Thai Prime Minister appeals to public to fight plastic pollution

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha appealed directly to the Thai people last week for help in turning the tide on plastic pollution after a baby dugong that had captured hearts around the world died from ingesting plastics in the waters off of Thailand.

The orphaned eight-month-old dugong named Mariam by Thai biologists was found alone in the shallow waters off southern Thailand in April this year. Veterinarians and volunteer divers repeatedly paddled out to her in canoes to feed her bottled milk and seagrass. Dugongs are related to manatees and graze on seagrass in coastal waters.

Videos of volunteers cradling and feeding Mariam in hopes of nursing her to healthy adulthood went viral. Thais who nicknamed Mariam “Thailand’s sweetheart.” But last week, Mariam’s caregivers found her listless and bruised. They believe she wandered and was chased by aggressive male dugongs. They brought her to a protected enclosure, but her condition worsened and eventually could not be revived, to the heartbreak and dismay of everyone.

An autopsy revealed that Mariam had ingested plastics while feeding in the oceans.

Thailand and several other countries in the region have been struggling to contain plastic pollution on land and sea. As chair country of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for 2019, Thailand forged a regional agreement on responding to the problem of marine debris, particularly plastics.

The Thai government has also been urging people to avoid using single-use plastics.

“Everyone has a duty to help reduce plastic waste,’” Prime Minister Prayut said. “It is pointless to blame the government when sea animals die due to marine waste. This issue is everyone’s responsibility.”

Nonetheless, the government is taking action. Natural Resources Minister Warawuth Silpa-archa and director-general of the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources Jatuporn Burutpat led officials to Government House to meet Prayut. They sought his approval for the soon-to-be-launched “reduce, refrain, and stop the use of plastic to protect marine life” campaign.

Only about 250 dugongs remain in the waters of Thailand’s coastlines. The government is developing a plan to provide them with more protection in hopes their population can recover.

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