Best of our wild blogs: 21 Aug 11

Butterfly of the Month - August 2011
from Butterflies of Singapore

110820 Semakau forest
from Singapore Nature

'White patch' in Semakau mangroves: a closer look
from wild shores of singapore

the-plastic-not-so-fantastic @ Tanah Merah 07Aug2011
from sgbeachbum

Read more!

Sand for sale; environment ravaged

Denis D. Gray Associated Press Forbes 20 Aug 11;

KOH KONG, Cambodia -- Round a bend in Cambodia's Tatai River and the virtual silence of a tropical idyll turns suddenly into an industrial nightmare.

Lush jungle hills give way to a flotilla of dredgers operating 24 hours a day, scooping up sand and piling it onto ocean-bound barges. The churned-up waters and fuel discharges, villagers say, have decimated the fish so vital to their livelihoods. Riverbanks are beginning to collapse, and the din and pollution are killing a promising ecotourism industry.

What is bad news for the poor, remote Tatai community is great tidings for Singapore, the wealthy city-state that is expanding its territory by reclaiming land from the sea. Sand from nearby countries is the prime landfill and also essential building material for Singapore's spectacular skyline.

As more countries ban its export to curb environmental damage - entire Indonesian islands have been all but wiped off the map - suppliers to Singapore scour the region for what still can be obtained, legally or not. Cambodia, a poor country where corruption is rife and laws are often flouted, is now the No. 1 source.

Singapore is by no means the only nation taking part in what is a global harvest of sand from beaches, rivers and seabeds. Officials and environmentalists from China to Morocco have voiced concern and urged curbs. As construction booms in emerging economies and more sources dry up, however, exploitation of the remaining ones is likely to intensify.

Sand mining began anew in May on southwestern Tatai River, which empties into the ocean almost directly north of Singapore, across 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) of open water.

Despite denials by the main owner of sand mining rights in Koh Kong province, two Cambodian officials told The Associated Press that the sand is destined for the island nation.

Singapore will not say where its sand comes from; the Construction and Building Authority said it is not public information. The National Development Ministry said the state's infrastructure development company buys it from "a diverse range of approved sources."

The mining visible on the Tatai River clearly violates some of Cambodia's own legal restrictions, not to mention a recent government order to suspend it temporarily.

Vessels of a Vietnamese company were tracked by boat from about 10 kilometers (6 miles) upriver to the Gulf of Thailand, where nearly a dozen seagoing barges, tugs hovering around them, took on the sand.

The AZ Kunming Singapore, a 5,793-ton (5,255-metric ton) barge pulled by the AZ Orchid, was seen arriving empty from the open ocean, its tug flying a Singaporean flag. Both are registered with the Singapore government, which would not comment on the barge's cargo or destination.

Ships from several countries, including China, were spotted in sand-mining operations in Koh Kong province, where residents joked about going to Singapore and planting a Cambodian flag there.

The vessels included one from Winton Enterprises, a Hong Kong-registered group that was subcontracted to export sand to Singapore, according to Global Witness, a London-based environmental group that published a detailed account of the trade last year.

The report said that miners had penetrated protected mangrove, estuary and sea grass areas, breeding grounds for marine life along a coastline and hinterland harboring some of the country's last wilderness areas.

Cambodia's cabinet spokesman, Siphan Phay, who was investigating the issue in Koh Kong, appeared angry that the temporary halt order was being ignored. He described the activity as illegal mining destined for Singapore, a surprising statement given that government ministers awarded the concession.

A police officer in the economic crime division, who demanded anonymity given the issue's sensitivity, also said the sand is going to Singapore.

Ly Yong Phat, who holds the major concession in Koh Kong, has at times openly acknowledged the Singapore connection. But in a recent AP interview, amid tightening restrictions and mounting criticism, he said his company had not shipped sand to Singapore for more than a year because "our sand did not meet their standards."

The dredging, he added, was for local sale and to deepen river channels.

However, a Malaysian company, Benalec Holdings, said it was ready to tap up to 530,000 tons for a reclamation project in Singapore from several sources in Cambodia, including Ly Yong Phat's LYP Group.

Known as the "King of Koh Kong," Ly Yong Phat is one of Cambodia's biggest tycoons and a senator with close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen. His holdings include hotels, a casino and agricultural plantations.

Land reclamation has enlarged Singapore by more than a fifth, and up to 100 square kilometers (nearly 40 square miles) more are slated for reclamation by 2030. What was once seabed is now Changi, among the world's finest airports, and more recently the Marina Bay complex, which includes a 2,560-room hotel and casino developed by Las Vegas Sands Corp.

Mountains of sand are needed for such fills. U.N. statistics show Singapore imported 14.6 million tons last year, ranking it among the world's top customers. Global Witness estimated that nearly 800,000 tons a year, worth some $248 million, were streaming to Singapore from Koh Kong alone.

The U.N. figures show that Cambodia supplied 25 percent of Singapore's imports in 2010, followed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar and the Philippines. With its secrecy and lax enforcement of environmental regulations, Myanmar could emerge as a major supplier.

The damage caused by sand extraction has spurred clampdowns on exports.

Malaysia imposed a ban in 1997, though the media there frequently report on massive smuggling into neighboring Singapore. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad complains that sand pirates are "digging Malaysia and giving her to other people."

An Indonesian ban came in 2007, following years of strained relations with Singapore over the sand on islands lying between the two countries. When miners finished with Nipah Island, reportedly all that was left was three or four palm trees protruding above the waterline. Environmental groups say smuggling is believed to be continuing.

Vietnam banned exports late last year.

Cambodia outlawed the export of sand from rivers in 2009 but allows it from some seabeds. Recently, some government officials said that rivers where seawater flowed into fresh water, replenishing sand naturally, were exempt.

Global Witness spokesman Oliver Courtney said the trade in Cambodia revealed a "mismatch between Singapore's reliance on questionably sourced sand and its position as a leader for sustainable development." The city-state prides itself on environmentally sound urban planning.

The dredging of the Tatai River began on May 17 "with a fury," creating a veritable traffic jam on the water, said Janet Newman, owner of the riverside Rainbow Lodge.

"Before you could see crab pots bobbing in the river everywhere and fishermen going out. Now there is nothing and nobody," the British woman said.

Chea Manith of the Nature Tourism Community of Tatai said 270 families along the river have seen an estimated 85 percent drop in catch of fish, crab and lobsters and were being forced to eke out a living from small garden plots. Tourists have all but vanished.

Armed with a petition, village leaders, tourism operators and a wildlife group met with Ly Yong Phat in early July. He appeared sympathetic, Newman said. He substantially reduced the dredging and has promised to stop altogether in October.

A subsequent letter from the Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology ordered the LYP group to halt operations temporarily on the Tatai, citing a breach of regulations. The letter was obtained by Cambodia's Phnom Penh Post newspaper, which made it available to the AP.

Hun Sen himself expressed concern over the mining in the river.

"We hoped that the prime minister's recent promise to review the impacts of the sand trade would lead to proper regulation of dredging operations," said Courtney of Global Witness. "Unfortunately, the pledge does not appear to have been followed up with meaningful action."

The mining has continued on the Tatai, and violations, such as dredging closer than 150 meters (165 yards) from riverbanks, were clearly evident.

The Post also obtained a Ministry of Industry, Mining and Energy letter extending LYP Group's concession in Koh Kong until Sept. 2012.

"We are just little people. We cannot do anything," Chea Manith said.

Newman sounded a more optimistic note. "It's my hope that the LYP Group will become sympathetic through this experience of having seen the reaction from people passionate about protecting their environment," she said. "It would be sad if they just went somewhere else to dump the same on others."

Associated Press writers Sean Yoong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Alex Kennedy in Singapore; Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Aye Aye Win in Yangon, Myanmar; and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.

Read more!

New study on impact of rubbish on mangroves

Joanna Seow Straits Times 20 Aug 11;

A new study of the effects of washed-up rubbish on the mangroves at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve was launched on Saturday by the National Parks Board (NParks) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

The year-long monitoring programme will look at the effects of flotsam on coastal mangrove regeneration and ecology, and the results will help NParks manage the reserve better. It is the first time NParks is conducting such a study.

NParks' director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah said: 'The Sungei Buloh coastline is often littered by refuse brought in by the tides.

This monitoring project goes beyond our regular coastal clean-ups and will document the impact of rubbish on our mangroves.'

Staff researchers from both organisations will monitor the growth of saplings, with the assistance of volunteers from Wildlife Reserves Singapore, Anderson Junior College, and the Institute of Technical Education.

The volunteers will also help to clean the study site twice a month. Every quarter, a tree census will be conducted by the researchers to study the species that grow in the reserve.

Mr Biswajit Guha, general manager of Singapore Zoo - which comes under Wildlife Reserves Singapore - said that mangroves are important habitats for unique species and are ecologically important to nutrient cycling and coastal protection.

'Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is the only gazetted mangrove wetlands in Singapore and we should try our best to conserve it,' he added.

Study launched on impact of rubbish on Sungei Buloh mangroves
Today Online 21 Aug 11;

The National Parks Board (NParks) and Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS) have embarked on a study to document the impact of rubbish on mangrove ecology in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. The year-long project, the first of its kind for NParks, will help the board better manage Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Researchers from NParks and WRS, with the aid of volunteers, will monitor the growth of saplings and their survival rate in relation to the effects of rubbish. The volunteers from Anderson Junior College, Institute of Technical Education and WRS will also be involved in clean-ups of the study site twice a month.

Read more!

Why Acres is against Resorts World Sentosa's dolphin plan

Sunday Times 21 Aug 11;

I refer to the editorial last Sunday ('Activists going too far?').

It is true that the various Sea Worlds in the United States feature dolphins. But in the late 1980s, facilities in the US implemented a voluntary moratorium on the collection of bottlenose dolphins from the wild, and this remains in place.

Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) has gone against this progressive movement and bought dolphins captured from the wild in the Solomon Islands.

The Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) launched its campaign following almost five years of closed-door discussions with RWS, which has failed to live up to its promises.

Despite stating that 'its dolphin enclosure will 'far exceed' internationally recognised minimum space requirements for the animals', RWS housed the wild-caught dolphins in small, rusty enclosures in Langkawi for almost a year and two dolphins died there.

Acres and the over 670,000 people who have joined us in this campaign are not calling for the closure of the Marine Life Park. We are simply calling for RWS to focus on housing species which can cope with captivity, to focus on ethical animal acquisitions and run an attraction that can play a proper role in education and conservation.

Louis Ng
Executive Director
Animal Concerns Research
and Education Society

Activists going too far?
Sunday Times 14 Aug 11;

Three months ago, local animal protection group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) launched a protest campaign against Resort World Sentosa's (RWS) plan to exhibit wild-caught dolphins in its Marine Life Park. It has since attracted 13,800 supporters to its cause.

Now, also joining cause with Acres, two American online activist groups, Avaaz and, have collected a total of nearly 800,000 signatures from members around the world, including Singaporeans. They want RWS to free the 25 dolphins which were caught off the Solomon Islands, near Papua New Guinea.

A key player in the protests is 'born again' dolphin rescuer Ric O'Barry, who in the 1960s trained the five dolphins which collectively played Flipper in the hit TV series which helped create a fascination among viewers worldwide with the marine mammal. The 72-year-old has offered his help to RWS to rehabilitate the dolphins and release them to the wild.

Last Wednesday, a spokesman for RWS said the 25 dolphins kept meanwhile in the Philippines are thriving. She contended that 'despite contrary claims, the track record for marine mammal releases is patchy at best'.

Both Mr O'Barry and the New York-based Avaaz warned RWS that it should not underestimate 'people power' in the thwarting of its plan. But why haven't the activists push their cause against Sea World, the American chain of oceanariums and water parks, the impartial observer may ask. The various Sea Worlds in the United States and the one on the Gold Coast in Australia all feature dolphins. It isn't clear to us why RWS has been singled out for attention when there are so many other similar attractions elsewhere operating for so long.

On its part, it would help RWS' cause if it made sure that it abides by - and even exceeds - the international norms set for oceanariums. In doing so, it will eventually win the goodwill of the public, if not the animal activists.

RWS responds to dolphin claims
Sunday Times 28 Aug 11;

I refer to last Sunday's letter 'Why Acres is against RWS' dolphin plan' by Mr Louis Ng of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Given the inaccuracies in Mr Ng's letter, allow me to set the record straight. At the time we announced our plans for the Marine Life Park, we initiated a face-to-face dialogue with Acres. Clearly, both parties met on common ground in that we put the welfare of the animals above all else.

Till today, we remain open to collaboration with Acres on education with regard to marine animals, including that of the dolphins in our care. We are puzzled by Mr Ng's allegation of our failure 'to live up to (our) promises', as these meetings had ended somewhat inconclusively, with our agreement to disagree.

In recent weeks, Acres has gone on various public platforms with further inaccurate statements pertaining to our dolphins, despite our numerous clarifications and presentation of facts.

These allegations range from the inaccurate - that we are planning to keep our animals at our 'spa' - to the sensational - such as our animals dying in an 'ordeal'. We have posted our replies to these charges on our blog:

Over the last three years, Resorts World Sentosa has taken an active role in promoting sustainable sharks-finning, saved corals, funded anti-poaching patrolling in the Galapagos Islands, and established the Marine Life Fund for marine conservation projects.

We recently announced a tie-up with the Sea Research Foundation to bring the world-renowned Jason Project and its educational programmes to Singapore.

Members of our Marine Life Park team are devoting their lives and career to learning about and caring for their charges and are no different from many animal lovers.

Krist Boo (Ms)
Senior vice-president, Communications
Resorts World Sentosa

Read more!

Save children from nature deficit disorder

Kids' access to nature has diminished with urbanisation and they have retreated indoors
Nur Dianah Suhaimi Sunday Times 21 Aug 11;

As a kampung child in the 1960s, my mother spent much of her time climbing trees in the neighbour's compound to pluck forbidden fruits and playing hide and seek with other children amid lalang (tall grass). When it rained, she rushed outdoors to slide down muddy slopes.

It was a childhood spent outdoors because, as she said, 'only the weird kids stayed indoors'.

Thirty years later, but only a kilometre away from my mother's old kampung in Sembawang, I spent my childhood in a vastly different manner.

I spent most of my days indoors, reading story books. I didn't climb any trees despite living in a semi-detached home with a huge mango tree in the garden. But I did play outside occasionally - to ride on my bicycle or to play a few rounds of badminton with my cousins.

Sometimes, when it was cool just after the rain, I would sneak off with a friend to take a walk in the little forest near my home where trees and bushes grew wild and uninterrupted for several kilometres.

Twenty years since then, I now have a daughter of my own and it scares me to think how, like most children of her generation, her exposure to nature will be extremely minimal, if at all.

Singapore is developing so fast that there is barely an empty plot of land that has not been sacrificed to build a new condominium or a new cluster of Housing Board flats.

Much of the ground has been cemented over as more roads and pavements are built. Even playgrounds have lost the traditional natural elements such as sandpits to make way for synthetic rubber flooring.

Like other children, my daughter, Nuha, will most likely spend most of her time indoors, in front of the television or a computer. Time spent outside the home will be confined mostly to the air-conditioned comfort of shopping malls.

These children may not know the pleasure of feeling sand underneath their bare feet, and the joy of rolling around in the dirt. They may not know the difference between a mango and the poisonous pong pong fruit.

These are the same children who, while at the beach, prefer to huddle in the stroller with the iPhone instead of playing in the sand.

Their idea of fun is playing computer games for hours and their idea of exercise is playing tennis on Nintendo Wii.

Some experts believe this severe lack of exposure and connection to nature is an illness, and have coined a term for it - nature deficit disorder.

They argue that for thousands of years, human beings have lived in intimate contact with nature. During that time, children played freely in the forests and fields.

However, with increasing urbanisation, children's access to nature began diminishing and it wasn't long before they all but retreated indoors.

The obvious results: a steep rise in obesity and depression levels as well as a decline in creativity and cognitive maturity.

The medication for this disorder sounds simple and straightforward: huge doses of exposure and connection to the great big outdoors.

Unfortunately, not only have children's playing environments shrunk considerably in the last few decades, but also the time that they have to play has greatly decreased.

In this paper-chase society, children spend so much of their time slogging through piles of homework and attending 'enrichment' classes that they barely have time to do much else.

Parents are also reluctant to allow their children to play outside the home, for fear of danger from strangers.

This is especially so in Singapore, where children are stuck in pigeonhole apartments with barely any space to run about. It is no wonder that they turn to the television and computer for recreation.

However, by keeping kids indoors, we may be harming their health. Evidence suggests that children need nature for their emotional and physical development, just as they need food and water.

The lack of exposure to nature has been frighteningly linked to diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, hyperactivity and depression. Being sedentary also puts our young ones at risk of childhood obesity.

On the contrary, unstructured and imaginative play in the outdoors has been proven to develop problem-solving skills, concentration and self-discipline in children.

For example, climbing a tree might sound like a primitive, ape-like activity, but the child will learn to exercise judgment and self-restraint by choosing which route to take and how high to go.

Indeed, exposure to nature has, of late, been tried as a remedy for various maladies in children, such as stress, antisocial behaviour and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Physical and mental illnesses form just the tip of the iceberg of the dangers of nature disconnect. There are deeper repercussions.

In 2005, author Richard Louv wrote a best-selling book titled Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder.

In it, he argues that children have become so disconnected from the real world that they will be ill-prepared decades down the road when it is their turn to be future stewards of the planet.

They will feel nothing but apathy towards environmental concerns because, to them, nature is just something lurking in the background - a tree which sheds too many leaves or pesky bugs that should be rid of.

Yale University professor Stephen Kellert said it best when he described society today as being 'so estranged from its natural origins, it has failed to recognise our species' basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development'.

Paradoxically, children are increasingly forming a 'connection' with nature through watching television programmes such as those on National Geographic and Animal Planet.

But some experts argued that this phenomenon may not be entirely positive because when children's experience with nature is limited to the virtual world, they may be conditioned to think that nature is exotic and exists only in faraway places that do not concern them.

They will have no idea that nature exists everywhere, including in their own neighbourhood and backyard.

Research findings have also shown that young children who grow up with little or no regular contact with the natural world will eventually come to see themselves as separate and not a part of the natural world. This sense of disconnect is likely to last a lifetime.

By virtue of the fact that she was born into a tech-driven society, my now nine-month-old daughter automatically becomes a likely candidate for nature deficit disorder.

Worried for her well-being, I take her outside as much as possible, even if it is to just sit on the grass in the garden and feel between her fingers the leaves from the plants.

Sometimes, I run some dirt through her tiny hands. At other times, we look out for birds that perch in our compound.

I realise that there is a noticeable change in her mood whenever we're out in nature. She's happier and not as restless as when we are indoors. She is in her element.

Apart from braving the humidity of the local weather, it actually does not take much effort to get children to 'return' to nature.

It does not have to be part of a special government programme or a school-initiated project. Neither does it have to be intensive immersions in the wild. The simple acts of checking out some angsana pods on the ground and lying down on the grass can be instantly beneficial.

The connection they will feel to the world around them can never be simulated, not even by the best computer game.

Read more!

Time for new strategy to save mammals, say biologists

AFP The Independent 21 Aug 11;

Time is running out to craft a plan to save Earth's rich diversity of mammals, a quarter of whose species could be wiped out, biologists warned on Tuesday.

"A global mammal strategy is urgent," they said in a journal published by the Royal Society, Britain's academy of sciences.

Millions of people have rallied to the cause of large iconic mammals such as the tiger, the polar bear and the giant panda, they noted.

But the news for less visible species is grim, especially those with a commercial value for poachers or whose habitat is at risk from farming, development or impending climate change.

Of the 5,339 documented species of mammals that are alive today, a quarter are threatened with extinction in the wild, according to their estimates, appearing in the journal Philosophical Transactions.

"As of today, there is not yet a comprehensive, widely agreed, global conservation strategy to tackle the mammal decline," said Carlo Rondinini and Luigi Boitani of the Global Mammal Assessment Programme at Rome's Sapienza University, and Ana Rodrigues of the Centre of Evolutive and Functional Ecology in Montpellier, France.

They suggested the UN's Biodiversity Convention weave a single vision, identifying which areas and species are at risk and how resources can be mustered to save them.

This work should then be coordinated by an authoritative institution with global reach, such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Accompanying papers in the journal predicted that the biggest losses of mammal habitat will be in Africa and the Americas, while many species will be lost on the Mediterranean rim if predictions of climate change prove correct.

Quantifying such perils is hard, given that many mammals are elusive species and may live in fragmented, out-of-the-way habitats, the experts admitted.

Indeed, Australian investigators reported last September that of 187 mammals that have been "missing" since 1500, 67 species have subsequently been found again.

In one of the new papers, scientists reported on the world's biggest "camera trap" survey, aimed at getting an accurate idea of mammal populations, the size of animals and availability of food.

Creatures snapped automatically as they passed by a hidden lens ranged from a tiny mouse to the African elephant, gorillas, cougars and giant anteaters, as well as occasional poachers and tourists, according to the team from the US organisation Conservation International.

The probe set up 420 cameras at protected sites in Brazil, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Laos, Suriname, Tanzania and Uganda in a project that ran from 2008-2010 and yielded 52,000 images.

"We take away two key findings," said Jorge Ahumada of the NGO's Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring Network.

"First, protected areas matter: the bigger the forest they live in, the higher the number and diversity of species, body sizes and diet types.

"Second, some mammals seem more vulnerable to habitat loss than others: insect-eating mammals - like anteaters, armadillos and some primates - are the first to disappear, while other groups, like herbivores, seem to be less sensitive."

Read more!