Best of our wild blogs: 11 Sep 11

Life History of the Common Tit
from Butterflies of Singapore

Mandai Park Connector On 29 Aug
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Pin-Striped Tit Babbler: Tail moult?
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Chek Jawa and the Lost Diamond Ring
from wild shores of singapore

Baby stonefish at Sentosa
from wonderful creation

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Making Headway in the Movement to Protect the World’s Sharks

Elisabeth Rosenthal The New York Times 10 Sep 11;

For sharks, life at the top of the ocean food chain is becoming safer — at least from human predators.

The last 12 months have seen a flurry of laws, regulations and industry actions to end the international trade in the age-old delicacy, including bans on shark fin sales in Hawaii, Oregon, Washington and parts of Canada.

Last week, the California Senate also voted to ban the sale or possession of shark fins — a billion-dollar global trade that has led to the brutal deaths of tens of millions of sharks a year and resulted in many open-ocean shark species being threatened with extinction. The Bahamas and Honduras have prohibited shark fishing in the last two years.

“We’re really enthusiastic to see good things finally starting to happen for sharks,” said Elizabeth Wilson, a marine wildlife expert at Oceana, a nonprofit conservation group that has long campaigned against the trade.

Shark fins are used to make a coveted Chinese banquet soup that can sell for over $100 a bowl. It has the ceremonial mystique of benefiting health and virility, and serving it to guests is considered to be a sign of great honor and respect.

In an increasingly prosperous Asia, the market for the soup has grown drastically, causing overfishing around the globe. The presence of the once-common hammerhead in large parts of the western Atlantic, for example, has decreased by up to 89 percent over the last 25 years.

The spate of new protections is a result of efforts by environmental groups to reduce market demand for shark fins, because international treaties have failed to adequately curb shark fishing.

The Food Network recently removed all shark recipes from its offerings, and the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has been pressing Chinese restaurants in London to renounce the soup this year.

Even in Asia, where shark fins and soup are ubiquitous, campaigns to end shark fin dining by celebrities like the basketball star Yao Ming of China and the conservation group WildAid have had effects. Sales have been reduced by about one-third in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, experts say, though consumption is still growing on the Chinese mainland. Ali Baba, a kind of Chinese eBay, no longer accepts shark fin transactions.

“This has been a slow-boil campaign because the traditional methods failed,” said Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, which worked with Mr. Yao. “We went to consumers because it was a crisis and nothing else was dealing with it.”

Mr. Knights pointed out that the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which restricts trade on items derived from endangered or threatened species, denied protection to five shark species last year after nations that profit from the trade voted against it.

Shark populations cannot tolerate intensive fishing because sharks have few offspring and often do not reproduce until they are over 10 years old. Even by conservative estimates, more than 10 million shark fins moved through Hong Kong in 2008, the main distribution center for the trade. Fins sell for over $300 a pound.

Many marine biologists support tougher regulation of shark fishing itself.

“These bans go part way, but you’re still allowed to fish sharks without a permit,” said John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “In North Carolina, there are shark derbies for fun, where they are hung by their tails. We think it’s O.K. to do that with this ocean predator, but we wouldn’t dream of doing it to a terrestrial animal like a bear.”

As a halfway measure to limit the fin trade, a growing number of countries, including the United States as of last December, prohibit the removal of shark fins at sea. Requiring fishing boats to take whole sharks to the dock limits the size of their catch and allows the authorities to inspect for endangered species. In the traditional shark fin trade, fishermen slice off the valued fins from a living shark and dump the still writhing body back in the water.

But shark-finning prohibitions are hard to enforce because they involve dockside inspections of numerous small boats and a sack of lucrative fins is easily hidden. When Dr. Bruno was at his university’s new research station in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador this summer, he was summoned by local authorities to help identify sharks on a boat they had seized with more than 350 carcasses, fins already partly detached. Ecuadorean law also bans finning at sea.

“This was in the Galápagos, a national marine reserve and national heritage site,” Dr. Bruno said. “If it’s even happening there, that shows you the size of the problem.”

The California ban, which has passed both chambers and now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown, would have a major impact on the availability of shark fins in the United States because most are imported from Hong Kong via California. The legislation bans imports as of Jan. 1, 2012, but allows those who possess shark fins to dispose of their stocks until June 30, 2013.

Though one of the bill’s sponsors is Paul Fong, a Chinese-born assemblyman from Sunnyvale, some Asian-Americans in the state have objected that the measure is discriminatory, singling out an important cultural tradition. But some surveys have shown that 70 percent of Asian-Americans in California support the bill.

Decreasing demand from the United States and Hong Kong may not offer enough of a respite for threatened shark populations if the popularity of shark fin soup continues to grow on the Chinese mainland.

In a commercial made by WildAid, Asian diners at a fancy restaurant begin pushing away their soup bowls as a shark in a nearby tank bleeds from the site where his fin was removed. “Remember,” says Mr. Yao, the retired basketball player, “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”

Mr. Knights, of WildAid, said that if the decimation of shark populations continued, all the money in the world would not provide shark fins for diners. “This is unsustainable,” he said, “and the question is, do you end it now or do you wait until there are no sharks left?”

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Coral reefs 'will be gone by end of the century'

They will be the first entire ecosystem to be destroyed by human activity, says top UN scientist
Andrew Marszal The Independent 11 Sep 11;

Coral reefs are on course to become the first ecosystem that human activity will eliminate entirely from the Earth, a leading United Nations scientist claims. He says this event will occur before the end of the present century, which means that there are children already born who will live to see a world without coral.

The claim is made in a book published tomorrow, which says coral reef ecosystems are very likely to disappear this century in what would be "a new first for mankind – the 'extinction' of an entire ecosystem". Its author, Professor Peter Sale, studied the Great Barrier Reef for 20 years at the University of Sydney. He currently leads a team at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health.

The predicted decline is mainly down to climate change and ocean acidification, though local activities such as overfishing, pollution and coastal development have also harmed the reefs. The book, Our Dying Planet, published by University of California Press, contains further alarming predictions, such as the prospect that "we risk having no reefs that resemble those of today in as little as 30 or 40 more years".

"We're creating a situation where the organisms that make coral reefs are becoming so compromised by what we're doing that many of them are going to be extinct, and the others are going to be very, very rare," Professor Sale says. "Because of that, they aren't going to be able to do the construction which leads to the phenomenon we call a reef. We've wiped out a lot of species over the years. This will be the first time we've actually eliminated an entire ecosystem."

Coral reefs are important for the immense biodiversity of their ecosystems. They contain a quarter of all marine species, despite covering only 0.1 per cent of the world's oceans by area, and are more diverse even than the rainforests in terms of diversity per acre, or types of different phyla present.

Recent research into coral reefs' highly diverse and unique chemical composition has found many compounds useful to the medical industry, which could be lost if present trends persist. New means of tackling cancer developed from reef ecosystems have been announced in the past few months, including a radical new treatment for leukaemia derived from a reef-dwelling sponge. Another possible application of compounds found in coral as a powerful sunblock has also been mooted.

And coral reefs are of considerable economic value to humans, both as abundant fishing resources and – often more lucratively – as tourist destinations. About 850 million people live within 100km of a reef, of which some 275 million are likely to depend on the reef ecosystems for nutrition or livelihood. Fringing reefs can also help to protect low-lying islands and coastal regions from extreme weather, absorbing waves before they reach vulnerable populations.

Carbon emissions generated by human activity, especially our heavy use of fossils fuels, are the biggest cause of the anticipated rapid decline, impacting on coral reefs in two main ways. Climate change increases ocean surface temperatures, which have already risen by 0.67C in the past century. This puts corals under enormous stress and leads to coral bleaching, where the photosynthesising algae on which the reef-building creatures depend for energy disappear. Deprived of these for even a few weeks, the corals die.

On top of this comes ocean acidification. Roughly one-third of the extra carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere is absorbed through the ocean surface, acidifying shallower waters. A more recently recognised problem in tropical reef systems, the imbalance created makes it harder for reef organisms to retrieve the minerals needed to build their carbonaceous skeletons. "If they can't build their skeletons – or they have to put a lot more energy into building them relative to all the other things they need to do, like reproduce – it has a detrimental effect on the coral reefs," says Paul Johnston of the University of Exeter, and founder of the UK's Greenpeace Research Laboratories.

An important caveat to the book's predictions is that the corals themselves – the tiny organisms largely responsible for creating reefs – may be lucky enough to survive the destruction, if past mass extinction episodes are anything to go by. "Although corals are ancient animals and have been around for hundreds of millions of years, there have been periods of reefs, and periods where there are no reefs," explains Mark Spalding, of the US-based environmental group Nature Conservancy, and the University of Cambridge. "When climatic conditions are right they build these fantastic structures, but when they're not they wait in the wings, in little refuges, as a rather obscure invertebrate."

The gaps between periods in which reefs are present have been long even in geological terms, described in the book as "multimillion-year pauses". And reef disappearance has tended to precede wider mass extinction events, offering an ominous "canary in the environmental coal mine" for the present day, according to the author. "People have been talking about current biodiversity loss as the Holocene mass extinction, meaning that the losses of species that are occurring now are in every way equivalent to the mass extinctions of the past," Professor Sale says. "I think there is every possibility that is what we are seeing."

About 20 per cent of global coral reefs have already been lost in the past few decades. Mass bleaching events leading to widespread coral death are a relatively recent phenomenon; though scientists have been studying coral reefs in earnest since the 1950s, mass bleaching was first observed only in 1983.

Dr Spalding, who witnessed the catastrophic 1998 mass bleaching in the Indian Ocean first-hand, says: "It was a shocking wake-up call for the world of science, and a shocking wake-up for me to be actually there as we watched literally 80 to 90 per cent of all the corals die on the reefs of the Seychelles and other islands in a few weeks." That single event destroyed 16 per cent of the world's coral.

But according to the book's author: "The 1998 bleaching was spectacular because it was so extensive and so conspicuous. But there have been mass bleachings that have been global since then: 2005 was bad; 2010 was bad. The visual appearance is not nearly as severe as it was in 1998, simply because there is less coral around."

These dramatic episodes coincide with unusual weather patterns such as El Niño, but are increasing in severity and frequency due to climate change. As such, tackling global warming is the most urgent solution advocated by the book. "If we can keep CO2 concentrations below 450 parts per million we would be able to save something resembling coral reefs," Professor Sale says. "They wouldn't be the coral reefs of the 1950s or 1960s, but they would be recognisably coral reefs, and they would function as reefs." The current atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is about 390 parts per million, but few experts believe it will remain below 500 for long.

There are signs that local conservation efforts can make a difference. Alex Rogers, professor of conservation biology at Oxford University, says: "We know for certain that corals subject to low levels of stress are much more able to recover. So if you take away pressures like overfishing of coral reefs and pollution, this has profound effects on recovery. But what we're really doing is buying time for many of these ecosystems. If climate change continues at its current rate, they will be done for eventually."

Though not all scientists agree with the precise timescales set out by the book, the crisis is clear. "When you're talking about the destruct-ion of an entire ecosystem within one human generation, there might be some small differences in the details – it is a dramatic image and a dramatic statement," Professor Rogers says. "But the overall message we agree with. People are not taking on board the sheer speed of the changes we're seeing."

'Our Dying Planet' (University of California Press) will be published in North America tomorrow

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Malaysia 'complains to Indonesia over haze'

(AFP) Google News 10 Sep 11;

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia has complained to Indonesia about land-clearing fires in the neighbouring country that have led to a blanket of pollution and poor air quality.

Environment Minister Douglas Uggah Embas sent a letter to his Indonesian counterpart Friday about hundreds of suspected fires on Sumatra island, national news agency Bernama reported.

Indonesia's government has outlawed land-clearing by fire but weak law enforcement means the ban is largely ignored, and pollution regularly blankets the region.

Air quality on Friday dropped to a level deemed "unhealthy" in one area of Negeri Sembilan state, south of the capital Kuala Lumpur. Though conditions improved on Saturday, some 60 percent of the country recorded "moderate" pollution.

Uggah Embas said Indonesia had improved efforts to tackle the problem since 2005 when parts of one Malaysian state experienced pollution at highly dangerous levels.

He is expected to meet his counterpart, Gusti Muhammad Hatta, at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering in Bangkok on September 18.

And he said Malaysia would push for the setting up of a regional fire fighting squad to tackle haze-related fires in ASEAN member countries.

"We will push for this unit because we need quick deployment should any member country require such assistance," he was quoted as saying.

His aides could not immediately comment on the Bernama report.

Malaysia worries over 600 Sumatra hotspots
New Straits Times 11 Sep 11;

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia expressed concern to Indonesia after satellite images detected 600 hotspots with high temperature levels in Sumatra this year.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Douglas Uggah Embas said his ministry sent a letter on Friday to Indonesian Environment Minister Professor Dr Gusti Muhammad Hatta.

He told Bernama that Malaysia believed Indonesia was doing its best to control the situation. "Over the past few years, they improved their responses and efforts to tackle these fires."

Uggah will meet Gusti at the Asean Ministerial Steering Committee meeting in Bangkok next Sunday.

He said the monsoon wind that brought smoke from forest fires in Sumatra caused the haze in Malaysia.

However, he said, the situation was not as bad as it was in 1997 and 2005, when the air pollutant index (API) readings hit record highs.

Asked about Malaysia's proposal for the creation of an Asean rapid fire-fighting squad to tackle haze-related fires, he said the 12th Meeting of Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze Pollution in Bangkok on Sept 22 and 22 would discuss it.

"We will push for this unit because we need quick deployment should a country require help.

"It's not just about sending firefighters to other countries; it's also about them helping us when the situation requires it."

Malaysia sent 1,000 firefighters to help Indonesia tackle forest fires in 1997 and 124 in 2005.

Malaysia declared an emergency in Sarawak in 1997 because of the haze.

In 2005, an emergency was declared in Port Klang and Kuala Selangor when the API eached 500.

Predeep Nambiar reports that the haze remains in the Klang Valley.

The API readings showed Kuala Lumpur as "moderate" (80) while Petaling Jaya and Shah Alam recorded 79 and 72.

Thirty-two areas in the country were "moderate".

The worst affected town outside the Klang Valley was Nilai, with an API reading of 96, just four points shy of the "unhealthy" category. Seremban and Port Dickson had readings of 73 and 76.

The previous day, Nilai recorded a reading of 101, the highest in the nation.

The Meteorological Service Singapore's website said there were more hotspots because of persistent dry conditions in central and southern Sumatra.

Read more: Malaysia worries over 600 Sumatra hotspots

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Laos aims to build Mekong dam this year, testing neighbours

Bloomberg, The Nation 11 Sep 11;

Laos wants to start construction this year on the $3.8 billion (Bt115 billion) Thai-financed Xayaburi hydropower plant on the Mekong River after changing the design of the dam to placate neighbouring countries opposed to the project.

Laos completed a review of the dam recently to ease concerns in three neighbouring countries that it would harm rice production and fish catches downstream.

Environmental groups say the project will endanger the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people on the fragile Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, and cause grave damage to rice growers in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, which is also threatened by rising sea levels. Villagers in riverside communities in Thailand also oppose the dam, which could be the first of up to a dozen proposed on the lower Mekong.

Early this year, Hanoi recommended a 10-year delay on all hydropower projects on the river, which flows from China through Burma, Thailand and Cambodia to the delta in southern Vietnam.

Viraphonh Viravong, director-general of Laos' Ministry of Energy and Mines' Department of Electricity, said in an interview in Hanoi last week: "We would like to start toward the end of this year when the dry season comes. We want to explain and make the other countries comfortable. If they are still very negative about it, of course we will spend some more time on it."

The hydropower dam is the first among eight that Laos plans to build on the Mekong to expand Southeast Asia's smallest economy by selling power to neighbouring countries. The landlocked nation may have about 38,000 megawatts of installed capacity supply by 2020, about 15 times greater than its domestic needs, according to a presentation by state-owned Electricite du Laos at a conference in Hanoi on Thursday.

Laos presented the project review conducted by Switzerland-based Poyry Energy AG to Vietnam and plans to meet separately with Thai and Cambodian officials to discuss recommendations, Viraphonh said. Vientiane claims it can decide if it will proceed with the project at any point.

In April, Laos proposed to end a review of Xayaburi called for under a 1995 agreement between the Mekong countries requiring prior consultations before building hydropower plants on the river. Officials agreed then to hold a ministerial meeting later this year to discuss the project, but that has yet to take place.

"Laos has no right to go forward on the project by itself," said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director for International Rivers, a Berkeley, California-based non-profit group that aims to protect rivers and human rights. "By doing so it will violate the 1995 Mekong agreement and the spirit of regional cooperation."

Poyry's review found that Xayaburi's design was in accordance with preliminary design guidelines from the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental body, and other international design manuals, Viraphonh said in a presentation. The firm recommended improvements for sediment transport and fish-passing facilities, he said.

Poyry was confident "any potential long-term trans-boundary impacts on the downstream region would be insignificant" if the recommended design changes are implemented, according to the presentation.

"Look, this has been reviewed by an independent engineer, very famous in the world," Viraphonh said. "And if they say 'yes, you can go ahead', why not?"

Thailand agreed in December to buy 95 per cent of the electricity from the plant, which will have a capacity of 1,285 megawatts, but the Abhisit government later withdrew support for the dam amid a chorus of opposition early this year.

Ch Karnchang Plc, Thailand's third-biggest construction firm by market value, owns a 57.5-per-cent stake in Xayaburi. Supamas Trivisvavet, an executive vice president at the company, declined to comment when reached by phone on Friday.

PTT Plc, Thailand's biggest energy company, has a 25-per-cent stake, while Bangkok-based Electricity Generating Plc owns 12.5 per cent, according to company filings. PTT told the Thai stock exchange on March 1 the huge project was expected to start commercial operations in January 2019 - if it starts this year.

The proposed alterations would slightly increase the cost of the project, Viraphonh said, without providing figures. The plant would be able to meet its target completion date if work started later this year, he said.

The Mekong and its tributaries provide food, water and transportation to about 60 million people in the four countries. In a July meeting with counterparts from Mekong nations in Bali, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a pause in construction of dams on the river "until we are all able to do a better assessment of the likely consequences".

Vietnamese officials in January recommended delaying the project and moving it to a Mekong tributary because it would affect "the safety of water sources and food security for Vietnam as well as for the whole world", according to notes of the meetings. Thailand and Cambodia also favoured more studies on the dam.

A technical review in March by the Mekong River Commission found that the dam may lead to the extinction of species like the Mekong giant catfish, and "gaps in knowledge" meant the full extent of the downstream impact on fisheries was hard to estimate. The dam "will not materially affect" the quantity and timing of river flows to Cambodia and Vietnam, it believed.

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