A childlike smile overcomes Takuma Higashionna when he remembers swimming with a rare and wild Asian manatee. He imagined that the animal had a message for him, beckoning him into the bay near his home.
“It was as if it was saying, ‘Follow me’” into the waters of Oura Bay, recalls Higashionna, 53.
That day, eight years ago, was the last time the local politician saw up close one of the endangered marine mammals known as dugongs, which have come to symbolize the international campaign to block an expansion of an American military base here.
For nearly 20 years, activists like Higashionna have used a fear of the dugong’s extinction in Japan to rally support for their cause. They’ve filed lawsuits delaying construction of military runways in Oura Bay on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa and attracted throngs of protesters to the gates of a Marine base called Camp Schwab.
But today, it’s an open secret that the gentle animals already may be gone from the island. If any remain, they likely will not recover to the healthy numbers that lived here before the 1930s, regardless of whether Tokyo and Washington follow through with their military plans, experts say.
Instead, dugongs on Okinawa are powerful environmental icons for a broad movement that’s determined to prevent the Japanese government from filling a corner of the bay for a Marine air base that they say would disrupt a gorgeous harbor with abundant sea life.
“If you lived here and you saw this rich nature that you knew they were going to destroy, you would oppose it, too,” said Higashionna, who is a member of the Nago City Council.
Higashionna has been a part of two lawsuits in U.S. federal court that sought to undo the plans for Camp Schwab by calling on a Japanese law that protects dugong as a significant cultural resource.
The first legal effort compelled Japan and the Marines to reassess the proposal’s potential impacts on dugongs in 2008. A more recent lawsuit this year failed to persuade a Northern California judge to stop the project, though its supporters have signaled that they intend to appeal the decision.
Dugongs are special creatures in Okinawan folklore, featuring in a local creation myth. Centuries ago, Okinawans considered dugong meat to be a delicacy. Other tales credit the animals with warning people about approaching tsunamis.
The dugong population in Japan lives at the extreme northern edge of the animal’s habitat. Most dugongs live in waters near Australia, and it’s unclear to researchers how the creatures in Okinawa found their way to the shores of the East China Sea.
Dugongs were believed to be plentiful on Okinawa before World War II, but hunting and accidental catches took a toll that crushed their population.
In many ways, they weren’t appreciated until Washington and Tokyo proposed building runways in 1996 that threatened to damage some of their remaining habitat. The latest estimates suggest that 58 Marine aircraft would move to the base on Oura Bay, recording about 86 flights a day.
“It’s ironic, but it took this military base issues for people to begin to realize, actually realize, the environmental richness of this area,” said Hideki Yoshikawa, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus who grew up in a city near the bay and now advocates for it as a leader in the Save the Dugong Foundation.
In 1997, the Mammalogical Society of Japan estimated there were fewer than 50 dugong remaining on Okinawa. More recent surveys by the Japanese government have shown traces of dugong feeding and images of a handful of creatures in and near Oura Bay as recently as 2013, according to a Marine summary of environmental reports.
Those low numbers factored into an April 2014 Navy decision to proceed with the construction proposal. It noted that the planned runways at Oura Bay could not harm dugongs because of the “extremely low probability” that they’re in the construction area.
Ellen Hines, a geography professor at San Francisco State University, has traveled to Okinawa several times to teach residents how to identify signs of the reclusive animal. She focused on finding paths in sea grass that reveal dugong feeding patterns.
She’s seen evidence that dugong have been on the island in recent years, but she does not believe the population can recover. Hines still opposes the Marine construction plan, which would eat up more than a third of the sea grass where dugong have fed in Oura Bay and drive the creatures away.
“Just because an animal is critically endangered or perhaps not sustainable doesn’t give people the license to just go through and ignore the presence at all, to just get rid of their habitat and not even care,” she said.
Around Okinawa, the most visible dugongs are ones that decorate billboards and T-shirts declaring opposition to the Marine plan.
Bright-red designer shirts at a downtown mall show a cartoonish dugong snapping a machine gun. It declares “No base Henoko!,” referring to the town and harbor that sit on the opposite side of Camp Schwab from Oura Bay.
“Most obviously, the dugong has become a symbol of Okinawa and its struggle against the base,” Yoshikawa said.