Best of our wild blogs: 18 Aug 11

Mudskippers and allies: gaining ground at the water’s edge
from Raffles Museum News

Sexy Knobblies on Cyrene
from wild shores of singapore

Pacific Reef Egrets fishing
from Bird Ecology Study Group

End of a chapter
from Floating Marine Debris of Singapore

Read more!

Of animals, rights and moral agency

Andy Ho Straits Times 18 Aug 11;

SOME 25 dolphins are now being trained overseas to provide visitors with an interactive experience at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

But animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) is urging RWS to release the dolphins back into the wild. Its campaign garnered about 13,800 signatures. Another 800,000 have been gathered by two foreign groups.

Basically, Acres argues that dolphins need to roam freely. Freer dolphins are presumably happier and happiness being the highest good is surely unassailable as an axiom of truth. Or so the theory goes.

But would freer animals be happier?

To say dolphins need to roam free is to accord them the human right to liberty, one inextricably linked to the security of person. Indeed, activists like to assert that animals are persons, not property: RWS should not be owning dolphins. To own, confine and use animals as property is institutionalised slavery.

Some would argue that animals are persons simply because they are sentient beings, with sensory responses and the ability to feel pain. Animals feel pain, but it is arguable whether they suffer. Pain is physical; suffering is mental anguish.

Undeniably, animals do suffer physical pain. Dr Peter Singer argues in Animal Liberation (1990) that language is 'necessary for abstract thought but states like pain are more primitive'. If infants suffer pain, so too can animals. The argument then goes that it is wrong to hurt or destroy something that feels pain.

But it is hard to see how enclosing the RWS dolphins in a pen and training them under the eyes of a team led by five vets would inflict pain or destroy them, if they are handled so they suffer no physical pain or bodily discomfort.

Even humans have no ironclad protection from pain wilfully inflicted. Just take Osama bin Laden, assassinated presumably to prevent more loss of lives he might have ordered.

However unpalatable activists may find it to be, animals are often sacrificed to meet human ends. The entire livestock and meat industry is premised on that, as is the practice of testing drugs on animals. Moral theorists argue that using animals in the laboratories is morally acceptable because the practice eventually leads to cures for or prevention of deadly illnesses in millions of human beings.

Perhaps animals feel not only physical pain but also emotions. Indeed, The Animal Ethics Reader (2006) urges people to use 'ordinary empathic experiences' to address questions about animal welfare. But when we describe animal lives using human language, we project anthropomorphically onto animals.

In Swann's Way (1922), French essayist Marcel Proust surmised that it is only in the literary imagination that one can enter another human being's mind and life. We can do that accurately because we know what it is to be human.

But we do not know what it is to be an animal and should not rely too much on such imaginative leaps to make moral arguments.

Another favoured argument is that sheer morality requires that animals be accorded rights of liberty and security. In other words, being kind to life, of whatever species, is the right thing to do.

This is all very well. But taken to its logical end, it suggests that animals - who have rights to liberty and security - must perforce respect those rights in their kind. This is clearly nonsense since animals have no moral agency.

Nature raw in tooth and nail is predatory, vicious and deadly. Animals do not respect rights because, lacking moral agency, they do not know how to do so. Thus they cannot be held accountable for their actions. If so, animals are amoral but this also means it cannot be sheer morality which requires that animals have rights.

If predators were moral agents, they would be held morally responsible for doing lunch. Absurd as this sounds, some people in mediaeval Europe - and even up to the 18th century - did project upon animals the very human notion of crime.

They then prosecuted and punished, even publicly executed, such 'criminals'. In The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals (1906), Edward Evans describes a 14th-century case in which an 'infanticidal sow was executed in the old Norman city of Falaise'.

Such a non sequitur arises only because of the failure to recognise that humans are accorded rights in exchange for responsibilities because people are moral agents who can be held responsible for their actions.

It is this failure that led British indie star Morrissey to rant on stage recently about how Anders Behring Breivik's massacre of 69 people on the Norwegian island of Utoeya was 'nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S*** every day'.

It also led to People v Garcia (2006), in which a New York trial court convicted a person of cruelty for killing a goldfish.

Animals are not moral agents that can take on responsibilities. So, they cannot be ascribed rights. They are not persons.

But we are not free to abuse animals thereby. This fact, however, is derived from the fact that we are moral agents, for whom human morality dictates that we be humane towards animals.

Animals have a right to be free
Straits Times Forum 26 Aug 11;

I REFER to Dr Andy Ho's commentary ("Of animals, rights and moral agency"; Aug 18).

Animals are not humans and should not be treated as such. They cannot be held accountable for their actions - they kill for food or to protect themselves or their young because it is their nature to do so.

The argument of "rights in exchange for responsibility" does not apply to animals precisely because they are not human. That does not mean they have no right to liberty. Liberty is not just for humans, but for all living things that are born to be free.

Animals feel not just physical pain but also mental anguish such as stress. This can be observed in animals in captivity. It is apparent in animal mothers whose babies are taken away from them.

It is also apparent in animals that are not able to do the things they would normally do in their natural habitat due to their confinement.

Human morality demands that we recognise that animals have a right to be free, just like humans.

Alia Gan (Madam)

Plant-based diet can be healthy
Straits Times Forum 26 Aug 11;

DR ANDY Ho noted that "animals are often sacrificed to meet human ends. The entire livestock and meat industry is premised on that" ("Of animals, rights and moral agency"; Aug 18).

He also stated that "we are not free to abuse animals".

However, the meat industry represents unnecessary abuse of animals. Most of our meat comes from factory farming, an industry replete with practices that abuse animals, such as separating children from their mothers, depriving pigs, chickens, cows and so on of anything approaching natural lives, and then ending their lives far in advance of their normal lifespans.

As Dr Ho pointed out in an earlier article ("Rabbit food diet still unproven"; July 30), a plant-based diet can be healthy. Thus, all the suffering we inflict on animals is unnecessary. By adding more plant foods to our diet, we can be healthy, perhaps even healthier, and we can enjoy a diet that is kind to the sentient beings with whom we share the planet.

If we humans are really as intelligent and powerful as we would like to think we are, we should be able to figure out how to live with dolphins, chickens, pigs, cows and others in a benevolent, not abusive, manner.

Dr George Jacobs
Vegetarian Society (Singapore)

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Malaysia: 1 tree, 500 mynas, lots of cash

Adib Povera New Straits Times 17 Aug 11;

ALOR STAR: Tiong kerbau, or the common myna, is generally a pest, but it is a "pot of gold" for Zakaria Mat of Kampung Naga in Kepala Batas, near here.

In fact, over the past 20 years, the 40-year-old Zakaria has depended on the noisy and invasive bird as his main source of livelihood.

"Believe it or not, I have raised my six children mostly by trapping and selling the mynas.

"It is no great job but this is my source of income," he said when met during one of his outings to catch the ubiquitous bird that can be found as far as Canada in the northern hemisphere and Australia in the south.

The location was near the edge of a padi field in Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah.

Zakaria and his seven workers had earlier "wrapped" a large pokok sena with a fishing net.

Slightly before midnight, he gets his workers to chase the flocks of myna from different parts of the city making sure they later congregate at the pokok sena.

And as expected, the myna-chasers managed to gather hundreds of the birds to the tree.

With nowhere to go, the mynas would then be forced down the long and narrow tunnel at the end of the net where a few workers are ready to pluck them out of the trap, safe and unhurt.

Upon counting, it was discovered Zakaria and his men had caught 500 adult mynas.

A regular customer from Kuala Lumpur would pay him about RM4,000 for the live birds.

Just last week, he collected about RM3,000 on a single night's job. A few days earlier the same week, he made about RM5,000 from trapping the mynas.

When asked what his customers would do with the live mynas, Zakaria said it was mostly for rituals practised among some members of the Chinese community.

He said they would make some offerings before setting the birds free.

"Catching tiong kerbau is an art and it has proved very rewarding for me.

"I am glad I have managed to enjoy a decent life and also provide for my family from catching mynas," he said.

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Jakarta’s illegal trade in threatened tortoises and turtles persisting, warns TRAFFIC

TRAFFIC 17 Aug 11;

Jakarta, Indonesia 17th August 2011—The open trade in protected freshwater turtles and tortoises in Jakarta’s markets includes a growing number of non-native and threatened species, a new TRAFFIC study warns.

Surveys in the Indonesian capital’s animal markets, reptile expos and pet stores showed that there were more species in trade in 2010 (49 species) than recorded in a similar study in 2004 (47) by the wildlife trade monitoring network, TRAFFIC.

The Trade in tortoises and freshwater turtles in Jakarta, Indonesia revisited (PDF, 900 KB) also reported that over 70 per cent of species seen in trade in Jakarta originated outside Indonesia, compared to just over half in 2004. Much of these were from other parts of Asia, with the highly-prized Indian Star Tortoise topping the list.

The 2010 observations found a total of 139 individuals of seven species listed in Appendix I of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora), compared to 113 individuals of six species observed in 2004 – such species are prohibited from international commercial trade.

Those found in 2010 were the Black Spotted Pond Turtle Geoclemys hamiltonii, Egyptian Tortoise Testudo kleinmanni, Indian Peacock Softshell Aspideretes hurum, Indian Softshell Turtle Aspirderetes gangetica, Ploughshare Tortoise Astrochelys yniphora, Radiated Tortoise Astrochelys radiata and Spider Tortoise Pyxis arachnoids.

Also found were native species like the Pig-nosed Turtle Carettochelys insculpta, New Guinea Snapping Turtle Elseya novaeguineae and the Malaysian Giant Turtle Orlitia borneensis, all totally protected under Indonesian national law.

“The 2010 data confirm previous findings about the levels of illegal trade in freshwater turtles and tortoises in Jakarta’s markets and also demonstrates how it has persisted,” said Carrie J. Stengel, researcher with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“Of further concern is the apparent increasing emphasis on rare and threatened species in the pet trade.”

With more Asian freshwater turtles and tortoises expected to become Critically Endangered in the coming years, the ramifications of such targeted and persistent illegal extraction and trade will be enormous.

The report acknowledges Indonesia’s efforts to strengthen relevant legislation, build enforcement capacity and increase seizures but points to the continuing illegal trade as proof that much more needs to be done.

“The wildlife markets and expos in Jakarta need to be carefully monitored and anyone found selling illegal species must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Regional Director, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

“These markets have been selling illegal wildlife for decades and it is time the authorities show this will not be tolerated any longer.”

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Germ from Human Feces Makes Deadly Leap to Coral

Wynne Parry Yahoo News 18 Aug 11;

A strange new menace has joined the long list of threats to corals, the tiny reef-building animals that create important habitat in our oceans.

A bacterium that attacks humans is also killing off a species of coral in the Caribbean, elkhorn coral, according to researchers who proved the link by infecting fragments of the coral with bacteria from human sewage.

"This is quite an unusual discovery. It is the first time ever that a human disease has been shown to kill an invertebrate," said University of Georgiaprofessor James Porter, one of the study researchers. "This is unusual because we humans usually get disease from wildlife, and this is the other way around."

In humans, the pathogen Serratia marcescens is opportunistic, causing respiratory, wound and urinary tract infections. In coral, it causes a disease Porter and colleagues have dubbed "white pox" for the white scars that appear on infected elkhorn coral. These scars appear where the coral's living tissue has disappeared, leaving only its skeleton.

Worldwide coral faces a litany of threats. Hurricanes, which are predicted to increase in severity and number as a result of climate change, break coral to bits; warming water temperatures cause it to eject its photosynthetic algae and to bleach; ocean acidification may be impairing the animals' ability to form their skeletons; and they are plagued by poor water quality and many diseases, most of them with unknown causes.

The coral cover in the Caribbean has declined 50 percent over the past 15 years, and elkhorn coral has declined by almost 90 percent during the same time period, according to Porter.

Porter, the Meigs Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia, compared the loss of elkhorn coral to the loss of trees in a rain forest, since these corals grow in a branched way similar to that of a tree. This three-dimensional structure provides shelter for fish and other creatures and helps absorb the power of storm surges, protecting coastal areas.

"They are nature's master builders," Porter said.

Previous work by Porter and colleague Kathryn Patterson Sutherland, of Rollins College in Florida, identified Serratia marcescens as the cause of white pox and pointed to sewage, not wildlife, as the source of the strain that infected corals. The most recent paper, published today (Aug. 17) in the journal PLoS ONE, provides conclusive evidence this strain causes white pox and indicates that other organisms may help it spread.

The experimenters collected healthy fragments of elkhorn coral from the Western Sambo Reef near Florida. In a lab, they infected the fragments with bacteria isolated from sick elkhorn coral and from wastewater.

"We've got that final piece of puzzle that shows that humans are the source," Sutherland said.

They also isolated the bacterium from a coral-eating snail and another species of coral, which they used to infect elkhorn coral, showing that these other organisms may play a role in the spread of the disease.

In 2004, Sutherland and Porter were among the scientists documenting 18 coral-threatening diseases in the Caribbean and Indo-Pacific oceans. Since then, the number of diseases known to kill coral worldwide has increased, they said. Of these, only five, including white pox, have had their cause identified.

Prospects for mitigating many of the threats, which are linked to climate change, are dim. However, in the Florida Keys a solution to improve water quality and keep the coral-killing bacteria out of the water is already in the works.

In the Keys, most wastewater is not treated but disposed of in septic systems on land. Ideally, such systems use soil to filter out contaminants, but the porous limestone bedrock of the Keys allows contaminants to leak into the ocean. Sutherland said wastewater treatment also is a problem in the Caribbean, which is south of the Keys.

Key West has installed an advanced wastewater treatment system, capable of reducing the bacterium to undetectable levels, and the other Keys are also upgrading, she said.

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Otters return to every county in England

Otters have returned following improvements to water quality
BBC News 17 Aug 11;

Two otters have been seen in Kent, signalling their return to every English county following efforts to save them from extinction.

Kent was the only county found without otters in a survey of rivers across England carried out by the Environment Agency (EA) last year.

Since then at least two otters have been spotted, with holts on the Medway and Eden rivers, the EA said.

A survey on the Ribble in Lancashire showed a 44% increase since 2008.

Otter numbers fell as a result of toxic pesticides, which damaged their health and reduced their supplies of fish. They had almost disappeared from England by the 1970s.

'Great success'

Improvements in water quality, along with legal protection, has helped their recovery.

"The recovery of otters from near-extinction shows how far we've come in controlling pollution and improving water quality," said the EA's national conservation manager, Alastair Driver.

"Rivers in England are the healthiest for over 20 years and otters, salmon and other wildlife are returning to many rivers for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

"The fact that otters are now returning to Kent is the final piece in the jigsaw for otter recovery in England and is a symbol of great success for everybody involved in otter conservation."

The otter survey of England, which examined 3,327 river sites between July 2009 and March 2010, showed the number of places with evidence of otter life had increased tenfold in 30 years.

But recovery was slowest in the South East, with conservationists predicting otters may not be resident in Kent for another 10 years.

Their return was also a "fantastic reward" for efforts by the agency to improve water quality, said Mr Driver.

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Swedish wolves threatened by under-reported poaching

Jennifer Carpenter BBC News 17 Aug 11;

Illegal poaching accounts for over half of all deaths of Swedish wolves, suggests a new study.

Basing their estimates on long-term wolf counts, the researchers reveal that two-thirds of poaching goes undetected.

The study suggests that without the past decade of persecution Swedish wolves would be four times more abundant than they are today.

The study's findings are reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

"Many have speculated that poaching levels are high for many threatened species of carnivores," said Chris Carbone from the Zoological Society of London.

"This study presents an important step in trying to quantify this hidden threat," he added.

The new study predicts the size of the wolf Swedish population each year based on counts from the previous year.

These counts are based on radio-tracked wolves and the more traditional 'footprint count', used in Sweden for over 10 years to estimate wolf numbers.
Counting canines

The researchers' estimates took account of confirmed cases of wolf mortality - such as when a wolf is killed on the road, dies from disease or is found killed.

However, when the team, based at Grimso Wildlife Research Station in Sweden, compared the expected numbers produced by their models to the actual number of wolves in the wild, they found they were over estimating the size of the population.

Conservation biologist Guillaume Chapron, and one of the team, suspects that 'cryptic poaching', poaching that goes undetected, accounts for this difference.

The poaching we see is the "tip of the iceberg," he said.

The researchers predict that without the last decade of poaching, wolves would have numbered around a thousand by 2009, four times the number reported that year.

Wolves are known to kill the dogs that many Swedes use to hunt moose, and despite up to four year prison sentence if caught poaching, a few people do not hestitate to take a shot at a wolf.
Founding fins

Poaching is not the only threat to the Swedish wolf.

These large carnivores went extinct in Sweden in the 1970s, and the population has since re-established itself after a handful of migratory Finnish wolves took over the empty territories.

Today, all 250 or so Swedish wolves have descended from these few founding individuals.

And so the population is highly inbred and suffers from skeletal abnormalities and problems reproducing.

Further reducing the number of wolves by poaching leaves this population very vulnerable to further inbreeding, explained Dr Chapron.

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