Great Barrier turtles threatened

Populations of turtle and dugong are dropping drastically around Australia's Great Barrier Reef because of pollution and overhunting, officials said.

| Updated on: Jul 12 2003, 15:53 IST

Populations of turtle and dugong, or seacow, are dropping drastically around Australia's Great Barrier Reef because of chemical runoff from farmland and overhunting by Aborigines, officials said on Friday.

'Dugongs and turtles have to be protected or they will be gone in my children's time,' said Peter Guivarra, chairman of the Mapoon Aboriginal Council on the western side of Cape York Peninsula.

Environment Minister David Kemp told a conference on the state of the world's largest living structure that the flow of contaminants off the coast of Queensland state into the reef had increased fourfold since European colonisation of the continent.

'Dugong populations adjacent to Queensland's urban coasts are estimated to be only three per cent of what they were in the 1960s,' Kemp said in the northeastern city of Townsville.

'The number of nesting loggerhead turtles has declined between 50 and 80 per cent,' he said.

Wildlife experts regard Australia as the 'dugong capital' of the world.

A marine mammal weighing up to 500 kg (1,100 lb), the seacow is found in 37 countries but its numbers are declining in 20 of them, Helene Marsh, Head of Environmental Science at James Cook University in Townsville, told Reuters.

Dugongs, which resemble large seals with bulbous heads, are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as vulnerable to extinction.

Extensive sugar cane farming, land clearing and urbanisation along the Queensland coast is blamed for the rise of runoff into the ocean and riverways, including chemicals and fertilisers.

Dugong numbers in Australia are under threat not just from environmental degradation but also from indigenous hunters.

Aborigines have the right to kill limited turtle and dugong with a permit for ceremonial purposes, in recognition of a 40,000-year-old custom.

It is illegal, however, to sell the meat of dugong and turtle, just as it is unlawful to sell kangaroo or emu flesh.

But traditions are breaking down, a black market in dugong and turtle meat has emerged and modern technology such as motorised boats has made it easier to hunt the vulnerable dugong.

'In my day, we used to row boats, and the meat wasn't wasted. Now it's too easy to get dugong and turtle with white man's technology,' said Gordon Pablo, a respected elder of the Injinoo community at Bamaga, at the tip of Cape York Peninsula.

Aboriginal elders said around 60 cattle in a herd of 100 migrating dugongs were recently massacred for their breastbones.

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First Published Date: 12 Jul, 00:00 IST