10 Jul 2019 Story Oceans & seas

An orphaned dugong becomes a social media influencer in Thailand

Update:  Hailed as conservation superstar after she was rescued in April, Thailand’s iconic orphaned baby dugong Marium died on 17 August after a stomach infection linked to ingesting plastic.

"The death of Marium is a sad loss, but it is the beginning of a mission to protect animals. Indeed, there are many dugongs whose survival is threatened, and we have prepared a plan to protect them," said Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-archa in an interview with the Bangkok Post.

Following her death, The Ministry of Environment announced it would hold a special meeting to discuss a “national dugong masterplan”.

Another dugong rescued in July, three-month old Yamil, is also being treated at the Phuket Marine Biological Centre.

This story cuts to the heart of the myriad threats facing species from overconsumption and illegal trade to pollution and climate change. We all have a role to play in making sure our personal choices don't threaten endangered species. 

“We got lucky she appeared when she did. We were about to get off the water when she popped up out of nowhere,” explains Alex Rendell, a Thai actor and conservationist, and founder of the Environmental Education Centre, of his encounter with the seven-month old dugong baby called Marium. “I’ve been there five times now. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a dugong come that close to a boat. She thought it was her mother.”

Rendell had been leading a visit for a few dozen students, teaching them about dugong habitat. Their chance encounter with Marium, who has since become a social media star in Thailand, helped reassure conservation officials who had been having trouble tracking her location.  

The little dugong had been found alone in April 2019 near the island of Koh Poda, off the coast of Thailand’s Krabi province. But officials had decided to move her to a protected area off the island of Koh Libong, 100 kilometres to the southeast.

“It’s easier to take care of the dugong in captivity, but we thought it would be good for her to stay in a natural habitat,” says Kongkiat Kittiwattanawong, Director of the Phuket Marine Biological Center.

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The only issue was keeping an eye on her. “After three days at Ko Libong, she started to wander along the coastline,” said Kittiwattanawong. “Taking care of her in the sea can be difficult.

“Now she has a routine. She comes to see the staff during the day asking for milk, and otherwise can swim freely. We feed her every day, every 1–2 hours starting at 7 in the morning until 7 at night.”

The story of Marium’s rescue was initially kept low-key. “We didn’t want to make it public because the locals were telling us they didn’t want it well-known,” said Rendell. “Then they realized it was going to be a long-term project and they could use the help.”

Photos of the roly-poly ocean orphan have since gone viral in Thailand and resulted in 1.7 million baht (US$80,000) raised for her protection.

Rendell explains why protective locals in Trang, where 70 per cent of Thailand’s 250 dugongs live, were hesitant to publicize Marium’s case.

“In my experience, there’s no other place where people have a relationship with an animal like Trang people do with dugongs. The dugong is an indicator for them to know their ocean is healthy, that they can go fishing and make a living. If dugongs are extinct, then it will affect their lives too. That relationship makes the local people very involved in the conservation and very loving toward dugongs.”

Marium is not out of the woods yet. “She doesn’t realize there’s a danger of stranding,” says Kittiwattanawong. “Her mother would normally lead her to the deeper area at low tide. Every night we have staff patrol the area in case she gets stranded.”

A dugong calf will stay with its mother for up to one and a half years, which means it might be almost a year before Marium is weaned from milk and human interaction.

But Marium is not the only baby dugong to make headlines. Another orphaned calf, a three-month old male named Yamil, was found at the beginning of July. Kittiwattanawong’s team will help care for him as well.

While the dugong has long been a focus for Thai researchers and conservationists, the species’ future won’t necessarily be smooth swimming.

“We have protected areas,” says Kittiwattanawong. “The important thing is being able to limit human activities in those areas. Almost 90 per cent of dugongs that are stranded are because they have become entangled in fishing equipment.”

The dugong population may be well-loved in parts of Thailand, but elsewhere dugongs are hunted for meat and for parts for unproven medical practices. As a result, the global population of dugongs is a mere fraction of what it was 50 years ago.

“I think the situation will improve quite a lot, and it helps to have Marium and other babies to increase awareness. People are paying attention and trying to do more and understand more about conservation,” says Kittiwattanawong.

UN Environment’s Wild for Life campaign is working to raise awareness of the threats to this gentle ocean-goer, and 24 other species that are currently vulnerable or endangered.

For his part, in addition to his conservation work, Alex Rendell is joining Amanda Cerny in choosing the dugong as his Wild for Life kindred species.

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“In Thailand, an old belief is that the tears of the dugong can form a powerful love potion,” says Rendell. “For me that means that if you ever become involved in dugong conservation, you won’t be able to stop. Dugongs are too wonderful.”