Sick dolphin calf improves with tube-fed milk, helping hands

RAYONG, Thailand (AP) – An Irrawaddy dolphin calf – sick and too weak to swim – was drowning in a tide pool off the coast of Thailand when fishermen found it.

The fishermen quickly alerted marine conservationists, who advised them how to provide emergency care until a rescue team could provide the baby with veterinary attention at Thailand’s Marine and Coastal Resources Research and Development Center.

The baby was nicknamed Paradon, which roughly translates to “Brother’s Burden” as they knew from day one that saving his life would not be an easy task.

Considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Irrawaddy dolphins are found in shallow coastal waters in South and Southeast Asia and in three rivers in Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia. Their existence is threatened by habitat loss, pollution and illegal fishing.

Officials at the Marine Research Center believe there are about 400 Irrawaddy dolphins on the country’s east coast, bordering Cambodia.

Since Paradon was found by fishermen on July 22, dozens of veterinarians and volunteers have helped care for him at a center in Rayong, on the Gulf of Thailand.

“We said among ourselves that his chances of survival are very low considering his condition,” Thanaphan Chomchuen, a veterinarian at the center, said on Friday. “Normally, stranded dolphins are in such dire condition. The chances of survival of these dolphins are generally very low. But we gave it our best that day.

Workers put him in a pool of seawater, treated the lung infection that made him so sick and weak, and enlisted volunteers to monitor him around the clock. He has to be held in his tank to prevent him from drowning and fed, initially by tube and then by bottle as he recovers a bit.

A staff veterinarian and one or two volunteers remain on each eight-hour shift, and other workers pump and filter water and prepare milk for calves during the day.

After a month, Paradon’s condition is improving. The calf, believed to be 4 to 6 months old, can now swim and has no signs of infection. But the dolphin, which measured 138 centimeters long (4.5 feet) and about 27 kilograms (59 pounds) on July 22, is still weak and not taking enough milk despite the team trying to feed it every 20 minutes.

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Thippunyar Thipjuntar, a 32-year-old financial consultant, is one of the many volunteers who come in for a babysitting shift with Paradon.

Thippunya said with Paradon’s round baby face and curved mouth that seemed to smile, she couldn’t help but get attached to him and worry about his development.

“He doesn’t eat enough, he just wants to play. I’m worried he’s not getting enough nutrition,” she told The Associated Press on Friday as she cradled the sleeping Paradon in her arms. “When you invest your time, physical effort, mental focus and money to volunteer here, you certainly want him to be strong and live.”

Sumana Kajonwattanakul, director of the marine center, said Paradon will need long-term care, perhaps up to a year, until it is weaned and can hunt for its own food.

“If we release him when he gets better, the problem is he won’t get milk. We have to take care of him until he gets teeth, then we have to train him to eat fish and become part of the legume. It will take a long time,” said Sumana.

Paradon’s caregivers believe that extended tender loving care is beneficial.

“If we can save one dolphin, it will help our knowledge, as there are not many successful cases of treating these types of animals,” said veterinarian Thanaphan. “If we can save him and he survives, we will have learned a lot from this.”

“Secondly, I think that by saving him, by giving him a chance to survive, we raise awareness about the conservation of these species of animals, which are rare, with very few left.”

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