Marine animal rescuers have one adage: don’t get attached.
Whether it’s a beached whale or baby turtle, rescue crews know that naming animals or developing an emotional bond will lead to tears.
“We try to keep our distance because there’s a fifty-fifty chance they will die, and we don’t want to be hurt by that,” Komchai “Paeng” Thanapanich, a volunteer at Thai Whales, said.
But falling in love was inevitable when it came to Marium, an orphaned baby dugong rescued May 19 and cared for by volunteers, vets, and marine officials until her death Saturday.
“After feeding her and giving her medicine, we would try to leave the water. But she would swim to us and nip at our legs. She was so pouty and needed love,” Paeng said by phone.
Thai Whales is a volunteer organization that rescues beached marine animals and helps the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources care for them. Paeng was there for around half of Marium’s hundred-odd days under human care, helping the vets feed her milk and sea grass.
“She remembered every person,” Paeng said. “She would swim to us when we called her name, and show us her belly so we could pet her. She was cheerful and smart.”
Paeng said the doctors who were with her daily, as well as volunteers like her, are “still crying.”
Marium was the first dugong under the care of Thai authorities to live in a natural environment rather than a pool. In her final weeks, she suffered in a depressive state apparently caused by an attack by a larger dugong. However, her autopsy determined the immediate cause of death to be plastic blocking her digestive system. Despite officials’ efforts, Marium died nine minutes after midnight Saturday.
“When she got sick, I tried to make peace with it,” Paeng said. “But when we cut her open and found plastic, I immediately thought, ‘Is this because of me? Is any of this plastic mine?’”
Also saddened – and angry – is conservation photographer Sirachai “Shin” Arunrugstichai, who first brought Marium fame with photos of her cuddling her caretakers.
“We shouldn’t go quiet after her death. We can’t keep consuming without thinking of its effects. We have to think of our impact on the world,” Shin said. “Something so beautiful is gone.”
But both Shin and Paeng say monitoring our individual consumption and waste management habits is not enough – government policies and industry regulations are necessary.
“We need big changes from the higher-ups,” Paeng said. “Marium was a victim in all of this. I think her vibes of love won’t be in vain, if everyone channels their sadness into love, and into law on a national scale.”
The Marium Project
Marine officials have declared the day of Marium’s death, Aug. 17, to be National Dugong Day and set up the Marium Fund to support further marine conservation efforts.
The initiatives are part of a broader scheme that officials call the “Marium Project” – a plan to increase dugong numbers, explained Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a marine biologist from Kasetsart University who is on the board of the marine department.
Only 250 dugongs are left in Thailand, 200 of which live near Trang and Krabi. Around 10 to 12 die per year, 90 percent from fishing gear. Thon says that the department has declared the lofty goal of increasing dugong numbers by 50 percent within a decade, or to have at least 375 dugongs in the country.
Officials are currently aiming to prevent fishermen from operating in areas with abundant seagrass and periodic reports of dugongs, while informing fishermen about the ecological importance of dugongs.
Thon says the project is currently active in Koh Libong, Trang, but will be expanded to 11 other dugong habitats nationwide, such as Prasae River delta in Rayong, Bandon Bay in Surat Thani, and Ko Phra Thong in Phang Nga.
Is this because of me? Is any of this plastic mine?
In 2019 alone, 16 dugongs have been found beached in Thailand. Only Jamil is still alive, who was found as a three-month-old on July 1 in Krabi. He is currently under the care of the marine department in Phuket.
“It’s a very challenging goal because we’ve never cared for so many dugongs. But we can do it with enough support,” Thon wrote.
Marine department officials came to Government House on Tuesday to discuss the Marium Project.
Wildlife has recovered in rare instances of environmental regulations winning over tourism and industry. Six months after Maya Bay in Krabi was closed to tourists in June 2018, blacktip reef sharks were spotted giving birth to pups.