6 drones on mission to save Krishna’s sea cows
India is scrambling to protect its critically endangered dugongs with the help of the unmanned aerial technology i.e. drones. Dugong, the only marine herbivorous mammal, also finds mention in the Indian mythology as Lord Krishna’s humble sea cow.
Being imported from New Zealand, six drones — that can be used in air and under sea — will be pressed into service in Gulf of Mannar (Tamil Nadu), Gulf of Kutch (Gujarat) and Andaman & Nicobar to keep a tab on the movement and habitat of dugongs whose population has sharply declined to less than 200 due to entanglement in fishing nets, killing for for its meat, speeding boat strikes and depleting seagrass bed.
“With a population of 100, the Gulf of Mannar has the highest number of dugongs. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands follow with 50-60 of them, while the Gulf of Kutch, where a live dugong has not been seen in the last 7-8 years, might have as few as 10 individuals,” said Dr K Sivakumar, research scientist and dugong expert at the Dehradun-based Wildlife Institute of India (WII) which is executing the project.
“We have already placed the order for drones which will help in high-resolution mapping besides gathering terrain and vegetation information about the mammal and their habitat,” he added.
Each drone having high specifications is suitable for taking photographs underwater too and will cost around Rs 2 lakh each.
Dugong — protected under the Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 — has also been declared vulnerable by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The WII expert explained why saving these mammals, which can grow up to 3 metres in length and weigh up to 500 kilograms is vital for the marine ecosystem.
“Dugongs are important for the health of sea grass which uses sunlight to absorb nutrients from the ocean floor.
These nutrients would otherwise be locked down there forever if there were no Dugongs. They graze the sea grass beds turning the grass into digestible fibre for small fish.
“Sea Cow excrement is actually the only way small fish can get all sorts of proteins and fibres, which would otherwise be inaccessible to them (they cannot eat raw sea grass). Most of these fishes are the source of income of our fishermen and their families,” said Dr Sivakumar.
In a nutshell, he said, Dugong conservation is nothing but coastal conservation. After the drone project gets underway, there are plans to tag at least 10 Dugongs so that they can be closely monitored. While Dugongs are an important chain in the marine ecosystem to ensure livelihood of the fishermen community, it is mentioned in the Indian mythology too. “It is believed that when Lord Krishna’s Dwarka sank under the ocean on the coast of Gujarat, Krishna did not forget his holy cows that were living in the temple gardens. He converted them into Sea Cows so that they can live in the sea as well,” said Dr Sivakumar.
Conservation of Dugong is part of the Union Environment Ministry’s endangered species recovery plan launched in 2015. As per the plan, aerial surveys have been undertaken to locate their hideouts. Now to keep a tab on their movement, drones are being used.
Experts feel that getting the fishermen and local community besides coastguards on the side of the Dugongs is the only way to protect the mammal. “An initiative has been taken. In Tamil Nadu, where Dugongs are hunted for their meat, youth from the fishing community have been sensitised to watch over their population. We have also launched Dugong scholarship scheme for school students from the fishing community to give information about the Dugongs, if strayed on beaches,” said Dr Sivakumar.
BC Choudhary, scientific adviser to the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), said that propeller-driven vehicles are also a big threat. Pollutants released by coastal industries can also damage sea grass beds and the Dugong’s reproductive system. Gillnets used by fishermen are the worst killers, added Sivakumar.
Of the three populations in Indian waters, Sivakumar feels those found in the Gulf of Mannar have the best chance of surviving and breeding. “That is because this area has the best sea grass meadows. In the Andaman & Nicobar area, the sea grass is very patchy and cannot support a big population. If even some individuals there are killed, the entire population could be wiped out. And in the Gulf of Kutch, there is a huge problem of industrial pollution,” he explains.
MS Negi, ADG (Wildlife) in the Environment Ministry said status of sea grass meadows including composition, the threats, the need for monitoring the population, conservation and management imperatives and awareness and capacity building are part of the Dugong recovery plan.
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