Best of our wild blogs: 12 Aug 11

Expressions of a Javan Myna
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Singapore Biodiversity Encyclopedia on Bestsellers list
from Raffles Museum News

Leaping Dolphins!
from Natura Gig

The glass is half-full: conservation has made a difference
from news

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Singapore: An Urban Jungle for the 21st Century

Sonia Kolensnikov-Jessop New York Times 28 Jul 11;

SINGAPORE — The math is impressive. In the last 25 years, the population of Singapore has nearly doubled, to more than five million. Over the same period, its green cover — planted areas that appear green on satellite photos, from parks to rooftops — has increased from a little more than a third of the city-state’s area to nearly half.

But it is not enough. In Singapore’s next “green road map,” its 10-year development plan, the country aims to go from being “a garden city” to “a city in a garden.” “The difference might sound very small,” says Poon Hong Yuen, the chief executive of the country’s National Parks Board, “but it’s a bit like saying my house has a garden and my house is in the middle of a garden. What it means is having pervasive greenery, as well as biodiversity, including wildlife, all around you.”

More and more cities are waking up to the need to be more than sweatshops on a citywide scale. Singapore rose to international prominence by constructing a country that was orderly and efficient. But being globally competitive today is about more than productivity. It is about sustainability, too.

In order to attract so-called knowledge workers, in industries like computing, biotechnology and other forms of new technology, a city has to be an appealing place to work, play, live, and raise a family.

“As we’ve moved into the more knowledge-based industries, they bring along talent who like to live in a great city,” said Mr. Poon. “It’s no longer about being well tended, but also about the liveability, the excitement of living in a great city — and biodiversity is part of it.”

According to the United Nations, more than half of the world’s population lived in cities in 2008 and that percentage is set to rise to 70 percent by 2050.

Singapore ranked 28th in the Mercer 2010 Quality of Living survey of the world’s most liveable cities, and in 22nd place as an Eco-City. It tied with San Francisco in 51st position in The Economist’s index of the World’s Most Liveable Cities, making it the fourth-best city to live in Asia after Osaka, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Singapore aggressively pursued its reputation as a green city as early as the 1960s and 1970s, when the newly independent country was in the rush of rapid economic development and urbanization. While the authorities built thousands of public housing blocks, they also planted trees and shrubs along the main highway bringing visitors from the airport to the city center. At the time, the government was attempting to attract a certain type of foreign investment, particularly manufacturing, and the key justification for having well-tended trees and parks was an economic one: to underscore to investors that the country was well run, well tended, and stable.

With economic policies focusing in recent years on developing creative industries and the service sector, Singapore is facing new pressures to attract talent. And with many companies in Asia, in particular, reporting a dearth of high-skilled talent, offering international companies and their employees a greener working environment becomes a big selling point.

“To be frank, we did not have a very conscious idea to conserve biodiversity right from the beginning. That was not the blueprint,” Mr. Poon said. “For a very long time, we focused only on plants and it has worked very well for us, but now we feel that to engage people and get them excited, especially the young, we need to include a wildlife component and moving forward we want to do more.”

Biodiversity will play an important role in the 1 billion Singaporean dollar, or $829 million, Gardens by the Bay project. The first phase of the 101-hectare, or 250-acre, green site the Bay South Garden, is set to open next June. While there are no plans to artificially introduce wildlife into the gardens, the National Parks Board hopes that newly resurgent species, including hornbills, kingfishers and dragonflies, will find a haven there.

Lim Eng Hwee, the deputy chief executive for planning at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, who is in charge of allocating land usage in Singapore, believes that the Gardens by the Bay project will not only enhance the quality of the urban environment, but will also enhance the aesthetic and economic value of the surrounding developments, “similar to Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London.”

“From a monetary point of view, there is a very strong argument, supported by various researchers, about the increase in the value of the adjacent site you get from having a significant, well-designed green space: a 15 to 20 percent uplift in prices,” agrees Andrew Grant of Grant Associates, the British landscape architecture firm that designed the Bay South Garden.

The Bay South Garden includes two giant conservatories that are set to become new architectural landmarks for Singapore. The 1.2-hectare Flower Dome conservatory will replicate the climate of the Mediterranean and include a semiarid subtropical environment, while the 0.8 hectare Cloud Forest conservatory replicates the cool-moist climate found in tropical mountain regions 1,000 meters to 3,500 meters, or half a mile to two miles, above sea level.

Close to 10 percent of the total land area in Singapore is set aside for parks and nature reserves, and the government has plans to add more park space over the next 10 years to 15 years, “from about 3,300 hectares today to 4,200 hectares,” Mr. Lim said.

This is all part of a global effort to reconnect cities to nature. Last October, an assembly of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity held in Nagoya, Japan, approved a strategic plan for conserving the planet’s biodiversity over the next 10 years. It has 20 ambitious targets, including halving and where feasible bringing close to zero the rate of loss of natural habitats, including forests; restoring at least 15 percent of degraded areas; and extending protected terrestrial areas from 13 percent of land at present to 17 percent, and protected marine areas from 1 percent to 10 percent.

“The new strategic plan has been guided by the wake-up call contained in the report on the status of biodiversity in the world released by the secretariat in May 2010,” Dr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, wrote in an e-mail.

The report warned that the present rate of loss of biodiversity may be up to 1,000 times higher than the natural rate of extinction.

The Nagoya assembly also endorsed a new tool to help cities evaluate their biodiversity conservation efforts, the City Biodiversity index. “It is the first time that a partnership between local authorities and policy makers has been established,” said Dr. Djoghlaf, explaining that the plan of action was meant to implement the strategic goals, known as Aichi targets, at the municipal level.

“The engagement of the local authorities is essential for the success of the new 2020 targets,” Dr. Djoghlaf said.

Singaporean officials at the United Nations proposed and helped develop the index and so far about 28 cities around the world have started using it. They include Nagoya, London, Montreal, Brussels and Curitiba, Brazil. Dr. Djoghlaf said that a global report on the status of biodiversity in cities is now being prepared and will be submitted to a city summit meeting to be held in Singapore in June 2012.

Singapore’s own biodiversity efforts over the past 10 years have started to have some positive benefits. About 500 new species of flora and fauna, like the green tree snail and the long-legged fly, have been spotted again or have been seen for the first time, including 100 species new to science, data from the National Parks Board show.

One of the recent success stories has been the reintroduction of the Oriental pied hornbill — the bird’s population has increased from just a pair 16 years ago to about 160 today. The National Parks Board is hoping to launch other wildlife projects, introducing or increasing populations of a variety of species like the Colugo, a flying lemur, and the banded leaf monkey, which is native to Singapore.

In this regard, however, Singapore’s legendary orderliness is not all that useful. “We’ve found that our current roadside trees, with mono-species all at the same height, looks great, but is not that great for birds to hop around; they don’t like that,” Mr. Poon noted.

A version of this article appeared in print on July 29, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune with the headline: An Urban Jungle for the 21st Century.

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Don't sever museum's historic link

Straits Times Forum 12 Aug 11;

IN THE near future, Singapore will have a new natural history museum. However, I am saddened to learn that the new museum will be named Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum instead of retaining its current name - Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, or simply Raffles Museum.

Is the change of name because of the generous donation of $25 million by the Lee Foundation? Apart from monetary contributions, other factors like the origin and history of the museum should be taken into consideration before embarking on a name change. Otherwise, we would be losing that connection to the history and origins of the museum?

Raffles Museum, founded in 1849, was brought about by Sir Stamford Raffles' interest in natural history. An eminent naturalist, Raffles was not only the founder of Singapore but also the visionary behind Raffles Museum. Thus, the name Raffles Museum not only pays tribute to the man who contributed significantly to the natural history of Singapore, but also reminds future generations about the museum's heritage. We should not forget our past as we move forward.

Over the years, Raffles Museum has established its role in research, teaching and training in both the regional and international context. The name Raffles Museum can be likened to a brand. Isn't branding just as important? It could prove useful in making an impression and promoting future exhibitions.

To simply change the name because of the need to acknowledge the biggest donor is not justifiable.

The recognition of a significant contribution could come in the form of a dedication of a gallery to the donor instead of a complete name change.

I hope the relevant parties will consider retaining the museum's original name. In recognition of the Lee Foundation's substantial donation, a wing of the museum could be named after Dr Lee.

Ong Sheue Ling (Ms)

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Malaysia: Large shark catch being sold in fish markets raising concerns

The Star 11 Aug 11;

KOTA KINABALU: A shockingly large catch of sharks are being sold at the fish market here, raising concerns among conservationists who have been campaigning against this practise.

This prompted JCI Tanjung Aru chairman Aderick Chong to say: “There are just more sharks in the market than in the waters.”

He said a month-long survey at the market conducted jointly by JCI and marine science discovery centre Green Connection showed the seriousness of the situation, adding that sharks could be driven to extinction.

Chong, who met Kota Kinabalu City Mayor Datuk Abidin Madingkir over the matter yesterday, said the full details of the survey would be released later this month.

He said many visitors travelled to Sabah to enjoy its marine biodiversity but could disappointed to find nothing while diving.

Chong said the Mayor was informed of the importance of shark conservation as they played an important role in keeping the ocean clean.

He said the JCI members also mooted the idea of making KK city a “shark friendly city,” he said, adding that the mayor also signed his support for the campaign.

Chong said the group also asked if they could be provided billboard space and banners to display messages at strategic locations in the city.

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Malaysia: Patrols keep mangrove thieves at bay

Ruben Sario The Star 12 Aug 11;

KOTA KINABALU: Constant patrols along Sabah's northern coastline have thwarted cross-border mangrove thefts.

Sabah Forestry Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said the combined enforcement by the department's forest rangers, the police and officers from the Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) had made it difficult for those involved in the illegal harvesting of mangrove trees.

“There has been a slight decline of such incidents this year but we have to keep up these patrols,” he said.

Mannan said some 100 Filipino nationals had been arrested over the past few years for the illegal harvesting of mangroves.

“The harsh fact we are facing is that for every thief we arrest, another 10 are waiting to come in,” he said.

The suspected mangrove thieves are based in the southern Philippines island of Cagayan, which is just a 30 minute boat ride from Sabah's northeast coastal line.

Mannan said the mangroves around Pulau Banggi as well as the Pitas and Beluran districts were most susceptible to thieves.

Initially, they were stripping the barks of tangar, a species of mangrove plants, and these were used in the manufacture of alcoholic drinks in the Philippines.

But recently, the thieves were carting off entire tree trunks, measuring about one metre in diameter, to be used as construction material, Mannan said.

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Malaysia: Licences a must soon for all who keep exotic animals

S.S. Yoga The Star 11 Aug 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: All premises housing wildlife, including pet shops, will now have to apply for permits to continue operating under the new Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) director-general Datuk Abd Rasid Samsudin said even individuals keeping wildlife would be required to apply for permits.

“Pet shops have to do so. Currently, all they need is a licence from the local council,” he told The Star.

He said this was one way of monitoring premises such as zoos and pet shops to ensure that they did not deal in illegal trade of wildlife as many, especially shops, had previously been found to sell illegally-obtained wild animals.

The ruling also covers common household pets which are on the endangered species list, including animals such as the star and radiated tortoises and other exotic pets such as imported snakes and reptiles.

Abdul Rasid said the regulations for keeping animals in such premises were expected to be ready by the end of next month.

It was up to the minister to decide how much time should be given for zoos and other establishments to comply with the new regulations, he added.

“We have informed all of them about the new conditions. So far, we have audited 17 zoos and establishments and some have failed to meet the requirements.

“We have advised them of the changes they need to make to comply,” said Abdul Rasid who declined to reveal which zoos and establishments had failed the first audit.

He added that Perhilitan had proposed for a bond to be imposed for the issuance of permits for animals individually and if these were later seized, the bond money would go towards their upkeep.

Abdul Rasid said the department always welcomed help from the public and non-government organisations in monitoring the situati- on.

“To help with this effort, once each premises gets its licence, we will post details of each animal and the permit issued on our website to make it easier for them to be monitored and no question of impropriety may arise,” said Abdul Rasid.

He added that a zoo committee, comprising officials from the ministry and other stakeholders like NGOs, would be formed once the regulations were in place.

However, Sahabat Alam Malaysia president S.M. Mohd Idris said the new ruling would have little effect on smuggling of wildlife in the country.

“There is no assurance that Perhilitan will be able to curb animal smuggling even after imposing the Act.

“It is impossible for them to keep track on all individual owners or premises,” he said.

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Efforts to Fight Haze Hit by Weather and Technical Issues, Indonesia Says

Fidelis E. Satriastanti Jakarta Globe 11 Aug 11;

Indonesia’s disaster management agency wants to induce rain to douse haze-causing fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra, but is facing natural, budgetary and equipment constraints, an official said on Thursday.

“As the command-holding agency, we’ve coordinated with other sectors and they have suggested producing human-induced rain [clud seeding] for forest fires in Riau, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and West Kalimantan,” said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB).

“However, we have not been able to do it immediately because of certain requirements that have to be met,” he said.

His comments came following Environment Minister Gusti Muhammad Hatta’s statement on Wednesday that BNPB would cloud seed within five days.

Sutopo explained that human-induced rain is conducted by injecting clouds with salt, prompting them to absorb more water and consequently produce rain. Heavy rain, Sutopo said, was the only way to extinguish the fires, because the larger parts were on peatlands, where fire could burn for a long time, especially in underground peat seams.

But he added that one requirement for inducing rain was the presence of cumulus clouds, which carry plenty of water and have the appropriate atmospheric dynamics.

“In the dry season, like we are in now, these kinds of clouds are quite rare, especially in those four provinces,” Sutopo said. “We also need to assess the atmosphere conditions, not only locally, but also on a regional scale.

“The other concern is availability of airplanes,” he added. “We have five Casa aircraft, but they can not handle all those areas. So we need to prioritize which areas should go first.”

The government’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) would take these concerns into consideration, he said, before proposing a budget for BNPB to implement the program.

“So, we still have to wait for BPPT’s assessment for further actions and budgets,” he said.

Sutopo said the dry season was expected to last until October, and that the humidity required for cumulus clouds would only come between then and January.

He added that in the mean time, forest fires were being handled by firefighters from the Forestry Ministry and local governments.

“In disaster management protocols, it is the local governments’ responsibility to deal with the fires because they own the areas,” he said.

“They need to keep informing the local people and companies to stop burning peatlands and forests.”

This burning season, as of Aug. 7, Riau recorded 2,611 hotspots; West Kalimantan recorded 1,433; South Sumatra recorded 1,035; and Central Kalimantan recorded 950, according to data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Shrimp Industry Bites Hand That Feeds It

Danilo Valladares IPS News 11 Aug 11;

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 11, 2011 (IPS) - Mangrove forests in silt-laden intertidal coastal ecosystems provide a natural habitat for countless marine species, as well as livelihoods for thousands of families in Latin America and the Caribbean. But mangrove swamps are shrinking year by year, besieged by aquaculture, especially shrimp farming, environmentalists warn.

Aquaculture in "Latin America and the Caribbean showed the highest average annual growth in the period 1970-2008 (21.1 percent), followed by the Near East (14.1 percent) growth and Africa (12.6 percent)," says a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

"Brazil, Mexico, Ecuador and Chile, the leading aquaculture producers, have spearheaded this development, producing growing quantities of salmon, trout, tilapia, shrimp and molluscs," says the study, titled The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2010.

But far from generating sustainable development, shrimp farming is destroying biologically diverse mangrove forests and estuaries in Latin America and round the world, without regard for the importance of these ecosystems for the environment and livelihoods of thousands of families who depend on fishing.

María Dolores Vera, of Ecuador's Coordinating Body for the Defence of Mangrove Ecosystems (C-CONDEM), a non-governmental organisation, told IPS that shrimp farming was introduced in her country "in the 1970s, and had already destroyed 70 percent of the country's mangrove ecosystems by 2008."

A major concern among environmentalists in Ecuador is that in 2008 the government of leftwing President Rafael Correa legalised shrimp farming in areas where it had previously been banned, under decree 1391.

"The decree permits formerly illegal activities, like creating and enlarging shrimp pools," the activist said. "Not only have the mangroves been deforested by logging, but also rivers and estuaries are being polluted with chemical effluents."

Today, Ecuador has 108,000 hectares of mangroves, down from 360,000 hectares in 1994, Vera said. The mangrove forests are found in the coastal provinces of Esmeraldas, Manabí, Santa Elena, Guayas and El Oro.

Mangroves, which represent only one percent of the world's forested areas, are a highly productive ecosystem. They harbour great numbers of species of birds, molluscs and crustaceans that are food and employment sources for thousands of families.

The tall, dense-growing shrubs with their tangled roots also purify the water and shield the coasts against extreme climate phenomena.

In spite of the many environmental services they provide, mangroves are being damaged by human activities so quickly that close to 35,600 square kilometres were lost worldwide between 1980 and 2005, mainly by direct conversion of the mangroves to aquaculture, agriculture and urban land use, according to the FAO.

Biologists believe that mangroves originally covered over 200,000 square kilometres of the earth's surface, although precise figures are lacking.

The Latin American countries with the greatest areas of mangroves are Brazil, with nine percent of the planetary total, and Mexico, with five percent. Indonesia has 21 percent of the world's mangroves, Australia has seven percent and Nigeria five percent, according to the New World Mangrove Atlas published by the United Nations and partner organisations.

Carlos Alberto Santos, of Brazil's Artisanal Fisherfolk Movement, told IPS that destruction of mangroves in South America's giant is occurring mainly in the Atlantic coast states of Bahia, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte.

"The big multinational companies want to chop down the mangroves to make room for shrimp pools, but these areas are vital for fishermen, who are dependent on the mangroves for their livelihood," he said.

The statistics confirm his view. The 2010 FAO report on world fisheries and aquaculture says the number of people employed by the sector worldwide rose from 16.7 million in 1980 to 44.9 million in 2008.

In addition to the shrimp industry, Santos said, large scale transnational infrastructure projects, like the construction of ports, shipyards and hotels for tourists, have also devastated great swathes of mangrove forest along the Brazilian coastline.

To prevent total destruction of the mangroves, artisanal fisherfolk are pushing for a bill to modify Brazil's forest code and ban logging in mangrove areas. But the proposal is encountering stiff resistance from the industrial fisheries sector.

But shrimp farming is not always the primary threat to species-rich mangrove ecosystems in every country in Latin America.

In Venezuela, for instance, extractive industries like oil and mining are the worst enemies, according to Henderson Colina of the Ecological Association for the Environmental Preservation of Falcón State, in the northwest of the country.

"Government policies have made our economy almost entirely dependent on extraction of fossil fuels, granting big concessions for oil and gas exploration and putting the mangroves at even greater risk," the activist complained to IPS.

"In Falcón alone, natural gas exploration is being undertaken in 33 blocks, by Italian, Chinese and Cuban corporations, among others," he said.

Economic diversification and technological innovation have "an essential role to play in mitigating environmental impacts, because if we lose the mangroves, opportunities for more sustainable economic development in our countries, like tourism, will also disappear," Colina said.

For his part, the executive secretary of Redmanglar Internacional (International Mangrove Network), Carlos Salvatierra, told IPS that shrimp farming has "a high environmental impact" on these ecosystems worldwide, prompting a campaign with the motto: "Mangroves Yes! Shrimp Ponds No!"

The last straw, according to Salvatierra, is that "there are moves afoot to legalise shrimp farming activities, despite the fact that they are neither socially nor environmentally sustainable and generate too many social conflicts that have caused fatalities."

For this reason, activists believe it of supreme importance to lobby states that have ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands which lists internationally important wetlands, in order to block legalisation of the shrimp industry. "To tolerate and approve the industry would just paint it green," he said.

Beyond the shrimp ponds, Salvatierra said threats against the mangroves are multiplying due to river pollution, privatisation of land, changes in land use and other human activities.

That is why it is vital to raise awareness about the importance of mangroves and undertake environmental remediation, to recover the lost mangrove ecosystems, he said. (END)

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Philippines: Nipa habitat on the decline

Eufemio T. Rasco Jr. Malaya 12 Aug 11;

MANGROVES, where nipas grow abundantly, are on the decline in the Philippines.

As in other Southeast Asian countries, mangroves have been converted into what was believed to be more profitable ventures.

In the 1950s, vast tracts of mangroves were awarded by the government to concessionaires and logged over for firewood and tan barks. Mangrove firewood was the preferred fuel for coastal villages and most bakeries because of its high heating value. Mangrove firewood was exported to Japan as a source of rayon.

Starting in the 1960s, the government encouraged prawn and bangus farming in mangroves. These resulted in the reduction of mangroves from 500,000 hectares in the beginning of the 20th century to only 117,000 hectares in 1995.

It is estimated that half of the mangrove forests, or about 141,000 hectares, was lost to fishpond construction.

In effect, what were once common property of multiple use and benefit to a large number of people was narrowly channeled to the benefit of a select few.

Shrimp and fishponds are now being abandoned voluntarily. But the economic folly of conversion is not the reason why. It is the unsustainability of shrimp and fish farming in former mangroves.

Pond soil has gradually becomes acid sulfate, which indirectly causes toxicity to shrimps.

In the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand, shrimp farming collapsed because of diseases that reduced profitability.

Today, more money can be earned from undeveloped mangrove forests.

As a crop, nipa is unaffected by typhoon or unfavorable weather. It does not need to be replanted. And it continues to produce sap for 50 years or more without replanting.

One fruiting head could have as many as 90 fruits. The fruit is used as food in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, India and Bangladesh – but not in the Philippines where the fruits are simply left to rot or made into handicrafts.

There is a thriving cottage industry based on the nipa leaves used in bahay kubo or thatched houses. Thousands of people, particularly women and children, depend on nipa shingle production as their main source of livelihood.

The leaflets are used for making raincoats, hats, baskets, mats, bags and wrappers for sticky rice delicacies. The midribs are used for coarse brooms and the petioles for fuel.

The nipa shingle industry is for the poorest of the poor. In Vinzons, Camarines Norte, a conservative estimate shows people producing 1.2 million leaflets per hectare per year. Based on P150 per 100 shingles, this is worth P36,000.

One hectare of nipa could provide 240 man-days of employment for weaving (assuming one weaver can make 100 shingles a day); and 50 man-days for leaf gathering (assuming one gatherer can get 25,000 leaflets a day).

The young seeds are edible and the nipa sap is a source of vinegar, sugar and alcohol. The fermented juice called tuba is extensively used as a beverage, the earliest record of which was made by Pigafetta during the 1521 voyage of Magellan.

The World Agroforestry Center estimates the annual sap yield per hectare is 126,000 liters in the Philippines. For alcohol production, one person can tap 250 nipa plants a day and turn in 180 liters of sap, enough for one load using the native distilling apparatus which produces 30 liters of a 70-proof, colorless alcoholic brew.

It is a raw material for sugar as the sucrose content of nipa (up to 17 percent) is higher than that in sugarcane (12 percent). When the sap is collected within 12 hours, only a slight fermentation takes place. Boiled in open pans, the saps turns into a brown mass, like the panocha or solidified sugar made from cane.

Except for crushers which are unnecessary, the same facilities required for making sugar from sugarcane juice are needed for nipa.

After coconut, nipa is the second most popular raw material for vinegar; the are buri and kaong.

When distilled to 100 percent alcohol, roughly 10 liters of ethanol is produced. Which makes nipa an alternative fuel source.

The Biofuels Act mandates an increasing proportion of ethanol in fuel blends – 10 percent by 2011.

And yet, aside from sugarcane, which is the main source, cassava and sweet sorghum are being explored as sources of alcohol. Somehow, nipa – the world’s cheapest source – had been forgotten.

This doesn’t seem to make sense. The alcohol yield of Philippine nipa is about 10,000 liters per hectare per year – and could be doubled with improved management.

Unlike sugar, cassava and sweet sorghum, nipa does not compete with food crops for land and water because it grows where most crops cannot grow. It requires very little maintenance because once established, it will last for at least 50 years – if not forever.

The main constraint is labor intensity which accounts for almost the entire cost of the sap. But in a country where rural unemployment is very high, labor-intensive sap gathering is an advantage; nipa is abundant in the country’s poorest areas: Bicol, Eastern Visayas and Northeast Mindanao.

Even though the list is long, new uses for nipa are still being discovered: for treating wastewater contaminated by heavy metals; as inhibition of metal corrosion; and as a possible source of pulping material.

Not only are scientists busy identifying the chemical components of nipa, they are studying the fungi, bacteria and other organisms associated with the plant.

They are building knowledge on the relationships between plant and organisms to give further clues on the survival skill of nipa as well as find application in food processing, industries, agriculture and the environment.

All these economic uses pale in comparison with the environmental roles of nipa mangroves which benefit everyone. Among these are its role as a breeding ground for fish and invertebrates and in maintaining the stability of the riverbanks and the removal of heavy metals from water.

Without mangroves, there will be less fish and more floods, as drainage is hampered by the collapse of riverbanks.

The environmental role of nipa is thus priceless.

(Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco heads the Philippine Rice Research Institute. The plant breeder is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology.)

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Ecological crisis looms for Great Barrier Reef

Extreme weather, mining and port projects blamed for record deaths of turtles and dugongs
Jonathan Pearlman, For The Straits Times 12 Aug 11;

SYDNEY: Record numbers of turtles and dugongs have been washing up dead and starving along the Queensland shoreline, prompting warnings of an ecological disaster in the Great Barrier Reef.

The turtles and dugongs - or sea cows - along the reef are believed to be starving to death after a series of extreme weather events destroyed their main food source, seagrass. Some think nearby mining projects and a port expansion may also have destroyed some seagrass.

The Queensland government said 96 dead dugongs have been found so far this year. Hundreds of turtles have also been found, though official figures have not been released. Environmental sources told The Straits Times that up to 1,500 dugongs and 6,000 turtles are expected to die in the coming months.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said the loss of turtles and dugongs will be the worst on record. Most of the carcasses have been found around Townsville and Gladstone, but experts said this is 'the tip of the iceberg' and many more turtles and dugongs will have died at sea.

'What we have seen is just a snapshot of what's really going on,' Dr Ellen Ariel, a turtle expert at James Cook University, told The Straits Times.

'We are aware of turtles that float up on beaches where people find them, but there will be others that die and sink to the bottom or are taken by predators. There are some pretty fat sharks out there.'

Levels of seagrass along the coast are at their lowest on record after the state was hit by a series of floods, heavy rain and Cyclone Yasi in February. Seagrass tends to be highly delicate and can take as long as 10 years to grow back.

The Queensland government, however, said the dugongs are not under threat.

'Our dugong population has been traditionally very resilient and there's no reason to believe they will not bounce back,' said the state's Environment Minister Vicky Darling.

The reef's dugongs are listed as a vulnerable species, meaning they risk becoming endangered under current environmental conditions. The strange- looking herbivore, related to the Florida manatee, is believed to be the source of the mermaid myth. The Great Barrier Reef has provided a stable habitat for the dugong, which helped the region to gain its listing as a World Heritage area in 1981.

Australia has the highest number of dugongs in the world, with most in Western Australia and the Torres Strait. While the 50,000-odd dugongs in these waters are unlikely to be badly affected by Queensland's recent extreme weather, the 5,500 dugongs in the southern, tourist-visited parts of the reef are now under threat.

Professor Helene Marsh, from James Cook University, said many dugongs have died or will die in the coming months and others will flock to safer waters, mainly to the north.

Asked whether the dugongs could be lost entirely from the main section of the reef, Prof Marsh said she did not know, but believed they will probably survive.

'What is unprecedented is the extent of the damage from the cyclone and the floods,' she said. 'Next year, there won't be any conceptions because the animals will be too skinny... In that region, I am quite worried about the dugong's future.'

The Great Barrier Reef is also facing a growing threat of environmental damage from several multi-billion dollar mining projects occurring on its doorstep.

Unesco's World Heritage Committee has expressed 'extreme concern' at the construction of a massive processing facility at Curtis Island, near Gladstone, which will become one of the world's biggest hubs for natural gas exports.

Shipping traffic through the reef is set to double in the next decade from current levels of 3,500 a year.

Environmental groups believe the recent dredging work on Gladstone harbour to expand its port may have further destroyed seagrass and led to more deaths of marine life.

Around the town of Gladstone, four dugongs, three dolphins and more than 40 turtles have been found dead in recent months.

The Queensland government has launched an inquiry into the Gladstone animal deaths but insisted that the development adhered to stringent environmental requirements.

A Gladstone resident, Mr Clive Last, who works on a privately-owned island near the town, came across a dead dugong on Witt Island two weeks ago. He took five photographs and contacted Queensland Parks and Wildlife.

He said he has lived in the area for 50 years and believed the marine deaths cannot be explained merely by the recent poor weather.

'We never had this quantity of deaths before the dredging,' he said. 'Something strange is going on.'

Famine threatens Australia's gentle sea cows
Extreme weather has destroyed the dugong's feeding grounds – just the latest menace facing this already endangered species
Roger Maynard The Independent 28 Aug 11;

An underwater famine is posing the latest threat to one of Australia's most endangered marine species, the dugong, which lives entirely on sea grass. At least 100 have starved to death in recent months and many more are likely to follow in the absence of their only food source.

Torrential rain and storms, including Cyclone Yasi earlier this year, have destroyed vast swathes of sea grass from northern Queensland to the New South Wales border. More than 1,000 miles of coastline which once provided the perfect habitat for these oddly shaped and gentle creatures are now denuded of the dugong's natural foodstuff.

Known as sea cows because of their total dependency on sea grass, numbers have plummeted over the past decade as they struggle to cope with extreme weather conditions, escalating industrial activity, and hunting by indigenous fishermen. Turtles, too, have fallen victim to the seagrass famine with several hundred reported washed up dead along the coastline.

"This is a national environmental disaster," says Professor Ellen Ariel, a marine biologist at James Cook University in Townsville. "What's happening now is they have nothing to eat and it's not going to change in any way soon. Sea grass takes between two to three years to recover, if there are no other extreme weather events in the meantime."

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority is similarly concerned, recently launching a campaign to protect dugong and green turtles which it predicts will die in record numbers. Forced to stray from their regular foraging areas in search of food, the two species are much more vulnerable to disease, injury and death. A major industrial development at Gladstone on the mid-Queensland coast is also increasing pressure on the marine habitat.

A multi-billion pound gas processing plant on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef has already attracted criticism. Last month Unesco's world heritage committee expressed its extreme concern at the Queensland and federal government's backing of the project. For her part, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has pledged to make a comprehensive assessment of the plant's environmental impact.

In addition to climatic and industrial threats to the dugong population, indigenous fishermen have also been accused of endangering the species. Next month a television campaign will be launched by animal activists who believe Australia's Native Title laws are allowing the "uncontrolled" and "unmonitored slaughter" of dugongs and turtles. Australians For Animals has accused some aboriginal groups of "appalling cruelty".

Campaign organiser Colin Riddell says: "We have a confirmed report of a dugong calf being tied to the back of a boat, its cries bringing in the mother so they can both be killed. We have reports in our office of indigenous groups going out in motor boats with a GPS to find dugongs. Once found, they radio their mates and entire pods of dugongs are slaughtered."

Dugong hunting has been an accepted part of Australia's indigenous culture for thousands of years. Their ivory and bones are used in traditional crafts and their meat, which is said to be similar to high quality beef, is regarded as a delicacy. The Native Title Act allows dugongs to be caught by aborigines for personal, domestic or non-commercial needs, but, according to Mr Riddell, some are being sold for profit. He claims the meat sells for nearly £100 a kilo and is even being exported.

Now he is urging the government to call a moratorium on dugong hunting until population numbers are established. "I don't have a problem with Native Title hunting if it's done sustainably," he insists. "But let's just see how many are left."

The dugong's placid nature and slow swimming style make it easy prey for predators. Spending their entire life at sea, they swim by moving their broad spade-like tail in an up an down motion and by the use of their two flippers. The large grey mammals which are up to 10ft long, can live for decades but take time to reach sexual maturity and do not breed rapidly. Without the sea grass they will simply starve to death.

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