Best of our wild blogs: 25 Jun 11

Kids out at the Raffles Museum Open House!
from wild shores of singapore

Anemonefishes of Singapore
from Compressed air junkie

A sky diving caterpillar
from Urban Forest

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Dragon of the insect kingdom

Glenda Chong Channel NewsAsia 24 Jun 11;

SINGAPORE: They have been around for about 300 million years; are carnivorous, with voracious appetites; and they start their day with a shot of sunlight.

Odonata, better known as dragonflies, are commonly found in wetlands. And the presence of these winged insects are significant.

Robin Ngiam, Senior Biodiversity Officer with NParks, said: "Because dragonflies are top predators in the insect world. So if you imagine lions and tigers in the animal kingdom, in the insect world, dragonflies fulfil that role.

"Being top predators, they hunt all sorts of insects, insects pests, mites including mosquitoes. So having a good population of dragonflies at a pond for example, helps to suppress the insects pests population from exploding."

Dragonflies living in tropical climate like Singapore have a lifespan of about a year and they spend one-third of that as adults to mate and reproduce. So the presence of a dragonfly is a very good indication of the health and diversity of your water garden ecosystem.

That is because dragonflies only dwell in clean and unpolluted water.

Mr Ngiam said: "In some countries like South Africa, which are more advanced in dragonfly research, scientists actually monitor dragonfly population to tell them whether a river or stream is polluted. So once that particular stream or river is polluted, the dragonfly population decrease is an indicator to them that something is wrong, let's do something about it."

As you can see, dragonflies play an important role in the ecosystem. Singapore has recorded eight to nine new species of the winged-insect in the past four years. There are about 125 different species of dragonflies on the island, more than any temperate country in Europe.


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Stopwatch for Changi race track still ticking

Sports body says builder must keep to December deadline; project hit by series of woes
Christopher Tan Straits Times 24 Jun 11;

THE Government is sticking to its deadline for the completion of Singapore's first permanent motor racing circuit in Changi despite growing signs that the $380 million, problem-riddled project may remain stuck in neutral gear for several more months.

Asked for an update on the project, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) would say only that it expects the builder to keep to its year-end deadline.

The project was announced in October 2007 and awarded to Japanese-Singapore consortium SG Changi in March last year.

The Straits Times understands that SG Changi faces hefty penalties - between $20,000 and $50,000 in damages a day - or could even have its contract rescinded if it fails to deliver on time.

SSC chief financial officer Goh Fang Min said the consortium had made specific commitments and 'we expect it to continue to comply with its commitments under the project agreement'.

'It is responsible for delivering the Changi Motorsports Hub by December 2011,' Ms Goh said, adding that the group had fully paid for the 41ha, 30-year leasehold land, sited next to the Singapore Airshow grounds. She said that in the meantime, the council was in discussions with relevant parties and 'different options will be carefully studied'.

Industry watchers said options could include opening the facility in stages - as has been the case for other major infrastructural projects which were delayed, including the MRT Circle Line.

SG Changi is believed to have paid just under $40 million for the land, a reclaimed plot at the Changi coast. Besides a 3.7km track that will host races such as MotoGP and Super GT, the facility is expected to have shopping and food and beverage outlets, a motor museum and a racing academy.

Plans are also afoot to build a 250-room hotel on site and develop a 400m stretch of beach fronting the track, after the latter is up and running.

With just six months to go, and hardly any work done, observers think chances of meeting the deadline are slim. SG Changi director Thia Yoke Kian agreed, saying finishing the project by December 'is definitely not possible'.

'We have to ask for an extension,' he said.

He added that the group had found a new investor, and that an announcement would be made soon. 'It is a reliable investor from Europe,' he said, refusing to give details.

The project has been beset with woes and delays from the start. The Government took almost three years to decide on a builder from a shortlist of three. Work began only last December, months after the contract was awarded in March.

Shortly after, talk that the group had cashflow problems surfaced, fuelled by the resignation of two of the project's four original shareholders - former racing driver Genji Hashimoto and Singaporean Eddie Loh. Then, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau started a probe into alleged irregularities in the tender process for the project.

SSC deputy director Fan Chian Jen, who was in charge of the project, later left the body.

Piling - slated to be completed by last month - grounded to a halt in February, just weeks after it started, when SG Changi failed to pay piling firm CSC Holdings.

Amid the delay, more allegations of wrongdoing surfaced, with one levelled against SG Changi executive chairman Fuminori Murahashi for a purportedly forged bank guarantee. Mr Thia yesterday confirmed he had lodged the complaint against Mr Murahashi and was assisting the Commercial Affairs Department in its investigations.

The delay is seen as a cause for red faces within the SSC, which also had problems with another high-profile sports project. The $1.87 billion Sports Hub in Kallang, initially slated for completion this year, is now expected to be ready only in 2014. The project was temporarily derailed by the 2008 global financial crisis.

Singapore Motor Sports Association president Tan Teng Lip is keeping his fingers crossed that the Changi race track can become reality.

'I'm still hopeful that they can find a solution because the circuit is very important to us,' he said.

'So far, there has been no information. Everyone is very anxious about what's going on.'

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A smart way to save wildlife: the internet

Ella Davies BBC Nature 24 Jun 11;

Modernity is often the enemy of conservation, as our 21st-Century lifestyles put ever greater pressure on the natural world.

But some modern inventions may also hold the key to saving species in the future.

On Friday, scientists at the Zoological Society for London (ZSL) announced the launch of a new "bat phone" - not a superhero's tool but a smartphone app that ordinary folk can use to track the movements of local bat species.

It is an example of how conservationists are harnessing the power of smartphones, the internet, online crowd sourcing and social networks to keep track of the natural world.
Continue reading the main story
“Start Quote

Smartphones are the butterfly nets of the 21st Century”

Wall Street Journal describing Project Noah, a modern wildlife recording tool

Crucially, that involves encouraging the public to act en masse as field researchers, gathering data.

But can amateur natural historians, and the evidence they collect, really help save wildlife?

Rise of the net

Citizen science in not a modern phenomenon. For more than a hundred years, enthusiastic volunteers have assisted with the widespread recording of flora and fauna.

Traditionally, fieldwork performed by volunteers was overseen by a qualified expert or investigating scientist. Volunteers were friends, family, society members, passionate enthusiasts and those living and working in the survey area.

However, the internet has allowed projects to catch the public's attention as never before.

For example, the new iBat app has been developed for a global bat monitoring programme covering at least 16 countries.

Produced by an international team of experts, including ZSL and the Bat Conservation Trust, the app allows volunteers to detect and record more than 900 species of bat with the help of an ultrasonic microphone.

The rich soundscapes recorded are uploaded to a website that identifies each of the calls to build an accurate picture of bat populations, essential for future conservation efforts.

The BBC has also helped break new ground in using online mass participation surveys to record wildlife.

Springwatch and Autumnwatch, programmes with more than 2.5 million viewers, promote studies of the seasons, in particular the Woodland Trust's online survey Nature's Calendar, which has more than 50,000 participants.

For this survey participants are encouraged to submit the dates and locations of specific seasonal events, including the first bluebell blooms and the first autumn colours.

It is the largest of its kind in the UK. And since the data is used to track the arrival of the seasons, it has the potential to add to our knowledge of the local effects of climate change.

In 2009, Springwatch asked its viewers if they could help document the decline of the cuckoo.

An impassioned response saw 12,000 people inundate the programme's blog with the locations where they had heard the bird.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) helped process the audience's response, which varied from detailed co-ordinates to anecdotal approximations, while comments on the blog were used to create a map of cuckoo distribution that resembled that produced by the BTO's own Bird Atlas survey.

But public surveys of this kind have pros and cons.

Online wildlife surveys can actually sever direct links between scientists and citizens. Anyone can engage with an internet-based project, so scientists that organise them must take a very hands-off approach, instructing volunteers using picture based guides or lists of FAQs.

Though more convenient, this runs the risk of unreliable data being gathered, as individuals interpret their findings differently.

The Springwatch cuckoo map, for example, did not meet the exacting standards of a truly scientific survey, says Graham Appleton, the BTO's director of communications.

"Sadly, we were unable to add the records to our database because we had no way to check the validity of each of the original reports [with] no clear chain back to the person reporting a cuckoo and because the geographical placement of some of the dots was not reliable," Mr Appleton tells BBC Nature.

In their own surveys, the BTO uses a team of local expert volunteers to double check any vague or surprising records, to keep their results at a high standard.

But efforts are being made to overcome these difficulties.

Scientists increasingly pay close attention to how they pose their questions and collect their data. And the BTO and BBC worked hard to improve their data gathering before the autumn of 2009, when Autumnwatch asked viewers to help survey tawny owl numbers.

"We learned from the cuckoo survey," says Mr Appleton. "This time, we collected precise information on location, using click and point mapping software, and information on the people who sent in records of hooting owls."

The data was suitable for inclusion in the Bird Atlas and, by inviting viewers to record owl hoots at night, the BTO was able to extend the coverage of its survey outside of daylight hours.

"We were pleased to fill in a number of the gaps in the grid of 10km squares that cover the whole of the UK," Mr Appleton tells the BBC.
Virtual collections

Getting the public to collect hard evidence about a species' location or movement can vastly improve the information gleaned by scientists.

In Kenya, the Mara Predator Project invites tourists to submit lion sightings, to help monitor populations on selected reserves.

The project's website provides an ID guide to help interpret holiday snaps, so that researchers can track prides and individuals.

Meanwhile Project Noah is a global study that encourages nature lovers to document the wildlife they encounter, using a purpose built phone app and web community.

Launched early last year, the developers behind the project aim to reconnect people with nature, while the Wall Street Journal commented that smartphones were the "butterfly nets of the 21st Century" when it described the project.

"We've helped people learn about organisms they never knew existed and we've brought awareness to important work and research," says the project's founder Yasser Ansari.

"We've had visitors from 192 countries, nearly 94% of the world, and have photo submissions from all seven continents."

In addition to the virtual "collection" of species, Project Noah encourages citizen science by linking up with existing surveys including the International Spider Survey and the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.

By submitting time-stamped, geographically tagged photographs to the site, users can contribute data to official monitoring programmes and studies.

However, when it comes to measuring whether the community is genuinely improving research, it is still early days, says Mr Ansari.

"We launched our current platform just a few months ago and have received a phenomenal response, but no research breakthroughs have been made yet," he says.

"I do think that breakthroughs can be made, but only time will tell."
Bridging the gap

However, citizen science has already been responsible for some notable natural history discoveries.

In the UK, iSpot by the Open University is a natural history social network that aims to help amateurs identify anything and everything from the natural world by putting them in touch directly with experts.

Not initially designed to produce scientific results, the project has already identified two species previously unrecorded in the UK: a bee-fly (Systoechus ctenopterus) and euonymus leaf notcher moth (Pryeria sinica).

"It's important to say that iSpot did not set out to be a source of research data, but in fact we have been so successful that we have generated useful scientific data as well as introducing people to natural history," says Jonathan Silvertown, iSpot project leader and professor of ecology at The Open University.

"A dataset for shieldbugs observed on iSpot was recently validated by the expert who runs the national recording scheme for this group and it has now gone into the records of the National Biodiversity Network."

"We are sure that this is just the first of many datasets that will do this," he adds.

Professor Silvertown says organisations' hesitancy to embrace citizen research is understandable, because of the issues of interpretation and accuracy.

But he argues that involving the public in research is hugely valuable, particularly when that research is publicly funded.

Meanwhile Mr Ansari believes projects such as his own could be inspirational for the next generation of scientists.

"Think of our effort as training amateurs to become better nature observers... All scientists start off as amateurs," he says.

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Malaysia: more sea turtle nesting sites

R.S.N. Murali The Star 24 Jun 11;

MALACCA: The state Fisheries Department has proposed 16 turtle-nesting spots in the state be gazetted as sanctuaries to ensure the survival of the hawksbill population.

Department director Rosma­wati Ghazali said the proposal to gazette these spots was submitted to the state government a few months ago.

“We are waiting for the response from the state government on our proposal to have these sites conserved as hawksbill landing spots,” she said told reporters during a midnight trip to Pulau Upeh to watch turtles nesting here on Tuesday.

Pulau Upeh is currently the only gazetted turtle sanctuary in Malacca.

Rosmawati said declaring the sites as turtle sanctuaries was crucial to ensuring the species continues to come to Malacca.

She said Pulau Upeh was touted as the largest nesting congregation in South East Asia for hawksbill turtles.“Therefore, we have to be more committed to ensure the survival of the nesting population of hawksbills in Ma­lacca,

“The key is ensuring proper management as well as responsible tourism with minimal impact,”she said.

Rosmawati added that protecting Malacca’s coastline would result in better nesting and hatching rates.

She said some 2,005 turtles landed at the 17 sites here and a total of 238,548 eggs were laid between 2006 and 2010.

Of this number, 56,825 eggs were laid in Pulau Upeh, 39,300 in Padang Kemunting and 38,731 in Kem Terendak.

Rosmawati noted the hatching rate of these eggs stood at 60% while the survival rate of hatchlings was 1:1,000.

She said among the factors that affected the population of hawksbills in Malacca were poaching, environmental damage to landing spots and pollution.

Rosmawati said the department had taken several measures to protect turtles such as using licensed egg-collectors who are paid a substantial sum for eggs surrendered to the department.

The eggs are also incubated at the turtle hatchery in Padang Kemunting.

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Malaysia: Fined for having skinned mouse deer

New Straits Times 24 Jun 11;

KUANTAN: Three men were fined RM15,000 each, after they pleaded guilty to illegally having in their possession skinned mouse deer.

The trio, Rusly Mohd Jamin, 51, from Felda Pasoh 2, Negri Sembilan, Mohamed Nazri Hashim, 69, from Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur and Muhammad Ismail, 44, from Kampung Melayu Subang, Shah Alam admitted to the offence before Sessions Court judge Fathiyah Idris.

However, only Rusly paid the fine while Nazri and Muhammad failed to raise the amount and were sent to the Pengkalan Chepa Prison in Kelantan.

Rusly was charged with possessing two pieces of grilled meat belonging to the endangered Lesser Malayan Mouse-Deer (Tragulus Javanicus) without proper permit.

It was found in a Suzuki Vitara vehicle at Kampung Orang Asli Rantau Panjang jetty in Kedaik, Rompin.

Rusly is said to have committed the offence about 12.30pm on Jan 16.

Nazri and Muhammad were charged with possessing three skinned mouse deer without the necessary permit about 12.25pm on Feb 6.

The duo committed the offence inside a Toyota Hilux vehicle at Jalan Ladang Felda Terapai 3 in Pekan.

Since the Lesser Malayan Mouse-Deer is a protected species, the trio were charged under Section 60(1)(a) of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 which carries a fine not exceeding RM50,000 or a jail term of up to two years or both.

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Danger heats up for Australia's platypus

Amy Coopes Yahoo News 24 Jun 11;

SYDNEY (AFP) – Global warming could shrink the habitat of Australia's duck-billed platypus by a third, researchers warned Friday, with hotter, drier temperatures threatening its survival.

A confusion of bird, mammal and reptile characteristics, the timid platypus is one of Australia's most cryptic creatures, feeding at night and living in deep waterside burrows to dodge predators such as foxes and eagles.

But its thick, watertight fur coat -- one of the key tools to ensuring its survival in the cool depths of rivers and waterholes -- could spell disaster in a warming climate, according to a new study from Melbourne's Monash University.

Using weather and platypus habitat data stretching back more than 100 years, researchers were able to map declines in particular populations in connection with droughts and heat events.

The team then extrapolated their findings across a range of climate change scenarios laid out by the government's science research agency, CSIRO, to model how global warming would affect the unusual native species.

"Our worst case scenario at the moment suggested a one-third reduction in their suitable habitat," researcher Jenny Davis told AFP of the work published in the journal Global Change Biology.

Other human impacts, including land clearing and the damming of waterways for hydroelectric projects, had and would continue to diminish platypus homes, she added.

"Under a drying climate we'll be taking more water away from the environment because of our human needs, and predators are going to become more of an issue for (the) platypus," she said.

The most dire predictions suggested the platypus would disappear from Australia's mainland entirely, able only to live on Tasmania and the southern King and Kangaroo islands, said Davis.

Davis said the nocturnal creature already appeared to be responding to increases in Australia's average temperature, with certain populations receding from the 1960s, when a warming trend first became evident.

"Compared with 50 years ago some places have become too warm for them. Their habitat is shrinking," she said.

Classed as "common but vulnerable", the platypus is already extinct in the wild in South Australia state, and Davis said she feared it could meet a similar fate to the Tasmanian devil, whose numbers had dwindled rapidly.

"What could happen is that we could see a crash in an iconic animal and by the time that happens it's too late to do something about it," she said.

Platypus fur is finer and denser than that of a river otter or polar bear, and it has two layers: a long sleek outer and a woolly undercoat, ensuring it stays dry even when fully submerged in water.

Their average body temperature is 32 degrees Celsius (89 Fahrenheit) -- lower than most other mammals -- and they overheat rapidly when exposed to warm conditions out of the water.

Of most concern, however, is the drying up of waterways where they forage for aquatic invertebrates, with the platypus needing to eat about 30 percent of their own body weight every day to survive.

Davis said the creature's demise was "just another warning sign" of global warming's impact on Australia's unique wildlife.

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Water hyacinths in the Philippines: Early tipping points

Juan L. Mercado Philippine Daily Inquirer 25 Jun 11;

“The sight of three-foot tall hyacinths, clogging Rio Grande de Mindanao, was numbing,” Jonathan Domingo of the Mindanao Cross recalls. “One saw ordinary people and 6th Infantry Battalion soldiers working alongside Moro Islamic Liberation Front regulars so water could flow to Illana Bay and the floods would recede.”

“No talk of war,” this Oblate priest noted. “But a common threat united us. We’ll need that unity if more rains uproot hectares of hyacinths from Liguasan Marsh.”

Welcome to the Harassed Club.

The Philippines joined other places plagued by “water lilies” or eichhornia crassipes: Lake Victoria in East Africa, Kerala’s backwaters in India, Lousiana swamps and Papua New Guinea.

Five cities and 48 municipalities in Mindanao were lashed by torrential rain, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council reported. That dislodged hyacinths. Deforestation, siltation and emergency release of water by power plants compounded the problem. Notre Dame schools and cockpits in Cotabato morphed into evacuation centers.

President Aquino declared “war versus water hyacinths.” Beyond cleaning of waterways, researchers would probe use of water lilies as energy source.

Fine. But what is involved? “A water hyacinth infestation is seldom totally eradicated,” a UN study points out. “Instead, it is a situation that must be continually managed.”

These water lilies are a pernicious invasive species from South America. Their size can double in two weeks. They block water flow and prevent sunlight from reaching native aquatic plants.

Massed hyacinths deny oxygen to water. This results in fishkills, like those still ravaging Taal Lake and Laguna de Bay today. Mosquitoes breed in them too. So does a parasitic flatworm which causes schistosomiasis or snail fever.

Chemical removal is costly and ineffective. “Try explosives,” a worried Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo suggested. In Mindanao, backhoes, bolos and brawn were pressed into service.

The United States and 20 other countries opted for biological control. The US Agriculture Department, in the 1970s, released three species of weevil that chomp on water hyacinths. It has had limited success. Control of nutrients that hyacinths feed on may yet be the ace among preventive measures.

“Better read the weather forecast before praying for rain,” Mark Twain once joked. But rains in the first week of June over some areas of Mindanao were two and a half times than usual. “This is abnormal,” Pagasa’s Edna Juanillo told Agence France-Presse. In Cebu, rainfall in January was triple the usual downpour.

Do these rainbursts and water hyacinth “implosion” indicate that something more worrisome is happening? Yes, say the US National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in their new study, “Shifting Band of Rain.”

Earth’s most prominent rain band, near the equator, has been moving north at an average rate of 1.4 kilometers a year for three centuries, writes University of Washington’s Julian Sachs and Conor Myrgvold. Today’s global warming spurred that process.

The band supplies fresh water to almost a billion people. It affects climate elsewhere, the report adds. “At current warming rates, the band could shift north by five degrees by 2100. That would dry farmland for millions of people in Ecuador, Colombia and others near the equator.”

The sea level has risen rapidly, Vital Signs points out. More than half (55 percent) of sea level rise “results from the melting of glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.”

Seventy percent of Filipinos cluster in coastal areas.

Fishermen are reeling from the impact.

Warming of sea water is associated with El Niño episodes. These caused “coral bleaching on massive scales never seen before,” notes Ocean Heritage.

El Nido reef, for instance, once had 60-70 percent coral cover. El Niño, a decade ago, stripped that down to 5-10 percent. It has not recovered to date.

Sea surface temperature in Bolinao, Pangasinan, ranged between 34.1 °C and 34.9 °C. That grilled giant clams.

“In the Philippines, rice yields drop by 10 percent for every one degree centigrade increase in night-time temperature,’’ noted Nature Geoscience last August.

“We can’t just move crops north or south,’’ cautions Dr. Geoff Hawtin of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. “Flowering is triggered by day length…Tipping points could come quite quickly.”

Far quicker than most thought, says the 2011 report on “State of the Oceans.”

“We’re entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history,” Alex Rogers, Oxford University’s professor of conservation biology writes. “We’re seeing changes we didn’t expect to see for hundreds of years.”

These “accelerated” changes include melting of northern glaciers, sea level rise, and release of methane trapped in the sea bed. Some species are already fished way beyond their limits.

“We must bring down CO2 emissions to zero within 20 years,” adds Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland. “If we don’t, we’re going to see steady acidification of the seas. Heat is wiping out things like kelp forests and coral reefs. And we’ll see a very different ocean.”

“The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago,” he adds.

It is urgent to stop exploitative fishing now. Dumping of pollutants into oceans must stop. That’d include plastics, agricultural fertilizers, human waste – and water hyacinths?

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Serengeti road scrapped over wildlife concerns

Richard Black BBC News 24 Jun 11;

Controversial plans to build a tarmac road across the Serengeti National Park have been scrapped after warnings that it could devastate wildlife.

The Tanzanian government planned a two-lane highway across the park to connect Lake Victoria with coastal ports.

But studies showed it could seriously affect animals such as wildebeest and zebra, whose migration is regarded as among the wonders of the natural world.

The government confirmed the road across the park will remain gravel.

In a letter sent to the World Heritage Centre in Paris, the Department of Natural Resources and Tourism says the 50km (30-mile) section of road across the park will "continue to be managed mainly for tourism and administrative purposes, as it is now".

The government is considering an alternative route for a major trade highway that would run to the south of the park.

This would avoid areas of high conservation value, and - although a longer route - would bring the opportunities afforded by a modern transport link to more people.

Last year, a group of scientists warned that the proposed road across the park could bring the number of wildebeest in the park, estimated at about 1.3 million, down to 300,000.

Collisions between animals and traffic would be unavoidable, they said.

And with a corridor on either side of the road taken out of the hands of the park authorities and given to the highways agency, fencing would almost certainly result, blocking movement of the herds.

If wildlife were damaged, they warned, that could also affect the local economy, in which tourism plays a major role.
'Wonder of nature'

The researchers described the Serengeti as "a rare and iconic example of an ecosystem driven by a large mammal migration".

That annual north-to-south trek involves about 1.5 million animals, including wildebeest and zebra.

As the animals travel, they dump vast quantities of urine and dung across the land, fertilising plant growth, while the trampling of hooves also prevents bush from over-growing the grassland.

An impact assessment compiled for the government confirmed the expected impact on migration, adding that the decline of wildebeest and zebra would have a knock-on effect on predators such as lions and cheetahs.

These are among the animals that tourists come to see.

Scientists also warned that the road could bring invasive plant species or unfamiliar diseases into the park, a World Heritage Site.

Last year, the World Heritage Committee expressed its "utmost concern" about the "potentially irreversible damage" that the highway could bring.

Environmental campaigners have welcomed the government's decision, with the organisation Serengeti Watch saying: "A battle has been won".

However, they warned that the region faces a number of other threats, including roads around the park and poaching.

Highway threat to Tanzania Wildebeest migration scrapped
Yahoo News 25 Jun 11;

PARIS (AFP) – A plan to build a highway through Tanzania's Serengeti which environmentalists warned would spell disaster for the national park's famed wildebeest migration has been dropped, UNESCO said on Saturday.

The spectacle, which is a major tourist draw, is one of the planet's greatest natural spectacles.

The proposed highway would have linked remote under-developed communities to larger hubs, cutting a swathe through the park into which giant herds of wildebeest crowd every summer to seek Kenya's pastures.

Following criticism of the project, the Tanzanian government informed he United Nations' cultural organisation UNESCO that it had been dropped.

Campaigners however cautioned that the battle to kill off the project had not yet been conclusively won and warned that the government was looking at an alternative route.

"The World Heritage Committee has received assurance on the part of the Tanzanian government that the highway project is abandoned," an official at the UN's education, science and culture organisation told AFP.

"The committee has therefore decided not to list the site on its list of endangered World Heritage Sites because the threat has disappeared," the official added.

Tanzania's government had backed the road plan by saying that the country should start caring for its people as much as it did for its wildlife.

But critics said it would destroy what scientists consider to be the "largest remaining migratory system on Earth" and lobbied hard against the project.

Serengeti Watch, an organisation committed to preserving the Serengeti's ecosystem, said it feared the highway plan could re-emerge at a later date.

"We do not consider this the final word in the Serengeti Highway saga by any means," the group said on its website.

The Serengeti Highway was intended to link Musoma, on the banks of Lake Victoria, to Arusha.

The project's critics argued the road would achieve the opposite of what it set out to do by destroying a key tourist attraction and thus stripping local communities of their jobs.

Serengeti Watch said the government was considering a highway that would wrap around the southern tip of the protected areas. It quoted a letter it said had been written by Tanzania's Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Ezekiel Maige.

Instead of cutting through the park towards Arusha, this new road would run "south of Ngorongoro Conservation area and Serengeti National Park," according the letter.

AFP was nor able Saturday to check the authenticity of this letter with the Tanzanian government.

Last year, 27 biodiversity experts co-signed a statement published in Nature magazine arguing that building a road through the park would cause an environmental disaster.

An environment group had previously argued that the road was illegal under the terms of East African Community Treaty, signed by Burundia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

The Africa Network for Animal Welfare said the road could lead to an increase poaching and more collisions between migrating animals and speeding vehicles, making the project untenable.

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First the rains came, then the birds

Tom Arup The Sydney Morning Herald 24 Jun 11;

ACROSS the great Lake Eyre Basin, an environmental boom not seen in decades is occurring.

This week The Saturday Age travelled to Lake Eyre - to witness the landscape's revival, driven by three consecutive years of heavy rains. Normally a rare event, for the third year running Lake Eyre has filled with water flowing down the basin's rivers from outback Queensland. By comparison, Lake Eyre filled just three times last century.

While much of the water has come to Lake Eyre from the north, it has also been raining in central Australia. Whereas the average yearly rainfall is 120 millimetres, 450 millimetres fell last year alone in the Lake Eyre region.

These rare times are the basin's ''boom cycle'', which can be followed by dry periods lasting decades, and it has spurred an eruption of bird and mammal life. Throughout the basin there is now a plague of native long-haired rats. Confined to the Northern Territory's Barkly Tablelands and western Queensland Channel Country in dry times, in a few short years the rats have spread half a continent to the southern reaches of the 1,200,000-square-kilometre Eyre Basin.

Along the rivers that feed Lake Eyre, birds like the Australian pelican or the rarer Eyrean Grasswren are in abundance.

UNSW's Richard Kingsford, who has spent many years surveying birds in the Eyre Basin, says the region is buzzing. ''The Basin's vast network of lakes and floodplains have all been given this sequence of wet years,'' Professor Kingsford said. ''And what we seem to understand about these systems is that it will tide them over for those really long dry spells.'' Professor Kingsford says when warmer spring weather arrives more invertebrates will emerge, encouraging greater populations of species further up the food chain.

At the Australian Wildlife Conservancy's property Kalamurina, which covers the northern shores of Lake Eyre and a stretch of the Warburton River, Coolibah trees - of Waltzing Matilda fame - are regrowing.

AWC chief executive Atticus Fleming says by removing cattle grazing on the almost 7000-square-kilometre property and managing other feral herbivores - camels, horses, donkeys and pigs - vegetation like the Coolibah will return unimpeded, increasing habitats for threatened species.

Mr Fleming says it is crucial the environmental benefits of the boom are locked in to protect threatened native mammals such as the dusky hopping mouse and the crest-tailed mulgara. ''Australia has the worst mammal extinction record in the world, over 20 mammals have been lost over the last 200 years,'' Mr Fleming said. ''Almost all of those extinctions have been in the centre and the south of Australia, and that extinction wave is being driven by habitat lost, predation by ferals like cat and foxes and competition from feral herbivores. For decades now, as the Warburton floods, the regeneration has been grazed down by feral herbivores.''

''We are going to get to see this country as it was 100-200 years ago, not as it has been in the last 50 years.''

CSIRO's Mark Stafford-Smith says the Lake Eyre Basin's environmental recovery also has lessons for the management of the Murray-Darling. Unlike the Murray-Darling, the Eyre Basin is an unregulated system, perhaps one of world's largest. Dr Stafford-Smith says this has kept the natural variability of water flows into rivers, lakes and wetlands.

''When you have highly variable flows you end up with a whole lot of species, and a whole lot of ecological functions, that don't actually happen in a regular flow,'' he said.

When you change the natural regulation of a river system, Dr Stafford-Smith says, common and introduced species thrive because they are used to regular flows.

''What you lose is the uncommon species … the species that depend on the pulsing effect,'' he says.

The Age stayed at Lake Eyre courtesy of Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

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Surprising Threat Looms for Wildfire-Scorched Arizona: Rain

Andrea Mustain Yahoo News 24 Jun 11;

The Wallow Fire in Arizona is the largest in state history, and has scorched more than 532,000 acres. And although firefighters have the blaze more than 65 percent contained, once the flames are finally extinguished the danger may not be over.

"Monsoon" season is on the way, and instead of providing sweet relief for a region in the grip of a years-long drought, the coming rain could spell disaster, bringing a spate of landslides and floods to the parched and burned landscape.

"It's kind of a one-two punch sort of thing," said Ken Waters, the aptly named warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix. "You always have problems with runoff after a big fire."

More than a decade of drought conditions had already robbed the region's soil, grasses and trees of moisture, providing the perfect fuel for fires,which have burned intense and hot in many places, said Stan Hinatsu, an information office with one of the fire crews camped out in Reserve, N.M., about a half-hour's drive from the Wallow Fire.

"This fire is huge," Hinatsu said, "and it's burned through everything" — from grasslands at lower elevations to junipers at mid-elevations to high, thick stands of ponderosa pine that burned fiercely.

Waters explained that the effects of the drought, compounded with the lost plant cover, means the exposed, bone-dry soil won't be able to absorb rains when they do come.

"The water comes down and it immediately runs off, like a big sheet of metal," Waters said.

The problem is particularly pronounced in mountainous areas, and so far it is the alpine regions of the fire, along its southeastern edge, that have proved most challenging to control, Hinatsu said.

"The fire is in tough terrain," Hinatsu told OurAmazingPlant. "The topography is very steep, mountainous country, and we're at a pretty high elevation."

The National Weather Service is warning that even brief bursts of moderate rain, just 10 or 15 minutes long, could cause flash flooding and debris flows in the area.

Arizona's monsoon season is just around the corner. It typically starts around the end of June and peaks in late July, Waters said.

"You get very heavy rains falling not across a widespread area, but isolated pockets, and typically the rain is more pronounced over the mountains," Waters said, "so that's setting you up for possible disaster there."

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