Koror — When it comes to filming wildlife in Palau, one specie has been on my bucket list for many years. Estimates suggest that there are only about 200 animals left in its population and they are spread over a huge range. It is large and extremely enigmatic. It has been hunted close to extinction and is now extremely wary of anyone approaching.
I am referring to the dugong. The ancestors of the Palauan population somehow made the journey across the Philippine Sea from South east Asia, possibly millions of years ago and 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. First, it is extremely unlikely that dugongs from other Asian or Australasian populations will make a similar crossing to add to the Palau population. In fact, it is quite likely that Palau’s population could be descended from a single pregnant female.
Second, 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, causing such things as birth defects, low birth rate, higher infant mortality as well as higher incidence of sterility. So, given all those possibilities, it’s a wonder that there are any dugongs in Palau at all. Their chances of making it this far were stacked against them, yet they have survived.
So, you can see now why being able to film this extremely rare geographically isolated enigmatic creature is a real draw to me.
I had long been planning on using drone to accomplish something like this. But due to the rarity and highly protected status of Palau’s dugong, it was very hard to locate them until a local NGO contacted me about a population in the north of Palau. I leapt at the opportunity. We headed out to the area and set about searching. Call it beginner’s luck maybe but 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 group of 15. This sort of number in one area at one time is almost unheard of in contemporary Palau and it gave us instant insight into a possible population size and age makeup.
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, boisterous juveniles and large Bulls could all be seen. 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 eagle ray, but no dugong.
Where have they all gone?
Then we heard reports of one that had been killed, parts of its body hung up for people to see like a huge macabre shout of “laws don’t apply to us!”
This act didn’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.
What could have been something beautiful, something so rare it almost defies odds by even existing 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.
Richard Brooks owns Lightning Strike Productions, which covers everything from underwater to aerials. See his work at www.lightningstrikeproductions.co.uk