threatened in Okinawa

The Dugong, with a face only a mother dugong could love, is a gentle marine mammal that lives in the marine saltwater shallows along the coast of Asia, northern Australia, and the east coast of Africa. A kissin' cousin to the manatee, except for its preference for salt water (the manatee prefers brackish water), the dugong suffers many of the same threats as the manatee - loss of habitat from human development, injury from boats, and hunting.

The dugong is listed by the IUCN as vulnerable to extinction and CITES limits or bans trade in dugongs based on the specific population. In Okinawa, Japan, a small, fragile population of 50 that inhabit the shallows near Camp Schwab, a U.S. military air base, have been at risk for years as the U.S. has been working towards expanding the air base, thereby eliminating the dugong's primary feeding area.

Conservation groups have been battling the military on this for several years and it appears to be moving forward to at least a showdown, if not a resolution. While a lawsuit was filed by several conservation groups back in 2003 and awaits its day in federal court, recent progress has been made with a petition/letter campaign from over 400 conservation groups. And last year, a judge issued a ruling that the Department of Defense violated the National Historic Preservation Act, requiring the military to review its impact on the dugong habitat.

But the military is still pressing forward with its plans while the legal process grinds away. If you would like to add your voice in requesting the current administration to reconsider the base expansion in consideration of the dugong - an animal revered and considered sacred by the Okinawan people and listed as a national monument by Japan's federal government - then click here.

“For Okinawans, the dugong compares only to the American bald eagle in terms of cultural and historical significance,” said Takuma Higashionna, a city councilmember from Nago City, Japan.

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