Survival training is helping an orphaned sea cow learn to live on its own in the sea.
Mariam is just one and, like most infants, after being fed she needs a bit of exercise to help her digest. She is a dugong so she is fed milk and seagrasses, and exercise for her means swimming around in the sea.
The baby dugong is an orphan, but her human foster parents attend to her every need. They paddle alongside her in a small plastic kayak and watch her every move. Sometimes she swims under the bottom of the small boat and rubs herself against it, as she would with her real mother.
Mariam was discovered floundering helplessly near a beach in a bay in the south of Thailand on the Andaman Sea last April. After she had likely got separated from her mother, the young dugong is believed to have followed a fishing boat to the coastal area.
The orphaned calf is now being nurtured at Dugong Point on Koh Libong, an island in nearby Trang province. In the local dugong conservation area, which serves as a popular sightseeing spot where visitors can watch wild dugongs, Mariam is under all-round care and monitoring by veterinarians and volunteer conservationists.
She is quite a handful by all accounts. Mariam frequently needs to be rescued as she often oversleeps and gets stranded on shore when the tide has retreated. Naturally, when the level of water decreases in an area, a baby dugong will follow its mother into safety in deeper water. Instead, Mariam is taken back to the sea by her carers.
“Nurturing procedures out in the open sea are a lot more difficult than in a closed system,” explains Patcharaporn Keawmong, a veterinarian from the Phuket Marine Biological Center.
“Many areas are not comfortable [for human caretakers] and there are risks to them such as danger from venomous jellyfish and unexpected storms,” the vet adds. “But there are clear advantages to raising animals in their natural habitats. In the case of Mariam, it was decided that it would be best for the calf to be brought to her own natural home. As a result, she has opportunities to learn how to survive in the sea on her own and gain survival instincts.”
Proper nutrition for Mariam is a must. Apart from drinking her daily dose of milk, she needs to learn to chew seagrasses, which are her main source of nutrients. Her physical health also demands close attention. She seems to have adopted the kayak of her carers as her surrogate mother of sorts. “Mariam likes to hide and linger under the kayak we are using to look after her,” the vet says. “It is like she wants attention and security from it as if it was her mother.”
Dugongs are related to manatees, but while their cousins inhabit freshwater habitats, dugongs occupy coastal areas in the sea from East Africa all the way to Australia and from the Red Sea to Indian Ocean to the Pacific. Known as sea cows, dugongs spend hours chomping on seagrasses underwater. A dugong can eat up to 40 kilograms of seagrasses a day.
The sea mammals are listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as their population continues dwindling. Various major threats to the animals include habitat loss and being hunted for their meat. Frequently they get injured by passing boats or get entangled in fishing nets, which may cause them to drown.
The total number of dugongs left remains contested because little reliable information is available, especially in developing countries where effective tools and human resources for monitoring rare sea animals are limited.
In Thailand, an estimated 300 dugongs remain, living near the coasts of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea in areas where there is an abundance of seagrasses. An estimated 185 dugongs, or 70% of the total number of dugongs in the country, inhabit the waters in Trang, the province where Mariam is being nurtured. Even though the population of dugongs in Thailand is considered to be small, their numbers have been increasing over the past six years.
The animals are doing less well in some neighboring countries, which lack effective conservation efforts. In Malaysia no more than 100 dugongs are believed to remain in local waters. There are reports that three to five of them die each year, many by getting entangled in fishing gear underwater and drowning.
“Sometimes the nets are set very low. When it hits the dugongs, they will panic and roll into the nets, causing them to be entangled in the nets and drowned because they have to breathe every five to seven minutes. That is the biggest mortality for dugongs,” says Dr. Donna Kwan, program manager of the Dugong Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in Malaysia.
With the number of dugongs declining, conservation efforts need to be stepped up urgently before these wonderful sea creatures are pushed to the very edge of extinction.