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Likhulu participates in a Special Dugong session at WIOMSA 12th Scientific Symposium

Crowds were never my thing. In fact, I consider them as one of my most unhappy places. Nevertheless, duty required Likhulu’s participation at the 12th WIOMSA Scientific Symposium, and so I waded through close on a thousand bodies in Port Elisabeth’s boardwalk Convention Centre, aiming for a quiet corner to hide in while I tried to locate Tom. We had scheduled a side meeting to discuss Likhulu’s potential collaboration with the Pew Charitable Trust, and were now searching for one another in a sea of mostly scientific faces. Add another reason to shift me out of my comfort zone- I’m not really a scientist. Academics in general, quite often make me feel pea-brained.

I finally spotted Tom and we shook hands, waiting for Stacy to join us. Our introduction was easy and uncomplicated, and in no time, we had our phones out- admiring pictures of each other’s dogs. It’s remarkably easy to like people who are equally, if not more, mad about their pets. Needless to say, our initial meeting went well, and we wrapped up over a sundowner.

The following day required a little less courage, since the crowd would be dispersed into groups of no more than 40 – 50 bodies across several lecture rooms at the Nelson Mandela University Ocean Science Campus for numerous special sessions. Nonetheless, I wasn’t entirely at ease. But by considering the fact that I had worked with Dugongs in Mozambique for the last decade, I managed to overcome my lingering trepidation of being surrounded by science brains. At this point, I resolutely made my way to the “Progressing Dugong and seagrass conservation” room with the help of a friendly volunteer who issued directions to those of us looking lost. Gabriel Grimsditch, who was chairing our session as the Coordinator of the CMS Dugong MOU, walked in seconds later looking flustered, followed by Genaye Domenico from Marine Megafauna Foundation. I was instantly celebrity-struck by Gabriel- having read so many of his papers. But to my astonishment, he was just a regular, easy going and down-to-earth guy, trying desperately to unwrap his plastic-protected roll-up banners before the event started. I volunteered to help, and we each grabbed opposite ends of the torn yet stubborn bubble-wrap and pulled. In terms of practicality and in retrospect, I shake my head in shame. Of course this kind of force would only tighten the plastic. I blame this choice of counterproductive action entirely on Gabriel’s luminary status- which was obviously still affecting me. Coming to my senses, I borrowed a Leatherman from a nearby IT Technician, and did a proper job of liberating the banners. What a great ice-breaker!

The room filled up quickly with familiar Dugong experts- among them Dr. Vic Cockroft and soon to be Dr. Lindsey West (PhD in progress). By the time we were ready for kick-off, and I had met Evan Trotzuk from African Parks- who had invited me to the session some months ago, I finally felt like I was in the right place- mingling with my “tribe”. By the end of the day however, some of this buoyancy had evaporated. The status of Dugongs in the Western Indian Ocean was dire- a lot more serious than I had believed before today. The only significant beacon of hope for the species in terms of viability in east Africa looked to be Mozambique’s population, estimated at between 200 – 400 animals. While I had always suspected this, and most of the available evidence had suggested it, the updated facts were sobering and sad.

My take-home from the session however, focused on how critical it is- now more than ever- to (1) upscale the safe-guarding of Bazaruto’s Dugongs, (2) increase Dugong habitat protection and restoration, (3) improve fisheries governance, (4) develop alternative livelihoods/ livelihood shifts, and (5) expand protected area coverage to include the splinter Dugong group found near Nova Mambone- outside Bazaruto National Park’s current boundaries. These interventions are an indisputable conservation priority for Mozambique, and we’re lucky to have African Parks and MMF involved in rolling-out many of these required actions. Likhulu stands firmly behind this critical work, and will always be available to lend a hand wherever we can help. Many of our hopes also rest on IUCN’s favorable response to our application (driven successfully by Evan) for re-listing East Africa’s Dugongs as a Critically Endangered sub-population.

Gabriel in the meantime, is updating the CMS Dugong Conservation and Management Plan, setting up a Dugong technical expert group, and planning a regional Dugong conservation workshop for 2023. Likhulu applauds the great, and often overlooked work that conservationists in the Western Indian Ocean have undertaken to sustain this sirenian and its carbon-sequestering food source. Keep up the good fight WIO Dugong tribe!