Best of our wild blogs: 5 Sep 11

Help build the Encyclopedia of Life
from Protists in Singapore

Crows and oil palm fruits: A call for more observations
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Sentosa rocks with special crab
from wild shores of singapore and Nature rambles

Asian Honeybee from Monday Morgue

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Quenching Singapore's thirst

A water pact with Malaysia upon which Singapore used to depend expired this week. Its end was marked by a cordial handover of a water catchment area in Johor and treatment facilities - a powerful testament of Singapore's progress towards greater self-sufficiency in water. Insight tells the story of that quest.
Elgin Toh Straits Times 3 Sep 11;

A SIMPLE turn of the tap did not guarantee water if you happened to be in Singapore on April 24, 1963.

It was the first day of a water rationing exercise that would last 10 months.

An unusually dry spell both in Singapore and in the Tebrau River area in Johor - a primary water source for the island - caused water stocks to plunge dramatically, leaving the authorities with little choice but to impose restrictions.

For four days a week, depending on which area you lived in, you were either deprived of water between 8am and 2pm or between 2pm and 8pm.

People who did not ordinarily read the newspapers or listen to the radio suddenly found themselves having to scan headlines or turn knobs at least once a week - to stay informed about rationing schedules.

Those who forgot to store water in pails at home during the allocated timings had to stand in queues to use public taps.

The cost of food went up.

A government advisory that called for the washing of cars and watering of gardens to be 'kept to a minimum' clearly did not stop some. A forum letter in The Straits Times on May 3 had one reader wondering 'why the gentleman living opposite me still finds it necessary to water his lawn non-stop for 14 minutes' a day.

Eerily, the spying on neighbours went further than that.

Another letter on May 17 read: 'At a time when the state is facing an acute water shortage, is it proper for a person to bathe three times a day? That is exactly what my neighbour and his six children are doing every day of the week.'

Eventually, the rain returned and the reservoirs filled up. Curbs were finally lifted on Feb 28, 1964 - ironically, on a day when heavy rainfall caused an 11-year- old boy to drown.

Singaporeans who lived through that angsty period learnt a lesson they never forgot: that water, or the lack thereof, was a major source of weakness for the island-state.

This week, a no less momentous milestone in Singapore's aquatic history was crossed, but with far less public interest. A 50-year water agreement signed in 1961 - one of just two between Singapore and Malaysia - drew to a close.

As a result, a catchment area in Johor more than five times the size of Singapore's Central Catchment Nature Reserve ceased to serve Singapore's water needs, but with nary an eyebrow raised.

Public indifference, however, can be seen in a positive light. It is arguably a testament to Singapore's success in overcoming its water vulnerabilities.

What has happened since 1963?

In the words of Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 'the tables have turned'.

'While in the initial years Singapore's access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore's present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism,' he said.

In 50 years, a virtuous mix of visionary leadership, meticulous groundwork and scientific advancements has helped Singapore exorcise her hydro-demons.

A tiny island-state ranked 170th out of a list of 190 nations in fresh water availability appears to be leapfrogging its way into water independence.

A matter of life and death

BUT there was a time when the situation was a lot more tense - and not just because people had to line up at public taps and tolerate dirty cars.

In 1970, seven years after that depressing drought, water security continued to keep Singapore's leaders awake at night.

'If these chaps do not observe the agreements, it will be a very serious matter for us,' said then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, referring to the two Singapore-Malaysia water agreements, in a meeting with Professor S. Jayakumar before he took over as Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations.

'It is a matter of life and death... it can lead to war,' he added.

Never far from Mr Lee's mind was the threat from Malaysian premier Tunku Abdul Rahman, relayed to him by the British, that 'if Singapore doesn't do what I want, I'll switch off the water supply'.

Coming just days after independence, the threat - though never acted upon - convinced him that 'as long as I was totally dependent on Malaysia's water supply, we would always be a satellite'.

That, combined with the Japanese blowing up water pipes that carried water across the strait from Johor in 1942, was what drove him to seek water self-sufficiency from the get-go, he later revealed.

The cards dealt to Singapore in 1965 were not promising.

The bulk of its water came from Johor. Two agreements signed in 1961 and 1962 allowed Singapore to buy water for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons (4,546 litres), excluding land rental costs in the catchment areas.

The expiry dates of the two water pacts were 2011 and 2061 respectively.

The 1961 agreement gave Singapore full and exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai, Pontian, Skudai and Tebrau. The 1962 agreement allowed Singapore to collect up to 250 million gallons of water a day from Johor River.

In exchange, treated water was sold back to Johor at the price of 50 sen per 1,000 gallons, which was below cost.

The two agreements were confirmed by both Singapore and Malaysia in their separation agreement and promptly lodged with the UN.

The British also left behind three reservoirs - MacRitchie, Peirce and Seletar.

At once, Mr Lee and his Government swung into action. One of his first initiatives: forming a unit under the Prime Minister's Office to coordinate water policy.

Singapore lacked natural aquifers and groundwater. But it did not lack rainfall, per se, receiving from the heavens 2,400mm annually, comfortably higher than the global average of 1,050mm.

Rather, what could not be found in abundance were water bodies and land that could 'catch' the rain.

In 1969, the capacity of Seletar Reservoir was enlarged and its catchment scope broadened.

The 1970s saw a flurry of activity.

The Government began studying the feasibility of various conventional and not-so-conventional water sources, and published in 1972 the Water Master Plan. This is seen by water experts as the first long-term blueprint for water resource development here.

Upper Peirce Reservoir was completed in 1975. That same year, Kranji River was dammed to separate seawater from freshwater. This created Kranji Reservoir - one of the first of several reservoirs formed this way.

But the Government also took chances with the not-so-likely. It constructed an experimental plant to recycle used water - a predecessor to Newater.

Unfortunately, the requisite technologies, such as reverse osmosis, were still premature. The tests failed to persuade policymakers that the idea was sufficiently economical or reliable and no permanent plant was built.

As the economy grew rapidly, it soon also became clear that Singapore could not simply expand reservoirs indefinitely. Industry was competing for land use.

A concerted effort at promoting conservation began. The first 'Water is precious' campaign, launched in 1971, reduced water consumption by 5 per cent.

Four decades on, the public education drive continues in schools, factories and the media, whether it is exemplifying 'water efficient homes' with toilets that use cistern water-saving bags or mandating self-shutting delayed action taps in buildings. To drive home the message, a water conservation tax was later introduced. It is levied today at a rate of 30 per cent for the first 40 litres per month. Beyond that, the tax rises to 45 per cent. The Government's aim is to cut per capita consumption from 155 litres today to 140 litres by 2030.

The 1980s and 1990s

THE 1980s saw both bright spots and dark ones in bilateral ties. From time to time, threats to fiddle with Singapore's water supply, whether serious or not, emanated from Malaysian society or officialdom or both.

In 1986, for instance, the visit of Israeli President Chaim Herzog to Singapore stoked anger across the causeway, prompting some to call for the treaties to be revoked or at least re-negotiated.

There was good reason for optimism in the late 1980s, when the two sides penned an agreement supplementing the 1962 one. Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.

A decade passed. As it considered its long-term water needs, Singapore's leaders decided to negotiate supplementary agreements to extend the supply of water from Johor beyond 2061.

In 1998, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the two sides came close to an agreement on a 'water-for-funds' deal, which was later called off.

Another round of talks took place in 2000 but differences remained over the sale price of raw water from Johor. There was initial agreement to raise the price from 3 sen per 1,000 gallons to 45 sen, and later to 60 sen.

Malaysia then said it wanted to unilaterally revise the price to RM6.25 per thousand gallons, a move Singapore insisted was not legally sound. After rounds of strongly worded exchanges in various forms, the matter quietened.

Ambitious new strategy to add two big taps

Four big taps

THE Singapore Government had been hard at work exploring alternative sources of water.

Even as talks with Malaysia ran into an impasse, efforts on another front were headed for a breakthrough that would 'change the whole equation', in the words of Dr Lee Poh Onn, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

After the failed 1974 experiment, Singapore decided to give recycled water another shot, sending two engineers to the United States in 1998 for a study trip.

Upon their return, they reported findings that suggested recycling had become viable, thanks to, among other things, advances in membrane technology. Subsequent studies corroborated the findings, prompting the Government to construct the first demo plant in Bedok in 2000.

The three-step process eventually adopted for the production of Newater involved filtration and reverse osmosis, removing particles as small as 0.001 microns before disinfecting the water under ultraviolet light. The water met US and UN standards and was, indeed, purer than tap water.

By May 2002, the Government was finally ready to go public with its bold new water strategy.

It was an ambitious plan to double the different types of water sources Singapore relied upon from two to four by 2011, the year the 1961 agreement with Malaysia expired.

Instead of relying only on water collected in reservoirs here and bought from Johor, there would be 'four big national taps' within 10 years. The two new 'taps' were desalination plants and Newater or water-reclamation plants.

In his speech to Parliament, then Environment Minister Lim Swee Say declared: 'Singapore certainly can become completely self-sufficient after 2061, if need be.'

The year 2061 was significant as it was when the 1962 water agreement with Malaysia would expire.

A toast to the future

FOR Newater to succeed, the public had to be willing to drink water that was previously sewage.

'Public acceptance is not guaranteed at the start. Recycled water has been rejected in Australia, where people term it 'yuck' water,' said Dr Eduardo Araral, assistant dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

'Singaporeans accepted it both because they are are pragmatic and because they trust the Government's promise that Newater is safe to drink,' he added.

Some 60,000 'toasted' with bottled Newater during the 2002 National Day Parade, including Mr Goh Chok Tong, who was then Prime Minister. Singapore now has five Newater plants, the largest of which is at Changi. Newater is used both in industries and indirectly for households, after it is mixed into reservoirs.

The next significant breakthrough came in desalination technology, although some call this success story a work in progress.

As the cost of desalting seawater fell by more than half in the decade leading up to 2002, PUB called for and received tenders to build a plant. In 2005, a desalination facility using reverse osmosis membranes was commissioned in Tuas. It was built by SingSpring, a wholly owned subsidiary of Hyflux. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.

Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire.

Meanwhile, work on other fronts continue.

The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore's water catchment area from half of its total land area to more than two-thirds. Studies are under way on the possibility of increasing this in future to 90 per cent through the use of treatment plants that handle both salt water and fresh water. There are now 17 reservoirs - up from three in 1965 - including Marina, Punggol and Serangoon.

Less visible upgrades may not be any less important. PUB has an ongoing programme to replace leaky asbestos cement water pipes with more corrosion-resistant ones. Also, an underground system of pumps and pipes connecting Singapore's reservoirs was completed in 2007 to prevent wastage by transferring water from full reservoirs to less full ones.

Turning weakness to strength

'I NEVER imagined we could progress from a situation of crisis to the situation of opportunity today,' said Dr Lee.

A dramatic turn of events, which he ultimately puts down to political will, means the water issue is now more likely to evoke hope than anxiety.

Research and development projects are creating jobs and expertise that can be exported. The PUB expects the GDP contribution from the water sector to grow from $0.5 billion in 2003 to $1.7 billion in 2015, with the number of jobs doubling to 11,000 by 2015.

To be sure, some latent risks remain.

Dr Araral warns, for instance, that skyrocketing energy prices in the future may yet cause problems for the much-vaunted but relatively fuel-guzzling desalination project, although that may in turn spur the development of other sources of water.

Terrorism, too, could derail the most carefully constructed of systems.

'Security experts note that water reservoirs are attractive targets of terrorists,' he said.

Nevertheless, most agree that whatever happens in the future, the achievements as they stand today already exceed the wildest of expectations - not least among them those of the water rationing generation.

Singaporeans can rest with the firm assurance that their secure access to this life-giving commodity is no longer in the hands of others.

Background story

Reservoirs: There are now 17 reservoirs, up from three in 1965. The completion of Marina Barrage in 2008 increased Singapore's water catchment area from half of its total land area to over two-thirds.

Newater and desalination: Of the current daily consumption of 380 million gallons, Newater and desalination now make up 40 per cent. PUB aims to raise that to 80 per cent by 2061, when all agreements with Johor expire. Singapore now has five Newater plants. A second desalination plant in Tuas should be ready by 2013.

Imported water: In the 1980s, Singapore was given the go-ahead to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over the original limit of 250 million gallons a day.

Background story


'While in the initial years Singapore's access to adequate water was viewed through the lens of security and survival, Singapore's present circumstances should be viewed with more optimism.'

Dr Joey Long of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies

The water story
Straits Times 3 Sep 11;

1857: Philanthropist Tan Kim Seng donated $13,000 to construct Singapore's first waterworks and piped water supply.

1867: Singapore's first reservoir, MacRitchie, completed.

1927: Water agreement signed between British-controlled Singapore and Johor Sultan. This agreement is superseded by the 1961 agreement.

1961: First water agreement signed between Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore gets full, exclusive rights to draw water from Gunung Pulai and three other areas for 3 sen per 1,000 gallons.

1962: Second Singapore-Malaysia water agreement signed, allowing Singapore to buy water from Johor River at the same price.

1963: Public Utilities Board (PUB) set up to take charge of water supply. Also, start of 10-month-long water rationing due to drought.

1965: Singapore separated from Malaysia. Both countries agree to abide by 1961 and 1962 agreements.

1971: First water conservation campaign launched.

1977: Start of 10-year-long Clean Singapore River campaign.

1990: Signing of supplement to 1962 agreement, allowing Singapore to build a dam across Johor River and to buy water over and above original quota of 250 million gallons a day.

2000: The beginning of Singapore- Malaysia water talks that end in stalemate in 2003. The two sides could not agree on price.

2001: Restructuring of PUB so it took charge of not only water supply, but also drainage, water reclamation plants and sewerage systems.

2002: Launch of Newater - or recycled water - technology, which decisively paves the way towards water independence for Singapore.

2005: First desalination plant completed in Tuas. A second plant, also in Tuas, is expected by 2013.

2008: Inaugural International Water Week, which became an annual conference on water solutions. Also, Marina Barrage was completed, the first reservoir here in the heart of the city.

2011: 1961 water agreement with Malaysia lapsed. Singapore returns all land and facilities, saying handover does not affect adequacy of water supply.


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Indonesia: Jambi Villagers Fight to Save Their Forests

Fawziah Selamat - Straits Times Indonesia Jakarta Globe 3 Sep 11;

Jambi. The green and seemingly boundless landscape of Jambi province has tempted oil palm and logging companies for years. Some of them have already acquired large swathes of the province, leasing them out in parcels to smallholders who burn the land illegally before planting, as it is the cheapest and easiest way to clear vegetation.

During Indonesia's dry season from May to September, thick smoke from the fires blow into neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

But now, villagers in Merangin regency are fighting back. Worried that their forests will be wiped out, 17 villages in the regency are seeking central government approval for the green areas to be recognized as hutan desa, or village forests, under a 2008 law.

If they succeed, they will secure rights to manage the forest for up to 35 years.

Applying for hutan desa status essentially pits villagers against large firms, and throws them into a tedious and complicated process. The villagers have to use their own funds to map out the exact perimeters of their forest, and the boundaries have to be approved by the local, provincial and central governments.

Once approval is given, they must then submit reports on their management plans and the state of forest cover to the government every five years.

So far, only one village - Lubuk Beringin, also in Jambi province - has been awarded hutan desa status.

The founder of a Jambi-based conservation group, Eko Waskito, says this is because the big companies with “million-dollar investment plans” wield more influence with government officials.

“The onus is on the villagers to prove that their plan will provide a greater net benefit than a concessionaire,” he says. “The difficult part is in convincing people that that benefit should not just be measured in financial terms.”

One benefit is obvious. In Indonesia, violent and sometimes deadly conflict is rife due to overlapping land ownership rights and unclear boundaries. The hutan desa scheme allows rural communities to map out their territories and gives them a stake in managing their land while warding off competing claims from companies and illegal migrants.

Rosidi, the village chief of Durian Rambun, one of the 17 villages, is leading the campaign to win hutan desa status.

Last year, he fought back an attempt by plantation company PT Duta Alam Makmur to seek provincial government approval to convert 85,000 ha of forest into an acacia plantation. PT Duta is a subsidiary of Sinar Mas Forestry, the sole supplier of pulpwood fiber to Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the world's largest paper companies.

The 41-year-old said the benefits from plantation ventures never last long.

“What lasts are the environmental and social damages the companies inflict on the community,” he says.

Indeed, the Merangin villagers still remember with dread the environmental fallout from a timber concession on 50,000ha of forest between 1987 and 2004.

SaysMr Rahmany, the chief of Lubuk Birah, another of the band of 17 villages: “Rivers ran dry, fish were hard to come by and it was difficult to find timber to build our houses.”

The company that got the concession, PT Injapsin, had received it during the 30-year regime of former president Suharto, when Indonesia's rich forest resources came under complete control of the central government. Forest-edge villages were not consulted on concessions or compensated for any damages incurred.

By the time Suharto fell from power in 1998, deforestation across the archipelago had reached a peak of 1.7 million ha a year, according to a World Bank report released in 2005.

With power devolved to the regions, Jakarta and provincial governments now share responsibility for approving forest usage licenses.

But with big money to be made in the sector - the Forestry Ministry reportedly earns $15 billion   a year in land permit fees from investors - illegal logging and violations in issuing forest-use permits are rampant. According to estimates from private watchdog Indonesia Corruption Watch, ill-gotten gains total 20 trillion rupiah each year.

Waskito, however, remains positive despite having to contend with vested interests and bureaucratic red tape.

“Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of for villagers to demand the right to manage and conserve the forests. Now we have one hutan desa, and hopefully 17 more in the making. The tide is changing,” he says.

Boosting the villagers' chances in this David versus Goliath battle is the fact that Jambi is one of nine provinces taking part in an international scheme that has developed countries paying forest-rich ones to protect their trees.

With funds coming in under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation scheme, the financial cost of forgoing the conversion of forests into large plantation estates does not have to be a big issue for Indonesia.

The Merangin villagers, meanwhile, are committed to the hutan desa scheme. Those who want to clear the forest or build homes there need to get approval. If they flout this rule, they face a fine of two buffaloes - which could cost them US$1,200, a hefty sum considering the average villager earns US$3 a day.

The villagers have also formed monthly patrol teams to ward off illegal occupation and land clearing by outsiders.

Durian Rambun's chief, Rosidi, says migrants from provinces near Jambi, like Bengkulu and South Sumatra, used to arrive by the truckloads to take over the land left by the timber concession.

“Like the plantation companies, they come to take what they can, with little regard for how their actions impact the environment, as they can leave when things get bad,” he says.

“But this is our home and we have lived here for generations; we want to make sure that our forests and our way of life exist for our children and their children.”

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Thailand: Small bite of victory in bid to save sharks

60 captive sharks set free last Saturday in an area with very few left to excite divers
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 5 Sep 11;

IT WAS 7am, long before opening time at Under-water World in Pattaya, Thailand, but already activity was stirring in the cavernous attraction.

Inside, a young Thai man in a black wet suit and boots stood in about half a metre of water in a large tank, with 60 young sharks swirling about his legs.

A pipe siphoned water out of the tank into large, strong, clear plastic bags held by two other Thai volunteers. Once there was enough water in a bag, the man in the tank would scoop up a shark with a net and quickly dump it into one of the bags, which was then pumped with oxygen from a large cylinder and firmly tied.
Background story


'It is a drop in the ocean... But we need to raise awareness. It's just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be okay.'

Dive Tribe's founder Gwyn Mills on the shark release

Once done, the dozens of bags were carefully placed in the back of two pickup trucks, which headed for one of Pattaya's crowded piers.

Fifteen minutes later, the bags were transferred onto two boats which set off and eventually moored at a reef some 26km off Pattaya.

There, under a sunny sky on Saturday morning, six divers went into the water and were handed the bags one by one. They opened the bags, submerging them carefully before letting the sharks swim free.

The black-tipped sharks, which are swift swimmers, shot away; the bamboo sharks which prefer lying quietly among corals and rocks, swam away almost cautiously, as if in awe of their sudden freedom.

This was Dive Tribe's 'great shark release' - probably the largest ever release of captive sharks into the wild in Thailand and possibly Asia.

Most of the released fish were bamboo sharks, but there were also five black-tipped sharks with their distinctive dorsal fins. The sharks' ages ranged from a few months to three years. The black-tipped sharks were each about half a metre long; fully grown, they can reach 1.5m and live up to 25 years in the wild.

All the sharks had been bought with donations from across the world, from restaurants in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, and dealers in Bangkok's Chatuchak weekend market, by Mr Gwyn Mills, who founded Dive Tribe two years ago.

Dive Tribe combines diving for paying customers, with marine conservation. Mr Mills, 43, who is British and now a resident of Pattaya, said that in recent years it was clear that Thailand, once one of the best dive destinations in the region, had lost its cachet to other countries, notably Indonesia. Furthermore, what excites divers most is spotting a shark - and there were very few left in the waters off Pattaya.

'Diving is Thailand's second largest sporting activity after golf. A study in Palau in the Pacific Ocean estimated that the tourism value of a single reef shark was US$1.9 million (S$2.2 million) over its lifetime,' he said.

But there are no regulations protecting sharks in Thailand, and they are much sought after for their fins and increasingly for their meat. Mr Mills reckoned most Thai fish balls are made with cheap shark meat.

'Thailand is taking 22,000 tonnes of sharks from the sea every year,' Mr Mills said.

Last Saturday's shark release took place at two sites. As the boat forged through a choppy sea on the way to the first release site at the small island of Ko Rinn, the black-tipped sharks swam in circles in their plastic bags. In half an hour, they would be free.

The owner of the boat, seafarer Robert Camp, said that in his 10 years of diving in the area, he had seen some bamboo sharks, 'occasional' black-tipped sharks, and no hammerhead sharks at all - though they used to be present in the area some years back.

Estimates vary, but hunting for sharks - for their fins, driven by the market for shark's-fin soup - removes up to 100 million sharks a year, big and small, from the seas in the region.

The market is oblivious to the growing evidence that shark's fin is high in mercury content.

Sharks, as long-lived creatures, accumulate more mercury in their systems than other fish with shorter life spans.

Moreover, the removal of sharks, which have been the top predator in the oceans for 400 million years, on this colossal scale has been proven to upset the balance of the marine ecosystem.

In parts of the North Atlantic, a growth in a species of ray normally eaten by sharks has seen a crash in scallops, oysters and clams which are the preferred food of the rays.

Some attempts have been made to curb the slaughter.

The Malaysian state of Sabah, for instance, where diving brought in RM190 million (S$77 million) last year, intends to ban all shark fishing by the end of the year. On the other side of the world, California is debating legislation to ban the sale of shark's fin.

But the concern is these actions will be token. Other countries have been slow to take action. Neither Indonesia nor India, first and second respectively on the list of the world's top 20 shark-fishing nations, has effective regulations on shark fishing.

Sceptics also say events like last Saturday's shark release fuel the trade because traders will hunt more sharks so people like Mr Mills can buy them.

'It is a one-off activity,' Mr Mills said in defence of the event. 'You cannot fuel a trade in just one day a year. And these sharks were as good as dead.'

As the divers emerged from the water and high-fived each other, they spoke of their feelings of elation at seeing the sharks swim away.

'It is a drop in the ocean,' said Mr Mills. 'But we need to raise awareness. It's just not possible to remove the apex predator and think everything will be okay.'

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'Stemcell zoo' could save endangered species: study

Marlowe Hood AFP Yahoo News 5 Sep 11;

Scientists said Sunday they had produced the first stemcells from endangered species, a breakthrough that could potentially save dozens of animals teetering on the brink of extinction.

"The best way to manage extinction is to preserve species and habitats but that is not always working," Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo and co-leader of the study, said in a statement.

"Stemcell technology provides some level of hope that they won't have to become extinct even though they have been completely eliminated from their habitat."

That is the case for the northern white rhinoceros, one of the first two animals included in Ryder's new "stemcell zoo."

Only seven specimens remain in existence, all in captivity and two in San Diego.

The researchers also isolated stemcells from a critically threatened primate called a drill, genetically a close cousin to humans.

In captivity, drills often suffer from diabetes, a disease scientists are seeking to treat in humans using stemcell-based therapies.

Ryder's team had already collected skin cells and other tissue samples from more than 800 species -- stored in a "Frozen Zoo" -- by 2006.

That is when he contacted Jeanne Loring, a professor at the Scripps Research Institute in nearby La Jolla and the study's other lead researcher, about the possibility of using the bank to generate and store stemcells.

At the time, scientists seeking to use stemcells to cure human disease had not yet found a reliable technique for turning normal adult cells into stemcells that can give rise to nearly any type of tissue or cell in the body.

Today, however, this process -- called induced pluripotency -- is routinely achieved by inserting certain genes into normal cells.

At first, Ryder and Loring tried to use genes from animals closely related to the target species in order to trigger the transformation, but the experiments failed.

Through trial and error, however, they discovered to their amazement that the same genes that induce pluripotency in humans also worked for the drill and the rhino.

The process in inefficient, only producing a few stemcells at a time, according to the study, published in Nature Methods. But it was still enough to start the "stemcell zoo".

Perhaps the greatest potential for helping endangered species -- beyond disease treatment -- is new reproductive stategies.

If adult stemcells can become a sperm or egg cell, for example, scientists could then use skin cells from long-dead animals in the Frozen Zoo to produce the male and female starter kit for new life.

Induced sperm cells could be combined with the eggs from living animals through in vitro fertilisation.

Alternatively, both eggs and sperm might be generated from stemcells, with the resulting embryos implanted in live host animals, a process the researchers said would likely be much more reliable that cloning techniques.

"I think that work would be a lot easier ethically with endangered species than with humans," Loring said in a statement.

"I suspect some people working in this area would love to have our cells for experiments."

Such techniques would also help boost genetic diversity by reaching beyond the small number of living individuals of a dwindling species, she explained.

Even if the remaining northern white rhinos reproduced -- which hasn't happened in many years -- the tiny gene pool could easily lead to unhealthy animals.

'Stem Cell Zoo' May Aid Endangered Species
Jennifer Welsh Yahoo News 5 Sep 11;

Stem cells are quickly becoming an important tool for human medical treatments, and researchers are betting they will also be a useful tool for zoo animals. They are working to create stem cell lines from zoo animals, for use in treating animal diabetes and other ailments as well as helping the animals reproduce.

The scientists have already created a "frozen zoo," which contains different types of cells from every animal there, and now they are putting together a "stem cell zoo."

"There are only two animals in it," study researcher Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, of The Scripps Research Institute, said in a statement, "but we have the start of a new zoo, the stem cell zoo."

Stem cells are prized, because they can be turned into any type of cell in the body, a characteristic called pluripotency. The cells can even be turned into sperm or egg cells, and used in assisted reproduction to make more individuals of the species.

"The most important thing is to provide these stem cells as a resource for other people taking some of the next steps," said Jeanne Loring, also of The Scripps Research Institute.

Endangered stem cells

The researchers started with two species: the drill primate, a highly endangered primate genetically close to humans, and the northern white rhinoceros, which is genetically far from humans and also incredibly endangered.

To create the stem cells, the researchers used the same genes that are used to turn human cells pluripotent; they inserted those genes into the animals' skin cells. They had originally tried to use genes from the animals themselves and their close relatives, but after more than a year of trying they were having little success.

The new technique isn't very efficient yet, transforming just a few cells into stem cells at a time, but that's enough, the researchers said.

Stem cell therapies

Both animals, the researchers said, were chosen because they could benefit from stem cells now. For instance, the drill primate suffers from diabetes when in captivity, and stem cell-based treatments for diabetes being researched in humans suggest the same may work in these primates.

The rhinoceros was chosen because it is one of the most highly endangered species on the planet, with only seven animals, all in captivity, in existence (two of which are in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park). They haven't reproduced in several years, and because the population is so small there is a lack of genetic diversity, which could affect their survival.

If the researchers can use the stem cells to make sperm and eggs from skin cells of deceased animals in the frozen zoo, they could reintroduce some genetic diversity into the population, while also increasing its size.

"The best way to manage extinctions is to preserve species and their habitats," study researcher Oliver Ryder, of the San Diego Zoo, said in a statement. "But that's not working all the time."

The rhinos are a perfect example, he said, because there are so few. "Stem cell technology provides some level of hope that they won't have to become extinct even though they've been completely eliminated from their habitats."

The study was published today (Sept. 4) in the journal Nature Methods.

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Best of our wild blogs: 4 Sep 11

110901-02 Sultan Shoal
from Singapore Nature

Butterfly Photography at Our Local Parks
from Butterflies of Singapore

Speak up for our shores! Feedback on 'City in a Garden'
from wild shores of singapore

Exciting vertebrate night at Central Catchment
from wonderful creation

Swifts in the city
from The Biology Refugia

Chek Jawa in September
from Ubin.sgkopi

150 million years old dinosaur bone!! Night at the Museum
from Nature rambles

New phytoplankton guidebook from Science Centre
from Protists in Singapore

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The curious case of Britain's wildlife revival

The Independent 29 Aug 11;

Otters and salmon have returned to our rivers, red kites are soaring over our motorways and exotic egrets are colonising our wetlands. So has British wildlife really made a comeback? Naturalist Stephen Moss investigates

It's been one of the few "good news" stories of the summer: otters can now be found in every English county.

This elusive mammal has made an extraordinary comeback since the dark days of the 1970s, when it almost went extinct in England and Wales and could only be found in a few remote corners of Scotland. Nowadays otters can be seen on rivers all over Britain, including such unexpected places as the River Tyne, in the very centre of Newcastle.

The reason for the otter's post-war decline was simple: pollution, coming on top of decades of persecution. The Tyne was the worst offender, with millions of gallons of untreated sewage pouring into the river every single day, turning it into a vast septic tank.

The solution to the problem was equally straightforward. Once a sewage treatment scheme had been installed, the clean-up could begin. Within decades the Tyne had become one of the best salmon fishing rivers in Britain.

And with the returning salmon came one of their most effective predators, the otter. The resurgence of these two iconic creatures is not the only success story for British wildlife. Birds of prey such as the buzzard and sparrowhawk have also seen a boom in numbers in the past couple of decades. Their cousin, the peregrine falcon, has seen an even more spectacular upturn in its fortunes.

After almost going extinct as a British breeding bird in the 1960s, the fastest creature on the planet can now be seen in the middle of London, with nesting birds on Tate Modern regularly amazing passers-by with their aerobatic hunting displays. City-centre peregrines can also be seen in Manchester, Derby, Bristol, Bath and Exeter – indeed most British cities now have at least one breeding pair.

As well as these comebacks, there are new arrivals to our shores. Some, such as the red kite and beaver, have been given a helping hand through reintroduction schemes; others, like the little egret, have colonised from the south as a result of climate change; and a few, notably the wild boar, are here by accident – the animals escaping from farms and now thriving in what was once their native land.

The three main drivers of these comebacks and colonisations are legal action, habitat creation and climate change. Changes in the law have reduced both deliberate and unwitting pollution; with the banning of the agricultural chemical DDT in the early 1980s coming just in time to save the peregrine which, as a predator at the very top of the food chain, was especially vulnerable.

Persecution has also been reduced, both by legal means and by changes in attitudes. A handful of misguided landowners and gamekeepers continue to target birds of prey, mistakenly blaming them for everything from the reduction in numbers of red grouse to the decline in our songbirds. But as the regular presence of buzzards, kites and sparrowhawks in our skies shows, the shotgun has fallen out of favour in much of Britain. Meanwhile, my own part of the country, the Somerset Levels, is rapidly turning into the best place in Britain to see a range of long-legged waterbirds.

Three species of exotic-looking egrets – little, cattle and great white – are now regular visitors to this watery wonderland, having colonised Britain from continental Europe in the past two decades.

Their arrival is a result of the two other factors driving the rise in fortunes of many of our wild creatures. These are climate change, which has allowed these birds to extend their ranges across the Channel in the first place; and habitat creation, which provides them with a place to breed when they arrive.

The ambitious new policy of landscape-scale conservation – also known as "rewilding" – is currently transforming a landscape once devastated by intensive agriculture and peat digging into one of the best places to see wildlife in Britain.

As well as egrets, there are also bitterns and a small population of cranes, reintroduced to their ancestral home by a partnership between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust.

It would be tempting, given this litany of success stories, to take the Panglossian view that all is for the best, in the best of all possible worlds. But climate change is itself, of course, a double-edged sword. Even as southerners welcome continental arrivals such as cattle egrets, the large tortoiseshell and the Queen of Spain fritillary, so in the north of Britain wildlife on the southern edge of its global range is beginning to retreat northwards. Rising temperatures are bad news for specialist mountain creatures such as the ptarmigan, mountain hare and Britain's only alpine butterfly, the mountain ringlet, because as temperatures rise they simply have nowhere to go. Meanwhile, on our offshore islands, once vast seabird colonies are being devastated by a shortage of their staple food of sand eels, which are also retreating northwards at a frighteningly rapid rate. These amazing seabird spectacles – memorably described by conservationist Roy Dennis as "Britain's Serengeti" – may well disappear in the next decade or so.

Even when climate change does offer opportunities, not every species is able to take advantage of them. So while some butterflies, such as the comma and peacock, are currently spreading north into Scotland, others, such as the wood white and high brown fritillary, have been unable to do so. This is because they are confined to ever decreasing fragments of specialised habitat and cannot make the leap across what to them is hostile territory.

Indeed, vast swathes of the British countryside are now virtually a wildlife-free zone. Chris Baines, the man who invented wildlife gardening partly as a way of providing an urban refuge for our declining rural wildlife, has wryly observed that the best way to improve the biodiversity of an arable field is to build a housing estate on it.

Post-war farming's quest to squeeze every last ounce of yield per acre, encouraged by our own insatiable desire for cheap food, has meant that the wildlife that used to thrive on farmland is now disappearing.

In my own lifetime we have lost over two million breeding pairs of skylarks, grey partridges have vanished from much of lowland Britain and last year there was just a single sighting of that classic farmland bird, the corn bunting, in my home county of Somerset.

If things are bad for these resident creatures, what hope is there for those that run the risks of the twice-yearly journey to and from their African winter quarters? Migrants such as the cuckoo, spotted flycatcher and turtle dove have disappeared from many of their former haunts, as documented in Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo, a poignant epitaph written by The Independent's environment editor Mike McCarthy.

The sound of the cuckoo is now just a memory to many of my generation and may never be heard by our children and grandchildren.

So the picture is, clearly, rather more complex than the good news stories might lead us to believe. And yet there is still cause for optimism.

Organisations such as the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and National Trust – along with smaller groups like Butterfly Conservation, Buglife and the BTO – are doing all they can to give a helping hand to Britain's wildlife at this time of unprecedented change.

They, and TV programmes such as Springwatch, are also encouraging even more people to get out into their local neighbourhood and discover the wonders of the wildlife on their doorstep. Localism, first championed by the 18th century Hampshire vicar Gilbert White in his celebrated book The Natural History of Selborne, is well and truly back in fashion.

As one of White's modern-day disciples, author and naturalist Mark Cocker, has noted: "He redeemed the word 'parochial' from its sense of narrowness and limitation; he exalts the parish as a place where all life exists and we can follow in his footsteps."

I have spent the last year or so writing an account of the natural history of my own country parish, deep in the heart of the Somerset Levels.

During this time I have encountered a wonderful range of wild creatures: some common, some rare, but all fascinating. Two images have stayed longest in my mind: the leaping of wild hares on a frosty March morning; and the unexpected appearance of a hummingbird hawkmoth – a scarce visitor from the shores of the Mediterranean – on my buddleia bush in July.

For me, each of these encounters summed up the wonder of Britain's wildlife: one long-established creature of the countryside, the other a newcomer, but both equally special.

And they reminded me that, whether you take an optimistic or a pessimistic view of the future of our natural heritage, there is always something to surprise us, and to enjoy.

Stephen Moss's book, Wild Hares and Hummingbirds: The Natural History of an English Village, is published in September by Square Peg, price £14.99.

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New Shark Species Found in Taiwan Food Market

Dogfish not first species to be found en route to dinner plate.
John Roach National Geographic News 1 Sep 11;

It's unlikely anyone's ever complained, "Waiter, there's a new species in my soup." But the situation isn't as rare as you might think.

A monkey, a lizard, and an "extinct" bird have all been discovered en route to the dinner plate, and now a new shark species joins their ranks, scientists report.

Fish taxonomists found the previously unknown shark at a market in Taiwan—no big surprise, according to study co-author William White.

"Most fish markets in the region will regularly contain sharks," White, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Hobart, Australia, said via email.

In fact, he and a colleague had headed to the Tashi Fish Market specifically to "collect some material and to see whether there were noticeable differences in the [shark] catches from previous decades," he said.

"Amongst a number of other species, we collected a number of Squalus species—one of which was this new high-fin species."

The new species, Squalus formosus, is a three-foot-long (one-meter-long) short-nosed dogfish. It's distinguished from other dogfish species in the Squalus genus by a particularly upright first fin on its back, a strong spine, and a very short, rounded head, White said.

New Species Likely Unnoticed by Eaters

S. formosus ("Formosa" being a former name for Taiwan), likely wound up in the fish market in the same way most deep-ocean sharks do—as bycatch, accidentally ensnared during hunts for other fish.

In fish markets, "it is unlikely people would know the difference"—tastewise or otherwise—between the new species and other sharks, said White, emphasizing that he hasn't eaten the new species and doesn't know how it's prepared.

"Similar species in Indonesia are salted and dried for human consumption and fins used as filler in the shark-fin soup trade," he said. "But that doesn't necessarily reflect what they do with the sharks in Taiwan."

From One Species, Many

The new species is currently known only from waters around Taiwan and Japan and is unlikely to be found much farther afield, White said, since Squalus species tend to have narrow ranges.

Many species once thought to be wide-ranging have been shown to actually be multiple, but similar, species with smaller ranges, he said.

One benefit of scientifically classifying all these closely related, narrow-ranging species is that scientists will be able to better assess just how healthy their populations are—or aren't.

Because deepwater sharks don't reproduce rapidly, they have a harder time bouncing back from overfishing, White said. "So personally, I have a preference not to eat these animals."

The new shark species is described in the August 26 issue of the Journal of Fish Biology.

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Black Reefs–When the Ship Hits the Reef

Enric Sala National Geographic News 1 Sep 11;

The first time I dived at the remote Kingman Reef, in 2005, I thought I found paradise. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, almost 2000 km south of Hawaii, lies a pristine coral reef, covered with colorful corals and a carpet of giant clams with unbelievable electric blues and greens. When I returned in 2007, I thought I had entered the dark land of Mordor.

The healthy corals of the windward side of Kingman Reef, permanently washed by the breaking waves, had died, and the reef shifted into a carpet of dark slime – filamentous algae and microbes. The former crystal clear waters were now murky like a swimming pool after turning off the filtration system. We called it the ‘black reef.’

What was the reason for such a shift – from pristine to degraded? We found the answer right away: the wreck of a teak-hulled fishing vessel filled with iron-rich compressors, engines and unidentifiable machinery. We will never know who the ship belonged to, and what happened to her crew. All we know is that that vessel wasn’t there two years earlier. The ship is a ghost, killing the reef around it little by little.

A scientific study published today at The ISME Journal shows that the shipwreck is releasing iron slowly into the surrounding waters, thus fertilizing the iron-poor waters of Kingman Reef and causing a population explosion of algae, and microbes. The result is the killing of one km of reef in less than three years.

Linda Wegley of San Diego State University (SDSU) and lead author of the study says that ” the black reefs show that a very small amount of some pollutant (in this case iron) can kill a large area of a pristine reef.”

The science team found similar black reefs in other coral atolls and islands in the central Pacific. “The differences between the surrounding reefs and the black reefs are truly amazing. The former are some of the most beautiful in the world, whereas the black reefs are some of the most dead and dark reefs we have ever seen” said Forest Rohwer, professor and director of the marine microbiology lab at SDSU.

To add insult to injury, a number of these ships sank on reefs that are pristine and protected by the U.S. as Marine National Monuments. The ecological value of these reefs is global and irreplaceable.

Knowing that these shipwrecks pose a significant threats to coral reefs here and in multiple regions where iron is a limiting nutrient, what’s the solution?

William Chandler, Marine Conservation Institute’s Vice President for Government Affairs, believes that “shipwrecks located in iron-poor regions of the Pacific must be removed immediately to protect the integrity and viability of coral reef ecosystems. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s failure to remove two shipwrecks in the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument is undermining the very purpose of the monument.”

Our own shipwreck expert, my fellow Explorer-in-Residence Bob Ballard, tells me that “I never thought it would have been that destructive, but now knowing what we know, it is clear iron needs to be removed from a reef environment as fast as possible.”

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60% of deforested Amazon used for cattle: study

AFP Yahoo News 4 Sep 11;

More than 60 percent of deforested areas of the Brazilian Amazon forest are used for grazing cattle, while only five percent is used for agriculture, a new government study said.

From research of satellite imagery, Brazilian officials found of the 719,000 square kilometers (277,000 square miles) cleared up to 2008, a whopping 62 percent was left as just grass, and that the use amounted to on average one cow per hectare, roughly the size of a football field.

"Having less than one head of cattle per hectare is unacceptable," said Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira in comments quoted by the Brazilian press Saturday.

"It's a waste, because the forest is being replaced by something that does not generate income or growth," she lamented.

While five percent of the land goes to agriculture, some 21 percent is effectively abanonded and left to its own regeneration.

Brazil, which has jurisdiction over most of the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, has committed to drastically reduce deforestation by 80 percent by 2020, though preliminary data indicates that in the last 12 months the process has in fact increased by some 15 percent, according to government figures.

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