A beloved baby dugong is killed by plastic waste

21 Agustus 2019

Mariam, an orphaned baby dugong, became famed worldwide a few weeks ago for her plight in Thai waters and the frantic conservation efforts undertaken to save her. Now the juvenile animal is dead and the cause of her death is just as saddening as her demise: she died of ingesting plastic waste.

Separated from her mother, Mariam was found floundering near a beach in the Andaman Sea in the south of Thailand last April. She was rescued and conservationists began to nurture her back to health in her natural habitat at Dugong Point at Koh Libong, an island in Thailand’s south.

The young calf needed 24-hour monitoring and care from volunteer conservationists as well as veterinarians who taught her survival skills in the absence of her mother. Mariam frequently needed help from her caretakers as she regularly overslept and got stranded onshore when the tide went down. She earned the nickname “Sleepyhead” from some of her many fans who closely followed her progress on social media.

Although conservationists thought it best to nurture Mariam in her natural habitat, there were various dangers to the calf. Last month she was unexpectedly attacked by an adult male dugong in the area during breeding season for the sea cows. The baby dugong got stressed and seemed to sicken as a result. Veterinarians decided to move Mariam for closer care in a nursery tank nearby.

Being under treatment for a week the orphan calf’s health gradually improved, but then she died one night rather unexpectedly. A subsequent autopsy revealed the real cause of Mariam’s death: plastic debris was found in her stomach where it caused blockages.

“It is very sad that she died after going into shock due to the obstruction in her intestine generated by plastic fragments. They caused inflammation leading to fully building-up gas in the digestive system,” explained Nantarika Chansue, a veterinarian from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University who was on the autopsy team.

Thailand is the world’s sixth biggest contributor of plastic waste to the oceans. Over the past decade, the country has generated plastic waste to the extent of 2 million tons per year on average. Even though there have been plastic-free campaigns, plastic pollution generated by Thai people remains exceedingly high.

“Thailand’s large-scale consumption of plastic is a contemporary problem. In the past, banana leaves, bamboo, pots, and tin cans were used as packaging,” The Bangkok Post observes. “But as Thailand’s consumption of plastic grew in the 1970s, its petrochemical industry began to boom. By 1996, the country had achieved the full integration of plastic production. Overall, Thailand’s petrochemical sector is Southeast Asia’s second largest and ranks 16th globally.”

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