Most Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are legally allowed to hunt dugongs in Australian waters. To them the dugong is often more than just an important food source; it is central to their culture, economy and even religion. Hunting it is an expression of their Aboriginality - tangible evidence of their skill, knowledge and oneness with the elements of their environment.
Legend has it Dugongs were often mistaken for mermaids or mermen by the first European sailors to arrive in Australia's coastal waters.
Hunting the dugong is still done the traditional way by the Yanyuwa people of the Borroloola region in the Gulf of Carpentaria; always two harpoons have to be thrown.
The majority of dugongs live in the northern waters of Australia between Shark Bay Western Australia and Moreton Bay in Queensland. The dugong is the only strictly-marine herbivorous mammal, as all species of manatee utilize fresh water to some degree.
The dugong has been hunted for thousands of years for its meat and oil, although dugong hunting also has great cultural significance throughout its range. The dugong's current distribution is reduced and disjunct, and many populations are close to extinction.
When a dugong is brought back to the land for butchering, its head
must be faced back in the direction of the sea. This is so the
spirit of the dugong can return to the sea.
The only internal organ of the dugong which is eaten is the small
intestines all other organs are removed.
Dugong meat is cooked in a ground oven. 'The ground oven
is approximately 1 metre deep, 1 to 2 metres in width and 2
metres in length. The ground oven is filled with wood which is
set alight. While the‘wood is burning, the stones are thrown into the
fire to get hot.
When the wood has burnt down to hot coals the heated stones are
removed . Green mangrove branches are laid on the bed of leaves
and the hot stones placed on top of the meat., The oven is then
covered with dirt to seal in the heat. The meat is left to cook
for approx 8 hours.
After the meat has been eaten, all the scraps and bones are
thrown back into the ground oven and burnt. The belief is that
failure to dispose of the bones correctly will result in a
cessation of successful hunting. The rib-cage sections, head,
and flippers of the dugong, are considered sacred. These are the sections
which are placed into the ground oven.