With her little blubbery face, an orphaned baby dugong rescued from likely death has become the new face of sea conservation.
Mariam, as she was dubbed by fishers who found her ailing and alone, was declared ambassador for Saturday’s World Oceans Day in the hope her plight would highlight the need to save some 300 remaining dugongs in Thai waters from extinction and raise awareness about protecting the sea and other creatures who call it home.
“I want Mariam to be like the door to seeing the importance of conservation work and other environmental efforts as well,” Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai, the marine photographer whose photographs of Mariam went viral, told Facebook page Bottom Line Is on Saturday.
Though Mariam was first spotted off the coast of Krabi in late April, it was a drone-shot photo of a volunteer cuddling her and published in National Geographic Thailand last week, that propelled Mariam to fame.
Ever since, the cuddly cousin to the manatee has been gradually blowing up social media.
The dugong is considered “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, which means it is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances that are threatening its survival and reproduction improve.
In Thailand, there are only 300 of these creatures left due to depleting food sources, overtourism, plastic pollution and overfishing. The vegetarian sea cows are often cut to pieces by boat propellers as they like to drift and float in the currents looking for food, if fishing nets don’t get them first.
“The primary threat of Dugong is getting incidentally killed from entanglement from fishing gear, boat strikes and destruction of their seagrass habitat,” Srichai told Coconuts Bangkok on Monday
People first spotted the 1-year-old dugong on April 29 in Ao Thung Bay. Though officials returned her to sea twice, she kept swimming back to shore and was seen latching her fins onto boats to swim beside – a behavior which officials said is likely because she wasn’t weaned from her mother and is using the boats as a substitute.
Before she could become more propeller chow, officials relocated her to Point Dugong, a conservation and sightseeing area on Trang province’s Koh Libong, where she will receive around-the-clock care. The baby dugong still needs mother’s milk and has no experience living in the ocean alone.
It’s unknown what happened to momma dugong.
Officials including Marine Department veterinarian Watchara Sakornwimon were filmed taking care of the baby at all hours of the night, such as when Mariam was awakened by low tide at 2am on June 3.
“Mariam is our hope for cooperation for the conservation of the Thai sea,” the Marine and Coastal Resources Department captioned a video shot by Siracha.