Sick dolphin calf gets better with tube-fed milk, helping hands

RAYONG, Thailand (AP) — The 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 notified marine conservationists, who advised them on how to provide emergency care until a rescue team could transport the baby to Thailand’s Marine and Coastal Resources Research and Development Center for veterinary care.

The baby was nicknamed Paradon, roughly translated as “brotherly burden”, because those involved 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 the shallow coastal waters of South and Southeast Asia and in three rivers in Myanmar, Cambodia and Indonesia. Their survival is threatened by habitat loss, pollution and illegal fishing.

Officials from the marine research center believe about 400 Irrawaddy dolphins remain along the country’s east coast, on the border with Cambodia.

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

“We said among ourselves that the chance of him surviving was quite low, judging by his condition,” Thanaphan Chomchuen, a veterinarian at the center, said on Friday. “Normally, stranded dolphins are usually in such a terrible state. The chances of these dolphins surviving are usually very, very small. But we gave it our best effort that day.”

Workers placed him in a saltwater pool, treated the lung infection that had made him so sick and weak, and recruited volunteers to monitor him around the clock. They have to keep him in his tank to prevent him from drowning and feed him milk, first by tube and later by bottle when he has regained some strength.

A staff veterinarian and one or two volunteers stay for each eight-hour shift, and other workers during the day operate the water pump and filter and make milk for the calf.

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

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 smile-like mouth, she couldn’t help but cling to him and worry about his growth.

“He’s not eating enough but he just wants to play. I’m worried he’s not getting enough nutrition,” she told The Associated Press on Friday as she fed a sleepy Paradon cradled in her arm. “When you invest time, physical effort, mental attention and money to come here to volunteer, of course you want him to grow strong and survive.”

Sumana Kajonwattanakul, director of the marine center, said Paradon will need long-term care, perhaps as long as a year, until he is weaned from milk and can hunt for his own food.

“If we release him as soon as he gets better, the problem is he won’t be able to have milk. We should take care of him until he has teeth, then we have to train him to eat fish and be part of a pod. This will take some time,” said Sumana.

Paradon caregivers believe that extended tender loving care is worth it.

“If we can save a dolphin, it will help our knowledge, as there have not been many successful cases in treating this type of animal,” said veterinarian Thanaphan. “If we can save him and he survives, we will have learned so much from this.”

“Secondly, I think by saving him, by giving him a chance to live, we’re also raising awareness about the conservation of these kinds of animals, which are rare and there aren’t many left.”

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