Best of our wild blogs: 19 May 11

Going for Bronok
from The annotated budak and wild shores of singapore

Sparkling Jewels in Wet Mornings
from Macro Photography in Singapore

Chestnut Avenue On Polling Day 7 May 2011
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

otter makantime II @ SBWR May2011
from sgbeachbum and scarlet-backed flowerpecker@ SBWR - May2011

apathetic fishermen III @ SBWR 15May2011
from sgbeachbum

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Renewable energy? Singaporeans say yes: GE survey

Enya Lim Business Times 19 May 11;

A SURVEY by General Electric (GE) Singapore has revealed that over 90 per cent of Singaporeans have a positive view of renewable energy (RE).

Carried out less than a month ago, the poll randomly surveyed more than 350 adults from various sections of society, and found that among Singaporeans' top environmental concerns are global warming, air pollution and water pollution, amid other issues such as flora and fauna extinction, noise pollution and overuse of biodegradable products.

Those surveyed also displayed a healthy understanding of what causes air pollution, correctly stating the burning of fossil fuels for generating power as a leading cause of air pollution. In addition, survey results showed that more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans believed in the necessity of RE to conserve the environment - although only two in three rightly identified RE sources without help.

Solar energy ranked first as the source of RE that respondents were most aware of, while wind and hydro-energy occupied second and third spots respectively.

Not surprisingly, almost three-quarters of participants were convinced that installing RE systems would be expensive, though a majority believed that their subsequent maintenance fees would serve effectively in the long term.

Venkat Kannan, energy services leader for GE Energy, Asean, expressed pleasure that 'Singaporeans view RE positively'. He said: 'Although Singapore is somewhat limited in size, RE technologies are critical for lessening Singapore's almost complete reliance on fossil fuel, and can be developed for export to larger markets like Indonesia or China.'

Edwin Khew, chairman of the Sustainable Energy Association of Singapore, said: 'I think this level of public awareness is a positive start to Singapore's plans to develop a Clean Energy Hub. It indicates that Singaporeans may be receptive to greater detail on sustainable development, such as energy-efficiency projects and next-generation electric vehicles.'

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Shell to re-start stalled ethylene cracker soon

Ronnie Lim Business Times 19 May 11;

SHELL is this week trying to re-start its stalled ethylene cracker on Pulau Bukom - the core of its new US$3 billion petrochemicals complex. The cracker has been out of action for two months now, with this hitting Shell's feedstock supplies to downstream customers.

The latter includes plants like Ellba Eastern on Jurong Island which rely on ethylene from Shell for its production, with Ellba up to yesterday still unable to resume normal product deliveries to its own customers. Another plant earlier reported to be affected is Shell's monoethylene glycol plant there.

Giving an update of the cracker outage which started on March 18, a Shell spokesman said this week that 'we are in the process of restarting sometime from the middle of May. During the start-up stage, the cracker will gradually increase its operating rates'.

'After start-up, we will monitor the performance of the cracker to determine if we can lift force majeure (FM). We will keep our customers regularly updated on the situation so they can make informed decisions.'

The unplanned shutdown of the new cracker - which Shell had just barely started up in March - was due to unspecified 'technical problems', Shell said.

'Our manufacturing and technology teams have been working round the clock and continue to work hard to fix these technical problems.'

The cracker outage caused Shell to declare force majeure on contracted supplies to its customers on March 21. This is a common clause in contracts that frees both parties from liability or obligations when an extraordinary event or circumstance beyond the control of the parties prevents one or both from fulfilling their contractual obligations.

A BASF spokesman told BT yesterday that Ellba Eastern - a BASF-Shell joint venture - has still not received word on exactly when ethylene supplies from the Shell cracker will resume.

This means that Ellba's own force majeure notice to its customers for its styrene monomer - which are used to make various plastics and rubber products - remains in place, the spokesman added.

Ellba first issued its FM to customers on March 22 - with this due to a technical outage at its own catalyst plant, and not because of the Shell cracker problem. But after completing an unscheduled two to three- week maintenance of its plant in mid-April, Ellba has still been unable to lift the FM, as it has not been able to secure ethylene from Shell since.

Apart from 800,000 tonnes per annum of ethylene, the Shell cracker has a design capacity to produce 450,000 tpa of propylene and 230,000 tpa of benzene.

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Malaysia: Straits of Johor throws back tonnes of garbage

Nelson Benjamin The Star 19 May 11;

JOHOR BARU: A popular stretch along the Straits of Johor near the former Tanjung Puteri Customs Complex has been littered with tonnes of garbage washed up by the high tide.

The sight of the “sea of rubbish” has irked visitors who usually parked their vehicles along Jalan Ibrahim Sultan during the hot afternoons to enjoy the breeze below a row of shady trees.

Many of the visitors said they had never seen so much rubbish washed into the area.

There were food containers, slippers, coconut shells, plasticware, helmets and plastic bags.

“It is so embarrassing that this area is full of such garbage,” forwarding agent Abdul Rashid, 24, said.

“I hope the local council will do something about it and clean up the place.

“They must also fine those who throw rubbish into the sea,” he said.

Abdul also said the area was popular among picnickers.

“This is surely an eyesore as it is near the Johor Causeway,” he added.

Another frequent visitor, who only wants to be known as Ng, said he was sad that people still treated the waterways as a dumpsite to discard rubbish.

“This area is so breezy and cooling but all the floating rubbish is a terrible eyesore,” he said, expressing hope tha the Johor Baru City Council (MBJB) would clean up the area.

Ng said the area was previously smelly as well but the situation improved after the council put up garbage bins.

“But all this garbage is due to people dumping rubbish into the river which is later washed down into the sea,” he said.

MBJB public relations officer Mohd Firdaus Abdul Hamid said the council was aware of the matter and would be carrying out cleaning works soon.

“The rubbish is being washed up from sea and we cannot point fingers at anyone,” he said, urging those with complaints to contact the MBJB hotline at 1-300-880-146.

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Europe may ban plastic bags

Yahoo News 18 May 11;

BRUSSELS (AFP) – With each European using 500 plastic bags per year, and tonnes of plastic littering the Mediterranean, the European Commission may ban them from stores or tax them to combat pollution.

Europe produced 3.4 million tonnes of plastic carrier bags in 2008 -- the equivalent in weight of two million cars, according to the European Union's executive arm.

The bags often end up in the sea, taking hundreds of years to decompose, it said. Some 250 billion plastic particles weighing a total 500 tonnes litter the Mediterranean, threatening sea life which can suffocate eating them.

In some EU states, plastic bags are banned from stores or consumers must pay for them in supermarket lines, but there is no EU-wide regulation.

The EU Commission launched on Wednesday a public consultation which will run until August to decide the best course of action to reduce the use of plastic bags.

"Fifty years ago, the single-use plastic bag was almost unheard of -- now we use them for a few minutes and they pollute our environment for decades," said European environment commissioner Janez Potocnik.

"But social attitudes are evolving and there is a widespread desire for change. That's why we are looking at all the options, including a Europe-wide ban on plastic carrier," Potocnik said.

The EU executive said it also wants to gather opinions on increasing the visibility of biodegradable packaging products and boosting the biodegradability requirements for packaging.

EU Aims To Slash Plastic Bag Use
Christopher Le Coq PlanetArk 19 May 11;

The EU Commission is considering a tax or a ban on plastic bags as it tries to cut down on their use and fight pollution.

The Commission called for suggestions on Wednesday on how to deal with the billions of bags used in the European Union each year, but which take hundreds of years to decompose.

"Fifty years ago, the single-use plastic bag was almost unheard of. Now we use them for a few minutes and they pollute our environment for decades," EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik said in a statement on Wednesday.

Each person in the 27-country European Union uses on average 500 plastic carrier bags per year -- most of them just once.

A total of 3.4 million tonnes of plastic bags, weighing the same as about 2 million cars, were produced in Europe in 2008.

The Commission's public consultation will close at the end of August.

(Editing by Rex Merrifield)

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Malaysia: More artificial reefs to deter illegal trawling activities

Roslina Mohamad The Star 18 May 11

KUANTAN: Artificial reefs can deter illegal trawling activities that are destroying the country's marine eco-system and affecting the livelihoods of traditional fishermen.

"The operators of these vessels (trawlers) are doing many bad things to the marine life, not only in the deep sea. They are also encroaching in areas meant for smaller-scale fishing activities.

"Artificial reefs can protect these areas, gazetted five nautical miles from shore, which are rich in marine life and resources," Fisheries Department director-general Datuk Ahamad Sabki Mahmood said Wednesday, in his speech at the opening of a national-level seminar on artificial reef development and research.

He said illegal activities by trawlers operating in prohibited areas were rampant, and it was a challenge for the department, especially because many of the vessels were bigger and used modern technology.

Natural reefs could not rebuild themselves fast enough but artificial ones have been shown to be successful in replenishing reefs and corals.

Speaking to reporters later, Ahamad Sabki said the department had created 197 artificial reef spots around the country and planned to add 50 more, which required a sum of RM25mil.

"It is essential to continue to develop artificial reefs so the country's fish and marine supplies will always be sustainable.

"It has huge benefits, especially in helping to sustain the livelihoods of some 80,000 fishermen in the country and reduce fish imports," he added.

He also said the department had suspended 10 licences issued to deep-sea operators for making illegals fish landings outside of Malaysia this year and that they would continue to monitor the rest of the 1,300 licence holders.

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Indonesia Denies NGO Allegations Of Dolphin, Whale Hunting

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 18 May 11;

Environment officials came out on Wednesday to deny accusations that whales and dolphins were being actively killed and hunted down in Indonesian waters, despite laws prohibiting the activity.

The statement was made in response to a video and photos posted online by US-based nongovernmental organization Earth Island Institute alleging they were evidence of the killing of whales and dolphins in Indonesia.

“It is not true. How could that be? I have never heard of dolphins being hunted before,” Agus Apun Budhiman, director of fish resources at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, said at a press conference on Wednesday.

“Local people consider them [dolphins] as man’s best friends, so they would not go after them, let alone eat or use their meat as bait,” he added.

If ever there were any whales or dolphins captured, Agus said, it would have been accidental, not deliberate.

The video posted on the NGO’s Web site showed an interview with a local fisherman in Flores describing how dolphins are captured using home-made bombs. He said the captured dolphins were then killed to be used as bait to catch sharks for their fins.

“They use dynamite placed in beer bottles and throw them at dolphins. After dolphins got too weak, they captured them and tied their tails. They use them as baits for sharks as they needed [shark’s] fins that could be worth Rp 1 million [$117] for one kilogram,” the fisherman said in the interview.

The site also posted a picture of people surrounding a killer whale (Orcinus orca) on shore, claiming the picture showed the animal being butchered in Lamalera village, Lembata Island, Flores. Lamalera is known for its tradition of whaling.

Another two photos showed a pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps), which the site claimed had been pregnant when it was slaughtered in Lamalera.

The site also said the photos, shot from 2010 to 2011, were meant to be evidence to persuade responsible companies, such as tuna importers, to put pressure on the government.

The ministry’s Agus said this wasn’t the first time such allegations had been made.

“[NGOs] presented us with similar videos on how dolphins are captured and used as bait at the Cites [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] meeting in Doha in 2010,” he said. “At the time we asked whether they were sure the images came from Indonesia, because it could be from somewhere else.

“It came as a surprise to us because we had never heard of such before. We are aware of shark killings and are collecting data on it and trying to control it.”

Indonesia bans the hunting of dolphins as they are protected, but not all shark species are safe from hunters.

During the Cites meeting in Doha, Indonesia supported big importing countries such as Japan, China and Singapore in voting down proposals to add four species of shark with great commercial value — the scalloped hammerhead, oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and spiny dogfish — to the Cites list of species with second-level protection.

Femke den Haas, founder of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, the local partner of Earth Island Institute, acknowledged the whaling that had long been practiced in Lamalera, which sees villagers go out in traditional canoes to hunt the marine mammals.

“However, the capture of dolphins and orcas with the use of motorboats has nothing to do with tradition,” Femke said.

She added that the photos and the video did not indict just Lamalera.

“Indonesia is fast losing its shark population and dolphins are getting killed in the process too,” she said. “Many other countries worldwide have banned it. Now Indonesia is being overwhelmed with fishing boats looking for sharks and using dolphins and whatever they get their hands on as bait. Sharks in Indonesian waters should be protected.”

Furthermore, she said the meat from the hunted whales was no longer limited to consumption in the village, but was even sold on other islands.

“If it’s the traditional way of hunting whales for local consumption, we can’t have any objection. But the villagers started to use motorboats since 10 years ago and now so many dolphins are being captured and this is not part of tradition anymore.”

Indonesia fears disruption to tuna sales after dolphin allegations
Erwida Maulia The Jakarta Post 18 May 11;

Indonesian authorities have expressed concerns that allegations its longline vessels use dolphins meat as bait in tuna fishing could disrupt the local tuna export industry.

The allegations were made recently by the US-based Friends of the Sea organization and Earth Island Institute, which release Dolphin Safe labels for tuna products, indicating that tuna has been caught without harming or killing dolphins.

While the US is not Indonesia's main tuna export destination, authorities have warned that the accusation could harm Indonesia's tuna markets in other countries, especially Europe.

Until now, the Euro zone has been among Indonesia's top export destinations for Indonesian tuna products after Japan and South Korea.

"The NGOs [that made the allegations] are US-based, but they can put strong pressure on Europe," Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry fishery resources director Agus Apun Budhiman said Wednesday in Jakarta.

"We don't want these allegations to disrupt our tuna sales ... If they continue to attack, we'll take this case to the annual tuna meetings," he said.

Agus was referring to the annual meetings of the West and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna.

He said he was confident the commissions would support Indonesia in the case given the country's important position in the global tuna production, with its waters, especially the Banda Sea, being the world's "tuna barn".

Indonesia has enjoyed an increase in tuna exports along with increases in tuna production over the past few years.

In 2008, Indonesia produced 490,942 tons of tuna; in 2009 it produced 541,303 tons; and in 2010, 577,430 tons.

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Extinctions Overestimated by 160 Percent?

Method for calculating animal and plant die-offs flawed, study says.
Brian Handwerk National Geographic News 18 May 11;

Global extinction rates may have been overestimated by as much as 160 percent, according to a new analysis.

In recent decades numerous studies have predicted that habitat destruction will doom some 20 to 50 percent of Earth's species within 500 years.

It's true that many species are still dying off, but the decline is happening at a slower pace than generally feared, according to study co-author Stephen Hubbell, an ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"The good news is that we may have a little more time in terms of saving some species," Hubbell said.

The bad news, he stressed, is that surging extinctions driven by habitat loss remain the critical conservation problem of the 21st century.

Method for Measuring Extinctions Flawed?

There's no proven, direct method for verifying extinction rates, so most scientists have relied on an indirect method to estimate how quickly plants and animals are disappearing.

That method calculates the rate at which new species are found when a new habitat area is sampled—called the species-area relationship (SAR)—and simply reverses that curve to predict the number of species that will go extinct as similarly sized areas of habitat are destroyed.

But Hubbell said the method is flawed, because much more land area must be lost to cause an extinction than is required to find a new species.

That's because only one individual of a species needs to be found in an area for scientists to deem it a new population, but extinction requires every member of a species to disappear.

"It's equivalent to saying a species is committed to extinction if you find the first individual and destroy its habitat, and that's clearly not true," Hubbell said.

"You have to destroy all of the habitat that has all the individuals of a species in it before that species goes extinct."

Hubbell and colleague Fangliang He of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, analyzed data from eight previously mapped forest areas from around the world. Each plot was between about 50 and 125 acres (20 and 50 hectares). The team also looked at ranges of several bird species in the continental United States.

Based on this real-life data and a mathematical model—in which the hypothetical destruction of habitat always resulted in fewer extinctions than predicted by SAR—the scientists calculated that the SAR-derived extinction rates had been overstated by as much as 160 percent.

The team also suggested that future studies could reveal even higher overestimates in some places.

Habitat Loss Still a Threat to Species

Yet ecologist Eric Dinerstein, who wasn't involved in the new study, said that examining how extinction rates are calculated is a bit of an academic argument for many conservationists.

"If it's a 160 percent overestimate or an 80 percent overestimate or a 20 percent overestimate, [comparing] which model of extinction rates is more accurate isn't the most important question," said Dinerstein, vice president of conservation science for WWF, a global conservation group.

"The overpowering message is that habitat loss and fragmentation are still the greatest threat to the future of species, and they are only increasing."

Dinerstein added that it's hard to determine when a species has gone extinct, as evidenced by numerous animals once thought gone but later found alive in small numbers.

And the final extinction of a species may be beside the point, Dinerstein said. What really matters is ecological extinction.

"That's when a population drops below a certain number of individuals and is no longer playing an ecological role in the ecosystem," Dinerstein said.

At this point the diminished species has so little interaction with the other plants and animals in the habitat that the species might as well be gone, from the point of view of the ecosystem.

Ecological extinction is of "much more concern to conservationists than [identifying] the last one or two individuals of some species which are still [alive] but functionally extinct."

Extinction Rates Critical for Conservation

Hubbell and He stressed that their research doesn't change the big picture, which isn't particularly rosy for species survival.

"I think [scientists and conservationists] are right in saying that we're really on the cusp of a sixth mass extinction or that it's actually in progress. We certainly don't disagree with that assessment," said Hubbell, whose study appears May 19 in the journal Nature.

But he also noted that learning how to calculate extinction rates properly is critical for conservation.

Take extinction-rate estimates by major initiatives, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and the U.N.'s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

If such estimates "are going to have consequences for billions of dollars in conservation efforts, don't you think we ought to know better why we're spending money and what the actual numbers are?" Hubbell said.

Co-author He also told reporters during a press briefing that no other scientific activity is arguably more important than understanding the causes and consequences of species extinctions.

However, He and Hubbell added that determining extinction rates has a long way to go.

"The bad news is that we really don't have good methods for estimating extinction yet," Hubbell explained.

"The precise answer depends on the precise pattern of habitat destruction in relation to the precise distribution of species.

"And although we can look at habitat destruction from satellites, we often just don't know where species live on the ground."

Plant, Animal Extinctions Often Exaggerated: Study
Alister Doyle PlanetArk 19 May 11;

A projected spate of extinctions of animals and plants this century may be less drastic than feared because the most widely used scientific method can exaggerate losses by more than 160 percent, a study said on Wednesday.

"Extinctions caused by habitat loss require greater loss of habitat than previously thought," two experts, based in China and the United States, wrote in the journal Nature.

Despite that good news, the report also endorsed past findings that human activities are wrecking habitats from the tropics to the Arctic, threatening the worst losses of species since the dinosaurs.

"Our results must not lead to complacency about extinction due to habitat loss, which is a real and growing threat," Fangliang He and Stephen Hubbell wrote.

The study, based on a survey of birds in the United States and forests, suggested the most commonly used method can exaggerate losses by more than 160 percent.

"The method has to be revised," Hubbell, of the University of California, told a news conference.

Scientists have long struggled to project extinctions as a rising human population shrinks habitats, for instance by felling forests to clear land for farms or cities. Pollution and global warming are also adding to threats.

The scientists stoked controversy by saying there was "reason to question" a U.N.-led Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that projected future extinctions at 1,000 to 10,000 times current rates, and a 2004 study saying that 18 to 35 percent of all species could be set on a path toward extinction by 2050.

Chris Thomas, the lead author of the latter study at the University of York in England, said he had published an update later in 2004 with a less severe extinction projection, broadly using techniques advocated in Wednesday's report.


"It is a pity that the authors did not realize this," he said. "And currently there is no reason for complacency that the extinction risk from climate change will necessarily be lower" than originally projected, he told Reuters.

Wednesday's report did not question findings by the U.N. panel of climate scientists in 2007 -- used by governments to guide climate policies -- that said 20 to 30 percent of species may be "at increased risk of extinction" as temperatures rise.

For scientists, the problem is they can fairly easily count species in an area -- adding one for each new bird, flower or mammal they find. It is far harder to count extinctions since that requires a judgment that the last individual has died.

Some studies in the 1970s, for instance, wrongly projected that half of all species could be lost by 2000.

More recent studies have added the idea of an "extinction debt," that species are doomed to die out once their habitat shrinks beyond a critical point. The study said estimations used by that technique were mathematically flawed.

Still, it said there was "no doubt whatsoever that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has correctly identified habitat loss as the primary threat to conserving the Earth's biodiversity, and the sixth mass extinction might already be upon us or imminent."

Scientists count five mass extinctions in the fossil record, the most recent 65 million years ago when dinosaurs vanished.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Species loss far less severe than feared: study
Marlowe Hood Yahoo News 18 May 11;

PARIS (AFP) – The pace at which humans are driving animal and plant species toward extinction through habitat destruction is at least twice as slow as previously thought, according to a study released Wednesday.

Earth's biodiversity continues to dwindle due to deforestation, climate change, over-exploitation and chemical runoff into rivers and oceans, said the study, published in Nature.

"The evidence is in -- humans really are causing extreme extinction rates," said co-author Stephen Hubbell, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But key measures of species loss in the 2005 UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report are based on "fundamentally flawed" methods that exaggerate the threat of extinction, the researchers said.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) "Red List" of endangered species -- likewise a benchmark for policy makers -- is now also subject to review, they said.

"Based on a mathematical proof and empirical data, we show that previous estimates should be divided roughly by 2.5," Hubbell told journalists by phone.

"This is welcome news in that we have bought a little time for saving species. But it is unwelcome news because we have to redo a whole lot of research that was done incorrectly."

Up to now, scientists have asserted that species are currently dying out at 100 to 1,000 times the so-called "background rate," the average pace of extinctions over the history of life on Earth.

UN reports have predicted these rates will accelerate tenfold in the coming centuries.

The new study challenges these estimates. "The method has got to be revised. It is not right," said Hubbell.

How did science get it wrong for so long?

Because it is difficult to directly measure extinction rates, scientists used an indirect approach called a "species-area relationship."

This method starts with the number of species found in a given area and then estimates how that number grows as the area expands.

To figure out how many species will remain when the amount of land decreases due to habitat loss, researchers simply reversed the calculations.

But the study, co-authored by Fangliang He of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, shows that the area required to remove the entire population is always larger -- usually much larger -- than the area needed to make contact with a species for the first time.

"You can't just turn it around to calculate how many species should be left when the area is reduced," said Hubbell.

That, however, is precisely what scientists have done for nearly three decades, giving rise to a glaring discrepancy between what models predicted and what was observed on the ground or in the sea.

Dire forecasts in the early 1980s said that as many as half of species on Earth would disappear by 2000. "Obviously that didn't happen," Hubbell said.

But rather than question the methods, scientists developed a concept called "extinction debt" to explain the gap.

Species in decline, according to this logic, are doomed to disappear even if it takes decades or longer for the last individuals to die out.

But extinction debt, it turns out, almost certainly does not exist.

"It is kind of shocking" that no one spotted the error earlier, said Hubbell. "What this shows is that many scientists can be led away from the right answer by thinking about the problem in the wrong way."

Human encroachment is the main driver of species extinction. Only 20 percent of forests are still in a wild state, and nearly 40 percent of the planet's ice-free land is now given over to agriculture.

Some three-quarters of all species are thought to live in rain forests, which are disappearing at the rate of about half-a-percent per year.

Calculations may have overestimated extinction rates
Debora MacKenzie New Scientist 18 May 11;

THE destruction of nature is driving species to extinction - but perhaps not as rapidly as has been thought. While the most widely publicised estimates predict the loss of natural habitat will condemn 18 to 35 per cent of all species to extinction by 2050, these figures could be about twice as high as the actual number - all because of a mathematical error that has gone unnoticed for decades.

We still face an extinction crisis, warn Stephen Hubbell of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Fangliang He of Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China. But the pair's work will allow biologists to more precisely define how habitat destruction leads to extinction.

It is impossible to accurately measure extinction rates. Dozens of new species are identified each year, and counting those that disappear is hard because many are small and live in poorly studied, mainly tropical environments.

Instead, extinction rates are often predicted from a mathematical model based on habitat loss, which is more easily measured. The larger the area you survey, the more species you encounter. Ecologists calculate a curve called the species area relationship (SAR) for an ecosystem by measuring the area they must survey to encounter the first individual of each successive species. To establish the number of extinctions caused by habitat destruction, they run the SAR calculation in reverse.

"We had a feeling there were problems with this, but we could not say why mathematically," Hubbell says. So Hubbell and He checked the method using data from forest plots located all over the world. The pair could calculate the SAR for each plot, and also see what happened to species unique to these plots if they "destroyed" a certain area of each plot in their mathematical model. As the area of destruction widened, these species began to die out. But after each simulated loss of habitat, "more species always remained than were expected from the SAR", says Hubbell.

The pair's analysis explains why. Using the reverse SAR method, biologists have assumed that a species is lost with the destruction of an area of habitat equivalent to the area needed to first encounter it. But in reality, the species is lost only with destruction of the habitat area that includes every individual of the species, which is always larger. Consequently, the SAR method loses species too fast.

The duo developed a model relating extinction rate instead to the entire area occupied by a species. Using the forest data, and extensive data sets on birds, they found that the SAR gave extinction rates that were between 83 and 165 per cent higher than those their method produced (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature09985).

Similarly detailed information does not exist for most of the world's species, making it difficult to apply Hubbell and He's model more generally. "As a rule of thumb, we might correct traditional extinction rates by dividing them by factor of 2 to 2.5," says He.

Jean-Christophe ViƩ, deputy head of species survival at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, agrees better baseline data on species is badly needed. He says IUCN doesn't use the SAR method. But, he points out, "a twofold miscalculation doesn't make much difference to an extinction rate now 100 to 1000 times the natural background".

Hubbell and He agree: "Mass extinction might already be upon us."

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Invasion of the orchid snatchers

Ella Davies BBC 19 May 11;

Ruthless hunters track their prey around the globe, snatching stunning individuals from their homes before they can even be named.

The beauties only surface in the shadiest of nurseries and high prices for their lives are agreed under the counter by hungry-eyed collectors.

This is not the plot from a harrowing tale of people smuggling but the fate of rare and highly prized orchids.

The plants have inspired frenzied collection since the 18th century with their lustrous blooms and incredible variety.

Now, scientists say the illegal collection of orchids is pushing species to the edge of extinction, with dire consequences for biodiversity.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

To a dedicated collector of wild-sourced orchids, price has no bearing”

Dr Richard Thomas TRAFFIC International

With some vulnerable species available on the black market before they can even be formally named, biologists and customs officers alike are battling to preserve the captivating plants.
Sex appeal

Admired for their beauty, orchids make up the largest family of flowering plants (Orchidaceae) with over 26,000 species.

The plants vary enormously from tiny 3-4mm Bulbophyllum minutissimum to 20m long vanillas: lianas that grow high up in rainforest.

What unites them is the unique way they germinate from seeds, developing a tuberous mass of cells to form a seedling plant.

For orchid admirers however it is the sensual differences between the plants that inspire such admiration and many are driven wild by the unique shape, scent and sight of new species.

Victorian Britons referred to the condition as "orchidelerium", an insatiable lust for collecting the plants.

From delicate ghost orchids to the beautifully coloured petals of Cattleya, the aesthetic appeal of orchids is obvious.

Throughout history the plants have been considered "overtly sexual" with voluptuous blooms sporting enlarged lips (labellum): pouting platforms to entice insect pollinators.

But the individuality and appeal of orchids also makes them vulnerable.

"Orchids are naturally rare with many species only being known from a handful of populations," says orchid expert Dr David Roberts from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, UK.

"Smuggling only effects the groups that are specifically in demand which isn't all orchids. However for the groups that are sought after, such as slipper orchids, it is a big problem."
High price

Rare species can fetch a pretty penny; a single stem of the Rotchschild's Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum), known as the Gold of Kinabalu, is reported to command prices of around $5000.

After its discovery in 1987 this slipper orchid, remarkable for its imposing horizontal petals, was stripped from the wild by orchid smugglers bringing it close to extinction.

Despite reintroduction of the plant from cultivated seedlings, it is still described as endangered and its few known wild locations in Kinabalu National Park in Sabah, Malaysia are kept a closely guarded secret.

However, not all species are afforded the same protection.

Last year, Asian orchid expert Dr Jaap J Vermeulen studied an orchid collected by conservationists in a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia.

But before he could describe the new species to science, it had been introduced to the black market.

"Bulbophyllum kubahense is a particularly beautiful species with a dense [cluster] of fairly large, white, heavily purple spotted flowers. That makes it desirable to orchid growers," Dr Vermeulen explains.

"Traders found the species in a conservation area, and first thought that is was a particularly luxuriant form of another, similar looking species... Plants appeared in nurseries in Sarawak, Singapore and Thailand."

Through his analysis, published in the journal Plant Systematics and Evolution, Dr Vermeulen confirmed that the plant was a "true novelty".

"It is beautiful, and it is rare: only known from a single locality near Kuching, Sarawak. That will put the price up, and with it the collecting pressure on the natural population," he warns.
Populations stripped

This is not the first time an orchid has been endangered before it has even been formally described.

Such is the demand from collectors, smugglers scour the globe for new species of orchid, sometimes removing whole populations of plants before anyone else knows of their existence.

Dr Vermeulen cites examples from peninsular Malaysia and Vietnam but the most famous example comes from Peru.

Phragmipedium kovachii was first found in 2001 and is referred to as one of the most important natural history discoveries of the last decade.

A foot tall with striking purple blooms, it is a distinctive member of the lady's slipper family, named for their slipper-shaped petal pouches.

Orchid dealer James Kovach bought the orchid from a roadside vendor in Peru and travelled back to his native US with it.

Within days, the Peruvian authorities asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service to investigate the plant, as all Phragmipedium are banned from export under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

After its initial description, illegally plucked specimens of P. kovachii were reportedly changing hands amongst frenzied growers for as much as $10,000.

Kovach received two years probation and was made to pay a fine of $1000 for violating the endangered species act.

The orchid still bears the name kovachii but is now limited to a few authorised growers in Peru.

Although conservationists acknowledge the prosecution, they say the fines are not high enough to deter smugglers from their billion dollar enterprise.

"To a dedicated collector of wild-sourced orchids, price has no bearing," says Dr Richard Thomas, from the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic International.

Dr Thomas says it is "notoriously difficult" to estimate the value of illicit trade.
Ruthless collection

According to Traffic's figures, the legal trade in live orchids in Europe alone involves more than 370 million plants.

These orchids adhere to the CITES regulations: they come from licensed nurseries that hold the appropriate permits for international trade.

In these nurseries, single specimens are duplicated through micropropagation: creating thousands of cloned plants for the consumer market.

Despite advances, this process is costly and time-consuming.

The cloned plants are also considered inferior by collectors that value the variety in wild orchids' blooms.

"There are a small number of hard core 'collectors' for whom only a wild-sourced orchid will do, and they can be ruthless in their pursuit of this goal," says Dr Thomas.

"This can have a devastating impact on newly discovered species, where there is likely to be a demand created for the plant almost overnight."
Protecting the future

The UK's rarest orchid, Cypripedium calceolus, receives round-the-clock police surveillance where it grows on a Lancashire golf course.

But this level of protection is not globally consistent.

In the rainforests of South America and Asia, protecting individual species is an epic task.

Beyond the practical difficulties of surveying entire rainforests with limited resources, conservationists also have to contend with the pressures of developing nations.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's orchid specialist group, tropical orchid habitat is vanishing as timber is removed, minerals mined and land cleared for roads and housing.

Some collectors insist that, by removing orchids from areas under threat from human development, they are protecting the future of species.

For some orchids, their only hope lies in ex-situ conservation: cultivation in nurseries is the only thing keeping species like Paphiopedilum vietnamenese from extinction.

In the interests of biodiversity however, conservationists maintain that orchids must be protected in their natural environment.

"For species with highly restricted ranges and severely threatened habitat, any removal of wild specimens poses a significant threat," says Dr Thomas.

"The loss of any one species is a tragedy - the world needs rich biological diversity to survive. Species have taken millennia to evolve, but can be lost in days."

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US publishes white-nose bat killer action plan

Mark Kinver BBC News 18 May 11;

US experts have published an action plan that aims to halt the spread of white-nose syndrome (WNS), which has killed more than a million bats. The document offers guidance on a range of issues, including how to identify the disease and improving bio-security.

WNS has spread rapidly since it was first found in 2006, and now affects 18 states and four Canadian provinces.

The action plan was unveiled at the fourth annual WNS conference in Arkansas, which runs until Thursday.

'Swift effort'

The US Fish and Wildlife Service, which led the formulation of the plan, said that the mobility of bats, the rapid spread of WNS, the potential for human-assisted transmission and the severity of the disease for infected animals meant that it was necessary for a "swift national effort to avoid irreversible losses to bat populations".

Jeremy Coleman, national white-nose syndrome co-ordinator for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, said it was vital to bring all the relevant groups - from government agencies to research institutions - together.

"Without a formal structure, it is very difficult for a lot of the agencies to be able to engage in a meaningful way," he told BBC News.

"It gives us all a common language, allowing us to compare information and come up with strategies that can be implemented throughout the continent, such as surveillance, monitoring bat populations and the collection of data."

While acknowledging that it was still early in the process, Dr Coleman said that such a structure was essential if there was any hope to tackle such a virrilent disease that had spread so rapidly.

He also said that it was hoped that the plan would become an international blueprint in the not-too-distant future by including groups from Canada and Mexico.

Recent studies have painted a bleak picture for at least half of US bat species, which rely on hibernation for winter survival and are therefore potentially susceptible to the disease.

Writing in the journal Science in August 2010, a team of researchers warned some species' populations could become locally extinct within two decades.

And in April, another team estimated the loss of bat species, which help control pest populations, would cost US agriculture more than $3.7bn a year.

WNS has been described by some biologists as the worst wildlife health crisis in the US in living memory, is named after a white fungus that appears on the muzzle and/or wings of infected animals.

However, bats with WNS do not always have the characteristic visual symptoms, but may display abnormal behaviour around their hibernacula (caves and mines where bats hibernate during winter months).

These behaviours include flying outside during the day (when their insect prey is not available) in sub-zero temperatures, or clustering near the entrance to the hibernaculum.

Researchers say the fungus associated with the disease, Geomyces destructans, thrives in the dark, damp conditions - such as caves and mines.

It is believed that the fungus associated with WNS arrived in the US after it was somehow transported (probably via humans) from Europe or possibly Asia.

A team of European researchers followed up unconfirmed reports in Europe that bats had white fungal growths appearing to match the symptoms of WNS.

In a paper in the Emerging Infectious Diseases journal, they suggested that the Geomyces destructans fungus was present throughout Europe.

However, they added, it seemed as if species of bats in Europe were possibly more immunologically or behaviourally resistant to the fungus than North American species, as it did not increase mortality.

More than 150 of the world's leading bat experts are currently attending the fourth annual white-nose syndrome symposium, being held in Little Rock, Arkansas, until 19 May.

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Restoring the world's forests while feeding the poor

Trees are being cut down for farming, but a new study shows that a lot of land already cleared could be used instead
Nigel Sizer and Lars Laestadius 18 May 11;

"We are one shock away from a full-blown crisis," stated Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, at a recent meeting of the bank and the IMF. He was referring to a critical increase in poverty, resulting from the escalating cost of food. The UN's food price index has risen 37% since March 2010. Basic cereal prices are up 60% over this period. Wheat is up 63%, and maize 83%.

Roughly 1 million people slide into extreme poverty for each 1% rise in global food prices, the bank's analysts calculate.

Availability of land for farming is a key factor in long-term food supply and prices. As the human population expands, the remaining forests, wetlands and other fragile ecosystems will come under greater threat as farmers push further into the frontiers of the Amazon, Borneo and the Congo, as well as intensifying production in North America, Europe and beyond. Feeding billions more and feeding the poor properly will be possible only if better use is made of available land.

About half the world's forest has been cleared for farming or seriously damaged by logging, fires, drainage, pollution and other ills. But where forests once grew they can grow again.

A new analysis, carried out by the World Resources Institute, South Dakota State University, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration, found that more than 1bn hectares of land where forest once stood is now degraded, and could be put to more productive uses. This is an area larger than the entire United States.

Some of this degraded and underused land could be used for food and tree crop production without cutting down another square inch of standing forest. In order to make this possible, governments and development agencies need to invest in more careful planning, incentives, investment and controls. Special care is needed to ensure that local communities that may be using parts of the land are respected and fully involved in decisions to intensify use or to restore forest.

The remainder of the 1bn hectares could be restored to forest and woodland. Once restored, it will also play a greater role in supporting nutrient cycling, reducing erosion, sequestering carbon,managing water and further supporting food production across the wider landscape downstream.

In Indonesia, the World Resources Institute, together with a local partner, Sekala, is putting these ideas to the test by working with the Indonesian government, communities and industry to shift new oil palm estates on to already cleared and burnt land instead of cutting species-rich rainforest. Indonesia has rapidly become the world's largest producer of palm oil. The government plans to expand oil palm plantations by about a million hectares a year to meet surging global demand for vegetable oil and biofuel. Until now, it was assumed that most of this expansion would result in the clearing and burning of precious rainforest. With more careful mapping and analysis, a new vision has emerged. Top officials are proposing new plans to use degraded land for the expansion of plantations. Mapping has shown that there is more than enough such land potentially available to meet demand.

Brazilian groups are looking to the Indonesian experience as they struggle to find space for that country's expanding beef, soya and sugar cane enterprises. Through a careful process of defining degraded land, mapping it, and consulting with existing landowners and local communities, plans and policies encourage a shift in future investment to this kind of land and away from the forests of the Amazon.

Development agencies, charities, national governments and business should transfer some of their attention to the opportunity of restoring already cleared and degraded land to more productive use. This needs to be done equitably and should be driven by the local communities, who have the most to gain from the long-term potential of these efforts to contribute to enhanced food production, ecosystem services and poverty reduction.

• Nigel Sizer is director of the World Resources Institute's Global Forests Initiative, and Lars Laestadius is a senior associate of the WRI, both in Washington, DC.

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Amazon deforestation increases six-fold

Yahoo News 19 May 11;

BRASILIA (AFP) – A sharp increase in forest destruction in March and April in the Amazon has led Brazil to announce the creation of an emergency task force to fight against deforestation.

The two-month total of 593 square kilometers (368 square miles) deforested represents a six-fold increase compared to the same period last year, according to official statistics.

The office will be comprised of government experts and representatives of states badly impacted by recent deforestation, according to Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, who announced the office at a press conference.

"Our goal is to stifle deforestation," Teixeira said. "And we are going to do it by July."

In the Amazon state of Mato Grosso alone, 480 square kilometers (298 square miles) of forest were destroyed in two months, according to official statistics based on satellite images. The land is used for cattle and soybean farming.

Teixeira said those responsible for illegal deforesting will have their cattle seized.

Officials in Mato Grosso are investigating how so much land was destroyed in their central-western state, Teixeira added.

Brazil, the world's fifth largest country by area, has 5.3 million square kilometers of jungle and forests -- mostly in the Amazon river basin -- of which only 1.7 million are under state protection. The rest is in private hands, or its ownership is undefined.

Massive deforestation has made Brazil one of the world's top greenhouse gas emitters.

But the pace of deforestation peaked in 2004 at 27,000 square kilometers a year, and in 2010 it dropped to 6,500 square kilometers.

The announcement comes as Brazil's Congress debates a bill that has sparked clashes between environmentalists and supporters of farmers and ranchers over how to regulate the country's vast but vulnerable wilderness.

At issue is a reform of the 1965 law regulating forestry. The current law forces land owners that have forest on their property to keep part of it intact.

A reform is being pushed by Brazil's powerful agribusiness sector, which is chafing under the country's strict environmental rules.

Brazil is a major world exporter of grains -- including wheat, rice and corn -- as well as soybeans, coffee and beef, and posted record exports worth $80 billion over the past 12 months, according to recent government figures.

The government hopes the proposed reform would force private owners to re-forest land they have already destroyed.

Debate has created splits across the political spectrum, and President Dilma Rousseff's control over her party on the issue appears in question.

Rousseff pledged during her campaign to make no concessions that would result in further deforestation or threaten Brazil's international environmental commitments.

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China Acknowledges Downside To Three Gorges Dam

Michael Martina PlanetArk 19 May 11;

China's landmark Three Gorges Dam project provides benefits to the Chinese people, but has created a myriad of urgent problems from the relocation of more than a million residents to risks of geological disasters, the Chinese government said on Thursday.

The statement from China's State Council, or cabinet, marked a rare acknowledgment of the issues that have shadowed the world's largest dam, an engineering feat designed to tame the Yangtze River that snakes from the Tibetan plateau to Shanghai.

"At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention," the statement said, which appeared on the government's website (

Premier Wen Jiabao presided over the meeting that produced the statement, which also said problems existed for down-river transport, irrigation and water supplies.

Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of "increased demands brought on by economic and social development," the statement said.

The government said it would continue to address the problems caused by the dam, and vowed to set-up disaster alert systems and increased funding for environmental protection.

Enormously expensive and disruptive, the dam has cost over 254 billion yuan ($37.47 billion) and forced the relocation of 1.3 million people to make way for the reservoir.

Towns, fields and historical and archaeological sites have been submerged, just as pollution and geological threats have risen around the slopes around the 660-km (410-mile) reservoir.

Last year, China's media began fretting about whether the dam could meet one if its long-term objectives of flood control and officials have since been toning down claims of its flood-taming abilities.

Dai Qing, an environmental activist who has opposed the Three Gorges project said the damage caused by the dam is in some cases irreversible, and in other cases would require vast sums of money to resolve.

"The most serious threat is that of geological disasters. Now that the dam is in place, no amount of money can fix the problem. It fundamentally cannot be resolved," she said.

Dai said that Wen and President Hu Jintao, trained in geological and hydraulic engineering respectively, did not appear at a celebration ceremony for the opening of the dam because as industry insiders they were aware of the risks of the project.

"There is no question that the problems with the dam are extremely serious, but this statement is likely just an attempt to shirk responsibility," she said.

(Editing by Alex Richardson)

China admits Three Gorges Dam caused 'host of ills'
Yahoo News 19 May 11;

BEIJING (AFP) – China's Three Gorges Dam has caused a host of ills that must be "urgently" addressed, the government has said, in a rare admission of problems in a project it has long praised as a world wonder.

The State Council, or cabinet, acknowledged the environmental, social and geological problems in a statement issued late Wednesday after a meeting on the hydroelectric project's future presided over by Premier Wen Jiabao.

"While the Three Gorges project has brought great and comprehensive benefits, there are problems that must be urgently resolved in the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and preventing geological disasters," it said.

The dam also had "impacted" downstream shipping, irrigation and water supplies, the statement said.

Construction began in 1993 on the $22.5 billion dam on the Yangtze River -- the world's largest hydroelectric dam -- and the project in central China began generating power in 2008.

Authorities have hailed it as a major new clean energy source and a way to tame the notoriously flood-prone Yangtze, China's longest river.

But critics have long warned of its environmental, social and other costs.

About 1.4 million people were displaced to make way for the dam and its huge reservoir, which has put several cultural heritage sites deep underwater.

Chinese experts and officials have warned of the potential for seismic disturbances -- including landslides and mudflows -- caused by the massive weight of the reservoir's water on the region's geology.

Environmentalists have cautioned the reservoir would serve as a giant catchment for China's notorious pollution, ruining water quality.

The government said last August that billions of dollars would be needed to address environmental damage along the river, including sewage treatment.

The statement from the State Council said the government would step up efforts to ensure prosperous new lives for the displaced and address water pollution and geological risks, but gave no specifics of any new policies.

Torrential rains and resulting flooding in the summer of 2010 washed huge quantities of trash and other debris into the river, sparking a major clean-up effort.

State media reports said the garbage was so thick in places that it could be walked on and threatened to clog the dam.

China is relying on hydroelectric power as a major component in its energy mix as it seeks to meet soaring power needs. It has dozens of dams either under construction or on the drawing board, according to state media reports.

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U.S. Weather Extremes Show "New Normal" Climate

Deborah Zabarenko PlanetArk 19 May 11;

Heavy rains, deep snowfalls, monster floods and killing droughts are signs of a "new normal" of extreme U.S. weather events fueled by climate change, scientists and government planners said on Wednesday.

"It's a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we're seeing," climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University told reporters.

"We are used to certain conditions and there's a lot going on these days that is not what we're used to, that is outside our current frame of reference," Hayhoe said on a conference call with other experts, organized by the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

An upsurge in heavy rainstorms in the United States has coincided with prolonged drought, sometimes in the same location, she said, noting that west Texas has seen a record-length dry period over the last five years, even as there have been two 100-year rain events.

Hayhoe, other scientists, civic planners and a manager at the giant Swiss Re reinsurance firm all cited human-caused climate change as an factor pushing this shift toward more extreme weather.

While none would blame climate change for any specific weather event, Hayhoe said a background of climate change had an impact on every rainstorm, heat wave or cold snap.

"What we're seeing is the new normal is constantly evolving," said Nikhil da Victoria Lobo of Swiss Re's Global Partnerships team. "Globally what we're seeing is more volatility ... there's certainly a lot more integrated risk exposure."


In addition to more extreme local weather events, he said, changes in demographics and how materials are supplied make them more vulnerable.

"In a more integrated economic system, a single shock to an isolated area can actually end up having broad-based and material implications," da Victoria Lobo said. For example, if a local storm knocks out transport and communications systems, "someone 1,000 miles away is not receiving their iPad or their car."

Aaron Durnbaugh, deputy commissioner for natural resources and water quality for Chicago, said adapting to climate change is a daunting task.

Citing the down-to-earth example of Chicago's 4,400 miles of sewer mains, which were installed over the last 150 years and will take decades to replace, Durnbaugh said accurate forecasting of future storms and floods is essential.

The city of Chicago's cost of dealing with extreme weather events through the end of this century has been conservatively estimated in a range from $690 million to $2.5 billion, Durnbaugh said, with the cost to homeowners and local businesses expected to be far higher.

Globally, da Victoria Lobo said the annual average economic losses from natural disasters have escalated from $25 billion in the 1980s to $130 billion in the first decade of the 21st century.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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