Dugong , the sea Cow 

The dugong, a magnificent marine creature also known as the “sea cow,” roams the coastal waters of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Ocean. It belongs to the order Sirenia, and is a close relative of the manatee.

Feasting exclusively on seagrass, the dugong’s muscular upper lip exerts an impressive grip to yank the grass out from the seabed. This herbivore can grow up to a majestic 3 meters (10 feet) in length and weigh an impressive 500 kilograms (1100 pounds), boasting a thick layer of blubber for insulation and energy storage.

SL NOCharacteristicsInformation 
1Common NameDugong
2Scientific NameDugong dugon
3Length8-10 feet
4ColorDark grey to brownish-grey
5Height / girthGirth of around 8-10 feet
6Tail lengthFluke-like tail with a length of around 2 feet
7Height till shoulderAround 3-4 feet
8Average weight500-800 kg
9Food habitsHerbivorous, feeds on seagrasses
10HabitatWarm coastal waters of the Indian and western Pacific Oceans
11Interesting factsDugongs are often called “sea cows” because of their grazing habits and slow-moving nature. They are closely related to manatees, and like manatees, they are at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, hunting, and other human activities. Dugongs can hold their breath for up to 6 minutes while feeding underwater, and they are known to make long-distance migrations in search of food. They are also considered a keystone species in their ecosystem, playing an important role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds.


Dugongs are marine mammals that belong to the family Dugongidae. They are also known as “sea cows” due to their grazing habits and slow movements. Dugongs have a grey-brown body colour that helps them blend in with their seagrass habitat. Dugongs have a streamlined body with a small head, flippers, and a tail fluke. They have two nostrils located on the top of their snout, which they use to breathe air when they come to the surface. Adult dugongs can grow up to 3 metres in length and can weigh between 200 to 600 kilograms. Females are generally larger than males. Dugongs have a specialised upper lip that is used to grasp and pull seagrass as they graze. They can hold their breath for up to six minutes and can dive to depths of up to 30 metres. Dugongs are also known for their unique vocalisations, which they use for communication and navigation.

Food Habits

Dugongs are herbivores, and their diet consists almost entirely of seagrass. They graze on seagrass meadows by uprooting the seagrass with their specialised upper lip and grinding it with their strong jaws. They can eat up to 40 kilograms of seagrass per day, depending on their size and activity level.


Dugongs are found in warm coastal waters and shallow seas throughout the Indo-Pacific region, from East Africa to Australia, including the Indian Ocean. They are most commonly found in areas with large seagrass meadows, which they rely on  their primary food source.

In India, dugongs are primarily found in the Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Gulf of Mannar is home to the largest known population of dugongs in India, and it is a designated Marine Biosphere Reserve.

Seagrass meadows are crucial habitats for dugongs and many other marine species, providing food, shelter, and nursery areas. Dugongs are also important ecosystem engineers, as their grazing behaviour can help maintain and shape seagrass meadows, promoting their health and resilience.

Vulnerable Species

Dugongs are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In India, the dugong population is estimated to be around 200-250 individuals, which makes up a significant proportion of the global population.

The main threats to dugongs in India include habitat loss and degradation due to coastal development, pollution, and destructive fishing practices. Dugongs are also at risk of accidental entanglement in fishing nets and are sometimes hunted for their meat, oil, and other body parts.

To protect dugongs in India, the government has designated several marine protected areas, including the Gulf of Mannar Marine Biosphere Reserve, the Palk Bay Reserve, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. These areas are important for the conservation of dugongs and other marine species and are subject to various conservation measures, including restrictions on fishing practices and development.

Protected Areas

In India, dugongs are protected under various wildlife conservation laws, and their habitats are designated as marine protected areas or national parks. 

Located off the coast of Tamil Nadu, the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park is home to the largest population of dugongs in India. The park spans an area of 560 square kilometers and is home to several other marine species, including sea turtles, dolphins, and various fish species. 

Palk Bay Biosphere Reserve spans the southeastern coast of India and includes parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The reserve includes several islands, mangroves, and seagrass meadows, which provide a habitat for dugongs and other marine species. 

Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the Bay of Bengal, is a Union Territory of India and is home to several marine protected areas, including the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and the Great Nicobar Biosphere Reserve. These areas are important habitats for dugongs and other marine species, including sea turtles, dolphins, and whales.

Conservation efforts in these areas involve various measures, such as restrictions on fishing practices, conservation education, awareness-raising among local communities, and research to better understand dugongs’ behaviour and ecology. The goal is to protect these unique marine mammals and their habitats to ensure their long-term survival in India.

Conservation efforts 

Conservation of dugongs in India is a complex and multi-faceted process that requires a collaborative effort from the government, conservation organisations, local communities, and individuals. Here are some ways in which dugongs can be conserved in India:

Habitat protection and restoration: Dugongs rely on seagrass beds for their survival, and these habitats need to be protected and restored. This can be achieved by identifying critical habitats and creating protected areas, reducing coastal development, and implementing measures to control pollution and erosion.

Fishing gear modifications: Dugongs are at risk of being accidentally entangled in fishing nets. Modifying fishing gear and techniques can significantly reduce the number of dugongs killed by fishing operations. This can include the use of acoustic devices to deter dugongs from fishing nets and modifying fishing gear to reduce entanglement risk.

Conservation awareness: Increasing awareness and educating local communities about dugongs and their conservation is essential. This can be done through campaigns, workshops, and community meetings to promote sustainable fishing practices, raise awareness about the impacts of habitat loss and overfishing, and encourage community involvement in conservation efforts.

Monitoring and research: Monitoring the dugong population is crucial for their conservation. Collecting data on the dugong population size, distribution, and behavior can help inform conservation efforts and improve management strategies.

Collaboration and partnerships: Successful conservation efforts require the collaboration of various stakeholders, including government agencies, conservation organizations, local communities, and individuals. Working together can help promote effective conservation policies and practices and ensure the long-term survival of dugongs in India.

Overall, conserving dugongs in India is a challenging but essential task. By implementing effective conservation measures, we can ensure the survival of these magnificent creatures and protect India’s coastal ecosystems for future generations.


The protection of dugongs in India is not just an option, it is an imperative. These majestic creatures play a critical role as a keystone species in the coastal ecosystem, ensuring the balance and well-being of their habitat. By feeding exclusively on seagrass, they prevent overgrowth and maintain the health of the seagrass beds, which in turn supports a diverse range of marine life.

Dugongs are not just important from an ecological perspective, but they are also a valuable resource for coastal communities. They provide a source of income through tourism and fisheries and have significant cultural significance.

The loss of dugongs would be a catastrophic blow to India’s coastal ecosystem, with far-reaching consequences for both the environment and the livelihoods of local communities. It is therefore imperative that we take immediate and effective action to protect and conserve these magnificent creatures.

This requires the implementation of robust conservation strategies, the establishment of protected areas, and the promotion of sustainable fishing practices. By safeguarding dugongs, we can preserve the health of India’s coastal ecosystem, protect its biodiversity, and secure the future for coastal communities.

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