Marium, an orphaned baby dugong who became a beloved conservation symbol after photographs of her nuzzling human caretakers went viral earlier this year, has died from shock sparked by ingesting plastic, Thailand’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) announced Saturday.
As Pitcha Dangprasith reports for the Associated Press, veterinarians originally brought the 8-month-old marine mammal—a relative of the better-known manatee—in for treatment upon noticing bruising last week.
“We assume she wandered off too far from her natural habitat and was chased and eventually attacked by another male dugong, or dugongs, as they feel attracted to her,” said Jatuporn Buruspat, director-general of the DMRC.
According to CBS News’ Sophie Lewis, caretakers moved Marium, who was exhibiting signs of stress and refusing to feed, to a nursery tank where she could be more closely observed Wednesday. Despite experts’ best efforts, the young dugong died early Saturday morning.
An autopsy found “eight pieces of waste plastic bags packed together,” as well as “small plastic fragments,” in Marium’s intestines. Per the Washington Post’s Morgan Krakow, this plastic pollution triggered intestinal inflammation, which in turn led to gastritis, a blood infection and pus in the lungs. As the infection spread, the animal went into shock and eventually died.
Marium likely ingested the plastic under the erroneous impression that it was edible, Jatuporn explained. In lieu of the news, Amy Held notes for NPR, Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation urged the public to be more cognizant of the amount of garbage accumulating in the world’s oceans. The DMRC echoed this warning in a Facebook post, writing, “Everyone is sad about her passing, but this is an issue that must be urgently resolved.”
The agency added, “If we want to conserve rare marine animals so they remain in existence with us, every sector, every person must help with marine trash.”
As Brigit Katz explains for Smithsonian.com, the orphaned mammal—relocated to a dugong habitat off of Thailand’s Ko Libong island in April—attracted widespread attention due to her unusual attachment to humans. In photographs and videos shared on social media, Marium readily responded to approaching caretakers, swimming toward them in search of food and cuddles.
“She’s attached and tries to swim and cling to the boat as if it was her mother and when we are swimming she would come and tuck under our arms,” Nantarika Chansue, director of the Aquatic Animal Research Center of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Veterinarian Science, told the Associated Press’ Jerry Harmer and Dangprasith in June. “It’s almost like the way she would tuck under her mother, so I think it’s not only humans but anything that looks like another dugong that she would be attached to.”
Marium quickly became a conservation sensation, drawing internet users to a livestream of her 15 daily feedings and coaxing locals to the shores of her home on Ko Libong. Per the AP, experts planned on caring for the baby dugong for another year or so before weaning her off of bottled milk and encouraging her to live independently.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, dugongs are popularly known as “sea cows.” Native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the marine mammal faces threats including habitat loss linked with water pollution and coastal development. The species’ conservation status is currently listed as vulnerable.
To honor the beloved dugong’s memory, Thai officials plan on launching the so-called “Marium Project.” As Krakow reports for the Washington Post, the campaign will work to reduce ocean plastic and continue conservation efforts aimed at preserving the dugong population.
“[Marium’s] death will remind Thais and people all over the world not to dispose trash into the oceans,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-arcpha concluded at a press conference.