Best of our wild blogs: 25 May 11

Butterfly Portraits - Malayan Bush Brown
from Butterflies of Singapore

Collared Kingfisher feeding on a cockroach
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Ssshhhhhh.....@Pulau Hantu
from colourful clouds

Changi Beach - Just so much to discover!
from wonderful creation

Lantern bug
from Life's Indulgences

Mangrove restoration at Sungei Buloh begins
from wild shores of singapore

Dredging right next to Cyrene Reef continues
from wild shores of singapore and Massive reclamation at Pulau Tekong continues

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HDB in big solar energy drive

Grace Chua Straits Times 25 May 11;

GREEN energy in public housing is getting a boost, as the Housing Board wants to double the current capacity by launching its largest-ever single solar panel scheme.

In a tender that closed this month, the HDB called for a company to own and operate panels in the eco-town of Punggol, offering to buy the electricity produced for 20 years.

The panels, or sheets, will be put up on 85 blocks and can produce 2 MWp (megawatt peak) of energy when the sun is fully out. Such an amount of energy can meet the power needs of five four-room HDB flats for a month.

But the electricity produced will not be for home use. Rather, it will be used to power lights in common areas, lifts and pumps, among other things.

The tender is part of the HDB's $31 million, five-year scheme to test-bed solar energy in 30 precincts.

The silicon sheets - called solar photovoltaic panels - harness the sun's energy, turning it into useful electricity, while emitting none of the greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are produced by burning fossil fuels.

They are seen as green energy options that may cost more in the short term but offer long-term, environment-friendly benefits for everyone.

The scale of the latest project is comparable to the total installed solar photovoltaic capacity in Singapore currently: about 3.57 MWp for both residential and non-residential installations.

The HDB is in the midst of putting up more panels on 30 blocks in Jurong, Aljunied, Telok Blangah, Bishan, Ang Mo Kio and Jalan Besar. For this batch, one block's solar panels will generate enough energy from a day's sunlight to power common area services like lights and lifts for a day.

There are also solar-energy testing programmes in Tampines, Bukit Panjang, Marine Parade, Serangoon North and Wellington Circle.

Asked about the environmental benefits and cost-savings of the latest project, an HDB spokesman replied: 'HDB is currently evaluating the tender and will announce the results at a later date. Hence, we are only able to share more on this solar initiative when the details are finalised.'

Another difference in this tender is the proposed business model. Previously, the HDB bought the solar panels and hired contractors to install and maintain them.

The current tender, on the other hand, is seeking a business model called solar leasing, in which the HDB buys only the electricity.

Solar leasing is not uncommon elsewhere, such as in the United States, but this is the first time it is being tried in Singapore.

The HDB did not explain why it is trying out this model, but industry players offered a few reasons.

'This is more experimental. The HDB is testing the mechanism,' said Mr Christophe Inglin, managing director of solar energy firm Phoenix Solar.

He said leasing can be attractive because users may not want to deal with buying and maintaining the panels in the same way a tenant of a house may not need to fret over furniture.

It is new here, however, so companies are cautious - only three firms had bid for the tender, with two bids in the $9 million range.

Another challenge, industry players explain, is that Singapore does not pay above-market rate for people to feed excess renewable energy back to the grid.

In many countries, this practice - called a feed-in tariff - is an incentive for people to install renewable energy in their homes and offices, as they can recoup some costs by selling spare energy to the grid.

And in the case of HDB blocks, installation is costly and difficult because many blocks are irregularly shaped and have a small roof area for panels.

Asked if the HDB's solar-leasing tender will set a precedent for other companies and builders, Phoenix Solar's Mr Inglin replied: 'In the future, as prices of solar panels come down, it could certainly be an incentive for corporate entities to, say, lease their rooftops to companies for solar panels.'

Since 2008, the price of the panels has fallen by half. Still, electricity from solar panels is currently about twice as expensive as electricity from the grid.

Benefits and limitations

Why is Singapore investing in solar energy now?

Experts say possible reasons could be declining costs and growing worldwide demand.

Solar energy has become cheaper over the last decade and prices are likely to fall further with advances in technology, said Mr Christophe Inglin, managing director of solar energy firm Solar Phoenix.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last year that Singapore is focusing on solar energy because it taps the country's strengths in electronics, silicon and semiconductors. He said this could give the country another avenue of economic growth.

What are the benefits of using solar energy?

Using the sun for electricity cuts down on the need for fossil fuels, which will become more expensive as the supply dwindles, say experts.

Solar power is also better for the environment as burning fossil fuels to create electricity results in pollution.

What are its limitations here?

Solar power now requires 20 to 30 times as much land as a gas plant to produce the same amount of power. This makes it less attractive for land- scarce Singapore, said the Energy Market Authority (EMA).

It estimated that even if all of Singapore's accessible space was covered with panels, solar energy would contribute, at most, 10 per cent of the country's electricity needs.

Another obstacle is price. Electricity from solar panels is still twice as costly as electricity from the grid, although costs have fallen in the last decade.

The EMA said more research and technological improvements in the panels are needed before solar energy can be commercially viable.


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Peatland-clearing ban may ease haze woes

But questions remain as to how Jakarta enforces moratorium and what happens after it expires
Zubaidah Nazeer Straits Times 25 May 11;

JAKARTA: Now that clearing of new peatland is banned in Indonesia, countries affected by the haze from burning peat in Sumatra could get some breathing room.

That is assuming the landmark moratorium is enforced.

For years, Singapore and Malaysia suffered hazy skies and acrid smoke as landowners in Indonesia used traditional slash-and-burn methods to clear their concessions and plant the year's food and commercial crops, such as oil palm.

The moratorium - passed last Friday after a five-month delay - places about half of Indonesia's primary forest and peatland, or 64 million ha, off limits to development till the end of next year.

'To the extent that the moratorium leads to less disturbance of such areas, this could lead to a commensurate reduction in the frequency and severity of haze events over time,' said Ms Frances Seymour, director-general of the Centre for International Forestry Research (Cifor).

It was, she said, the first step towards Indonesia's target of reducing carbon emissions by up to 26 per cent by 2020.

The new areas of peatland covered under the moratorium are mainly scattered over the east coast of Sumatra and the southern tip of Kalimantan.

Indonesia is the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the United States, due largely to deforestation caused by illegal logging, mining and expansion by palm oil plantations.

The moratorium, hailed as a landmark step in tackling climate change, had been delayed as business people, green groups and the government tussled over the extent of the coverage.

As the world's largest palm oil exporter and one of the leading producers of rice, Indonesia is struggling to balance economic growth with environmental preservation. To nudge it forward, Norway last year extended a US$1 billion (S$1.2 billion) package to help Indonesia create monitoring systems and pilot projects to protect forests.

Some environmentalists have called the moratorium an 'anti-climax'. They wanted it to cover existing concessions in forest areas, so that producers could no longer strip them. They also pointed out that of the 64 million ha of primary forest covered by the ban, at least 35 million ha are already protected.

Greenpeace Indonesia had wanted 105 million ha of forest to be included.

Mr Yuyun Indradi, a Greenpeace campaigner, said that if current practices such as draining existing peatland concessions continue, protected areas close by remain at risk of being burned by extreme dry weather or lightning. 'This will not reduce the haze problem,' he said.

Other environmentalists have over the past few days asked how the moratorium will be enforced and what will happen after next year.

A report by the Human Rights Watch in 2009 for instance pointed out that rampant corruption meant that local officials did not enforce rules when it came to land development.

'The impact of this remains to be seen,' said Mr Yuyun. 'But the positive side of this is that the government has stepped in to suspend new concessions.'

Mr Agus Purnomo, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's special aide on climate change, said the government would issue recommendations on punishing those who flouted the ban.

Exact sanctions remain unclear, opening up the risk of poor implementation in a country with weak law enforcement.

Mr Agus said the ban would allow the government to give 'double protection' to natural forests at risk of illegal practices such as squatting and logging.

Risk of poor implementation

THE moratorium is a two-year suspension on new permits to clear primary forests and peatlands, which took effect last Friday.

Secondary forest areas or those already affected by human activity are allowed to have permits issued - a blow to environmentalists. These permits allow firms to develop the land for mining or agriculture.

The moratorium is part of a US$1 billion (S$1.23 billion) climate change deal signed with Norway last year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. The idea is to help finance an independent system of monitoring and measuring emissions.

Its implementation will be overseen by a task force piloted by reform-minded technocrat Kuntoro Mangkusubroto. It includes 64.2 million hectares of primary forests and more than 30 million hectares of peatlands.

It was not clear if there would be any sanctions if the moratorium was not followed, or if companies developed land covered by the moratorium's ban.

This opens up the risk of poor implementation in a country with rampant corruption and weak law enforcement, said Reuters.

Some of the exemptions include allowing firms that already hold permits or approvals from the forestry minister to log and convert forest land, to develop geothermal and other power plants, oil and gas fields, sugar and rice plantations, and ecosystem restoration.


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Indonesia establishes parks to mark biodiversity day

Antara 24 May 11;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Environmental Affairs Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta has inaugurated several biodiversity parks to mark International Biological Diversity Day (IDB) 2011.

The establishment of biodiversity parks was aimed at preserving biodiversity in regions which have biodiversity with unique characteristics, Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta said when commemorating the IDB at Cibodas Botanical Garden, Pangrango, Bogor, West Java, Monday (May 22).

The newly inaugurated biodiversity parks are located in East Java, West Java and North Sulawesi Provinces. Later, similar biodiversity parks will also be built in other regions such as West Sumatra, Yogyakarta, and Lampung.

The United Nations (UN) proclaims May 22 as the International Day for Biological Diversity to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues worldwide.

This year`s theme of IDB is "Forest Biodiversity", which coincides with 2011 as The International Year of Forests declared by the General Assembly to educate the global community about the value of forests and the extreme social, economic and environmental costs of losing them.

The year 2010 was declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Biodiversity (IYB) under the theme "Biodiversity is Life, Biodiversity is Our Life".

The destruction of forests is one of the most serious threats to the biodiversity loss.

Indonesia hosts the world`s third largest forest area after Brazil and Congo (formerly Zaire). But the country also is reported to be among countries with the fastest deforestation rate in the world.

According to Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan, Indonesia`s forest areas cover around 130 million hectares, comprising 45 million hectares of premier forests, 45 million hectares of logged over areas, and 40 million hectares of critical forest areas.

About 17 percent of all species in the world can be found in Indonesia, although it accounts for only 1.3 percent of the Earth`s land surface.

For her abundant flora and fauna species and a wide range of natural habitats, Indonesia has been acknowledged by scientists as one of the world`s mega centers of biodiversity.

The forestry ministry`s data shows that the country`s forests are habitats for among other things 38,000 plant species including 27,500 species of floral plants (10 percent of the world`s floral plants), and 1531 species of birds (the world`s 5 percent). The country also has 3,000 species of medicinal plants.

"The commemoration of Biodiversity Day 2011 is expected to promote the preservation of biodiversity in the forest ecosystem as well as other ecosystems. By preserving the biodiversity as the national asset, it could give benefits to all people," the environmental affairs minister said.

He asked the local administrations in Indonesia to collect data on biological diversity in each region for biodiversity protection and prevent them from being stolen.

Biodiversity preservation could give benefit sharing to respective region if it is used by second or third parties, the minister said.

"Every derivative of biodiversity use will provide benefit to the concerned regions," he said.

The benefit sharing has been guaranteed following the signing of the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from Their Utilization by Indonesia at the United Nations Headquarters, New York, US, on May 11, 2011.

Other countries signing the Nagoya Protocol at the UN last May were Guatemala, India, Japan, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, and Tunisia.

After the signing, Indonesia is expected to ratify the Nagoya Protocol for its implementation in the country.

Last October, the 193 Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted the Nagoya Protocol, a landmark treaty that links conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity with development.

The Nagoya Protocol is an important instrument to optimize the genetic source use and stop biopiracy practices especially for a country like Indonesia.

It outline how benefits, for example, from when a plant`s genetics are turned into a commercial product, such as medicine - will be shared with countries and communities which conserved and managed that resource.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his message to mark the IDB 2011 voiced concern over alarming deforestation and the degradation of woodlands and urged States to implement the recently agreed international treaty on sharing the benefits of the Earth`s genetic resources, including forests and the natural valuables found in them.

"Despite our growing understanding and appreciation of just how much we reap from forests, they are still disappearing at an alarming rate," he said

"Forests contain a vast - and barely catalogued - store of biodiversity. The early ratification and implementation of this protocol can support forest protection and the sustainable use of biodiversity. This, in turn, can contribute to poverty alleviation and sustainable national development," said Ban as quoted on the official website of the UN.

"The benefits of forests are far-reaching. Forests catch and store water, stabilize soils, harbour biodiversity and make an important contribution to regulating climate and the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change. This year`s International Day for Biological Diversity is devoted to highlighting the need for urgent action," he stated.

The United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, acclaimed actor and conservationist Edward Norton, for his part, warned that humanity is wreaking havoc with Earth`s capacity to sustain life through destructive exploitation of natural resources and decimation of the planet`s biodiversity.

"We are disrupting the natural systems of our planet in ways that will cause havoc for our way of life," Norton told UN News Centre in an interview marking the IDB 2011.

Prof. Emil Salim, former environmental affairs minister, said in Jakarta, last March 2011, Indonesia`s biodiversity can be the nation`s strength in facing global competition with developed countries.

"We have entered the 21st century witnessing the rise of countries such as China, India and Korea. In this competition Indonesia has the advantage of a rich biodiversity which the other countries don`t have," Emil said after a meeting on Indonesia`s preparations for the ratification of the Nagoya Protocol.

Indonesia, he noted, was a country with the second richest biodiversity in the world after Brazil and geographically located between two continents and with two seasons a year - factors that had made it rich in land and marine natural resources.

The government, in fact, has drafted a Bill on Genetic Resources Management since 2002, but it has not been adopted into a law.

Senior Diplomat Makarim Wibisono said in Jakarta, last March, Indonesia was among the first to sign and ratify the Nagoya Protocol because Indonesia is among countries which are striving for the adoption of the access and benefit sharing principle.

"In the past, a country`s sovereignty only covers land, water and air, but now biodiversity is also included in the sovereignty concept," Makarim stated.

Editor: Priyambodo RH

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Malaysia: Building viaducts for elephant crossings

Jaspal Singh New Straits Times 24 May 11;

LENGGONG: Two viaducts will be built at the Grik-Jeli road in northern Perak to allow safe passage for elephants in the Belum-Temengor forest reserve.

The structures would be constructed at places along the 123km stretch which were often used by the large mammals to roam the forest in search for food, said Deputy Natural Resources and Environment Minister Tan Sri Joseph Kurup yesterday.

The decision to build the viaducts was made by the cabinet recently following an accident early this year near Tasik Banding involving an elephant and a cement tanker.

The cement tanker hit a female elephant when it was crossing the road at Km32 around midnight on Jan 14.

The elephant was killed but the driver of the tanker was unhurt.

"We need development, especially the construction of roads from Kelantan to Butterworth. But, along the construction area, there are a lot of elephants and their movements are causing problems to road users.

"So, the cabinet has decided that viaducts would be built for the animals to cross underneath," he said during a visit to the Lenggong Archaeological Museum here yesterday.

Kurup, who was on a trip to the Belum-Temengor forest reserve since Sunday to visit the routes commonly used by elephants, said three areas of the road had been identified by his team for possible construction of viaducts.

"Of the three areas, we will build viaducts in the two most common elephant routes."

Elephants tend to travel in groups and over vast areas looking for food either at night or at dawn.

Motorists travelling along the Grik-Jeli road at night have often seen herds of elephants crossing the road, moving between the lower Belum and upper Belum forests.

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Malaysia: Indigenous people help in fight against poaching

New Straits Times 24 May 11;

KUCHING: The indigenous people, who mostly rely on forest resources to survive, are helping to protect Sarawak's wildlife from poachers.

They are doing this under the Tagang (which means "to stop" in Iban) and the Pemakai Menua (territorial area) systems.

Both these systems have helped the authorities such as the Forestry Department and the Sarawak Forestry Corporation to keep the problem in check.

At present, the wildlife trade is not alarming in Borneo.

However, Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring network, believed that syndicates were working their ground in Sarawak.

"There have been reports of pangolins, geckos, reptiles and tortoises being smuggled across the border to China.

"And most of these are intercepted along the Thai-Malaysia border," said Traffic's Transnational Investigation head Derek Anderson.

Despite the self-sustaining system that Sarawak has, he feared that the syndicates would use the natives to do their bidding.

"It is not happening yet, but it will happen if nothing is done."

At the Hornbill workshop in Miri last year, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation proposed arming its enforcement team to combat wildlife trade and illegal logging.

However, there has been no decision on the matter.

"Arming an enforcement unit is the best way as criminals in this trade will also be armed, but that should be the last resort," Anderson said.

"Countries such as Africa and India have gone to the extent of shooting on sight.

"The first thing that should be done to tackle this issue is to look at it as a criminal offence.

"Wildlife trade is as dangerous and harmful as human and drug trafficking. The contraband is different but the methods are the same.

"Wildlife trade involves billions of cash and there are syndicates running the show."

The Sarawak government has targeted to gazette 1 million hectares of forest, or 10 per cent of its land mass, as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves.

Another strategy used in the state's wildlife conservation effort is providing the legislative framework for the protection of rare and endangered species.

Sarawak has nine ordinances to protect and conserve its wildlife.

They are The Forest Ordinance, Forest Rule 1962, The National Parks and Nature Reserves Ordinance 1998, The National Parks and Nature Reserves Regulation 1999, The Wildlife Protection Ordinance 1998, The Wildlife Protection Rules 1998, The Wildlife (Edible Birds' Nests) Rules 1998, The Forests (Planted Forests) Rule 1997 and The Sarawak Forestry Corporation Ordinance.

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Coral reefs twice size of Manila destroyed

Poachers ‘rape’ seas off Cotabato
Philip C. Tubeza Philippine Daily Inquirer 25 May 11;

MANILA, Philippines—The crime was described as “the rape of the ocean.”

Poachers decimated an entire “reef complex”—almost twice as big as Manila—off the coast of Cotabato province when they harvested more than 21,000 pieces of black coral and killed 161 endangered turtles and other marine life, officials said Tuesday.

One of the turtles killed was a male aged 80 to 100 years old.

Bureau of Customs officials intercepted the contraband two weeks ago and recovered 134 bundles, or 21,169 pieces, of “sea fan” black corals and 15 bundles, or 196 kilograms, of “sea whip” black corals.

“The Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea off Cotabato are supposed to be unexplored reef areas but with this collection, we can see that they have also been disturbed,” said Ludivina Labe, a senior marine biologist of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

“It’s like a forest that has been cut down,” Labe said. “One reef complex was decimated.”

Labe spoke with reporters during the turnover of the seized black corals, dead sea turtles and 7,300 pieces of sea shells to officials of BFAR and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources at the port of Manila.

2 container vans

Customs Police Director Nestorio Gualberto said wildlife trader Exequiel Navarro, consignee of the contraband, appeared at his office on Tuesday and indicated that he was prepared to identify the financier of the project and the people who harvested the corals.

Gualberto said the contraband was concealed in two container vans and declared as rubber.

Only two or three colonies of black corals—each represented by a piece of black coral—are found in one hectare of sea bed, Labe explained.

With 21,169 black coral pieces recovered, this could mean that the area harvested could be as big as 7,000 hectares, or an area almost twice the size of the city of Manila.

“These web-like colonial organisms are not lush or bushy. They’re found on reef walls or reef slopes. One piece is equal to one colony,” Labe said.

“One piece of black coral is not just one organism. There are thousands of other organisms who live there,” she added.

P35-M contraband

Theresa Mundita Lim, director of the DENR-Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau, said one of the turtles killed measured 40 inches and was aged “80 to 100 years old.”

“There were also small ones who were only juveniles or just 4 years old,” Lim said.

“This is saddening because we have reduced this illegal trade and now we catch something as big as this,” she added.

Environment officials said some of the contraband could be given to marine biology schools while the black coral, although already dead, could be returned later to the sea.

Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez said the seized goods had a market value of “at least P35 million.”

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the “economic cost over a 25-year period of destroying one kilometer of coral reef is somewhere” between $137,000 and $1,200,000.

“It took 25 years or even more for these corals to grow like this. They grow only one centimeter a month,” Labe said.

Exotic jewelry

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has banned the harvesting of black coral but the practice continues.

“(The illicit trade) is being fueled by the demand of the multibillion-dollar marine ornamental industry for exotic decorative species and the increasing popularity of coral-accented jewelry and fashion accessories,” Alvarez said.

“While the Bureau of Customs does not have the means to serve as a first line of defense against the so-called plunderers of the marine ecosystem, we are determined to play the role of a deterrent by making it unprofitable for illegal wildlife traders to move their prohibited cargoes through our air and sea ports,” he said.

“Nobody should profit from the rape of the ocean,” Alvarez added.

The Fisheries Code of 1998, which bans gathering and selling corals, punishes violators with imprisonment from six months to two years and a fine from P2,000 to P20,000.

More black corals seized
Latest shipment consigned to fictitious Cebu junk shop
Jocelyn R. Uy Philippine Daily Inquirer 26 May 11;

MANILA, Philippines—Weeks after the Bureau of Customs foiled a plot to smuggle out of the country over P35 million worth of endangered turtles and other marine life, another illicit shipment containing sacks of rare black sea corals was intercepted in Cebu province.

Customs officials suspect that the P15 million worth of black sea corals shipped from Manila and seized in Cebu on May 19 had something to do with their earlier catch of dead rare sea turtles, black corals and sea shells from Cotabato.

In a report to Customs Commissioner Angelito Alvarez, Customs Police Director Nestorio Gualberto said his team was investigating the possible connection of the Cebu shipment to the Cotabato seizure, touted as the bureau’s biggest of its kind.

Experts believe that about 7,000 hectares of a “reef complex” were destroyed when poachers harvested 161 sea turtles and over 21,000 sea shells and black corals off the waters of Cotabato province.

Customs police discovered the most recent illegal shipment of black corals on board the MV Lorcon Manila owned by Lorenzo Shipping Corp. following a tip that it was being transported as “scrap metal,” Gualberto said.

A check of the shipment in coordination with Dang Go, sales coordinator of the shipping firm, upon its arrival in Cebu last week showed that the cargo contained an assortment of sea corals, he said.

At least 168 sacks containing 375 pieces of the endangered marine species, identified by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) as “black sea fan” corals, were accounted for, he said.

Fictitious junk shop

The shipment was consigned to a “Cebu Junk Shop,” which turned out to be fictitious.

The law prohibits any person or corporation to gather, possess, sell or export ordinary, precious and semiprecious corals whether in raw or in processed form. The penalties range from six months to two years in prison and a fine of as much as P500,000.

Black corals are among the species protected by the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

Reacting to the seizures, President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesperson, Edwin Lacierda, on Wednesday said: “We have a problem in protecting our archipelagic waters. That is a concern for us.”

Lacierda said the government was taking steps to beef up sea patrols. He said the government was acquiring more boats as part of the modernization of the military, including a Hamilton class cutter.

Consignee charged

Environment Secretary Ramon Paje on Wednesday directed wildlife experts to identify and prosecute those behind the Cotabato shipment.

Exequiel Navarro, consignee of the seized contraband, has been charged with violation of the Fisheries Code.

Paje said he had instructed lawyers to determine if Navarro could also be charged with violation of the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, which punishes the destruction of endangered species. The penalty is a maximum jail term of 12 years and a fine of up to P1 million.

“We shall certainly act with dispatch to make sure that the suspects face the punishment to the fullest extent,” Paje said in a statement.

Navarro has indicated that he could identify the financier of the harvest of corals, and the people behind the smuggling.

With reports from Leila Salaverria and Norman Bordadora

Philippines outraged at coral reef plunder
Yahoo News 25 May 11;

MANILA (AFP) – The Philippine government expressed outrage on Wednesday at the plunder of corals and turtles that may have destroyed thousands of hectares (acres) of precious reefs.

President Benigno Aquino's spokesman also vowed to step up marine patrols following this month's seizure at Manila's port of 158 stuffed sea turtles and about 124,000 pieces of coral, which were valued at about $80,000.

"(We are) appalled because the plundering of our marine resources shows much remains to be done to safeguard our marine biodiversity," spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a statement.

"The monetary value of the black coral and sea turtles confiscated in the Port of Manila is tiny compared to the ecological devastation they represent -- hundreds, possibly thousands, of hectares of coral reefs and all the ecological complexity they represent, either killed or seriously damaged," Lacierda said.

The corals and turtles were apparently stolen from the pristine waters of the Moro Gulf and the Sulu Sea off the main southern island of Mindanao, according to Lacierda.

"It is our duty to safeguard these areas," he said, adding that the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard would step up patrols to protect the nation's coastline from such plunder as they acquired more modern vessels.

The dead turtles and corals, as well as 209 boxes of shells, were misdeclared as "rubber" and hidden inside two huge containers that had been shipped from the southern Philippine city of Cotabato.

Customs officials said they were still tracking down the owner of the shipment, who could face up to four years in jail.

It is illegal in the Philippines to gather and sell endangered coral, although other countries allow it to be traded.

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Rethinking extinction risk?

Bryan Ghosh Public Library of Science EurekAlert 24 May 11;

For more than 40 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has published the Red List of Threatened Species describing the conservation status of various species of animals. They are now also including plants in their lists and the picture they present is dramatic. According to recent estimates, around 20 per cent of flowering plants are currently at risk of extinction – though the exact number is unknown since such a small proportion of plant species has even been measured.

Now, however, research conducted in South Africa and the U.K. by an international team of researchers, led by McGill biologist Jonathan Davies and Vincent Savolainen from Imperial College London and Kew Gardens, suggests that the criteria for assessing risk of extinction in plants should be reconsidered. "Reducing rates of extinction represents one of the greatest ecological challenges of our time," Davies said, "but identifying which species are most at risk can be difficult." The research is published on May 24th in PLoS Biology.

By some criteria, a species is considered at risk if it is to be found only in a limited geographical range and if it has a small population size. But through molecular analysis of DNA sequences from plant specimens in the Cape region in South Africa, an area known for its spectacular plant diversity, the researchers have been able to show that these criteria also describe species that are relatively new arrivals. "In plants, from this area, we show that the processes of extinction and speciation [the evolutionary process by which new species arise] are linked – seemingly the most vulnerable species are often the youngest. Young species may appear at high risk of extinction simply because their populations have not yet had time to grow and spread. However, it is also possible that some plant species might be doomed to extinction from their very inception," Davies said.

They also show that the pattern of threat in the Cape differs from that for plants in the more temperate UK and from that seen for vertebrates. Deciding which species should have the highest priority for conservation is a fraught process, Savolainen suggests. "Our results challenge the application of the same sets of threat criteria across living organisms and across regions". Savolainen added: "We may need to think of ways to fine tune the implementation of 'Red List' criteria for rapid assessments of threat – a daunting task that might prove even more pressing given the changes we see in our global environment."


Funding: This work was, in part, supported by the Darwin Initiative, the Royal Society (UK), the South African National Research Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, the Natural Environment Council (UK) and the European Research Council. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Citation: Davies TJ, Smith GF, Bellstedt DU, Boatwright JS, Bytebier B, et al. (2011) Extinction Risk and Diversification Are Linked in a Plant Biodiversity Hotspot. PLoS Biol 9(5): e1000620. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000620

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Protecting Africa's Most Enigmatic Creatures: the West African manatee 24 May 11;

Dakar — The manatee, or sea cow, is a torpedo-shaped marine mammal that moves languidly through the tepid waters of the Caribbean, South America and along the coast, rivers and wetlands from Senegal down to Angola. In the late 18th century, one of the manatee's closest and much larger relative, the Stellar Cow, were hunted to extinction. Today, the future of the West African manatee may not be far behind.

Among researchers it is often referred to as "the forgotten animal", even though it has been around for over 45 million years. The West African manatee is one of three manatee types, which includes the Amazonian and Indian. All three appear on the United Nations red list of endangered species. While there is very little known about the exact numbers or distribution of the West African manatee specifically, they are believed to be the most threatened of the three groups and continue to be hunted illegally for their prized meat, hides and bones.

Lucy Keith-Diagne is a scientist with the U.S.-based EcoHealth Alliance and has been patiently tracking these rare creatures for over ten years.

Biodiversity and Sustainability

The United Nations declared last year, 2010, as the International Year of Biodiversity, but the term itself was first coined back in the mid-1980s to include the entire web of life, from the great blue whale down to the tiniest microbe.

Dr. Bienvenue Sambo is a professor and researcher at the Institute for Science and the Environment at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. He says that biodiversity simply means "diversity of life".

"This diversity is important," he says, "because more diversity means more opportunities for people to take care of themselves."

But this may be exactly what we are not doing. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a global environmental organization, we are experiencing the greatest extinction of species since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. In the last 500 years, more species have disappeared than at any other time in history. And between 1970 and 2000 alone, the World Conservation Union (the IUCN) says the total number of water species has decreased by half.

These types of facts may signal alarm bells within the scientific community, but for the majority of people in the Western world losing a species in some far-off land may seem irrelevant to their day-to-day lives.

Most of the biodiversity loss around the globe comes from developing countries. But it is also here that people are more dependent on their natural environment for everyday survival. "Diversity of life" becomes essential to provide enough food, nutritional and even medicinal needs. If one plant, animal or insect is wiped out - even if it is not immediately apparent - it can have serious and profound effects on human health. This can spill over into the social and economic development of the population and its country.

As Professor Sambo explains, "The problem of diminishing resources is felt more in a country like Senegal because of how poor it is. If the manatees are lost there will be a gap in the ecosystem. And we don't know the virtues of every species, so if we want to keep ourselves in the realm of sustainability, we need to protect them."

"In Africa, they are the least studied large animal. I think part of that is they are very mysterious. They live in murky water and extremely remote places. Most people see them dead or in a stew-pot, unfortunately."

Manatees are migratory and generally shy, solitary creatures. They are also slow breeders, mating about every two years and having only one calf at a time. Their unusual sightings have, in part, made the manatees something of an enigma. Among certain fishing communities in West Africa, they are even feared.

Working with people

In Dakar, the environmental NGO, Oceanium, has been working to protect manatees along the Senegal River and in estuaries and mangroves in the southern part of the country. El Ali Haida is director and works on the ground in remote communities with the 'thioubalo' people - those who live by the water.

"The manatee is a very mystic animal," says Haida. "In the villages of Casamance, the hunters must wear many different talismans and perform a ritual that can last up to two hours before they even dare to hunt the manatee."

Mamiwata is the name given to the spirit that supposedly lives in the manatee. This spirit is always considered to be a mermaid, but according to Keith-Diagne, the interpretations of why she exists differ across countries.

"In Gabon, it is a beautiful young woman who pulls men underneath the water and takes them to her lair - never lets them free," explains Keith-Diagne. "Basically, I think it is an explanation for fishermen who drown - they just never come home to their families. But in Nigeria, mamiwata is a very positive thing. If she catches you, she takes you to her lair and then releases you. Then your family will be prosperous for the rest of your life. And then on a totally different perspective, mamiwata is another name for prostitute in Cameroon. There are very few places though where the legend translates to the real animal, in the sense that people respect it enough not to kill it."

The manatees are herbivores and live off over 60 different species of aquatic and semi-aquatic plants. Every day they can eat up to 15 percent of their body weight. Their biggest threats are directed hunting, unintentional trappings in nets and the construction of underwater dams. For those who actively hunt the manatees, they are driven by huge financial incentives.

"The meat from one manatee can weigh between 400 -500 kilogrammes," says Haida. "When sold at a market in Senegal at 2 dollars per kilo, this represents a lot of money."

In Senegal, as in every other West African country where they are found, the manatees are legally protected. Yet, a lack of law-enforcement and a poor understanding about the animal mean the number of manatees continues to decline.

Conservation efforts

Momar Sow oversees a manatee conservation project in six West African countries with the NGO Wetlands. From his experience working with fishermen across the region, he believes the social awareness about manatees differs from country to country.

"Fortunately, here in Senegal, as in The Gambia and Guinea, they have a traditional respect for these species," says Sow.

"It is very rare to find young hunters. Most are old. In many cases, traditional pratices have not been passed down to young boys. This is lucky for us if they do not know how to kill manatees."

According to Sow the "hot-spot" for manatee hunting is Sierra Leone. It amazes him, because it is the only country where he can find people killing manatee as if they were really cows. He says the mammals actually come right up to the rice farms to eat the farm.

"In some countries, (the manatee) is considered like a human. And yet, in some others they just do not care because of their own personal stories," explains Sow. "You have some refugees in these places, so there the manatee is just considered a meat."

The work of organizations like Wetlands and Oceanium has been vital to helping build awareness around this otherwise 'forgotten animal'. Oceanium has directly helped save 22 manatees in Senegal and are working with locals to develop eco-tourism projects where tourists pay to see manatees in the wild.

Haida believes this may be the best solution in a country where people are more concerned with putting food on the table every day than protecting a rare animal for the future.

"Only when the environment allows people to make money will people have incentive to protect their environment," he says.

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Sierra Leone chimpanzees threatened by disappearing forest

Yahoo News 24 May 11;

FREETOWN (AFP) – Deforestation is threatening Sierra Leone's wild chimpanzee population, west Africa's second largest, the country's deputy forestry minister told a meeting of wildlife experts Tuesday.

"Sierra Leone is designated as one of the 25 biodiversity hotspots and one of the highest priorities of primate conservation in the world but unfortunately one of the most severely deforested in the subregion," Lovell Thomas told the three-day international workshop which opened in Freetown on Tuesday.

The deputy minister said the impoverished country's forest cover was only five percent of what it was 100 years ago.

"Unsustainable resources are continuing to exert extreme pressure on the environment, leading to over-harvesting of timber, expansion of grazing and slash-burn agriculture and continuing deforestation, forest degradation and soil erosion," he said.

Thomas noted that while a legal framework was in place, penalties were weak and there was very little capacity for law enforcement due to lack of resources.

"There is a need to create value for Sierra Leone and for individual communities through the protection of chimpanzees and their habitat," he said.

Bala Amarasekaran, programme director of the Sierra Leone-based Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, said a 2010 census counted some 5,500 chimpanzees, with many living outside protected areas.

The figure was double that estimated in 1981, meaning that while 75 percent of west Africa's chimpanzees have disappeared in the past 30 years Sierra Leone has increased its chimp population, Amarasekaran said.

It remains second in west Africa after neighbouring Guinea, he noted.

The $230,000 (160,000 euro) survey, carried out between January 2009 and May 2010, was the first nationwide study ever taken in the country on the most endangered of Africa's four chimpanzee subspecies.

In Sierra Leone it is an offence to keep chimps as pets, and violators risk being jailed for up to five years according to the country's penal code.

The workshop is aimed at developing a conservation plan for the chimps.

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Lethal Parasite Duo Hits Dolphins, Seals

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Yahoo News 25 May 11;

Two parasites, one carried by cats and the other by opossums, are teaming up in the Pacific Northwest to kill seals, otters and other marine mammals.

One of the parasites, Toxoplasma gondii, can infect people, though it's most often found in cat feces. That bug is a known contaminant along the Pacific coast.

The other parasite, Sarcocystis neurona, was a surprising find in the tissues of dead marine mammals, researchers report May 24 in the open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Even more surprising was the discovery that infection by S. neurona makes toxoplasmosis, the disease caused by T. gondii infection, worse. The result is brain swelling and death.

"The most remarkable finding of our study was the exacerbating role that S. neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T. gondii," study researcher Michael Grigg of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said in a statement.

Grigg and his colleagues performed necropsies on 151 dead marine mammals who they suspected had parasitic encephalitis, the medical term for the brain swelling caused by parasite infection. They also examined 10 dead California sea lions that had been healthy when they were euthanized to protect fish stocks in the Columbia River.

The team found parasites in 147 of the animals, including all of the healthy sea lions. Thirty-two animals had T. gondii infections, while 37 carried S. neurona and 62 carried both parasites.

Among the animals with parasitic encephalitis as a likely cause of death, animals with both parasites were more likely than those with just one to have severe brain tissue swelling. Because the two parasites are similar, Grigg said, researchers suspected that infection with one would trigger an immune response protective against infection with the other. However, that did not seem to be the case, he said. Pregnant or nursing animals were particularly vulnerable to symptoms from the double infections.

T. gondii enters water via infected cat feces, while researchers suspect that S. neurona has been introduced by opossums, which have been moving northward from California. Rain in the area washes infected feces into waterways, where S. neurona can contaminate the food supply of dolphins, sea lions and other mammals.

"Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut, by, for example, managing feral cat and opossum populations, reducing runoff from urban areas near the coast, monitoring water quality and controlling erosion to prevent parasites from entering the marine food chain," Grigg said.

Dual Parasitic Infections Deadly to Marine Mammals
ScienceDaily 24 May 11;

A study of tissue samples from 161 marine mammals that died between 2004 and 2009 in the Pacific Northwest reveals an association between severe illness and co-infection with two kinds of parasites normally found in land animals. One, Sarcocystis neurona, is a newcomer to the northwest coastal region of North America and is not known to infect people, while the other, Toxoplasma gondii, has been established there for some time and caused a large outbreak of disease in people in 1995.

Scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, collaborated with investigators in Washington state and Canada in the research, published online May 24 in the open-access journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.

Toxoplasmosis, the illness caused by T. gondii infection, is generally not serious in otherwise healthy people, but the parasites can cause severe or fatal disease in people with compromised immune systems and can also damage the fetuses of pregnant women. The parasites are globally distributed and enter water via infected cat feces.

"Chlorination does not kill T. gondii, but filtration eliminates them from the water supply," noted lead researcher Michael Grigg, Ph.D., of the NIAID Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases. Although S. neurona parasites do not infect people, other closely related species of Sarcocystis parasites do. "The public health message here is that people can easily avoid the parasites by filtering or boiling untreated water. Limiting serious disease in marine mammals, however, will require larger conservation efforts to block these land pathogens from flowing into our coastal waters."

During the six-year study period, more than 5,000 dead marine mammals were reported on the coastal beaches of the Pacific Northwest, Dr. Grigg said. Some deaths ascribed to parasitic encephalitis (brain swelling) were assumed to be caused by T. gondii, he noted, because the parasite can infect most mammals and was well established in the region.

To determine the cause of death of the marine animals, Dr. Grigg collaborated with veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty, D.V.M., Ph.D., of the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the University of British Columbia, and marine mammal researchers Dyanna Lambourn, of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Jessica Huggins, of Cascadia Research Collective. Specimens were collected and animal autopsies (necropsies) conducted by members of the Northwest and British Columbia Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Necropsies were performed on 151 marine mammals with suspected cases of parasitic encephalitis. The mammals included several kinds of seals and sea lions, Northern sea otters, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, porpoises and three species of whale. An additional 10 animals, all healthy adult California sea lions that were euthanized in the Columbia River to protect fish stocks, were included in the study as controls. Dr. Raverty's group examined brain tissue from 108 animals positive for either S. neurona or T. gondii. They measured the number of parasites in the tissues and combined that with an assessment of the degree of brain inflammation to gauge whether the infection was likely to be the primary, contributing or incidental cause of death.

At NIAID, Dr. Grigg and his team screened 494 brain, heart, lymph node and other tissue samples with a variety of genetic techniques. "Our techniques are unbiased in that we do not directly search for any particular species of parasite," said Dr. Grigg. "Rather, the screens simply reveal evidence of any parasite in the tissue being studied." The team then applied gene amplifying and gene sequencing methods to identify the species and, often, the subtype or lineage of the microbes.

They found parasites in 147 of the 161 animals studied -- 32 were infected with T. gondii, 37 with S. neurona and 62 with both parasites. The remaining 16 infections were caused by various other parasites, including several that had not been detected before in any kind of animal. Notably, all 10 healthy animals were infected with either one or both of the parasites.

"The presence of T. gondii did not surprise us, but the abundance of S. neurona infections was quite unexpected," said Dr. Grigg. The researchers theorize that S. neurona has been introduced into the Pacific Northwest by opossums, which gradually have been expanding their range northward from California and can shed an infectious form of the parasite in their feces. The ample rainfall in the region provides an easy route for infected feces to enter inland and coastal waterways and then contaminate shellfish and other foods eaten by marine mammals.

"The most remarkable finding of our study was the exacerbating role that S. neurona appears to play in causing more severe disease symptoms in those animals that are also infected with T. gondii," said Dr. Grigg. Among animals for which necropsy had suggested parasitic infection as the primary cause of death, the co-infected animals were more likely to display evidence of severe brain tissue inflammation than those infected by either S. neurona or T. gondii alone. The two parasites are closely related, and other studies had suggested that a mammal's acquired immunity after a first infection with one parasite might protect it from severe illness following infection by the other. However, that was clearly not the case in this study, noted Dr. Grigg. The study results also hinted that animals with lowered immunity, such as pregnant or nursing females or very young animals, were more likely to have worse symptoms when co-infected with both T. gondii and S. neurona.

"Identifying the threads that connect these parasites from wild and domestic land animals to marine mammals helps us to see ways that those threads might be cut," said Dr. Grigg, "by, for example, managing feral cat and opossum populations, reducing run-off from urban areas near the coast, monitoring water quality and controlling erosion to prevent parasites from entering the marine food chain."

Amanda K. Gibson, Stephen Raverty, Dyanna M. Lambourn, Jessica Huggins, Spencer L. Magargal, Michael E. Grigg. Polyparasitism Is Associated with Increased Disease Severity in Toxoplasma gondii-Infected Marine Sentinel Species. PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 2011; 5 (5): e1142 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pntd.0001142

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Mediterranean Sea invaded by hundreds of alien species

DNA India 24 May 11;

A new study has revealed that the coastal environments of the eastern Mediterranean Sea have been invaded by more than 900 new alien species in recent decades, including the poisonous pufferfish.

The four-year study conducted at the University of Gothenburg also found that the invasion has affected the whole food chain system in the area.

"The Mediterranean is the world's most invaded sea, but our understanding of how alien species affect ecosystems is inhibited by a lack of basic knowledge of the animal and plant communities on the coast,” said Stefan Kalogirou of the Department of Marine Ecology at the University of Gothenburg.

“Once species have become established in the Mediterranean it is almost impossible to eradicate them," he said.

Over a period of four years Kalogirou, in cooperation with the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, has studied the structure and function of fish communities in sea-grass meadows and on sandy bottoms in two important coastal environments on the island of Rhodes in south-eastern Greece.

His study has provided important insights into invasion biology, that is to say possible ecological consequences of alien species in the food chain.

"The results show a clear ecological impact when alien species either become dominant, like pufferfish, or are piscivores, like barracuda and cornetfish. It is evident that the food chain is being restructured, but the lack of previous studies limited our conclusions," said Kalogirou.

The poisonous pufferfish is one of the alien species that have recently been introduced.

The pufferfish toxin, tetrodotoxin, causes muscle paralysis, which can lead to respiratory arrest. In the worst case the outcome can be fatal.

In the coastal environments that Kalogirou has studied, the pufferfish has become a dominant species, which has led to both ecological and social effects.

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Iraq and Syria under attack from devastating alien weed

Silverleaf nightshade takes root in Lebanon and Jordan too
FAO 24 May 11;

24 May 2011, Rome - FAO is stepping in to assist farmers in Iraq and Syria battle with silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium), an invasive alien weed that sucks nutrients from the soil and starves crops of valuable water and whose berries can poison livestock if ingested.

A relative of the tomato originally hailing from tropical America, silverleaf nightshade has very deep roots and is also covered in spines, making it difficult to pull out of the ground.

The weed probably arrived in the Near-East as a result of globalization of trade, its seeds hidden in containers or in bags of agricultural commodities. It is spreading in the region on trucks and animals, or in crop seeds that have not been checked for quality assurance.

Cotton, wheat, olives threatened

More than 60 percent of the cultivated land in Syria, growing mainly cotton and wheat, has now been infested with the weed. Olive groves are also being affected and there is a big potential risk that silverleaf nightshade will soon spread to more lands.

In northwest Iraq a similar mass infestation has been reported and the weed has also been spotted in various sites in Lebanon and Jordan, where it will spread if nothing is done.

“This particular type of weed competes aggressively with crops for nutrients whilst its deep root system dries down soil moisture,” said Gualbert Gbèhounou, FAO Weed Officer.

Biodiversity reduced

Biodiversity is also reduced by the dominance of silverleaf nightshade, a particular concern in invaded areas. In its native tropical America habitats, silverleaf nightshade has many natural enemies which are not present in invaded areas, where it freely thrives.

Alfalfa as an option for control

On the request of the governments concerned, FAO is implementing a project to assist farmers manage and prevent further spread of silverleaf nightshade in all four countries.

“We want to introduce an integrated weed management approach, which means we will not focus on herbicides, although we might use them if we have to, but instead we would rather test sustainable alternative management possibilities,” said Gbèhounou.

The UN agency is recommendating that farmers rotate regular crops with the fodder crop alfalfa, which covers the ground and competes with silverleaf nightshade. This prevents the weed from producing new seeds and also reduces amount of weed seed in the soil.

FAO is also seeking to encourage countries to review their regulatory environments and collaborate to reinforce control of silverleaf nightshade at the national and regional levels.

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