A baby dugong in Thailand has captured the hearts of the country’s population after she was found alone and rescued near a beach.
Photos of Marium, the five-month-old dugong – also known as a sea cow – went viral online showing the marine animal appearing to hug her human helpers.
The media buzz prompted the country’s Department of Marine and Coastal Resources to dub her “the nation’s sweetheart”.
Marium is being hand-reared after she was found alone and rescued near Ko Poda island off the southern Thai province of Krabi.
Conservationists moved her to a nearby dugong habitat off Ko Libong island, where she repeatedly snuggles up to boats and canoes instead of other dugongs, leading the rescue team to deduce that she was an orphan seeking a mother figure.
They then began to feed her milk and sea grass as she developed an attachment to humans.
Veterinarians and volunteers set out each day in canoes to locate Marium.
She does not swim with the herd and usually comes straight to the human visitors, following them into shallower water, where she is fed milk and sea grass, similar to her natural diet, for up to 15 times a day while also receiving health checks.
The sea cow is now attracting crowds to Libong island, where her feeding is often watched by scores of people on the seashore.
Her fame is now set to skyrocket as she is poised to star in her own live video feed while experts are designing a coastal holding pen to protect her from passing boats.
“We call our orange kayak ‘Mother Orange’,” said Nantarika Chansue, director of Chulalongkorn University’s aquatic animal medicine unit in Bangkok. “When Mother Orange sweeps by, Marium follows.”
“She’s the center of attention. She’s a baby, she’s an orphan, she’s rare. When she’s hungry she puts her thumb in her mouth and sucks it. If she’s a little bit hungry it’s one hand [flipper], if she’s very hungry: two hands.”
Veterinarians say they need to continue looking after Marium for at least another year until she can be weaned off of bottled milk, after which they hope she will be able to look after herself without their help.
She weighs 29.5kg and is already almost the size of an adult human but dugongs can grow to be three meters, weigh up to 500kg, and live for up to 70 years.
Around 200 dugongs, which are a species of manatee, are believed to live in Thai waters.
They usually stay close to their mothers until they are 18 months’ old, but in April marine researchers found Marium swimming by herself.
The dugong is a species of marine mammal similar to the American manatee and can grow to about 3.4 meters in length.
Its conservation status is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.