Time is running out for dugongs in Malaysia with its population continuing to decline since they were first seen in Malaysian shores during the late 1960s.

Believe it or not, there are only 100 of them left in the whole country, pushing them to the verge of extinction.

The dugong population in Malaysia is mostly found in the states of Johor, Sabah and Sarawak.

It is estimated that there are only 40 to 50 dugongs left in Johor, around the east coast of Kota Tinggi, Mersing, Pulau Sibu and Pulau Tinggi.

Meanwhile, an estimated 20 to 30 dugongs were recorded in Lawas and Brunei Bay in Sarawak, and a few spots in the east coast of Sabah.

To make matters worse, an average of three to five cases of dugong deaths are recorded each year.

According to Programme Manager responsible for the implementation of the Dugong Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and their Habitats, Dr Donna Kwan, among threats faced by dugongs are gill fishing nets, pollution and diminishing food sources.

"Sometimes the nets are set very low. When it hits the dugongs, they will panic and roll into the nets, causing them to be entangled in the nets and drowned because they have to breathe every five to seven minutes. That is the biggest mortality for dugongs," she told a press conference on dugong and seagrass conservation project, here today.

Also known as sea cows, dugongs rely on seagrass meadows for food and habitat.

An adult dugong can eat up to 40kg of seagrass a day.

Photo of dugongs in the sea from the aerial point of view. - Photo from The MareCet Research Organisation

Realising the importance of conserving dugongs and seagrass ecosystem, the government through the Department of Fisheries has established the National Plan of Action for Protecting and Conserving Dugong and Their Habitats.

Fisheries Department Director-General Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan said a research will also be conducted soon to identify location of seagrass meadows in Malaysia.

"Dugongs are usually found in shallow waters, near the seagrass beds. If there are no more seagrass left, there will be no more dugongs."

"Therefore, we need to conserve our seagrass meadows to ensure the dugongs remain in this country. Because in this world, Malaysia is among the few countries with dugongs."

"If we do not conserve them, one day there will be no more dugongs left in this country and our future generations will not know what they are," he said in the press conference.

Dugongs are protected under the Fisheries Act 1985 and the Fisheries Regulations 1999 (Control of Endangered Species of Fish) for Peninsular Malaysia and Federal Territories of Labuan, Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998 and the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997 for Sarawak and Sabah.

While their numbers continue to shrink, sadly, not much in-depth research has been done on dugong, in Malaysia.

Through the Dugong and Seagrass Conservation Project, Global Environment Facility, the world's largest environmental funding body has allocated USD190,000 for Malaysia to conduct studies on dugongs for the span of three years.

The global collaboration involves eight countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, Vauatu, Solomon Island, Timor Leste and Sri Lanka.

The government is also expected to sign an MoU with the Dugong Convention on Migratory Species under the United Nations Environment Programme, by March next year to help preserve the conservation of dugongs in the country.