Best of our wild blogs: 11 Nov 11

A tribute to Clive Briffett: Birdwatcher and conservationist
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Quick driftnet removal at Pulau Semakau
from wild shores of singapore

Pulau Semakau (10 Nov 2011)
from Mega Marine Survey of Singapore

Pulau Sekudu - New slugs!
from Psychedelic Nature

First ever survey shows Sumatran tiger hanging on as forests continue to vanish from news by Jeremy Hance

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Shark fin soup disappearing from the menu at Chinese weddings

Couples marrying in Hong Kong and mainland China swayed by conservation groups' campaign to ban shark trade
Justin McCurry in Hong Kong 10 Nov 11;

Chinese couples who have chosen Friday – 11/11/11 – one of the most auspicious days of the year to exchange their wedding vows, could be among the last to mark the occasion by feasting on shark fin soup, if environmental groups get their way.

As the wedding parties scoop pieces of the slippery, glutinous flesh from bowls of broth, they will not just be respecting tradition; they will also be defying a growing campaign to ban the trade in shark fin that has now spread to its most lucrative market, Hong Kong.

It is easy to see during a short walk through Sheung Wan, a Hong Kong neighbourhood specialising in dried seafood, why the campaign to ban the trade worldwide has set its sights on the city.

Shark fins fill shop windows, ready to be hydrated and boiled before being added to a rich broth, a gastronomic preserve of wealthy Chinese since the Song Dynasty in the 10th century.

Rising prosperity since the 1970s has made the delicacy affordable to the middle classes, first in Hong Kong and now on the mainland. Eating it is so closely associated with new wealth that to say someone is "eating shark fin with rice" is to refer to their prosperity.

Hong Kong handles as much as 80% of the global trade in shark fins, bringing in catches from more than 100 countries, with Spain by far its biggest supplier.

In 2006 it took delivery of more than 10,000 tonnes worth $276m (£173m), according to the UN food and agricultural organisation. Most is consumed in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in mainland provinces such as Guangdong.

Campaigners say it is next to impossible to verify the fins' provenance, as they are dried and bleached, and often treated with ammonia, before reaching Hong Kong.

"The catches are not tracked at all, and there is no species monitoring or labelling," says Stanley Shea, a campaigner with the marine environment group Bloom Association, which last year conducted the most comprehensive survey to date of shark fin consumption in Hong Kong.

"We don't even know how much of it is eaten here or ends up in mainland China."

Many shark populations have plummeted by 90% in recent decades, according to campaigners, who warn that if over-fishing continues at the current rate, the most commonly targeted species will be extinct in a few years.

DNA analysis showed that 40% of shark fin auctioned in Hong Kong comes from 14 species, all of which appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's "red list" of endangered species.

After years of fierce opposition from traders and retailers, campaigners in Hong Kong say the local population is finally waking up to the ecological catastrophe.

Several hotels offer discounts, cheaper room rates and other incentives for couples that choose not to serve shark fin at their wedding celebrations.

One online campaign calls on wedding guests to reduce cash gifts by about a third for couples who select the dish.

Last year campaigners persuaded Citibank Hong Kong to withdraw a promotion offering new credit card holders discount on a shark fin dinner.

On the mainland Yao Ming, the Chinese NBA star, has appeared in a well-received campaign to end finning, the practice of removing a shark's highly valued fins and dumping what is left into the sea.

But there are pockets of resistance, particularly among older people, who still regard eating shark fin as a means of expressing their Chinese identity.

"At weddings you have different people sitting around the same table," says Shea. "Young people understand the problem and want to do something about it, but at some point their parents stop them."

The manager of one Sheung Wan wholesaler, who asked not to be named, said traders were beginning to feel the impact of the environmental campaign.

"Sales are dropping and I think that is down to the campaign," he said. The manager's firm sells between three and four tonnes of shark fin a month.

"The wholesale price has dropped by about 20% over the past two months, although there are always fluctuations so it's too early to tell if this is a lasting trend."

Charlie Lim, a shark fin trader, is receptive to the message on sustainable fishing but accuses some campaigners of hypocrisy.

"The Chinese tradition of eating shark fin will be maintained, but will increasingly come from sustainable fisheries," says Lim, a prominent member of Hong Kong's marine products association.

"Chinese people and traditions do make an easy and readily identifiable target for largely western campaigners.

"But many western campaigners who are seriously interested in promoting the sustainable use of sharks should look more closely at their home fisheries and the 'boneless' fish products that their children may be eating from the supermarket."

Despite its early successes, the campaign has yet to challenge shark fin's place at the heart of Cantonese cuisine.

Bloom's 2010 survey revealed that 89% of the territory's 7 million people had eaten the dish at least once in the past year, with more than half saying they did so to observe tradition. Another poll found that only 5% of couples had opted for shark-free wedding banquets.

But 66% said they were uncomfortable with the idea of eating an endangered species, and more than three-quarters said they would not mind if it was removed from banquet menus.

Shea believes Hong Kong will be viewed as a pariah as long as it fails to introduce measures to protect shark populations similar to those introduced elsewhere.

"Hong Kong has always been a role model for the rest of China, and this issue should be no different," he says.

"Our message is that eating shark fin is unsustainable. At some point, the market is going to crash."

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Philippines: Large-scale coral reef study reveals ‘troubling’ picture

Wilfredo Y. Licuanan Malaya Business Insight 11 Nov 11;

THIS time, they were ready.

Unlike a similar event in 1998, the 2010 mass coral bleaching happened when a reef monitoring research system was in place in key locations around the country.

Called the Remote Sensing Information for Living Environments and Nationwide Tools (RESILIENT) for Sentinel Ecosystems in Archipelagic Seas (SEAS), the large research program on climate change in coastal zones is funded by the Department of Science and Technology.

It involves the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, UP Visayas, Bicol University, Xavier University (Cagayan de Oro), Mindanao State University (Naauan) and De La Salle University (DLSU).

The three-year research, which ends in 2012, involves more than 20 local governments, organizations and agencies. DLSU’s Marine Station in Lian, Batangas, was part of MIRROR (Monitoring and Impact Research on Resilience of Reefs) that monitored reefs in six locations selected to represent different climates.

More than 20 RESILIENT SEAS studies related to climate change were presented during the 11th National Symposium on Marine Science convened by the Philippine Association of Marine Science.

The year 2010 was marked by a cold phase ("La Niña") of yet another El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle that began a year earlier; ENSO causes the inter-annual warming or cooling that occurs across the tropical Pacific Ocean.

The cold phase actually meant anomalous warming of the waters around the Philippines from April to December 2010, staying the longest around the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea basin where temperatures in excess of 3o Celsius above normal were recorded.

One major reason coral bleaching happens is that the sea water is warmer 2 degrees above normal that persists for one to two weeks. In the Philippines, the temperature ranges from 25 o C in March and February to about 29o C in summer.

There is no coral bleaching when sea temperature is normal. Now we are on the throes of another warming. While 1998 was the worst in recent memory, 2010 was even worse.

The last time a long term temperature anomaly of this scale was observed was at the end of the 1997-1998 ENSO cycle, an event that was also marked by widespread coral bleaching.

In 2010, coral bleaching and its impacts were most distinct in Talim Bay, in Lian, Batangas, and in Cangaluyan Island in the Bolinao-Anda reef system in Pangasinan.

Data on corals were collected from images taken with digital cameras. The fate of individual coral colonies were tracked while growth, shrinkage or coral deaths were measured.

It was an unprecedented insight into the causes and impacts of bleaching, and the future of Philippine reefs.

It paints a troubling picture of what is happening in Philippine waters. It also shows that concerted action can save and is saving some of the best coral reefs.

Winners, losers

Despite decades of cutting-edge research, coral reef monitoring is still in its infancy in the Philippines.

The two most monitored reefs in the Philippines are off the Br. Alfred Shields Marine Station and the Bolinao-Anda reef system in Pangasinan (site of the UP Bolinao Marine Laboratory).

Data suggests both reefs are declining, and coral bleaching is not the only cause.

In Bolinao, few corals are left alive in the six sites being monitored. Average coral cover as of April 2011 was 8.9 percent, compared to the 10.8 percent in May 2009 when monitoring started. And it is far from the 30 percent to 50 percent observed in the 1970s.

The corals in Lian fared better, with average coral cover of 19 percent in April. While this is two times higher than in Bolinao, the loss of coral cover was more abrupt in Lian – a loss of 6 percent coral cover during the summer of 2010; it occurred before the bleaching in May that year.

Marine scientists are trying to relate these patterns in the life of the coral populations to events such as ocean warming and storm impacts.

In Lian, all staghorn corals and brown stem corals were dead by the summer of 2010. These corals are among the most sensitive to ocean warming; the Acropora is also the preferred food of the crown-of-thorns sea star.

The relatively resistant Porites coral did much better. Most of those alive in April 2011 are small fragments which can grow a few meters across. Unfortunately they lose tissues and shrink during stressful conditions.

Based on the 2009 rate of decline, Porites should disappear from Bolinao-Anda area by 2029.

This is disturbing because Porites is a major coral builder and is the most common coral (along with Acropora) in the fringing reefs that surround large islands in the Philippines such as Luzon, Mindanao and Samar.

Without Porites, the reefs in Bolinao-Anda will be as good as dead.

Remember that Porites is not as sensitive to coral bleaching as other corals, and is among the last to be attacked by the crown-of-thorns.

But even this coral survivor will not likely last for long.

There are already signs that La Niña will start again in 2011 which may mean another bleaching episode. And the crown-of-thorns sea stars are still common in many reef areas.

The Lian and Bolinao-Anda reef studies warn us that we will definitely have fewer coral reefs in the future, and there will be fewer coral species represented in the remaining ones.

Not all is lost, however. While Porites corals may have disappeared in Lian, these same corals even now makes up the most abundant coral family in the Tubbataha Reefs, where it covers large portions of the reef slope.

Like the coral reefs in Bolinao-Anda and Lian, those in Tubbataha experienced severe ocean warming, with temperatures of above 29o C persisting for at least 246 days in 2010 (compared to 198 days in Lian and 217 days in Bolinao-Anda).

And the crown-of-thorns sea stars have also decimated some sections of the reefs.

Near the Lian site, a large group of crown-of-thorns sea stars killed about one in 10 of the corals.

This clearly shows that the rapid decline in coral cover in the shallower monitoring station, where 15 percent coral cover was lost, may be due to crown-of-thorns sea stars – even before bleaching started.

Some corals can endure bleaching and crown-of-thorns sea stars. In Bolinao, the blue coral is the most common, making up 35 percent of the coral cover, and are never seen to have been attacked by crown-of-thorns sea stars. And very few of the blue coral reefs have been observed to bleach.

So it is that the Philippines can thrive despite coral bleaching and crown-of-thorns outbreaks. We just have to make sure though that reef stresses are reduced, which requires that fishing is managed, sedimentation and pollution is controlled, and crown-of-thorns sea stars are kept to a minimum.

Tubbataha teaches us that entire reef systems can thrive despite the challenges posed by ocean warming, coral bleaching and even crown-of-thorns outbreaks.

The Porites in the Lian plots show that some coral species can somewhat endure these same challenges even with the added burdens brought by overfishing, sedimentation and even some pollution.

To save the remaining reefs, we must begin by reviewing current management and conservations efforts and answering some hard questions.

Are the existing protected marine parks large enough? Are they in the right places? Will they function alone, or do we need to have a connected, coordinated network? The work continues. ScienceNewsPhilippines

(Dr. Wilfredo Y. Licuanan is the Head of the Br. Alfred Shields Marine Station in Lian, Batangas, and Professor at the Biology Department, College of Science, De La Salle University Manila.)

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'Fishy Lawnmowers' Help Save Pacific Corals

ScienceDaily 10 Nov 11;

Can fish save coral reefs from dying? UC Santa Barbara researchers have found one case where fish have helped coral reefs to recover from cyclones and predators.

Coral reefs worldwide are increasingly disturbed by environmental events that are causing their decline, yet some coral reefs recover. UCSB researchers have discovered that the health of coral reefs in the South Pacific island of Moorea, in French Polynesia, may be due to protection by parrotfish and surgeonfish that eat algae, along with the protection of reefs that shelter juvenile fish.

The findings are published in a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE. The UCSB research team is part of the Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research (MCR LTER) project, funded by the National Science Foundation.

In many cases, especially in the case of severely damaged reefs in the Caribbean, coral reefs that suffer large losses of live coral often become overgrown with algae and never return to a state where the reefs are again largely covered by live coral. In contrast, the reefs surrounding Moorea experienced large losses of live coral in the past -- most recently in the early 1980's -- and have returned each time to a system dominated by healthy, live corals.

"We wanted to know why Moorea's reefs seem to act differently than other reefs," said Tom Adam, first author, research associate with MCR LTER, and postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's Marine Science Institute. "Specifically, we wanted to know what ecological factors might be responsible for the dramatic patterns of recovery observed in Moorea."

The research team was surprised by its findings. The biomass of herbivores on the reef -- fish and other animals that eat plants like algae -- increased dramatically following the loss of live coral. "What was surprising to us was that the numbers of these species also increased dramatically," said Andrew Brooks, co-author, deputy program director of MCR LTER, and associate project scientist with MSI. "We were not simply seeing a case of bigger, fatter fishes -- we were seeing many more parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, all of whom happened to be bigger and fatter. We wanted to know where these new fishes were coming from."

The researchers also found that not all of the coral reefs around Moorea were affected equally by an outbreak of predatory crown-of-thorns sea stars or by cyclones. The crown-of-thorns sea stars did eat virtually all of the live coral on the barrier reef -- the reef that separates the shallow lagoons from the deeper ocean. However, neither the sea stars nor the cyclones had much impact on the corals growing on the fringing reef -- the reef that grows against the island.

"We discovered that these fringing reefs act as a nursery ground for baby fishes, most notably herbivorous fishes," said Brooks. "With more food available in the form of algae, the survivorship of these baby parrotfishes and surgeonfishes increased, providing more individuals to help control the algae on the fore reef. In effect, the large numbers of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes are acting like thousands of fishy lawnmowers, keeping the algae cropped down to levels low enough that there is still space for new baby corals to settle onto the reef and begin to grow."

A major reason the reefs in the Caribbean do not recover after serious disturbances is because these reefs lack healthy populations of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, due to the effects of overfishing, explained Adam. "Without these species to help crop the algae down, these reefs quickly become overgrown with algae, a situation that makes it very hard for corals to re-establish themselves," he said.

Managers have tried to reverse the trend of overfishing through the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), where fishing is severely restricted or prohibited. "Our results suggest that this strategy may not be enough to reverse the trend of coral reefs becoming algal reefs," said Brooks. "Our new and very novel results suggest that it also is vital to protect the fringing reefs that serve as nursery grounds. Without these nursery grounds, populations of parrotfishes and surgeonfishes can't respond to increasing amounts of algae on the reefs by outputting more baby herbivores."

In short, the research team found that by using MPAs, managers can help protect adult fish, producing bigger, fatter fish. "But if you don't protect the nursery habitat -- the babies produced by these bigger fish, or by fish in other, nearby areas -- you can't increase the overall numbers of the important algae-eating fish on the reef," said Brooks.

According to the scientists, it appears that Moorea's reefs may recover. "One final bit of good news is that we are seeing tens of thousands of baby corals, some less than a half-inch in diameter, on the fore reefs surrounding Moorea," said Brooks.

MCR researchers will follow the coral reef recovery process over the next decade or more, in search of additional information that can aid managers of the world's coral reefs.

Additional co-authors are Russell J. Schmitt and Sally J. Holbrook of UCSB's Marine Science Institute and the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology; Peter J. Edmunds and Robert C. Carpenter of California State University, Northridge; and Giacomo Bernardi, of UC Santa Cruz.

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Sustainability certification works in the seas, study finds

WWF 10 Nov 11;

Fisheries engaged in the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) programme show clear improvements in environmental performance throughout the whole certification process, according to an independent study released last week.

The study, Researching the Environmental Impacts of the MSC Certification Programme, is the first ever to examine fishery performance through the MSC assessment process. It focused on improvements in eight key outcome performance indicators: stock status; population reference points; stock recovery; retained species; bycatch species; endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species; habitats and environments.

Improvements were noted from the initial fishery pre-assessments, through assessment and certification. Five years after certification, over 90 percent of the performance indicators measured were achieving high scores.

Good for the environment and good for fisheries

“This study shows that the MSC certification system works well, that it measures the performance of a fishery based on marine conservation indicators in the oceans, and that it values the feedback from stakeholders in this process,” said Alfred Schumm, Leader Smart Fishing Initiative, WWF’s global fisheries programme. “As such, I believe that the MSC certification system is outweighing other existing seafood certification systems currently on the market.”

In addition to ensuring the robust process of each fishery undergoing certification, WWF wanted the study to measure the environmental impacts of the MSC standards in the oceans. The results showed that MSC is also the only seafood standard which can prove that certification is also good for the environment and not only for the fisheries.

Healthy, well-managed and full of life

WWF has a vision for the world’s oceans: that they are healthy, well-managed and full of life, providing valuable resources for the welfare of humanity. In order to help achieve this vision WWF formed the Smart Fishing Global Initiative (SFI), that participates in certification programmes like the MSC to ensure that responsible management and trade of four key fishery populations results in recovering and resilient marine eco-systems, improved livelihoods for coastal communities and strengthened food security for the Planet.

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The Pollinator Crisis: What's Best for Bees?

Pollinating insects are in crisis. Understanding bees' relationships with introduced species could help.
Sharon Levy and Nature magazine Scientific American 10 Nov 11;

Bees thrum among bright red blossoms on a spring day on Mount Diablo, near San Francisco Bay. Alexandra Harmon-Threatt, a young ecologist just finishing her doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, lovingly identifies an array of native pollinators. She points out three species of bumblebee, each with a unique pattern of black and yellow stripes. There are bee-flies, members of the fly family covered in soft brown fur, which look and act like bees. Among the native insects are plenty of honeybees (Apis mellifera), the species raised by beekeepers worldwide and introduced to the Americas by English settlers in the seventeenth century. All these insects are drawn to a clump of red vetch (Vicia villosa), an invasive weed. Just down the road is a patch of native lupins, laden with purple blossoms. But the lupins bloom in silence: no bees attend them.

For the past three years, Harmon-Threatt has been studying the ways in which the native yellow-faced bumblebee (Bombus vosnesenskii) uses the plants growing in the area. By capturing bees as they visit plants and then sampling the pollen they carry, she has confirmed in unpublished work that they get much of their food from introduced plants. And by analysing the amino-acid content of pollen, Harmon-Threatt has shown that bee foraging behaviour can be driven by a craving for nutrients rather than an evolved attachment to a specific plant. Although many conservationists assume that introduced plants are always destructive, her work shows that it's not necessarily so from a bee's point of view. What matters to most bee species is the abundance and quality of pollen — and if an introduced plant, such as the red vetch, offers more protein-rich food than the natives around it, the bees will collect its pollen.

Harmon-Threatt is one of a growing group of scientists studying the evolving relationships between native bees and introduced plants. Their work is critical in a world where human actions have dramatically shifted the distributions of plants and are forcing a pollinator crisis. Most flowering plants need animal pollinators in order to reproduce, and bees serve that role for many important crops — including fruits, pulses, some vegetables and alfalfa — many of which were themselves introduced to the United States. Yet stocks of the domesticated honeybee have been declining in the United States and Europe: the number of managed hives in the United States, for example, has dropped from nearly 6 million in the 1940s to 2.3 million in 2008 (see 'Sting in the tale'). Habitat loss, pesticide poisoning, viruses and parasitic mites, any or all of which may be behind the mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder, have taken their toll on the domesticated bees, leaving farmers increasingly dependent on native bees. But they, too, are suffering from the effects of pesticides, disease and changes in land use.

What bees need most, the new pollination studies have shown, is a diverse community of flowering plants that bloom throughout the spring and summer. Abundance and diversity matter more than whether species are native or exotic. These findings could inform conservation strategies used by farmers and other land managers. Park managers tend to target invasive weeds such as red vetch with herbicides because they can outcompete native plants. But for bees, "just taking all the vetch out might not be the best idea", says Harmon-Threatt. "It might take ten to fifteen different species of native plants to support this array of pollinators."

Stories of exquisitely specialized pollination systems — such as those of yuccas, which are pollinated only by coevolved moth species — can give the impression that pollination is an exclusive, highly choreographed dance. "Until the past five or ten years, people thought that exclusive pollination relationships were more common," says Rachael Winfree, a pollination biologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

By studying entire networks of pollinators and plants, however, biologists have learned that most native bees are far less picky than was imagined. Winfree and her colleagues have investigated the ways in which bees use flowers growing in agricultural, urban and natural areas — ranging from woodland to farm fields and suburban gardens — in central California and southern New Jersey. The study, led by Neal Williams at the University of California, Davis, and published earlier this year, found that bees collect pollen from both alien and native plants in proportion to a plant's abundance in the landscape. In highly disturbed habitats, bees make greater use of alien plants — not because the bees prefer them, but simply because introduced plants are more common where people have transformed the landscape. That makes sense to Winfree. "I don't see why bees would know or care whether a plant was native or exotic," she says.

But not all altered landscapes are equal for bees: modern agriculture has taken a severe toll on wild bee numbers. Vast monocultures — such as the almond orchards of central California and the soybean fields of Argentina — bloom for only three or four weeks each season, offering no food for bees the rest of the time. "The expansion of these crops destroys habitat for bees," says Marcelo Aizen, a pollination biologist at the National University of Comahue in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina.

Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at the University of California, Berkeley (and Harmon-Threatt's mentor), has shown that the diversity of pollinators drops with increasing distance from wild habitat, as does the number of visits by wild bees to flowering crops. This cuts crop yields. A study by Aizen and his colleagues, published in April this year, documented a drop in the yield per acre of pollinator-dependent crops since 1961, even as total global production has increased. Falling yields have prompted farmers to put more land under cultivation, further eroding bee habitat. Modern agriculture seems locked in a vicious circle of pollinator destruction.

Yet Kremen and her colleagues showed in 2004 that crop pollination by native bees increases dramatically when natural habitat exists within 1–2.5 kilometres of farm fields. Farms where just 30% of the surrounding landscape is covered in wild vegetation are completely pollinated by native bees, and flourish without help from domesticated honeybees.

As most crops in California's Central Valley are far from patches of wild habitat, Kremen and Williams have been experimenting by growing hedgerows of diverse flowering plants in orchards and fields. They now have a list of native California plants, such as redbud (Cercis occidentalis) and wild asters, which can be combined to create ideal hedgerows, providing pollen-rich blooms from early spring to late autumn. The results are not yet published, but Kremen says it is already clear that the hedges boost the diversity of native bees, and they are being adopted by farmers. The burning question now, says Kremen, is "how much hedgerows can contribute to long-term population persistence of individual bee species".

Weeds will do
Winfree finds that bees don't even need pristine hedges — weeds will do. She studies bee communities in parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania where native bees pollinate about 90% of the crops. In one study, she and her team watched 6,187 bee visits to watermelon and tomato crops on 23 farms. Both computer modelling and observation suggest that these crops are fully pollinated by wild bees. That's possible, Winfree explains, because the wet climate encourages the growth of weedy plants that spring up at the field edges, and bees use these scraps of habitat to nest and forage. There's another crucial difference from California: in Winfree's study area most farmers plant a variety of crops rather than monocultures.

In a study of New Jersey pine–oak forest, Winfree was surprised to find that bee populations are more abundant and diverse near sites of human disturbance — where backyard gardens or farm fields add to the range of blossoms available. But the picture is likely to vary from one area to the next. In a recent review of the literature, Winfree and her colleagues concluded that land-use changes such as urbanization and deforestation can affect native pollinators differently, depending on whether they increase or reduce the numbers and diversity of flowering plants.

There's yet another complication: although some exotic plants can feed native pollinators, such plants can also fuel the growth of alien bee populations. Aizen and his colleagues have analysed webs of plants and pollinators in the southern Andes and on islands in the North Atlantic and the Indian Ocean8. They found that, in some cases, exotic plants and pollinators team up to dominate resources, to the detriment of native bees and native plants. "You cannot generalize and say it is good or bad to have alien plants," says Aizen. Problems arise when the alien plants become so widespread in an ecosystem that they lower the diversity of species. "It takes a diverse assemblage of plants to support a diverse assemblage of bees. That is the lesson," he says.

There are still many lessons to learn. Winfree notes the relatively primitive state of pollination ecology: most research on bee diversity has simply counted the number of species, without tracking their fates over time. Her current work examines which bee species are most vulnerable to human disturbance, and explores in more detail whether both rare native bees and efficient pollination services can be restored by increasing the diversity of flowering plants.

Still, a new awareness of the vital role of native bees is spreading. Bruce Rominger, who farms onions in Yolo County, California, has interlaced his crops with hedgerows of native plants, including buckwheat and willow. Now, strolling through his fields on a spring day, he recognizes a variety of insects visiting the blossoms — from plump bumblebees to slender, iridescent solitary bees. Hedgerows are becoming common among Yolo County farms. "The more native pollinators we have," says Rominger, "the better off we'll be."

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Medicinal tree used in chemotherapy drug faces extinction

Hanna Gersmann and Jessica Aldred The Guardian 10 Nov 11;

Annual IUCN 'red list' of endangered species includes upgraded threat to tree whose bark is harvested for cancer treatment

A species of Himalayan yew tree that is used to produce Taxol, a chemotherapy drug to treat cancer, is being pushed to the brink of extinction by over-harvesting for medicinal use and collection for fuel, scientists warned on Thursday.

The medicinal tree, Taxus contorta, found in Afghanistan, India and Nepal, has seen its conservation status change from "vulnerable" to "endangered" on the IUCN's annual "red list" of threatened species.

Taxol was discovered by a US National Cancer Institute programme in the late 1960s, isolated in the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia. All 11 species of yew have since been found to contain Taxol. "The harvesting of the bark kills the trees, but it is possible to extract Taxol from clippings, so harvesting, if properly controlled, can be less detrimental to the plants," said Craig Hilton-Taylor, IUCN red list unit manager.

"Harvest and trade should be carefully controlled to ensure it is sustainable, but plants should also be grown in cultivation to reduce the impact of harvesting on wild populations," he added.

The red list is currently the most detailed and authoritative survey of the planet's species, drawn from the work of thousands of scientists around the globe. For the first time, more than 61,900 species have been reviewed. The latest list categorises 801 species as extinct, 64 as extinct in the wild, and 9,568 as critically endangered or endangered. A further 10,002 species are vulnerable, with the main threats being overuse, pollution, habitat loss and degradation.

Tim Entwisle from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, said: "There are 380,000 species of plants named and described, with about 2,000 being added to the list every year. At Kew we estimate one in five of these are likely to be under threat of extinction right now, before we even factor in the impacts of climate change."

The Chinese water fir, for example, which was formerly widespread throughout China and Vietnam, is critically endangered. The main cause of decline is the loss of habitat to expanding intensive agriculture. The largest of the recently discovered stands in Laos was killed through flooding for a newly constructed hydropower scheme.

In the granitic Seychelles Islands, 77% of the assessed endemic flowering plants are at risk of extinction, including the Coco de Mer, which is illegally harvested for its supposed aphrodisiac properties.

Some 25% of all mammals were deemed to be at serious risk, according to the list. The black rhino in western Africa has officially been declared extinct. The white rhino in central Africa is on the brink of extinction and has been listed as possibly extinct in the wild. In Vietnam, poaching has driven the Javan rhinoceros to extinction, leaving the critically endangered species' only remaining population numbering less than 50 on the Indonesian island that gave it its name.

But it is not all bad news for conservationists. Przewalski's horse, also known as the Mongolian wild horse, was listed as extinct in the wild in 1996. Thanks to captive breeding and a successful reintroduction programme, the population in central Asia is now estimated at more than 300 and the wild horse has improved its status from critically endangered to endangered.

"This update offers both good and bad news on the status of many species around the world," said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Global Species Programme. "We have the knowledge that conservation works if executed in a timely manner, yet, without strong political will in combination with targeted efforts and resources, the wonders of nature and the services it provides can be lost forever."

The overall message is that biodiversity continues to decline and governments need to take action to achieve the goal of a 10-year plan that was agreed on the international biodiversity summit in Japan last year. It reads: "By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained."

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Plantation of trees only solution to Asian floods

Business Recorder 10 Nov 11;

KARACHI: The humanitarian emergency caused by the few last months’ devastating floods in Asia is a warning that the situation could get worse, The people affected by this crisis have lost everything, and their difficulties are only just beginning. Two countries Pakistan and Thailand have been badly hit by the disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of people are facing a struggle for survival over the next six months. Thousands of homes have been damaged, possessions destroyed and hundreds of schools, roads and health facilities closed.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that by the year 2050 around 60 percent of the world's population will experience severe water shortages, with 33 percent thought to be already under water stress. The water cycle has been disturbed badly over the world causing, food depletion, drought, flooding, rising sea level, increase in green house gases and scary food shortage. The root cause behind the scene - deforestation.

Forests cover 31% of the total global land area. These forests are home to 80% of earth’s terrestrial biodiversity and the livelihood of 1.6 billion people around the world depends on forests. Recognizing the global importance of forests the United Nations declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests to raise awareness on conservation, multiple use and sustainable development of all types of forests. Forest plays an important role in climate change which can have great significance.

Forests also have significant impact in reduction of all types of major pollutions like air, soil, noise and even water, as trees produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide and other green house gases keeping the air clean. Forests clean soil and fight soil erosion and bind it resulting in reduction of soil attrition as well providing shade and coolness to surroundings. They also act as a wind breaker. Noise pollution is reduced as tree leaves reduce frequency of sound. Water is mostly an abundant component on earth and polluting it continuously with the passage of time but forests here also act as a filter and slowing storm water runoff.

“Forests and trees on farms are a direct source of food and cash income for more than a billion of the world’s poorest people,” Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Assistant Director-General for Forestry Eduardo Rojas-Brails said.

“They provide both staple foods and supplemental foods. To enhance these benefits, governments and development partners should increase investments in support of sustainable forest management and rehabilitation of degraded forest lands,” he added, noting that in India, more than 50 million people depend directly on forests for subsistence, while in Laos wild foods are consumed by 80 per cent of its 6.4 million people on a daily basis.

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'Father of Mangroves' fights for Pakistan's forests

Hasan Mansoor (AFP) Google News 10 Nov 11;

KARACHI — It was a brutal kidnap that turned him into an eco-warrior, and 27 years later Pakistan's "Father of the Mangroves" still lets nothing get in the way of fighting against timber "mafia" and deforestation.

"This is my life. I am very happy with it. The cause is worth living such a life," Tahir Qureshi told AFP, walking around the sanctuary that he set up in his spare time when he still worked full-time with the forestry commission.

He was captured by a kidnap-for-ransom gang in 1984 while working in the southern district of Dadu, now devastated by floods for two consecutive years.

"They kept me for a couple of days in captivity. But when they knew I was a forest officer they released me without further argument. That inspired me to dedicate my whole life for the rehabilitation of our ecosystem," he said.

"The robbers released me as they respect those who respect forests. Trees provide them best hideouts.

"Besides, they are among many people who consider chopping trees as a sin because trees provide us livelihood and help better the environment."

For years, it was a lonely if mighty cause, for apart from Afghanistan, in the grip of a 10-year war between Taliban insurgents and American troops, no other country in Asia suffers from a faster rate of deforestation than Pakistan.

In 2010, it was declared a forest-deficient country because just 2.2 percent or about 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres) of its land mass is forested.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Pakistan lost an average of 42,000 hectares of forest a year between 1990 and 2010.

At the current rate, Pakistan could lose half its remaining forest cover over the next decade or so, says the FAO. The trend has been exacerbated by recent floods, the worst in the country's history in 2010 and a repeated bout this monsoon season.

Qureshi has helped rehabilitate 30,000 hectares of mangrove along the southern coast on the Arabian Sea, including in Baluchistan, one of Pakistan's most violent and inhospitable areas, home to Taliban militants and a separatist uprising.

Today he is a senior advisor on coastal ecosystems with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

He starts almost every day with a visit to the mangroves, which he calls his kids, on Karachi's Sandspit Beach. Wearing a khaki shirt and trousers, he wades into the swamp up to his waist to see how they're getting on.

"We are historically a forestry-deficient country, but with the course of time the ratio has reduced alarmingly," said the 65-year-old Qureshi.

So who is to blame? There are the timber "mafia" who hack away at mangroves and trees, trucking wood off to market by donkey and vehicle to sell as fuel, while the military and government officials are also accused of involvement.

"The current rate of deforestation is very alarming. We could lose our timber completely in two to three decades if not effectively checked," an environment ministry official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Hussain Bux Bhagat, a conservationist associated with the Sindh provincial wildlife department, says wildlife in the riverine forest, including birds, reptiles and mammals, also suffered severely because of deforestation.

"Particularly high numbers of grey partridge, which nest on trees and don't leave its habitat have died because of continuing deforestation and last year's floods," Bhagat told AFP.

In 1947, when Pakistan was created from the ashes of British colonialism, riverine forests lined the banks of the Indus River.

They were the first line of defence against floods that have deluged the plains annually for thousands of years, as well as against shoreline erosion. Instead, the deforested areas are prone to flooding and landslides.

But riverine and mangrove forest represent only 20 percent of the forest cover in Pakistan -- the rest is concentrated in the mountains of the northern provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit and Baltistan and Kashmir.

There, officials, aid workers and residents accuse the authorities and the Taliban of being hand in glove with mafias cutting down trees.

The Swat valley was once the most popular tourist destination of the country before a Taliban insurgency began in 2007. After a major operation, the army declared the area back under control in July 2009.

But conservationists say tens of thousands of pine trees have been cut down, both during the Taliban years and under the military.

A former Forest Development Corporation (FDC) official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said timber felling was one of the main causes of the devastation witnessed in Swat during the floods of 2010.

"Three kinds of actors participated in that: the FDC working for timber mafia, local people and the Taliban, who cut a lot to buy weapons," he said.

"There are two kinds of timber mafias: the big ones, with a licence, and the local ones, people with no licence who bribe guards.

Numerous local residents said army trucks are seen transporting timber, but army spokesman Colonel Arif Mehmood in Swat told AFP he was "not aware" of the practice.

Others say the rate of deforestation has improved since the army restored control over the valley in July 2009. No department can provide statistics.

The Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a think tank, has also pointed to links between the timber mafia and Islamist militancy.

"Being shrewd investors, the timber mafia is believed to have spent part of its dividends to sponsor militancy. Huge sums are involved in the business, which has expanded to the hills bordering Afghanistan," it said in a 2009 report.

"They invest money and energy in Talibanisation, that is how they protect their illegal businesses at the expense of the state?s writ."

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