Diving among dugongs: UBC student helps protect threatened species in Palau

Originally posted at the blog: Secret Lives of UBC students

Sarah Klain, Grad student at UBC's Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability

Sarah Klain had been out swimming when she saw a massive gray shape in the corner of her eye. She almost gagged on her snorkel when she realized what it was.

“It was a dugong. It swam toward me and looked me right in the eye,” said Klain, joking that the large marine mammal had resembled a fat mermaid, smiling at her before swimming away.

“But that’s anthropomorphizing it,” Klain quickly corrected herself.

Her inner scientist appeared in such qualifiers, even as she excitedly told me stories from Palau, a Pacific Island nation where she lived from 2005 to 2007.

Klain currently studies marine resources, including their social dimensions, at UBC–but the young American still has vivid memories of her two years in Palau. She had gone there to work as a Peace Corps volunteer, aiding in the conservation of a special trio of aquatic creatures.

Beside dugongs, Klain was also focused on saltwater crocodiles and sea turtles. She worked very closely with crocodile hunter-turned-conservationist Joshua Eberdong to collect data and talk to Palauans about the protection of those species.

“They just don’t bounce back as quickly,” said Klain. She explained that the rise of industrial fishing and the expansion of the human population has meant that the relationship between people and animals has started to change. And sustainable use, she said, is tricky with species like sea turtles and dugong that take a long time to reach maturity.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Klain

Location matters: In places like Northern Australia, there is a sustainable harvest of dugong due to their healthy numbers–but not in Palau, where the “sea cows” are a threatened species protected by law. When clarifying the island’s unique ecological situation, Klain also explained that she had to navigate the norms of her host community.

“Unfortunately dugongs are really tasty,” explained Klain. “That was a very sensitive complex part of the work that I did. These endangered animals had been food for hundreds of years.”

But Klain learned a lot from such negotations, and she feels lucky to have benefited from what she considers extraordinary local knowledge from islanders like Joshua. She has carefully documented her lessons in pictures, print and in a detailed slide show.

Her concluding words paint an evocative picture: “My thoughts often drift back to my home for two years, where sea turtles crawl ashore on beaches lit only by the moon, crocodiles hunt crabs and fish in the mangroves, and dugongs graze on sea grass.”

Listen to Sarah Klain describe her role in a “sea turtle rodeo
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