Dugong dreams

Julian Cribb | VOLUME 23, ISSUE 2

In an imaginative approach to community renewal, a Thai scientist is using the dugong as the centerpiece of his campaign.

For 12 years, biologist Pisit Charnsnoh has battled to save the dugong from extinction in Thailand’s coastal waters. As he sees it, the dugong’s decline and the hardships suffered by small fishing villages along the Thai peninsula stem from the same problem: the loss of coastal ecosystems.

His imaginative remedy is to teach the villagers to know and love the dugong, then involve them in local projects to restore its coastal habitat – for the benefit of the dugong itself, other marine species and the people who make their living from the sea. For a project that is bringing benefits to the environment and local people alike, Pisit Charnsnoh received world recognition when he became an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2004.

Charnsnoh graduated from Khon-Khaen University in 1969, determined to use his newly acquired knowledge to help Thailand’s rural poor. “I didn’t want to work in a government office,” he says. “I wanted to work with the local people.”

In 1985, he moved south with his family to his wife’s home village on the Andaman Sea coast of Trang Province. There, he founded his own environmental organisation, the Yadfon(Raindrop) Association. Yadfon’s first initiative was to involve fishing communities in restoringa94-hamangrove forest. In the past 50 years, half of Thailand’s mangrove forests have been destroyed, for timber or charcoal production or to make room for prawn farms.

Mangrove forests are vital to the ecosystems of the world’s tropical coastal areas. By trapping nutrient-rich sediments from coastal rivers and streams, mangroves sustain diverse communities of fish and crustaceans. Loss of the mangroves increases sediment and nutrient runoff into coastal waters, clouding the water, killing coral and overturning delicate food webs.


In southern Thailand’s clear inshore waters, beyond the mangrove zone, sunlight fuels the growth of lush seagrass pastures for grazing dugongs. They also provide food and habitat for the fish, crabs, prawns and molluscs that feed and sustain the economies of the local fishing villages. By absorbing residual nutrients, seagrass also protects nearby coral reefs against overgrowth by algae, creating the opportunity for tourism.

But large trawlers fishing illegally in the inshore zone have scoured the seabed, destroying the seagrass and combining with murky runoff from the land to cloud the water. The loss of the seagrass meadows, combined with treacherous floating gill nets, has taken a heavy toll on the dugong.

The Dugong dugon, to give it its official name, is one of three surviving species of an ancient group of marine mammals, the Sirenia. Exclusively herbivorous, dugongs grow to 3.5m and 400kg, and can live for up to 70 years. Females do not breed until their second decade, pregnancy lasts 13 months and the young may suckle for two years. To maintain a stable population, 95 per cent of adults must survive each year.

Over 20 years, some 75 dead dugongs have washed up on the southern Thai coast – probably a fraction of the real toll. Most had drowned in gill nets. A few were killed by large fishing boats or tourist vessels; others probably succumbed to stress or starvation caused by noise, pollution and the destruction of their habitat.


For the past 10 years, Charnsnoh and his five Yadfon staff have been working with villagers to replant Trang Province’s mangrove forests. “The mangrove forests were in poor condition, so people asked the government for permission to manage them,” says Charnsnoh. “Compared with nearby mangrove forests managed by the government, they’re getting better and better. People are happy with these activities, and they’re also protecting the seagrass meadows in front of the mangrove forests, because they have learned from our seminars that large areas of seagrass bring them more fish and crabs.”

Villagers now mark out the seagrass pastures to keep commercial fishing boats out. Subsistence fishing is still permitted, but destructive practices like trawling and push-netting are forbidden. Dugong numbers are increasing in the restored areas.

The dugong has become a symbol of the improving coastal environment of Trang Province but, for Charnsnoh, it is also a practical instrument for protecting the coastal environment and tackling poverty.

Thai bureaucracy shows scant interest in the plight of coastal communities because poverty is common in the region. But it heeds requests to protect the vulnerable dugong, which is protected by national legislation and Thailand’s signature on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). So Charnsnoh chose the large marine mammal as the flagship for his campaign to take Yadfon’s conservation message to eight other Thai provinces where dugongs survive.

He is using his Rolex Award to fund the campaign to reach 15,600 villagers in 52 fishing communities and 5800 students in schools and colleges. He has also established a national network of community groups and NGOs that work with government agencies to develop projects to protect mangroves and local seagrass beds for the dugongs’ benefit.

“We help people to understand and love the dugong,” says Charnsnoh. “They are then motivated to protect its habitat, and as the habitat improves, the number of fish increases, and so people earn more income.”

The Rolex Awards

The Rolex Awards for Enterprise encourage a spirit of enterprise in visionary individuals around the world, providing the financial support and recognition for projects that advance human knowledge and well-being.

The Awards are presented every two years in five areas: Science and Medicine, Technology and Innovation, Exploration and Discovery, The Environment and Cultural Heritage. However, a project may be submitted in almost any field of endeavour, provided it contributes to the betterment of humankind. Anyone of any age, from any country or background, is eligible to apply for an award.

Five Laureates – those who present the most exceptional projects – each receive US$100,000 and a specially inscribed, gold Rolex chronometer at an official awards ceremony. Five runners-up, the Associate Laureates, each receive $US35,000, as well as a steel-and-gold Rolex chronometer.

For more information about the awards visit: www.rolexawards.com, or for an application kit tel: (02) 9251 8988.

Creature Features