Friendly Baby Dugong Becomes Conservation Symbol in Thailand

‘Mariam,’ who was found without her mother, has gone viral after images of her nuzzling the experts who care for her started to circulate

Mariam the dugong photographed as she is cared for by park officials and veterinarians from the Phuket Marine Biological Centre on Libong island. SIRACHAI ARUNRUGSTICHAI/AFP/Getty Images

In April, a baby dugong was found near a beach in Thailand’s southern Krabi province, her mother nowhere in sight. Wildlife officials tried to relocate the baby to a dugong habitat, but the pudgy creature swam away, seemingly more interested in the humans who came to check up on her. As Jamie Fullerton reports for the Guardian, the story of this befuddled little dugong has captured the hearts of people in Thailand—and experts hope she will spark an interest in the conservation of a threatened species.

Officials have named the animal “Mariam,” which means “lady of the sea” in Arabic. She is 5 months old, and now resides near a dugong habitat off Ko Libong island, reports the Associated Press. But Mariam doesn’t swim with the other members of her species—relatives of the manatee, which can be found in warm coastal waters from Africa to Australia. When she sees wildlife experts approaching, Mariam swims straight toward them, seeking out food and cuddles.

“[W]hen we are swimming, she would come and tuck under our arms. It's almost like the way she would tuck under her mother," says Nantarika Chansue, director of the Aquatic Animal Research Center at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, according to the AP.

Mariam appears to have bonded not only with humans, but also to their boats, which she tries to snuggle. Experts think she likes the shape of certain vessels’ undersides, which might resemble the shape of her mother. Baby dugongs typically nurse for the first 18 months of their lives, and they remain under their mother’s care until they are around eight years old.

Photos of Mariam nuzzling the experts who care for her have gone viral in Thailand, and people are flocking to Ko Libong island to watch her feedings. The country’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources is now planning to launch a 24-hour livestream of the baby dugong.

“Marium is so adorable,” said Jatuporn Burutpat, the department’s director general, according to Fullerton. “She [has become] the nation’s sweetheart and helps raise public awareness [about] conservation and the plight of dugongs.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies dugongs as “vulnerable,” their populations threatened by such factors as habitat loss, boat strikes, chemical pollution, extreme weather events and accidental capture in fishing gear. People also deliberately hunt dugongs for their meat. The animals are “are legally protected in most of their range,” the IUCN states. “However, enforcement is typically weak or non-existent.”

Keeping Mariam alive and safe has been no easy task for conservationists. They had a hard time getting her to drink milk formula; she rejected the artificial nipples that were presented to her, only eventually latching on to the finger of a rubber glove that had been stuffed with gauze and an IV tube. She is being fed 15 times a day and now weighs around 65 pounds, but Nantarika says Mariam is still a bit underweight. She also keeps beaching herself.

“She hasn’t learned when to go to deep water,” Nantarika tells Fullerton. Plans are in place to build Mariam an artificial tidal pool, where she will be placed at night to ensure that she stays in the water when the tide goes down.

Nantarika launched an online appeal for donations for Mariam’s care, and quickly raised 1.7 million Thai Baht (around $55,500)—enough to support the baby dugong for one year. Officials hope to eventually wean Mariam from her dependence on humans and release her back into the wild. But right now, they are busying themselves with more immediate concerns, like keeping Mariam well fed and designing a holding pen that will keep her away from boats.

“I hope she makes it, but I’m careful,” Nantarika tells Fullerton. “She’s following anything that looks like a boat. That’s a great danger if she finds boats with motors.”

Mariam also faces the same issues that threaten other marine species in the waters off Thailand. As Reuters reported last year, Thailand is among five Asian nations that are responsible for 60 percent of the plastic waste leaking into the world’s oceans. Plastic-clogged waters can have a dire impact on marine animals; last year, for instance, a whale was found near Southern Thailand with 80 plastic bags in its stomach.

Pathompong Kongjit, a vet who has been looking after Mariam, tells the Agence France-Presse that the team’s rescue operations can only go so far. “[I]t doesn't matter how many marine animals we can save,” he explains, “if their sea homes are in bad conditions.”

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