“A dead whale? Washed up in Antsanaranasoa bay?” Within minutes, a mob of villagers, armed with axes and buckets, was sprinting through the spiny forest, effortlessly hurdling knee-high thorny shrubs, in a race to procure enough fish bait to last a week. When they arrived at the beach, they clambered across the rocks, falling over and injuring themselves as they scoured them for the carcass. It was a false alarm, however: the beach was empty. The villagers angrily returned home and woke up the fisherman who had raised the alarm, demanding an explanation. Unruffled, the fisherman pointed out that the village was the victim of a particularly inventive game of Chinese Whispers.
“I was free diving in the seagrass meadow, looking for Murex shells,” he explained. “I looked up and there was a huge pig-like animal snuffling in the sand, right next to me.” He had never seen anything like it, he added. Afterwards, the fisherman came home, mentioned the bizarre creature to his wife, and fell asleep. “Someone must have overheard me and got the story wrong, but it’s not my fault,” he pointed out.
What the fisherman might have seen was a dugong, otherwise known as a sea cow. Dugongs are the only herbivorous, truly marine mammal in the world. They can put away as much as 40 kilos of seagrass every day, rooting up the rhizomes that lie beneath the sand with sharp incisors. They are only found in the calm waters of lagoons and bays, and are prisoners of their sluggish metabolism, unable to generate enough heat to colonise the cool waters found outside the tropics. According to village elders, dugongs used to be common in the seagrass meadows south of Andavadoaka. In fact, the name of a nearby village in the Bay of Assassins, Lamboara, means “dugong” in the local language, Vezo (“lambo” means pig, “hara” coral). Now, however, they are now extremely rare – so rare, in fact, that even experienced fishermen no longer recognize them. The decline is partly due to hunting, but also because the dugong’s primary habitat, seagrass, is under threat. The world’s seagrass meadows are shrinking at an unprecedented rate: between 1980 and 2006, seagrass meadows disappeared at a rate of 7 per cent of their total global area per year, an annual loss of 110 km2 and 14 per cent of all seagrass species are at an elevated risk of extinction (Short et al., 2011).
Still, it’s wonderful to know that there might be some hope for dugongs in Velondriake.