An orphaned baby dugong that became an internet hit has died in Thailand after eating plastic waste.
The eight-month-old female ocean mammal named Marium became an internet star in June after images of marine biologists nursing her back to health — by feeding her milk and sea grass — spread across social media, casting a spotlight on ocean conservation.
Biologists believe Marium died from a combination of shock and ingesting plastic, CNN reports.
Veterinarians and volunteers set out each day in canoes to locate Marium near the dugong habitat off Ko Libong island in Krabi province. She does not swim with the herd and usually comes straight to them. Marium then follows them into shallow water, where she is fed with milk and sea grass, similar to her natural diet, for up to 15 times a day while also receiving health checks.
Last week, she was found bruised after being chased and supposedly attacked by a male dugong during the mating season, said Jatuporn Buruspat, director-general of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources.
“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,” Mr Buruspat said on Saturday.
Marium was brought in for treatment but died early on Sunday morning, an autopsy revealing large amounts of plastic waste lining her intestine, resulting in inflammation and the accumulation of gas as well as respiratory infection and a build-up of pus, CNN reports.
“She must have thought these plastics were edible,” Mr Buruspat said.
After being separated from its mother and getting lost off southern Thailand in April, the baby dugong was nurtured by marine experts in the hope that it could one day fend for itself.
Marium’s caretakers believed the dugong had formed a bond with humans and was drawn to the shape of the bottom of their canoes, perhaps seeing them as a substitute for her lost mother.
“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. It’s almost like the way she would tuck under her mother,” said Nantarika Chansue, director of the Aquatic Animal Research Centre of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Veterinarian Science, which advises Marium’s caretakers.
“So I think it’s not only humans but anything that looks like another dugong that she would be attached to,” Dr Chansue said.
Marium had attained fame on social media. Images and videos of it bonding with her human guardians were widely published on the platform. Marium also attracted crowds on Libong island, where her feeding would be watched by scores of onlookers.
The dugong is a species of marine mammal that can grow to about 3.4 metres in length. Its conservation status is listed as vulnerable.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Varawut Silpa-arcpha said at a news conference Marium’s corpse would be stuffed for research purposes, and the animal’s death saddens the whole nation and the world.
“Her death will remind Thais and people all over the world not to dispose trash into the oceans,” he said.