Filming the Palau Dugong. The rarest of the rare.

Palau Dugong
Filming Palau’s rarest wildlife

When it comes to filming wildlife in Palau there has been one species that has been on my bucket list for many years. Estimates suggest that there are only about 200 animals left in the population and they are spread over a huge range. It is large but extremely enigmatic. It has been hunted close to extinction and is now extremely wary of anyone approaching. I am of course referring to the Palau Dugong.

Palau Dugong natural history

The Dugong is one of only two extant vegetarian marine mammals. The other is the Manatee.  The Palau Dugong’s ancestors most likely made the journey across the Philippine Sea from South east Asia possibly tens of thousands of years ago. They found Palau’s sheltered lagoons and huge seagrass beds perfect for living. However once humans settled in Palau their peaceful existence came under threat.

Due to Palau’s large distance from other populations of Dugong the Palauan population is extremely isolated. This is bad for a number of reasons. Firstly  it is extremely unlikely that Dugongs from other Asian or Australasian populations will make the similar crossing to add to the Palau population. This means that the population will not increase due to migration from outside. It is isolated.

It is quite likely that Palau’s population could be descended from a single pregnant female that somehow made the crossing.

Love thy neighbor

Secondly the genetic bottlenecking that results from a population growing from a very limited number of individuals can result in a distinct lack of genetic diversity. This can cause such things as birth defects, low birth rate, higher infant mortality as well as raised incidence of sterility.

Dugong Palau
A small group of Dugong rest in shallow water

So given all those factors, it’s a wonder that there are any Dugongs in Palau at all. The chances of making it this far are stacked against them, yet they have survived. Dugong were traditionally hunted in Palau but the meat was reserved for only the  highest chiefs. Due to declining numbers they have been given protected status and taking of Dugong is now illegal.

So you can see now why being able to film this extremely rare geographically isolated enigmatic creature is a real draw.

Filming the Palau Dugong

I have long been planning on using Drone technology to accomplish something like this. I wrote about using the technology here, but due to the rarity and highly protected status of Palau’s Dugong it was very hard to locate them. That is until a local NGO contacted me about a population in the north of Palau. I leapt at the opportunity of course and we headed out to the area and set about searching.

Dugong have very good hearing and the sound of a boat engine or even the slapping of kayak paddles will have them heading in the opposite direction.

Using drones for conservation filmmaking

By  keeping a large distance between what we suspected was an animal and the boat and flying the gap between, we managed to position the drone over a herd of 15. This sort of number in one area at one time is almost unheard of in contemporary Palau. It gave us valuable insight into a possible local population size and age make-up. The use of a light, reasonably quiet drone allows us to observe these animals relatively closely without disturbing them. This is extremely important in the study of animal behavior. Any disturbance can change the animal’s natural behavior. The gyro stabilized High Resolution cameras available now are perfect for recording footage or taking photos at distances well over 1km from the pilot.

Dugong
The group of 15 included a Mother with a young calf, juveniles and a mature bull.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geographic distribution and behavior

It became apparent that the areas we were sighting them in were predominantly sea grass beds. These areas are only however submerged in less than 1.5 meters of water at high tide. The Dugongs could only access this important feeding area during high tide. As the tide turned and started to recede the Dugong began to swim for deeper water.

It was possible to fly the drone at a low altitude without apparently disturbing the animals. Skin markings and scarring could be seen and enabled individuals to be identified on subsequent surveys. Mothers with their babies, boystrous juveniles and large Bulls could all be seen.

Palau Dugong
This adult bull Dugong can be identified from the white markings on his back
And then they vanished.

Day after day we went out and found no sign. Aerial surveys found other animals like Turtles, mating Stingrays, even the extremely rare Ornate Eagleray, but no Dugong…..

Where had they gone?

Dugong are still being hunted in Palau

A week or so later we hear reports that one has been killed. Parts of it’s body had been hung up far to the south for people to see. It was like a huge macabre shout of “laws don’t apply to us!”

We don’t know where this animal came from. There are other populations that frequent other areas of Palau. Koror and Malakal harbor having one of the highest densities.

It was still a huge blow.

This act however doesn’t go unnoticed. Those responsible are known to the community and like previous occasions of poaching, the culprits will eventually be found out, prosecuted and publicly shamed.

This could have been something beautiful, something so rare it almost defies odds by even existing. It has been killed before it had a chance. Greed and distrust are perpetuated by a few selfish individuals of our species for the sake of a tradition that can no longer be justified. Dugongs are a valuable tourism commodity in other parts of the world. If only those selfish individuals in Palau could realize that.

Further threats to Dugong in Palau

In addition the sea grass feeding area frequented by this population has been proposed as a site for sand dredging. This critical habitat for a huge number of species was actually going to be destroyed so that sand could be acquired to build the airport expansion in Palau. The Environmental Quality Protection Board (EQPB) assessed the site and according to the boat driver on the day they saw 7 Dugong. This is where we came in to document these animals and raise awareness to the potential habitat destruction.

Destruction of habitat used by protected species is prohibited by law in Palau. We await to see what will happen and hope that public conscience is greater than a few individuals greed.

This species hang on to existence. It would be a ecological disaster to loose such an iconic species in Palau and a terrible waste of beautiful animals.

For further information on previous work done to protect the Palau Dugong see here.

For a really good report on the Dugong status in Palau see here.