Saving Mermaids in the Davao Gulf

Once-sizeable herds of Dugongs once plied the Philippine archipelago. (Jurgen Freund)
Long regarded as Sirenas or Mermaids by the mariners of old, gentle Dugongs (Dugong dugon) inhabit shallow waters of the Coral Triangle, wherever seagrass is most abundant.

These harmless, couch-sized creatures grow to three meters and tip the scales at over 400 kilograms. Alternatively known as Sea Cows, they spend up to eight hours grazing on seagrass. Females give birth to a single calf each three to five years. Calves stay with their mothers for about two years and communicate with their mothers via curious chirps. Slow moving and possessed of poor eyesight, only their size protects them from predators.

Sizeable herds of Dugong once plied the Philippine archipelago until hunting and habitat degradation reduced overall numbers. Small pockets now hold out in Southern Mindanao, Palawan and Isabela - keeping seagrass meadows cropped, healthy and productive.

Dugongs are thought to live up to 70 years, but rarely grow this old. They are classified by the IUCN as Vulnerable and are protected under DENR Administrative Order No. 55, Series of 1991. It is one of the flagship species that the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) protects in the Philippines.

Leading wireless services provider Smart Communications recently partnered with WWF to encourage citizens to help save Dugongs and the other charismatic creatures of the Davao Gulf. Last June, the wireless leader launched its Text-to-Donate service, an SMS-based donation platform that empowers over 46 Million Smart and Talk 'N Text subscribers to easily contribute to WWF's biodiversity conservation programs via mobile phones.

Funds raised through this platform will be used by WWF-Philippines in their efforts to rehabilitate and preserve the Davao Gulf, which is a known habitat for Dugongs.

"A lot of Filipinos are naturally caring and protective of our country's environment and native creatures. They are willing to help but they do not know how," says Mon Isberto, head of Smart's Public Affairs Group. "Smart's Text-to-Donate is an accessible, simple and quick way to do their share and with a partner like WWF, they are assured that their donations will be put to good use."

Smart and Talk 'N Text subscribers can make a one-time donation for as low as five pesos or as much as PHP1000. To donate, they only need to text WWF to 4483. Valid values are 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, 300, 500 and 1000. The donated amount will be deducted from the subscriber's prepaid load or be billed to the account if user is a post-paid subscriber.

Subscribers may also choose to give regular donations with just one text by texting WWF ON to 4483. A PHP5 donation will be deducted from or billed to the subscriber every 20 days.

WWF-Philippines Vice-Chair and CEO Lory Tan says Davao Gulf ranks as one of the priority conservation areas of the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Eco-region. "It is a breeding and nursery ground for small and large pelagic species, with frequent Dugong sightings. Sadly, the Davao Gulf is being threatened by the very economic activities it supports."

WWF-Philippines' Davao Gulf conservation and protection programs are being implemented in conjunction with the initiatives of the Davao Gulf Management Council composed of five coastal cities and 18 coastal municipalities surrounding the Davao Gulf.

The Dugong is the fourth member of the order Sirenia, alongside the three manatee species. A fifth, the gigantic 8-meter long Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas) was completely wiped out in 1768, just 30 years after being discovered.

Says Tan, "Environmental exploitation by humans is a consequence of growing poverty. Fish yields have decreased, leading many to adopt destructive fishing methods in order to survive. Dugong populations have dwindled due to boat propeller accidents and fishnet-caused drowning. Through the passion and zeal of Smart subscribers - the delightful Dugongs of the Davao Gulf might just be spared such a fate."
For more information:

Kim Ang
Corporate Relations Manager, WWF-Philippines

Gregg Yan
Communications & Media Manager, WWF-Philippines