Louisa Ponnampalam, Ph.D.

Research Fellow, The Institute of Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Malaya
C308, IGS Building
Kuala Lumpur
Award Year


Project Details

Understanding Dugong Ecology for Conservation of its Habitat 

Dugongs (Dugong dugon), large herbivorous marine mammals similar to manatees, first caught national media attention in Malaysia in 1999 when a calf was found stranded in Johor, in southern Peninsular Malaysia. The stranding launched various surveys on dugongs and seagrass, their primary habitat, around Johor. In 2010, an aerial inspection found that an area just outside of a marine protected area had high numbers of dugongs, including mother-calf pairs. However, knowledge and understanding of the species' ecology, status, and extent of habitat in this region remain limited. In the meantime, as Johor's coastline undergoes large-scale growth, including resort developments and industrial facilities, seagrass in Malaysia is only secured within already established marine protected areas. The Johor east coast islands are less developed and may therefore serve as the most viable location for dugongs to survive. 

Using her Pew fellowship, Ponnampalam will investigate the knowledge gaps in the ecology and status of dugongs and their seagrass habitats along the Johor east coast and islands. Visual and acoustic surveys will be used to further explore the animals' distribution, relative abundance, movement, and patterns of habitat use. She and her team will analyze the sediments and seagrass for contaminants to assess the risks posed to the dugongs by pollutants in the environment. She will involve staff from relevant government agencies in the work as a means of building local capacity for research and conservation management and public empathy. 

The results from this program will be disseminated to the management authorities to encourage the planning and establishment of a dugong protected area, which would provide valuable habitat needed for the survival of dugongs in Peninsular Malaysia. The effort will also help Malaysia fulfill its obligations to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which requires that 10 percent of coastal and marine areas—especially those important to biodiversity—be protected by 2020.


Louisa Ponnampalam is a research fellow at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and co-founder of The MareCet Research Organization, the country's first nonprofit dedicated solely to the research, conservation, and increasing public awareness of marine mammals. She has been instrumental in study and outreach throughout the country, focusing on cetaceans and now dugongs—marine mammals closely related to manatees. Ponnampalam began examining dugongs in 2009 as a postdoctoral research fellow and helped initiate national discussions to establish a response network for marine mammal strandings. In 2010, she started the Langkawi Dolphin Research Project, which studies population groups of Indo-Pacific finless porpoises and humpback dolphins, which were largely undocumented in the scientific literature at the time. 

Ponnampalam serves as a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission's Cetacean and Sirenian Specialist Groups and is the current vice chair of the International Consortium for Marine Conservation. Through MareCet and the University of Malaya, her research projects are collecting detailed ecological data on coastal marine mammals in Peninsular Malaysia. These projects give the general public, especially aspiring marine scientists, the chance to gain hands-on experience through participation in volunteer field research. 

In 2003, Ponnampalam received her bachelor's degree in marine science from the University of Hawaii at Hilo. She was subsequently awarded a prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship in 2004 to earn her Ph.D. from the University Marine Biological Station in Millport, Scotland. Her doctoral work focused on the ecology and conservation of small cetaceans in the Sultanate of Oman. After graduating, Ponnampalam returned to Malaysia to focus on marine mammal conservation.