NAT_230412 Dugong Rescue_SZ 1-1681365936521
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Abu Dhabi: A young male dugong that had been separated from its herd, and found in Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve had been rescued and rehabilitated here

Alone and without the protection of its mother or a herd, the dugong was named Malqout by researchers, in keeping with the Arabic word for ‘saved’ and ‘one whose owner is not known’.

It was first discovered following a few days of strong winds, which are believed to have contributed to the calf’s separation from its herd, environment sector regulator, the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi (EAD) said in a statement on Wednesday (April 12).

Unstable condition

EAD’s specialised marine species team assessed Malqout’s health, supported by experts at the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) Regional Office. Experts were able to determine that the young dugong was suffering from dehydration and malnutrition due to its low weight and unstable condition, and therefore needed specialised veterinary care.

Authorities transferred him to a specialised facility in Abu Dhabi, staffed by animal husbandry experts and qualified veterinarians.

Specialist care

For this, the EAD coordinated with locally based zoological experts, Worldwide Zoo Consultants, to provide veterinary consultancy and ongoing specialist care in animal husbandry. The specialists advised keeping Malqout under round-the-clock human supervision due to his poor health, supported by the availability of appropriate resources that could provide the highest standards of care.

Abu Dhabi waters

There are approximately 3,000 dugongs in the territorial waters of Abu Dhabi, and they are mostly found near Bu Tinah Island, which forms part of the Marawah Biosphere Reserve and Al Yasat Marine Protected Area. The population makes us the second largest gathering of the creatures anywhere in the world after Australia, and the EAD considers it a responsibility to protect the animals. The authority does its utmost to ensure the preservation, and reduce the mortality rates, of the dugong population, and also to minimise any risks.

The authority also regularly rescues and rehabilitates sea turtles, and has also worked to reunite stranded whale sharks.

Rare success story

The successful rescue and rehabilitation process of Malqout is one of the rarest cases in the world. By drawing on its extensive experience garnered over 25 years, the EAD succeeded in caring for Malqout, even though dugongs do not respond well in captivity. The EAD made use of learnings from several of its research and scientific studies on dugong protection, preserving habitats and marine species.

Dugongs rely heavily on their mothers for the first 18 months of life, but EAD was able to provide the best environment for Malqout to survive.

To rehabilitate Malqout, continuous 24-hour veterinary care was provided until he was gradually weaned and trained to eat seaweed. To maintain his quality of life after that initial period, Malqout needed special care from qualified veterinarians, including suitable facilities to accommodate his growth, and to protect him from volatile weather conditions and loud noises.

Special formula food

EAD and the team of experts provided a stimulating environment with suitable space in which Malqout could learn about natural behaviour patterns, while ensuring his long-term growth. The team of experienced veterinarians provided special formula food to treat dehydration and malnutrition. Since then, Malqout has grown from 60 centimetres to nearly two metres in length, has has been given a clean bill of health.

According to information from an MoU by the Secretariat of the Conservation and Management of Dugongs and previous attempts made around the world, no dugong to date has successfully been rehabilitated in captivity, and then then released back into its natural environment.

Knowing that Malqout lacks the natural survival instinct acquired in the early stages of a dugong’s life – and in order to mitigate any other risks – EAD therefore decided not to release him. Still young, and having been reared in a controlled environment, he was found not to have developed normal immunity, and has adapted to receiving specialist human care, which hinders his ability to interact with other species and avoid predators.

Special provisions

Following the rehabilitation, experts determined that the best option for Malqout is to continue his life under consistent human supervision. The dugong’s survival story is testament to the quality of care available in Abu Dhabi. EAD and its partners are well equipped to care for Malqout, while the team of veterinarians and dugong experts will be able to monitor his condition on a regular basis.

“Malqout’s story is a story we want to share with the world as it is a unique and rare occasion, as dugongs are fragile animals and rely on their mother during the first two years of life. This made us realise the task ahead, and that Malqout would need around-the-clock monitoring and rearing to ensure his survival. During his rehabilitation Malqout has grown profoundly and is doing very well, and his case is a perfect example of how local and international collaboration can help save species around the world, as our team of experts at the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi worked closely with experts through the CMS office, and Dugong MoU, as well as with specialised marine vets, to ensure that we provide the best care possible,” said Dr Shaikha Salem Al Dhaheri, EAD secretary general.

Juvenile dugongs

“Stranded juvenile dugongs are notoriously difficult to rescue and rehabilitate. Aside from Malqout, there is only one other documented case of successful long-term care, a neonate dugong rescued in 1998 who currently resides at Sydney Aquarium. There are no records of hand-reared dugongs being successfully released back to the wild,” explained Rouba Abou-Atieh, executive coordinator at CMS.

“A December 2022 CMS Publication, ‘Options For Handling a Stranded Orphaned Dugong Calf – Advice to Policy Makers and Managers’, seeks to outline the difficult and limited choices available when an orphaned dugong is found stranded. Malqout is an extremely rare case, who has benefited from access to leading veterinary care and marine facilities in the UAE since his rescue in 2019. As a consequence of this necessary care, he cannot, however, survive release back into the wild and will continue to need human care in a simulated environment to support his long-term survival,” she added.

“Worldwide Zoo Consultants is proud to have contributed to the successful rescue and rehabilitation of the dugong.Over the past three-and-a-half years, in coordination with the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, our dedicated animal care experts and veterinarians were able to accomplish something that is very rare, the successful rescue and rehabilitation of a stranded newborn dugong calf. We are proud of this exceptional accomplishment.

Many hours of round-the-clock care went into this effort, and we could not be happier that he is currently thriving and fully stabilised and adapted well to living in human care. The lessons learned Malqout has taught us during our rescue and rehabilitation efforts will most certainly be beneficial to future rescues efforts for others of his species,” said Tommy Wilken, chief executive officer of Worldwide Zoo Consultants.