Aligning conservation and research priorities for
proactive species and habitat management: the case
of dugongs Dugong dugon in Johor, Malaysia
LOUISA S. PONNAMPALAM,J.H.FAIRUL IZMAL,KANJANA ADULYANUKOSOL
JILLIAN L. S. OOI and J OHN E. REYNOLDS III
Abstract Conservation eﬀorts use scientiﬁc data to provide
an adaptive framework wherein habitat and wildlife
sustainability can co-exist with human activities. Good
science informs decision-makers and facilitates the devel-
opment of successful conservation approaches. However,
conservation concerns for the dugong Dugong dugon in
South-east Asia are suﬃciently urgent that action must be
taken quickly, even though science has not provided
complete answers to critical questions. In Johor, Malaysia,
aerial surveys were conducted to assess dugong numbers,
dugong high-use areas and overlap of dugong sightings with
areas of seagrass. Dugong distribution included existing
marine parks and locations where known conservation
threats exist. We conclude that the Johor islands may
represent a signiﬁcant congregation site for dugongs in
Peninsular Malaysia, with as many as 20 dugongs recorded
in a single day. The existence of a marine park where the
dugong sightings were most prominent is encouraging but
only 38% of those sightings fell within the boundaries of the
park. Anthropogenic threats need to be assessed and
addressed prior to complex development activities such as
dredging and coastal reclamation for tourism development
in this critical area. We use this case to explore the concept
of advancing species conservation through focused research
and management, particularly where uncertainties exist
because data are scarce.
Keywords Conservation, Dugong dugon, Johor, Malaysia,
This paper contains supplementary material that can be
found online at http://journals.cambridge.org
The dugong Dugong dugon (Sirenia, Dugongidae) has a
range spanning waters of 48 countries, from the
tropical and subtropical shallow coastal habitats of East
Africa to the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf, and eastwards to the
Indo-Paciﬁc region as far as Australia (Marsh, 2008). It is a
seagrass-community specialist with a diet predominantly of
seagrasses, occasionally consuming invertebrates and algae
(Marsh et al., 2011). The dugong is categorized as Vulnerable
on the IUCN Red List (Marsh, 2008), with some popula-
tions greatly diminished, threatened by human activities
and in imminent danger of extirpation (Marsh et al., 2011).
In South-east Asia studies of dugongs have assessed their
relative abundance and threats to the species in Indonesia,
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and East Malaysia (de Iongh
et al., 1998; de Iongh, 1999; Hines et al., 2005,2008,2012;
Tsutsumi et al., 2006; Adulyanukosol et al., 2007; Jaaman
et al., 2008,2009; Rajamani & Marsh, 2010; Rajamani, 2013).
In Peninsular Malaysia dugongs are protected under
the Fisheries Act 1985 Part VI and the Fisheries (Control
of Endangered Species of Fish) Regulations 1999. The
Department of Fisheries formulated a National Plan of
Action for Dugongs in 2011 to protect, conserve and manage
dugongs and their habitats (DOFM, 2011). Additionally,
Malaysia is committed to the Convention on Biological
Diversity, with a target of having 10% of its marine
environment protected by 2020, particularly areas that are
important for threatened species (CBD, 2010). To date ,1%
of Malaysia’s marine area is protected (Bertzky et al.,
2012). Seagrasses are protected only in areas where they fall
within marine parks, and are not included in any national
policies. Strandings of dugongs have been reported
throughout Peninsular Malaysia since the 1940s (e.g.
Gibson-Hill, 1950; Langham, 1974; Mansor et al., 2000)
and the Department of Fisheries has maintained records of
dugong mortality since the 1990s, particularly cases reported
in the Johor Straits (DOFM, 2011). Nonetheless, information
on the dugong in Peninsular Malaysian waters is incomplete
but anecdotal evidence suggests that the species has become
LOUISA S. PONNAMPALAM*(Corresponding author) Institute of Ocean and Earth
Sciences, Universiti Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
J. H. FAIRUL IZMAL The MareCet Research Organization, Shah Alam, Malaysia,
and Environmental Resources Management, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
KANJANA ADULYANUKOSOL Marine and Coastal Resources Research Center,
Upper Gulf, Department of Marine and Coastal Resources, Samut Sakhon,
JILLIAN L. S. OOI Department of Geography, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,
Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
JOHN E. REYNOLDS III Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota, Florida, USA
*Also at: The MareCet Research Organization, 40460 Shah Alam, Malaysia
Received 25 March 2013. Revision requested 15 July 2013.
Accepted 26 November 2013.
©2014 Fauna & Flora International,
, Page 1 of 7 doi:10.1017/S0030605313001580
increasingly rare (Aﬀendi et al., 2005; Zulkiﬂi Poh, 2009;
L.S. Ponnampalam, unpubl. data).
Beginning in 1999 several surveys were conducted to
assess the distribution of dugongs around the Sungai Pulai
and Sungai Johor estuaries (sungai 5river) and islands oﬀ
the east coast of Johor (hereafter referred as the Johor
islands; Fig. 1), as well as the distribution and diversity of
seagrasses in these areas. Aerial surveys for dugongs and
seagrass were conducted during 1999–2008 (Mansor et al.,
2000;Aﬀendi et al., 2005; Ooi et al., 2008) and studies of
dugong feeding trails and community-based monitoring
occurred during 2008–2009 (Zulkiﬂi Poh, 2009; Choo &
Ponnampalam, 2011). Threats to dugongs and their
habitats in Johor are varied and increasing in intensity
(Ponnampalam & Fairul Izmal, pers. obs.). Dugong
carcasses have been reported from parts of Johor’s coastline
and found as bycatch in ﬁshing gear (Aﬀendi et al., 2005;
Choo & Ponnampalam, 2011; L.S. Ponnampalam, unpubl.
data). Dugongs are already extirpated in Mauritius, the
Maldives and Taiwan and are Critically Endangered in
Okinawa, Japan, and in the Gulf of Mannar, between India
and Sri Lanka (Marsh, 2008). Dugongs in Peninsular
Malaysia may also face eventual extirpation if their prime
habitats remain unprotected, with no speciﬁc management
Here we present the results of a systematic aerial survey
conducted around the Johor islands in July 2010. Our main
objectives were to (1) determine the distribution of the
dugong in the archipelago, (2) assess the encounter rate of
dugongs, (3) compare dugong distribution with the extent
of existing marine parks, seagrass habitat and areas with
human activity, and (4) provide conservation and research
recommendations. Our work illustrates how conservation
eﬀorts can commence using available data, existing laws
and policy mechanisms when resources for research are
Aerial surveys were conducted around the Johor islands
and Pulau Seribuat (in the neighbouring state of Pahang;
pulau 5island) for 8consecutive days during 8–15 July 2010
(Fig. 1). The surveys were conducted using a ﬁxed-wing
Cessna 172 aircraft, with two experienced observers on
board, which departed from the Sultan Ismail International
Airport in Senai, Johor. A series of predetermined parallel
line transects, each c. 5–10 km in length and set c. 1km apart,
was designed for the survey (Fig. 1). The transects covered
the leeward sides of each island and included areas where
seagrass beds were known to occur (Aﬀendi et al., 2005;
Ooi et al., 2008,2011b; J.L.S. Ooi, unpubl. data). Funding
constraints prevented coverage of all of the regional inshore
areas and repeated surveys.
Surveys were conducted during high tide each day, for
consistency, at a search speed of 167 km per hour and
altitude of 213 m, in sea states <3on the Beaufort Scale. The
ﬁrst observer sat in the front right seat, next to the pilot, and
the second observer sat in the back seat on the left.
The ﬁrst observer photographed dugongs, using a digital
single-lens reﬂex camera with a 75–300 mm zoom lens,
and the survey search path was recorded using a global
positioning system (GPS). Events that occurred during the
ﬂight (e.g. departure time, start of transect) were recorded
using a digital voice-recorder. When an animal or vessel was
sighted a waypoint was recorded on the GPS unit and the
event recorded on the voice recorder, including information
on group size, behaviour and the size of individuals (e.g.
adult or calf). The ﬂight was terminated when all transects
had been completed or when weather and sighting con-
ditions deteriorated (rain, haze, sea state .Beaufort 3).
Encounter rates were calculated by dividing the total
number of individuals sighted during the whole survey by
the total survey eﬀort (days, distance, time). The distribu-
tions of animals and vessels were plotted in ArcMap v. 10.1
(ESRI, Redlands, USA) and overlaid on known seagrass
0 5 10 20 30 40 km
FIG. 1 The area surveyed for dugongs Dugong dugon around the
islands oﬀthe east coast of Johor, and Pulau Seribuat (in the
neighbouring state of Pahang). Parallel line transects were ﬂown
on the leeward sides of all islands, using a light aircraft. The
rectangle on the inset shows the location of the main map oﬀthe
coast of Peninsular Malaysia.
2 L. S. Ponnampalam et al.
©2014 Fauna & Flora International,
areas and existing marine park boundaries to assess the
extent of overlap.
The transects surveyed covered a total of 2,986.4km of
water, with 17.5hours of observation. There were 93
sightings of dugongs, 22 of which consisted of mother–calf
pairs. The maximum daily counts of dugongs and mother–
calf pairs were 20 individuals and four pairs, respectively
(Fig. 2). The largest group size observed was ﬁve and the
smallest number was one. The daily mean encounter rates
were 15.4dugongs per day, 0.04 dugongs per km and 7.04
dugongs per hour.
Dugongs were sighted around all islands surveyed
(Fig. 3a). The highest concentrations were observed around
Pulau Sibu (n 566,71%) and Pulau Tinggi (n 515,16%;
combined total, n 581,87%; Fig. 3a). Of the total number
of sightings around Pulau Sibu, 41 (62%) were outside the
boundary of the island’s marine park. Sightings of mother–
calf pairs (n 519,21%) were concentrated at Pulau Sibu and
mainly outside its marine park boundary (n 513,68%;
Fig. 3a). Two dugongs were sighted grazing in the seagrass
beds at Pulau Setindan (Fig. 3a), near the site of the
now-halted Mersing Laguna Reclamation development
A total of 178 sightings of green sea turtles Chelonia
mydas were recorded during the surveys, concentrated
over the extensive seagrass meadows of Pulau Sibu and
Pulau Tinggi and extending beyond the boundary of Pulau
Sibu marine park (Fig. 3b). Marine vessels observed were
artisanal ﬁshing boats with single outboard engines, ﬁshing
trawlers, high-speed ferries, cargo tankers and tugboats
with barge (Fig. 3). These were sighted mainly around
Pulau Sibu, Pulau Besar and Pulau Rawa. Artisanal ﬁshing
boats were observed most frequently (1.66 boats per hour),
followed by ﬁshing trawlers (0.97 boats per hour).
Dugongs, habitats and anthropogenic activities
Our results suggest the dugong population in Johor is small,
based on the maximum daily count of only 20 animals in
2,986.4km of surveys. Conversely, few areas in South-east
Asia have more dugongs in such a conﬁned area (e.g. Trang
Province, Thailand; Hines et al., 2005; Tsutsumi et al., 2006)
and the high percentage of calves indicates a reproducing
population. The highest concentrations of dugongs (includ-
ing mother–calf pairs) and sea turtles, particularly oﬀthe
south-west of Pulau Sibu, are attributable to the presence of
seagrass meadows in the area. Ooi et al. (2011a) reported that
the seagrasses Halodule uninervis and Cymodocea serrulata
dominate the seagrass meadows in Pulau Tinggi and the
dominant seagrass in the Pulau Sibu area is H. uninervis
(Ooi et al., 2008). Both species are consumed extensively
by dugongs (Marsh et al., 2011). Seagrass distribution data
are lacking for the surveyed area, especially outside the
Pulau Sibu marine park, where dugong sightings were
concentrated, indicating the need for further surveys of
Of the three main dugong areas in Johor (i.e. Sungai
Pulai and Sungai Johor estuaries and Johor islands; Fig. 1),
the Johor islands appear to be the only area with habitat
suitable for maintaining a viable population of dugongs.
Our ﬁndings and those of Mansor et al. (2000) and Aﬀendi
et al. (2005) indicate that the Johor islands are the site of the
most signiﬁcant congregation of dugongs in Peninsular
Malaysia. Previous seagrass surveys in the Sungai Pulai
estuary (Zulkiﬂi Poh, 2009; Choo & Ponnampalam, 2011)
and the Sungai Johor estuary (Aﬀendi et al., 2005; Ooi et al.,
2008) revealed the presence of dugong feeding trails in areas
with high seagrass biomass. However, these areas are
aﬀected by major developments, including port expansions
and petrochemical facilities, both of which are known to
cause habitat degradation and water pollution and to
threaten marine life (Ralph & Burchett, 1998; Macinnis-Ng
& Ralph, 2003; Wake, 2005; Ng & Song, 2010; Yap & Lam,
2013). Thus, it is unlikely that these areas are sustainable
long-term habitats for the dugongs. The Sungai Pulai
estuary and the mangrove coastline of the Johor Straits are
scheduled for signiﬁcant development under the Iskandar
Malaysia development plan (Iskandar Malaysia, 2011). The
heavily industrialized Sungai Johor estuary area is also
being developed further, to include a deep-water petroleum
reﬁnery (Integrated Envirotech, 2012). In interviews local
ﬁshermen from both areas reported low encounter rates
with dugongs since 2004, with encounters mainly
No. of animals sighted
Survey effort (hours)
Dugong mother–calf pairs
FIG. 2 Survey eﬀort and number of sightings of adult dugongs,
dugong mother–calf pairs and sea turtles per day during the
aerial survey oﬀthe east coast of Johor, Malaysia (Fig. 1).
Dugongs in Malaysia 3
©2014 Fauna & Flora International,
involving stranded dead animals (Zulkiﬂi Poh, 2009;
L.S. Ponnampalam, unpubl. data).
In contrast, the Johor islands have experienced a
lower level of human-induced environmental degradation,
partly because of the designated marine parks in the area
and the low levels of development on the islands
(L.S. Ponnampalam, pers. obs.). Given the extensive areas
of seagrass beds, particularly oﬀPulau Sibu and Pulau
Tinggi, the islands are likely to be an important habitat for
dugongs, providing them with safe refuge and an abundant
food supply. However, interviews with ﬁshermen along the
east coast of Johor in 2010 revealed that commercial trawl
ﬁshing takes place illegally within the marine parks of Pulau
Sibu and Pulau Tinggi (L.S. Ponnampalam, unpubl. data),
which is likely to damage or destroy the dugongs’seagrass
habitats (Duarte, 2009). Vessel traﬃc may also pose threats
to dugongs in the study area, although our observations
revealed some degree of separation between dugongs and
vessels. The animals may be at risk from boat strikes and
disturbance, which have already been demonstrated to be an
increasing threat to dugongs in some heavily used water-
ways of Australia (Hodgson & Marsh, 2007). Additionally,
the vicinity of the Johor islands is exposed to the threats of
large-scale coastal development projects, which include
dredging and extensive land reclamation, under the East
Coast Economic Region Master Plan. For example, the
proposed (but cancelled) Mersing Laguna Reclamation in
Mersing Bay was a potential threat to dugongs, the seagrass
beds in the area and the general environment (Erftemeijer &
Lewis, 2006; Wang et al., 2010). Our survey results show that
the proposed reclamation area may be a tide-inﬂuenced
feeding ground for dugongs, as reported for dugongs
in Australia (Sheppard et al., 2009). As such, increased
protection of the area and speciﬁc management measures
are needed to support dugong populations.
Aligning conservation and research
Lack of comprehensive scientiﬁc information should not be
a deterrent to the implementation of conservation actions.
We recommend that a dugong conservation area be
designed and managed following the strategies outlined
in Supplementary Table S1, combined with stakeholder
FIG. 3 (a) The locations of dugongs and marine vessels sighted during the aerial survey. The grey ovals around each island indicate the
approximate boundaries of existing marine parks, which extend 2nautical miles from the shoreline. (b) The locations of sea turtles
sighted during the aerial survey. The inset in (b) shows the locations of known seagrass beds at Pulau Sibu and Pulau Tinggi (Aﬀendi
et al., 2005; Ooi et al., 2011b, unpubl. data).
4 L. S. Ponnampalam et al.
©2014 Fauna & Flora International,
consultation and involvement. Furthermore, we rec-
ommend that focused research in priority areas (outlined
in Supplementary Table S2) be undertaken in tandem with
our conservation recommendations. Research and conser-
vation should be undertaken concurrently, with each
complementing the other, to continue to improve and
strengthen the eﬀectiveness of management of the area and
target species over time (Fig. 4).
As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity,
Malaysia is obligated to protect 10% of representative
marine ecosystems within its national boundaries. The
establishment of a dugong conservation area would con-
tribute to the global goal of meeting the Aichi Biodiversity
Targets (CBD, 2010). Moreover, conservation alongside
research is in line with the objectives and strategies of
Malaysia’s National Plan of Action for Dugongs (DOFM,
2011). We recommend that the dugong conservation area be
established in the areas of high dugong concentrations,
such as outside the boundaries of the existing Pulau Sibu
marine park (Fig. 3). The protection aﬀorded by the current
marine parks alone is probably insuﬃcient, as is the case
in Indonesia (de Iongh, 1999), as anthropogenic activities
continue to increase. We believe that, given the range of
stakeholders and the fact that some of their activities may be
benign to dugongs, a managed area that involves careful
management of selected human activities is preferable to a
marine park, which is fully protected under Malaysian law.
Nonetheless, many social–cultural–economic aspects will
need to be considered when establishing the dugong
conservation area (Ban et al., 2009). A framework for
conservation of sirenians is provided in Marsh et al. (2011)
and Hines et al. (2012), encompassing a range of regulatory
(e.g. legislation, enforcement and protected areas) and
enabling tools (e.g. education/awareness-raising, research
and adaptive management, community partnerships). The
careful development, implementation and maintenance
of a combination of both categories of tools are critical to
the conservation of dugongs in Malaysia and elsewhere.
Although there have been discussions among stakeholders
since this research was carried out, the rate of progress
towards establishing a managed area is slow. In 2013 the
protected area boundaries were extended by 1nautical mile
under state legislation, which, while useful, does not fully
encompass the areas identiﬁed to be of signiﬁcance to the
dugong population at the study site.
The waters around the Johor islands potentially host the
most signiﬁcant concentration of dugongs in Peninsular
Malaysia, partly as a result of the protection provided by
marine parks, which are located away from development.
Despite the low counts from our survey the presence of
calves, substantial areas of forage, and marine parks provide
hope that the dugongs can be conserved through proactive
actions. We suggest that limited data, in this case on dugong
distribution, extent of seagrass habitat and the use of
such habitat by dugongs, are not a barrier to eﬀective and
enhanced conservation actions, especially where marine
parks and statutory protection already exist. We emphasize
that conservation and adaptive management actions should
be implemented immediately in some cases while collection
of scientiﬁc data continues. Multi-disciplinary research
activities are being undertaken to improve understanding
of the distribution and habitat use of dugongs, and the
federal and Johor state governments have taken an interest
in the matter. However, the level of threat to the dugong
population in the area is likely to increase (Ponnampalam &
Fairul Izmal, pers obs.).
regulatory provisions Implementation of
Reassessment of the
status of target species,
threats, and the
Studies to further the understanding of
the biology and ecology of target
species in the area
Studies to further the understanding of
habitats in the area, with emphasis on
those relevant to the target species
Studies of contaminants and their
effects on target species
Studies of economic alternatives to
promote conservation and provide
Identification of threats that
affect or may affect target
FIG. 4 Hierarchy of
recommended actions for the
conservation, management and
research of dugongs and their
habitats oﬀthe east coast of
Johor, Peninsular Malaysia
Dugongs in Malaysia 5
©2014 Fauna & Flora International,
The case of the dugongs in the Johor islands suggests that
for certain wildlife species or populations there may be
insuﬃcient time to wait for comprehensive scientiﬁc
justiﬁcation and data collection before conservation actions
are implemented (Johannes, 1998). In most cases involving
threatened species, research should be undertaken concur-
rently with conservation actions (Marsh et al., 2011).
Funding for this survey was provided by Titan Chemical
Corp. Bhd. We thank our pilot, Capt. Cheng Xitao, for his
contribution, and Vivian Kuit for assisting with editing of
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LOUISA PONNAMPALAM is working towards ﬁlling the knowledge
gaps on the ecology of dugongs and cetaceans in Malaysia and
building local research capacity for conservation. F AIRUL IZMAL is a
marine environmental consultant. His interests lie in improving
scientiﬁc knowledge, awareness and policy legislation in relation to
cetaceans and dugongs in Malaysia. KANJANA ADULYANUKOSOL has
studied dugongs in Thailand for 25 years and has been involved in
community education in her study areas. JILLIAN OOI studies the
distribution patterns of tropical seagrasses in relation to ecological
drivers, and the utilization of seagrass habitats by marine organisms.
JOHN E. REYNOLDS III has been involved in conservation-based
marine mammal research and global marine conservation eﬀorts over
the last 4decades.
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