Best of our wild blogs: 16 Jul 11

Jurong reclamation near Cyrene Reef begins
from wild shores of singapore

Moonlight trip to Cyrene
from wild shores of singapore

“Citizen science and the monitoring of hornbills in Singapore”
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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What have dinosaurs got to do with Singapore?

Museum's $12m pursuit of dino skeletons from US makes no sense
Ong Sor Fern Straits Times 16 Jul 11;

I HAVE been musing about price versus value recently, more specifically about the price of art versus its value to a community. As a lifelong arts lover, my instinct is always to defend the value of the arts and to declare that it is impossible to put a price on it.

But, as with everything in this modern world, price tags have become a handy soundbite with which to grab a viewer's attention. And catching people's attention is, as even hallowed institutions such as museums have found out, an essential KPI (key performance indicator) in these busy times.

Spending money to buy attention is easy. Just look at the recent brouhaha over the Tang treasures collection which came with a US$32 million (S$39 million) price tag. My own attention was snagged last Sunday when The Sunday Times reported that Singapore's new natural history museum is hoping to raise $12 million to buy a trio of dinosaur skeletons.

My first instinctive reaction was dismay. What do dinosaurs have to do with Singapore's natural history, I thought. And that $12 million could fund an awful lot of other things at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research.

Now I confess I'm no natural history buff. But I have enjoyed the curator's tour at the Raffles Museum and it opened my eyes to the staggering wealth of natural resources in South-east Asia.

The museum owns about 500,000 specimens of animals, the largest collection of South-east Asian wildlife in the region. All I could think of when I saw the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff, who guided packed tours through their cramped libraries of specimens, was: 'How can a country as materially wealthy as Singapore fail to dedicate proper financial support to such a crucial part of our national heritage?'

Of course that question was answered handsomely last year when it was announced that the Raffles Museum has managed to raise $46 million to build a spanking new home, designed by acclaimed homegrown architect Mok Wei Wei no less, to house the collection.

About time, I rejoiced. But having struggled so hard to win funds, why is the museum now chasing a $12 million set of dinosaur bones?

The jaded journalist in me recognises that dinosaurs are a guaranteed surefire hit. I had been told that dinosaurs and mummies are no-brainer winners when it comes to ratings, which explains why the National Geographic, History and Discovery cable channels are perennially trotting out specials and documentaries on these topics.

But the museum aficionado in me rebelled: $12 million is a little over a quarter of what it cost to build the museum, and just for one display?

Think what that amount could do for the rest of the collection.

I have no doubt the custodians at Raffles Museum have taken good care of the collection but it was, at one point, shunted pillar to post like an unwanted orphan, losing some precious exemplars in the process. Surely the money could go towards careful restoration and loving care as well as creating even better showcases and proper curation once the new building opens?

I am sure money will be needed to run the place and dollars could also be invested in grooming the curators and scholars who are the intellectual backbone of any museum aspiring to international repute.

The funds could also be used to create educational materials based on the collection. I would love to see a large format book, a la John James Audubon's gorgeous works, documenting the collection with annotated essays, colour illustrations and plates. I would buy a book like this in a heartbeat. But this sort of project takes time, money and other resources too.

No doubt the trio of dinosaur skeletons are important relics. There is speculation that it is a family, and the set is more than 80 per cent complete. Whatever.

They do not make sense to me as they are not even found in the region - they are from Wyoming in the United States.

To me, the pursuit of the bones is just the latest in a series of programming decisions in Singapore museums which signal what seems like a disheartening intellectual and spiritual vacuum. I wonder if the pursuit of such blockbuster exhibitions has come at too high a cost in terms of a lack of curatorial discipline and intellectual heft about Singapore's own culture, heritage and history.

For example, the National Museum of Singapore's most memorable exhibitions recently have been retrospectives of Iranian photographer Abbas and Taiwanese film-maker Edward Yang. I admire their works, and I do acknowledge it was a coup to land the Abbas retrospective.

But where are the thought-provoking exhibits about Singapore's history? I have been through the history gallery all of once and all I remember is hating the maze-like layout and struggling with the clumsy audio companion. The story the gallery told did not register with me at all. I left feeling dissatisfied.

And the Living Galleries at the museum were also a disappointment, except for the one dedicated to Fashion. Now that gallery was a successful fusion of pop culture, sociology and history. I loved that the artefacts in that gallery - dresses, shoes, make-up, music - gave me an insight into how women played a crucial part in Singapore's development in the years after independence, how their roles in society changed and how something so frivolous as clothes reflected their changing status.

For me, a museum is not simply about the blockbuster shows although those are nice to have. But anyone can buy a show. Fewer people can tell me a good story about my home and show me something surprising about Singapore. That, to me, is what a museum should do. They are the custodians of Singapore's best stories and they should strive to tell it as well as they can. And that is something to be valued beyond any price.

Is plan to buy $12m fossils justified?
Sunday Times 17 Jul 11;

I refer to last Sunday's report, 'Museum's $12m race for dino family', on the plan to raise $12 million to purchase three dinosaur fossils for Singapore's new natural history museum.

Why would the museum seek to acquire such specimens when they would most likely not be significant to its collection, which is mainly of South-east Asian origin?

If the fossils are acquired, would this be the start of a new direction in palaeontology research for the museum? Wouldn't the funds be better spent on expanding the museum's collection, or on future exhibitions and research, among other things?

If the deal goes through, the museum would gain prestige by owning such scientifically valuable fossils, but if these do not fit into the collection or any of the museum's research areas, I do not see the justification for acquiring them.

Abdul Hakim Abdul Rahim

Related articles
Why we need dinos The $12m skeletons are worth having for their power to inspire and awe Ignatius Low Sunday Times 17 Jul 11;

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Malaysia: Local councils to help curb haze

R. Sittamparam and Masami Mustaza
New Straits Times 15 Jul 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: The Department of Environment is teaming up with local authorities to reduce the haze by curbing local sources, including open burning and smoke emissions from industrial areas.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas said yesterday they hoped to work towards improving the haze situation by managing land with peat soil, especially the three million hectares in Selangor, Pahang, Johor and Sarawak.

"These areas are potential hotspots for fires.

"Peat soil is highly combustible when dry, so we need to raise the water levels as the soil is a fire hazard that can burn almost indefinitely or until its fuel is exhausted.

"Once ignited, the fire can reach about 10m into the ground and it will be hard to put out the flames.

"Sometimes, it can burn for months," he said after opening the ministry's sports meet here yesterday.

Uggah said the haze situation yesterday morning had improved and none of the DOE's 50 air-quality monitoring stations showed unhealthy readings.

"We are monitoring the land with peat soil, especially the fire-prone areas of Tanjung 12 and Johan Setia in Klang, Selangor, and in Pahang and Sarawak.

"We have set up three manned observation towers for early detection of hotspots and 19 tube wells to raise water levels, as well as 100 check dams to prevent the draining of water at these peat soil areas."

Uggah said his ministry's standard operating procedure to beat the haze was well in place and it would resort to cloud seeding as an emergency measure should the dry spell and haze persist.

He said the trans-boundary Asean Ministerial Steering Committee on haze, which will meet on Aug 18 and 19 in Thailand, had taken many positive steps in addressing the haze problem across borders.

"We've been talking about setting up a rapid fire fighting team to move speedily within Asean countries without the hindrance of bureaucracy and border issues."

Nationwide air quality improving
The Star 16 Jul 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: The air quality is reported to be improving throughout the country, with the Air Pollutant Index (API) showing better readings on Saturday compared to Friday.

According to the Environment Department's website, 69 percent of API readings were at good levels this morning while the rest were moderate.

At 5pm on Friday, 48 per cent of API readings were good, 48 percent moderate and four percent unhealthy.

Several areas in Perak recorded moderate air quality including in Seri Manjung (71), Kampung Air Putih, Taiping (69), Jalan Tasek Ipoh (67) and S.K. Jalan Pagoh (66).

Several areas which recorded unhealty air quality on Saturday evening such as Cheras (110) and Seri Manjung (104), returned to good and moderate levels with readings of 36 and 71 respectively.

API readings of between 0-50 are categorised as good, 51-100 (moderate), 101-200 (unhealthy), 201-300 (very unhealthy) and 300 (hazardous). - Bernama

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For the love of dolphins: NGOs to launch heated campaign in Phuket

Phuket Gazette 16 Jul 11;

PHUKET: The heads of two non-government organizations were in Phuket this weekend to announce the start of a partnership campaign to halt plans to build a "dolphinarium" as part of a resort and tourism complex in Rawai.

Mark Berman of the US-based Earth Island Institute and Edwin Wiek of the Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) stopped by the Phuket Gazette offices today to drop off a copy of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, which they plan to translate into Thai and distribute among the local media, schools and government agencies.

The pair said their two groups would work together domestically and internationally to fight a plan by Canadian investor Daniel McDaniel to build a tourism attraction that would include a dolphin show.

Both men feel it is unethical to keep dolphins in captivity and that dolphin shows are dying out in the West as more people learn about how the mammals are captured in the wild, which is the subject of The Cove.

Mr Berman said he plans to return to Phuket with former dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry to encourage Thais to attend free showings of The Cove in order to raise local awareness of the issue.

Mr Wiek, a Dutchman who has lived in Thailand for over two decades and is fluent in Thai, will lead the fight locally in Phuket, preparing a version of the film with Thai subtitles and using the media to spread the message.

The development planned for Rawai is not the first time people have tried to import dolphins as part of a tourism related business, he said.

The first was about 12 or 13 years ago by an American man. Then, about three years ago, a Dutchwoman wanted to use dolphins for the treatment of autism in children.

"I understand that some people think that zoos and dolphinariums are still a thing of this time, but scientific research has not proven that it works. I don't know what this gentleman's argument is that it will be good for Phuket.

"From a financial point of view I am sure it could make a profit, especially with so many tourists coming in from Russia and China who love this sort of thing, but from an ethical point of view I don't think it's right to take animals from the wild and put them into tanks to entertain people," Mr Wiek said.

As for claims that as many as 1,000 jobs could be created, he said most of those would probably go to low-wage workers from Burma who build the project.

Mr Wiek emphasized that there was no basis for comparison between keeping domestic dogs and holding dolphins in captivity.

"Dogs are bred. They couldn't survive without people, and they aren't endangered either. These animals [dolphins] are in some cases highly endangered, and the way they are taken out of the wild is horrific," he said.

Mr Berman said he had already met with the Thai Food Processors Association's tuna group in Bangkok.

Association members told him they adhere to the Earth Island Institute dolphin-safe policy so they can export canned tuna.

"It's one of the top five industries in this country, a multi-billion dollar industry. We told them they face the wrath of a possible international boycott if they do this. They can't claim to be dolphin-safe if the government of Thailand is allowing trade in live dolphins. It doesn't work."

His group stopped a similar scheme to import dolphins to Thailand from the Solomon Islands in 2008 and was lining up support from other international NGOs for this latest campaign, he said.

When told that Mr McDaniel had already been given several chances to state his right of reply on why the project was good for Thailand, Mr Berman said:

"This man can sit in the shadows if he wants, because they know what they are doing is not acceptable. But we are going to challenge him to a public debate. All he wants to do is make money from this deal; that's all it is. There is nothing educational about captive dolphins. It has been proven behind Ric O'Barry's work."

Mr Berman said the Earth Island Institute would call for a boycott on Thai tourism as well if the import of dolphins is allowed.

Mr Wiek was less enthusiastic about this approach, saying such a call might be impractical and cast his group as obstructionist.

His group would rather work at the local level to raise awareness about the issues involved, he said.

"We want to see dolphins living free in the waters around Phuket, not on the island itself," he said.

– Stephen Michael Fein

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Threatened snow leopards found in Afghanistan

Denis D. Gray Associated Press Yahoo News 15 Jul 11;

BANGKOK (AP) — A healthy population of snow leopards, elusive big cats threatened across the mountain ranges of Central Asia, has been found in one of the few peaceful areas of Afghanistan, a wildlife group said.

Camera traps documented the secretive, usually solitary animals at 16 locations across the Wakhan Corridor, a long panhandle in northeastern Afghanistan free from the insurgency that plagues most of the country, the World Conservation Society said in a statement seen Friday.

Listed as globally threatened, only some 4,500 to 7,500 snow leopards live across a dozen nations in the high mountain ranges of Central Asia. The cats are poached for their pelts and killed by shepherds guarding their flocks upon which the leopards sometimes prey.

The sleek, fuzzy-tailed leopards are also captured for the pet trade, while an increasing demand for their penises and bones in China, where some believe they enhance sexual performance, has also led to their decimation.

"This is a wonderful discovery. It shows that there is real hope for snow leopards in Afghanistan. Now our goal is to ensure that these magnificent animals have a secure future as part of Afghanistan's natural heritage," Peter Zahler, the World Conservation Society's deputy Asia director, said in the statement.

The New York-based group has been working in the Wakhan Corridor, which borders China, Pakistan and Tajikistan, since 2006 on protecting wildlife including the Marco Polo sheep and the ibex. George Schaller, a wildlife biologist with the society, has proposed creating a reserve in the region.

The statement, released Wednesday, did not estimate the number of leopards in the corridor, but said the species remained threatened.

The society, which works with the U.S. government's aid arm, USAID, is providing conservation education in every Wakhan school, has trained 59 rangers to monitor wildlife, constructed predator-proof livestock corrals and started an insurance scheme to compensate shepherds for livestock taken by predators, according to the statement.

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China oil spill six times size of Singapore: govt

AFP Google News 15 Jul 11;

BEIJING — A huge oil spill off the Chinese coast has now contaminated an area around six times the size of Singapore, state media reported Friday, as the government said it may seek compensation for the leak.

The spill from the oil field, which the United States' ConocoPhillips operates with China's state-run oil giant CNOOC, has polluted a total area of almost 4,250 square kilometres (1,650 square miles), government figures showed.

The figures, which were announced on the State Oceanic Administration website earlier this week but only reported on Friday, were almost five times the size of the 840-square-kilometre area previously reported.

The administration says that area remains worst affected by the spill, but that another 3,400 square kilometres have also been contaminated to a lesser degree by the oil.

The spill was kept secret by the authorities for several weeks before being made public this month, sparking suspicions of an official cover-up, and the disaster has triggered a furious public response in China.

State media said the government was considering seeking compensation from ConocoPhillips over the spill.

"We have made an initial plan to claim compensation from ConocoPhillips China," the business daily 21st Century Business Herald quoted an unnamed official from the State Oceanic Administration as saying.

"But whether and how it will be implemented still depends on the status of plugging the leak."

CNOOC said last week the spill was "basically under control" while ConocoPhillips told reporters the leaks had been plugged.

But on Wednesday the oceanic administration said oil was still leaking into the ocean and ordered ConocoPhillips to stop operations at several rigs in the polluted area until the source of the spill was fully plugged.

"There has been oil seeping continuously into the sea for days from platforms B and C in the Penglai 19-3 oilfield and there is still a slick in the surrounding marine areas," it said in a statement.

"Another spill could happen at any time, which has posed a huge threat to the oceanic ecological environment."

CNOOC has been slammed by state media and green groups over the spill, and it emerged on Tuesday that the firm was cleaning up another slick after a breakdown at a rig off the northeast coast.

ConocoPhillips said Thursday the spill was the equivalent of 1,500 barrels of oil.

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