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In this image taken from video taken April 22, 2020, by Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, six dugongs are swimming together, part of a larger group of dugongs cruising slowly in the shallow waters in the area of Chao Mai Beach national park in Trang province, Thailand. T

Thailand's tourist drought leaves space for shy sea mammal

BANGKOK (AP) — It's rare to see a threatened species of sea mammal in shallow waters in southern Thailand but thanks to travel restrictions that have stripped popular destinations of crowds of tourists, a large group of dugongs has made their presence known.

Drone video footage released by the Department of National Parks shows a 30-strong herd of dugongs on Wednesday off Libong island in Trang province. They were feeding on sea grass and occasionally surfaced to breathe.

Naturalists report other marine animals are also taking advantage of the tourism slump that is leaving coastal regions tranquil and undisturbed.

Human intrusion and marine pollution have made dugong sightings in southern Thailand rare in recent years.

"It's quite unusual," marine scientist Thon Thamrongnawasawat told The Associated Press on Thursday when asked about the dugongs. "This species of mammal is very sensitive to speed boats and people. When they are gone, they feel free to gather in a large group and come close to shore."

Dugongs – closely related to the manatee or sea cow – are officially classified as vulnerable. They can grow up to 3.4 meters (11 feet) in length. Thailand's population is put at around 250. Last year a record number of dead dugongs were found in Thai waters.

Their fate captured attention last June after images circulated of Thai veterinarians cuddling an ailing baby dugong and hand-feeding her with milk and sea grass.

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