Malaysian scientist awarded coveted marine conservation fellowship

For the first time, a Malaysian scientist has been awarded the coveted 2014 Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation to conduct new research on Malaysia’s population of dugongs.

Pew Fellows receive USD150,000 (RM491,000) for a three-year project to address conservation issues facing the world’s oceans and Dr Louisa Shobhini Ponnampalam, a scientist with Universiti Malaya and co-founder of NGO, the MareCet Research Organisaton, will identify areas that are critical for the country’s last remaining population of dugongs.

Using the findings of this research, Dr Ponnampalam will make recommendations to protect the dugong’s habitat.

“Seagrass beds in Malaysia, which are a crucial part of the dugong’s habitat and diet, and support a diversity of marine life including our seafood resources, are currently not afforded any legal provisions,” said Ponnampalam.

“This project would allow us to further understand dugong distribution and behavior and their reliance on this particular area, so that government authorities can soon make informed decisions about enabling the protection of important habitat areas,” she said in a statement.

For the next three years, Ponnampalam will gather scientific data on dugongs and their habitat using visual, acoustic, and underwater surveys. This research will also assist other scientists working to protect dugongs around the world.

The dugong is currently listed as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, but certain populations of dugongs are likely to be critically endangered, including those found along the coasts of Malaysia.

These herbivorous marine mammals and their seagrass habitats are threatened by human activities such as coastal development, commercial fishing, and a lack of provision for habitat protection.

“The dugong is an increasingly rare and fascinating creature, but little of the habitat it relies on is protected within its range,” said executive vice president and head of environment initiatives for for The Pew Charitable Trusts Joshua S. Reichert.

“Dr. Ponnampalam’s study will shed light on how and where dugongs live in Peninsular Malaysia, and will encourage an exchange of data among countries to better protect these extraordinary creatures,” he added.

Ponnampalam is a research fellow at the Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences of the University of Malaya in Malaysia. She earned a B.A. in marine science at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and a Ph.D. in marine biology at the University Marine Biological Station Millport, a program of the University of London. She also co-founded The MareCet Research Organization in 2012, a local NGO dedicated solely to the research and conservation of marine mammals as a basis for marine conservation.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has awarded 135 fellowships to individuals from 31 countries. The fellowships fund projects that address critical challenges in ocean conservation