A dugong which captured the hearts of Thailand has been found dead with pieces of plastic in its digestive system.
The animal – a type of mammal that is sometimes thought to be the source of the mermaid myth – had become nationally famous after it was “adopted” by the public when it was discovered alone, without its parents.
Last week, the mammal, which has been named Mariam, was found ill and was refusing to eat, losing a lot of weight.
On Saturday, it died and an autopsy involving 10 vets determined it was killed by plastic it had eaten.
One of the vets who took care of the dugong, Nantarika Chansue, said on Facebook: “Many pieces of small plastic clogged her intestines and caused inflammation, leading to blood infection and inflamed lungs.
“Everyone is saddened by this loss, but it reiterates that we need to save the environment to save these rare sea animals.”
Dugongs are listed as “vulnerable”, meaning they are at high risk of endangerment in the wild, after thousands of years of being hunted by humans for their meat and oil.
Mariam, a name that means “lady of the sea”, was found stranded on a beach in southern Krabi province in April.
It was estimated to be just a few months old and was thought to have been separated from its mother after misjudging the tides.
The Thai authorities took it to a safer area and fed it milk and sea grass, before releasing it into waters around Koh Libong, which is known for its small population of dugongs.
But they continued to monitor its progress, aware that it had no mother to teach it how to feed, and provided live Facebook updates as a growing number of Thais became keen to know its progress.
Pictures of the dugong clinging to the female vet feeding it brought the animal celebrity status, including the attention of one of Thailand’s princesses.
Thailand is thought to be home to about 250 of the animals, which are also known as sea cows and are related to the manatee of the Caribbean and the southern US.
Thai laws prohibit hunting or trading them but the country has acknowledged it is part of a region that has a problem with plastic pollution in the seas.
In June, along with nine other southeast Asian countries, Thailand adopted a joint declaration to combat marine debris.