Best of our wild blogs: 20 Dec 11


Crabs, Chromodoris, Cardinals, and Cimbiolas
from Pulau Hantu

Field Studies with the NUS Marine Lab
from Pulau Hantu

Groundhogger
from The annotated budak


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Malaysia: Brace for very bad weather, coastal warning for east coast

Maizatul Ranai New Straits Times 20 Dec 11;

Tropical storm Washi producing strong winds and waves

STRONG winds and rough seas are expected in several coastal states until Dec 29.

The Meteorological Department issued a warning on northeasterly winds reaching speeds of up to 60kph and waves exceeding 5.5m in waters off Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang, eastern Johor, Sarawak, Labuan, Sabah (interior, west coast and Kudat), Samui, Tioman, Bunguran, Condore, Reef North, Reef South, Layang-Layang and Palawan.

This is because of tropical storm Washi. The storm was located at latitude 9.6N and longitude 112.5E, 593km west of Palawan, the Philippines, as of 11am yesterday. The storm had tracked westwards at a speed of 20kph.

Strong northeasterly winds of 40kph to 50kph, with waves of up to 3.5m off Langkawi, Perlis, northern Kedah, Sabah (Sandakan), Phuket and Sulu are also expected to continue until Saturday.

The condition is dangerous for small craft, recreational sea activities and sea sports.

The department also issued a warning for coastal areas of the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, which are vulnerable to a rise in sea level. This poses a danger to small boats, beach activities, ferries and ships as well as oil rigs. It is expected to continue until Saturday.

Thunderstorms in waters off Condore, Bunguran and Reef North are expected to continue until today. In waters off Malacca, Johor, Pahang, Terengganu and south of the Straits of Malacca, thunderstorms were expected to die down yesterday.

Drainage and Irrigation Department water resources management and hydrology division director Hanapi Mohamad Noor said the water levels at Sungai Lenik in Batu Pahat and Sungai Mengkibol in Kluang had risen above the danger level, recording 6.3m and 26.07m respectively, at 2pm yesterday.

The danger level for Sungai Lenik is 6m while for Sungai Mengkibol, it is 25.46m.

The department is also monitoring the rainfall in the state, with the heaviest recorded at 53mm in Jalan Yong Peng on Sunday night. The average reading is less than 40mm.

Two evacuation centres were opened in Kluang on Sunday night to accommodate 144 evacuees.

The centres are at SK Kampung Mengkibol and SJKC Ping Ming.

A total of 350 Orang Asli living in five villages in Kahang were cut off from the main road by floods.

Johor

Water levels at Sungai Lenik in Batu Pahat and Sungai Mengkibol in Kluang had risen above the danger level, recording 6.3m and 26.07m respectively.

Avoid sea activities, warns maritime agency
New Straits Times 20 Dec 11;

JOHOR BARU: The Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) has issued an alert to those residing in the coastal areas of eastern Johor due to strong winds and waves.

The alert follows a Category Three warning by the Meteorological Department after tropical storm Washi hit Palawan, the Philippines, early yesterday.

MMEA southern region chief First Maritime Admiral Zulkifli Abu Bakar said coastal areas of Mersing, Tanjung Sedili, Desaru and Sungai Rengit would be hit by storms with strong winds of up to 60kph and waves as high as 5.5m.

Zulkifli said the choppy seas and strong winds made it dangerous for any beach or sea activities.

He said three drownings were reported within a week. A 19-year-old drowned in Tanjung Balau on Dec 14, followed by a 14-year-old and a 21-year-old off Desaru on Sunday.

"Rescuers found the body of the 14-year-old at 1pm on Sunday, while efforts are ongoing to recover the body of the 21-year-old man," he said, adding that initial investigations revealed that the victims did not adhere to the red-flag warning.

Zulkifli reminded the public not to bring their families to the beach on the east coast of Johor because of the monsoon season.

"Beach hotel and resort operators have also been advised to take action to prevent visitors from going to the beach."

Stay away from beaches, public told
The Star 20 Dec 11;

JOHOR BARU: The public have been warned against recreational activities along some beaches in Johor and the northern part of the country due to the current rough weather.

In Johor, the Malaysian Maritime Enforce­ment Agency is urging parents to keep their children off the beaches during the school holidays.

Southern Region commander First Admiral Zulkifli Abu Bakar said strong winds, high waves and thunderstorms were expected to hit the shores of Mersing, Tanjung Sedili, Desaru, Sungai Rengit and East Johor until next Thursday.

The winds could go up to 60km per hour while the waves could measure over 5.5m, he warned.

Current weather conditions, he said, would also be dangerous for those involved in maritime activities, including fishermen and oil rig workers.

“Sea conditions are dangerous even to swimmers. Although this is the holiday season, there are many other family activities which do not involve going to the beach,” Zulkifli said.

The Meteorological Department also advised against recreational activities and sea sports in the waters off Langkawi, Perlis, northern Kedah and Sandakan due to strong winds, which were expected to continue until Saturday.

However, it assured the public that the Tropical Storm Washi, which battered southern Philippines over the weekend and left hundreds dead or missing was not heading towards Sabah and Sarawak.

Its director-general Datuk Yap Kok Seng said the storm was expected to move south-westwards from Palawan in the Philippines and would be closer to Vietnam.

He said the forecast for thunderstorms, rough seas and strong winds until Dec 29 was due to the monsoon.

Johor kelongs a no-go for anglers now
Many fishing spots and resorts closed in wake of major storm alert
Tham Yuen-C Straits Times 22 Dec 11;

THEY are normally a favourite fishing destination for Singaporeans in search of a relaxing getaway.

But yesterday, Mersing's kelongs were shuttered in the wake of a storm alert that forecast waves as high as 5.5m.

Many had been fully booked for this weekend, but the turbulent weather has turned it into a complete washout.

Reservations had to be cancelled, even though food had been prepared for the influx of holidaymakers.

Even hardcore anglers are giving Mersing, Johor, a miss this year.

Retiree Chia Gin Song, 52, who fishes regularly in the area, cancelled his weekend stay at a kelong after he heard that the waves had swollen to as high as 4m. 'That's higher than a one-storey flat,' said the Singaporean. 'Imagine the waves tossing the boat from floor to ceiling. Even if you don't capsize, you will vomit from being seasick. Better not take the risk.'

On Monday, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency warned people not to take part in recreational activities at beaches along Johor's eastern coast.

It followed a Category Three warning by the Malaysian Meteorological Department forecasting thunderstorms, rough seas and winds of up to 60kmh until next Thursday.

The Met also said strong winds are expected at beaches in Langkawi, Perlis, northern Kedah and Sandakan until Saturday. Beach resorts such as Mersing, Tanjung Sedili and Desaru, all of which are popular with Singaporeans, were expected to be hit by huge waves.

Yesterday, all four kelongs in Mersing were closed, as were some beach resorts in nearby islands such as Sibu. But beach activities were still going on at the Lotus Desaru Beach Resort further south.

Mr Chia said some of the kelongs in Mersing had asked their customers to leave last weekend in anticipation of the bad weather. Ah Fatt Kelong said yesterday that it would remain closed until the conditions improved.

'We are not accepting any customers until the situation is better. The waves are just too big; it's dangerous,' a spokesman said in Mandarin.

He added that he had received calls every day from Singaporeans checking when the kelong would reopen.

Strong winds and choppy seas was a factor when an overloaded boat carrying 29 people capsized off Mersing last December. Five Singaporeans, who were on a fishing trip, died.

Since Monday, even the larger ferries operating between Tanjung Leman and the kelongs have been out of action. The vessels, each of which has a capacity of about 100 passengers, are usually deployed in bad weather, when the smaller boats cannot get to the kelongs.

Mr Ho Jhia Bin, 40, who runs the Sibu Coconut Village Resort, said: 'There were some Singaporeans who called to book tours this week, but we told them the wind is too strong and the sea too choppy for the trip.'

He added: 'Category Two winds we can still manage, but Category Three is too dangerous.'

On popular angling website Fishing Kaki, some users have posted messages alerting others about the bad weather and cancellations.

Mr Chia said some holidaymakers might still want to go to Mersing because they have already taken leave, but he warned against taking the risk.

'Even the big cruise ships don't want to sail when waves are 5m high; the small boats don't stand a chance,' he said.


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Malaysian orchids: The curse of beauty

Natalie Heng The Star 20 Dec 11;

FOR a wild flower, being desirable is a recipe for disaster. The seductiveness and allure of many orchid species have cost them, dearly.

Centuries of plunder have contributed to many species teetering on the brink of extinction. Many are endangered, and a good number have already been wiped off the planet.

Some rare species still exist, but only in the closely guarded sanctuaries of private collections or public botanic gardens. A combination of greed, rampant poaching and habitat destruction are blamed, and strong feelings swirl around in the festering circular argument of whether roving orchid collectors are “justified” in their rampant extraction of rare specimens, in a bid to “rescue” them from habitat destruction.

Either way, the world’s passion for orchids clearly runs deep and some have resorted to illicit means to obtain specimens of the plant.

In 2004, the head of research and development at a drugs company in London was caught with an extraordinary consignment at Heathrow airport in England. Malaysia-born Dr Sian Lim was found in possession of a wildly valuable collection, which included 130 orchids, 126 of which were Asian slipper orchids, one of the rarest of all 750 orchid genera.

Some of these plants were so breathtakingly elusive that even specialists from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, who were called into identify the plans, had never seen them before.

The collection included the legendary Paphiopedilum rothschildianum. One of the world’s rarest, and which, after 100 years of searching, has only been located at a small number of sites on Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, it was found alongside a specimen of Paphiopedilum gigantifolium, which had previously been thought to be extinct.

Lim admitted to 13 charges of smuggling plants protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and was given a four-month jail sentence.

A pressing dilemma centres around how demand for valuable species like Paphiopedilum (slipper orchids), Phalaenopsis (moth orchids), Renanthera, Vanda and Dendrobium leads to indiscriminate bulb collection. According to Wild Orchids Of Peninsular Malaysia, the white-flowered Paphiopedilum nievum used to be abundant on limestone hills in northern Peninsular Malaysia. Today, most accessible places have been stripped bare of it.

In Malaysia, the law controls the collection of orchids (and other flora and fauna) from protected areas such as national parks, state parks or wildlife and forest reserves. Exports must comply with CITES, which states no wild-collected species listed under Appendix I, dead or alive, is allowed.

For species listed under Appendix II, trade controls, including import and export permits, are required for the protection of potentially threatened species.

Despite these regulations however, the illegal orchid trade plagues not just Malaysia, but orchid-rich countries all over the world. — Natalie Heng

The world of orchids
Natalie Heng The Star 20 Dec 11;

Though well-distributed, orchids are not all necessarily abundant. Researchers are trying to document them all – before it’s too late.

WE may not realise it but wild orchids are all around us. Some species, like Eulophia graminea, are already blooming in flower pots. Others, like the pigeon orchid (Dendrobium crumenatum), can be found scattered in a pretty sprinkle of small, delicate white flowers by roadsides.

When you think about it, orchids are the perfect candidates for hobbyists. Aside from tens of thousands of hybrid species created through cross breeding, there are at least 25,000 (and counting) wild species. Found throughout the world, over a thousand of these are thought to be present right here, in Peninsular Malaysia.

Although the exact number is debatable, (it has been about 20 years since the country’s last publication of plant life, Flora Of Peninsular Malaysia, was revised), Orchidaceae is one of the largest plant families in the world. And it’s members have conquered almost every niche imaginable.

Trying to spot them in the wild can be deceptive; many orchids look nothing like orchids at first glance and are only easy to distinguish once they have flowered. Some even resemble other plants. The Apostasia, for example, resembles a member of the Dracaenaceae plant family, and Taeniophyllum looks bedraggled, a bit dead.

These crafty life forms clamber up trees, appear amongst leaf litter, cling to minute footholds on treacherous rock crevices, or scramble over thickets of swamp plants. They can be terrestrial, or grow on other plants (epiphytic), or on rocks (lithophytic). Some even have strange, unexpected lifestyles: heteromycotrophs species such as Cystorchis aphylla, Epipogium and Didymoplexiella lack leaves, and the chlorophyll to photosynthesise. So they derive their nutrients from decomposed leaf litter, and as a result seem like underlings of what is usually a rather aesthetically extravagant plant family, appearing as shy, pale anaemic extensions rising up surreptitiously from the ground.

The wildly variant range of orchid forms, habitats and lifestyles, offers endless potential for the aspiring hobbyist.

Ong Poh Teck was bitten by the bug at the age of 15 when an orchid fancier uncle introduced him to a whole new world – his greenhouse. The young Ong soon developed an orchid collection of his own in his home in Kajang, Selangor.

Initially, it was filled with hybrids, which are commercial crosses between different orchid species and strains, generally bred for better flower forms, colours and blooming frequencies, and which tend to be easier to care for. But the more Ong learned about orchids, the more interested he became in wild ones.

The mysteries behind the insane amounts of variation not just between, but within species, aroused his curiosity: orchids that smell like rotting flesh; orchids with crafty trapping mechanisms that briefly imprison insects, releasing them once a precious blob of pollinium has been deposited; and orchids that indulge in pseudo-copulation, where a pollinating male insect is tricked into mistaking an orchid flower for its female counterpart.

Nurturing a passion

Ong’s enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge about the secret lives of orchids eventually spilled over into a degree in horticultural science at Universiti Putra Malaysia. Once university was over, he landed his dream job at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), where he has been for the last four years under the Biodiversity Programme. Ong is responsible for maintaining FRIM’s living orchid collection.

On this dewey morning, Ong guides us through his orchid house which is nestled amongst the hilly greenery of Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur.

This is where Ong, 28, comes early every morning, to tend roughly 200 live orchids. There is always a tiny anticipation about what has, or will flower that day – wild orchids can sometimes be unpredictable.

The specimens were collected over the past four years during expeditions into peninsular forests by Ong and a team of researchers. The orchid project is part of a wider initiative that began in 2005, to update the Flora of Peninsular Malaysia. Ong was one of the key people who set up FRIM’s first wild orchid nursery, which supplies samples for the institute’s herbarium.

Taking care of the collection takes a lot of dedication, but Ong does not mind. Some plants only flower for a few hours at a time, and it can be days, weeks, months or even years before this happens – which is why it is crucial that he makes it to the nursery early every morning. Missing a flowering event would be a real bummer.

Despite the 700 specimens which have passed through the nursery since 2008, Ong thinks they still have a long road ahead, before a complete revision of local orchids can be completed. There is, after all, only a handful of individuals tracking down and documenting over a thousand orchids scattered over 132,090sqkm of land.

Inside the nursery, orchids are everywhere. Stacks of shelving are lined with row after row of what, to the untrained eye, seem to be almost identical plants. As one looks around, something just does not seem right. Where are the flowers? There are no flashes of exotic colours, and none of the provocative lips and veiny pouches that make orchids so fascinating to look at. Instead, there are just rows after rows of unremarkable pots of leaves and stems.

Ong guides us to the far end of the nursery, where a singular, white flower juts out from a lonely corner of the room. He has been saving it for our visit, and its fate, we soon discover, lies with a pair of garden scissors. After being cut, the bloom will follow the same destiny as its contemporaries, now dried up or distilled in alcohol, and stored in the institute’s herbarium for taxonomic classification and research purposes.

Recording for posterity

It seems such an irony that the living orchid collection in FRIM is so severe in its lack of colour. However, Ong and his plants are not here to look pretty; they are here for science. And as far as the orchid diversity of Peninsular Malaysia is concerned, the fields of taxonomy and molecular science are under-studied.

Part of Ong’s role is to be meticulous. Every flower that blooms is sacrificed in the name of international scientific protocol, which requires type specimens for each species to be processed and stored in a recognised herbarium, in line with the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature. The specimens will then be available for examination at any time, by scientists worldwide.

FRIM is building up a database on the orchid flora of the peninsula, and Ong is at the forefront of this. Each specimen is logged, replete with collection area, collector, collection dates, habitat and field notes. Spirit collections, now a standard practice that complements the more traditional method of keeping dried plants on flat sheets, allow scientists to view complex flower structures in 3D. This way, the finer details required to distinguish a species can be brought to life, under the microscope.

Revising the Flora Of Peninsular Malaysia will take years, which is why Ong and his colleagues have produced a beautifully illustrated, interim piece of work. Wild Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia, published by FRIM and co-authored by Ong, Peter O’Byrne, Wendy Yong Sze Yee and Saw Leng Guan, is more than a coffee table book.

“This book is targeted at the public, people who may not know anything about orchids but are interested to learn more,” says Ong.

Aside from breathtaking photographs of orchids and details about their habitats and sex lives, the book tackles something most other books of it’s kind do not. There are new (and to the scientist or orchid fancier, rather exciting) details drawn from the team’s past four years of research, such as the pollination of orchids.

“In general, pollination is a whole new thing with respect to Peninsular Malaysia, and before this research, it was all a bit of a mystery,” says Ong.

The book also explains why research on these plants is crucial, and what exactly it is that scientists do. For conservation efforts for Malaysia’s rich orchid heritage to be effective, one needs to be able to identify the orchid species, where it occurs, how it is threatened and how it can be conserved. Unfortunately, Malaysia lacks researchers, taxonomists and botanists in this field.

On that note, the book discusses how scientists are in a race against time to record valuable orchid data before habitats are degraded or destroyed. The wide range of habitats orchids can be found in, he says, can be misleading. Being widespread does not necessarily mean orchids are abundant.

“Take Corybas and slipper orchids (Cypripedium). They can only be found in a small niche, in very specialised habitats. If that area is earmarked for development, there goes your entire population,” he exclaims.

The book also prods orchid fanciers to do their part by not buying wild orchids. It explains ways to tell a wild-collected orchid apart from an artificially propagated one.

Another remarkable feature is the photographs on pollination. “The pollination mechanism of insects in the peninsula is still poorly known. Orchids are pollinated by bees, butterflies, moths, even blowflies. But it is very rare to actually witness a pollination event.”

Catching a pollination event on camera is no easy feat. Some of Ong’s photographs are the product of stealth and long hours of sitting with a camera in hand at his private orchid greenhouse in Kajang. “Trust me, you can just sit for one whole day and get nothing!”

To order a copy of Wild Orchids Of Peninsular Malaysia online, go to www. frim.gov.my.


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Malaysia: 12,830 Visitors To Rantau Abang Turtle Conservation Centre This Year

Bernama 19 Dec 11;

KUALA TERENGGANU, Dec 19 (Bernama) -- The Turtle Conservation and Information Centre in Rantau Abang, Dungun was visited by about 12,830 people between January and November this year.

Terengganu Fisheries Department director Zakaria Ismail when contacted said that out of this number of visitors, 11,799 were Malaysians.

He said to make the trip more attractive, visitors could spend the night in Kerteh, Kemaman, watching turtles lay eggs at the turtle hatching centre.

He added that Terengganu had 11 turtle hatching centres in an effort to maintain the turtle population in order to prevent it from becoming extinct due to the many threats facing the reptile.

These hatcheries are managed by various parties including the Fisheries Department, non-governmental organisations and the World Wildlife Fund.

Zakaria said the department obtained turtle eggs for hatching from government reserves or from authorised collectors.

He said this year, the department incubated nearly 94,000 turtle eggs, mostly from the green turtle species, with over 66,000 of them hatched.

The hatchling were then released to the sea, he added.

-- BERNAMA


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Amazon Turtles - Illegal Protein for the Poor, Delicacy for the Rich

Mario Osava IPS 19 Dec 11;

BAJO XINGU, Brazil, Dec 19, 2011 (IPS) - "Many people lie" about the common practice of poaching turtles to eat or sell, said a man renowned for his fishing skills who lives on the banks of the Xingu river in Brazil's eastern Amazon jungle region.

He is an illustration of the risks of engaging in the illegal capture of turtles: he has been fined a total of 45,000 reals (24,000 dollars) by the environmental authorities, a staggering sum for local people.

On the last occasion, he was fined for taking eight Giant Amazon river turtles (Podocnemis expansa). "There were only five of them, and I was going to let the two little ones go and only eat three, but they fined me for eight," he complained to IPS.

To pay the steep fine, the fisherman, who preferred to remain anonymous, must rely on his income from extracting latex, used for making natural rubber, from rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) which are abundant in the forests of Bajo Xingu.

Brazilian law bans capturing turtles and their eggs; the only exception is for indigenous peoples within their territories. But the law fails to recognise the survival needs of traditional riverside communities and the descendants of African slaves who hunt for subsistence. Offenders incur heavy fines and are sometimes even arrested.

This is neither rational nor just, says biologist Juarez Pezzuti, a professor at the Federal University of Par√°, a northern Amazon jungle state.

Communities of poor riverside dwellers face draconian penalties for their traditional subsistence activities, which hardly threaten turtles in comparison with commercial hunting, he said, adding that fishing of truly endangered species is tolerated at the same time.

Furthermore, since 1992, farming of two turtle species most used for human food, the Giant Amazon turtle and the tracaj√° or yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis) has been encouraged, to supply restaurants authorised to offer their customers turtle meat.

Through its Amazon Turtle Project, Brazil's national environment authority, IBAMA, collects and protects millions of turtle hatchlings in their first weeks of life, to prevent their depredation on the beaches where they hatch, before releasing them into rivers.

But it donates up to 10 percent of the hatchlings to officially recognised turtle farmers. In the case of the yellow-spotted river turtle, up to 20 percent of hatchlings may be handed over.

Hundreds of turtle farms have sprung up without any noticeable reduction of pressure on the turtle populations from hunting and illegal trade. What facts are known indicate that little or nothing has been achieved towards the intended goals: the recovery of reproductive rates and a decrease in the risk of extinction.

Turtle farming for the restaurant trade should be banned, as it transfers to the private sector wild fauna, defined in the constitution as public property that cannot be appropriated, said Pezzuti.

The private turtle farmers are treated completely differently from the riverside dwellers, marking an apparent class distinction. The farmed turtle is served up as a rare delicacy to the patrons of posh restaurants, while the law comes down hard on small-time forest poachers.

And there is another kind of discrimination going on. Turtle meat produced with factory farming techniques, with the creatures taken from their habitat and fattened in captivity in artificial ponds, is granted legal status - unlike the product hunted in the wild, or the potential raising of turtles in their natural habitat.

Modifying the laws that fail to recognise turtle hunting for subsistence so that they allow sustainable catches for food would be an important step towards more effective conservation of turtles and other wildlife, Pezzuti argues.

He also said enforcement of the law is failing, because it is impossible to have enough inspectors in the vast Amazon region. He pointed, meanwhile, to successful examples of participative management in Costa Rica and Ecuador, using turtle eggs from nests trampled by other females, or at risk from river floods.

The ban on turtle hunting frustrates the collection of reliable statistics, sets the local population in opposition to environmental authorities, and hampers integration between traditional and academic knowledge, to the detriment of effective management, the biology professor said.

In order to preserve and even increase turtle populations in the Amazon jungle, Pezzuti proposes including riverside communities as participants in their management. There are community initiatives that have succeeded in recovering populations of these species, but if people are barred from legally enjoying the results, cohesion and long-term management are weakened, he said.

Most of the eggs laid by turtles on beaches in areas like Tabuleiro do Embaubal, a set of more than 100 islands on the final stretch of the Xingu river, never hatch because of flooding of the nests, excessive temperatures and various other causes.

Controlled selective collection of eggs from the most vulnerable nests would not affect the turtles' reproduction, Pezzuti said.

Turtles are prolific breeders, laying over 100 eggs in most of their nests, a reproductive strategy for ensuring the survival of the species in the face of mass mortality from the elements and natural enemies, like seagulls, vultures, other reptiles and fish.

A tiny percentage of turtle hatchlings reach adulthood. But this situation can favour management: taking a few careful measures against predation losses can ensure rapid multiplication of the species.

Over the past three decades, IBAMA's Amazon Turtle Project has demonstrated the success of this practice by protecting turtle nests and gathering and raising hatchlings, to give them a survival advantage when they are released into the wild. Predation on the beaches has been minimised, and the turtle populations have made a comeback in many parts of the rainforest.

For poor riverside dwellers, the meat and eggs of Amazon turtles are a much-needed source of protein.

A 2007 study by Maria de Jesus Rodrigues, a professor at the Federal Rural University of Amazonia, and Luciane de Moura, a fisheries engineer, found a very high protein content in wild turtle meat: 79 percent of dry weight, much higher than in beef or in farmed turtles.

But changing the law is difficult. Those in favour of reform are disorganised and scattered, in contrast with the rising tide of environmental activists who will no doubt oppose any relaxation of the ban. And the environmental crimes law, which stiffened penalties, was enacted relatively recently, in 1998. (END)


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U.S. Long-distance migrations "are rapidly disappearing"

For Many Species, Moving Day Has Added Stress
Jim Robbins New York Times 19 Dec 11;

HELENA, Mont. — Every fall the calliope hummingbird, which weighs about as much as a penny, braves high winds and bad weather to migrate from Canada and the northern United States to as far south as Mexico, then back again in the spring — a total of 4,000 to 5,000 miles.

The journey is one of several dozen “spectacular migrations” — in the air and on land — that are chronicled in a new report by the Wildlife Conservation Society. But the report warns that these migrations are in peril.

“Long-distance migrations as a whole are rapidly disappearing,” said an author of the report, Keith Aune, a senior conservation scientist here in Montana for the wildlife group, which is based at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

The report surveyed wildlife biologists across the Western United States, where most of the large-scale migrations still take place. It details 24 terrestrial and 17 aerial migrations; a later report will take up ocean migrations. There are many more imperiled migrations, Mr. Aune said, but these are both the most important and the most likely to survive if they receive public support.

Long-distance migrations are not only a spectacle, he said; they are crucial to keeping wildlife species extant in a changing world. “They are about survival,” he continued. “When we block migrations, we lose the ability to sustain a population.”

It has happened all too often, he said, citing the vast migrations of bison across the Great Plains in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While there are still bison, they are largely limited to a few reserves, like Yellowstone National Park.

Then there was the passenger pigeon, now extinct: In 1866, a migrating flock was so immense it took 14 hours to pass one spot in Ontario.

Such stories can win support for preserving the corridors that wildlife use to migrate, Mr. Aune said, adding: “If I say, ‘We need to protect ecological connectivity,’ people will say, ‘What is that?’ We have to have something the public can grasp. Spectacular migrations have great storytelling power.”

Wildlife migrate to seek water or food at different times of the year, or to breed. The ability to freely move across the landscape could become even more important as the climate changes and wildlife need to adapt — following the movement of the plants that they eat or looking for new sources of water as old sources dry up.

The problem is that corridors are often very long, and many obstacles crop up because migrations have not been recognized or protected. There are natural obstacles, too. This year, for example, many pronghorn antelope — the fastest land mammal in North America — drowned as they tried to cross the flooding Missouri River on their way to fawning grounds in Canada.

David Wilcove, an ecologist at Princeton and the author of “No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations” (Island Press, 2007), thinks storytelling about great migrations could be sound strategy.

“I don’t think the notion of biodiversity per se has gained any traction with the public,” he said. “But people have been fascinated by animal migrations since the first hominids stared at herds of wildebeest. And the fascination persists to this day.”

Oswald Schmitz, an ecologist at Yale, agreed, though he added that evidence was still lacking to say that loss of these corridors could result in extinction.

“We need to instill a different kind of ethic, and this report does a great job of showing why we need to protect large landscapes,” he said. “It’s a narrative that reaches out to the nonscientist on why we need to protect large landscapes.”

Protecting large landscapes for migration, biologists say, is also a benefit because it assures the protection of a wide range of other species that occupy smaller areas.

The longest migration included in the report is the 400 rugged miles covered by some Alaska caribou. Among other threats, it may encounter problems as the changing climate brings more snow; that could slow the animals’ journey and make them more vulnerable to wolves. Perhaps more than any other species, the report says, the caribou embody a story of “survival through adaptive movements and migration.”

But in sheer mileage, their journey is dwarfed by that of the arctic tern, which travels up to 24,000 miles in a year, flying from one pole to the other, round trip. That migration may be threatened by human development at places where the terns stop during their journey.

Three species of bats have a particularly specialized type of corridor, the report says. The Mexican long-tongued bat, the Mexican long-nosed bat and the lesser long-nosed bat all spend time in the American Southwest, and all migrate at different times to Mexico, feeding on nectar, pollen and fruit in their migration corridor. The main threat is development of land in the “nectar corridor,” which has flowering plants that provide food for their trip.

As migration routes are disrupted, other species can be affected too — including humans. Take the case of migratory songbirds, whose numbers are down across North America.

In the spring, these birds eat 3,000 to 10,000 tons of insects each day as they travel. “It’s a legitimate concern,” said Dr. Wilcove, of Princeton. “Presumably with the decline of songbirds, insect damage to crops and forests could be worse.”


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Illuminating the Perils of Pollution, Nature’s Way

Erik Olsen New York Times 19 Dec 11;

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Edith Widder presented a handful of greenish muck that had been pulled from the shallows of the Indian River Lagoon and cupped it in her palm.

“See that?” she asked. “That’s a lot of decayed organic matter. It’s just a great holding area for pollutants.”

Collecting mud is a new calling for Dr. Widder, a marine biologist who is known around the world for her work in much larger bodies of water.

Over a career spanning almost 30 years, Dr. Widder has made hundreds of dives in deep-sea submersibles to study the remarkable number and diversity of animals that make light. This ability, called bioluminescence, is strikingly common, shared by as many as 90 percent of the creatures in the open ocean.

“Animals use light to help them survive, to help them find food, to attract mates and to defend against predators,” she said. For example, in the ocean — “where there are no trees or bushes to hide behind” — a bioluminescent creature can use light to attract larger predators to its own enemies.

Now, Dr. Widder has found a way to put bioluminescence to work to fight pollution in the Indian River Lagoon, a 156-mile estuary that scientists say is one of Florida’s most precious and threatened ecosystems.

Back in her laboratory here, she mixes the sediment samples with a bioluminescent bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. Using a photometer to measure the light given off by the bacteria, she can quickly determine the concentration of toxic chemicals in the sediment by seeing how much and how quickly the light dims as the chemicals kill the bacteria.

Measuring the level of pollutants in the sediment provides a better indication of the estuary’s health than measuring the level of chemicals in the water, Dr. Widder said. “Pollution in water is transient,” she said, “but in sediment it’s persistent.”

Her samples have revealed high concentrations of heavy metals and nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, which can cause runaway algae growth; those organisms consume oxygen and stifle life in the estuary. Dr. Widder has also designed sensors that are placed around the estuary and can beam real-time data like current and flow direction of the water. Pairing those data with the toxicity of the sediment, she can trace the source of pollution. The method is far cheaper and quicker than the more common practice of sending samples to a lab for analysis.

“The potential benefits of Edie’s efforts are huge,” said George Jones, executive director of Indian Riverkeeper, a local conservation organization.

Other organizations monitor the waters here, but Dr. Widder’s use of bioluminescent bacteria as a pollution marker and her system’s ability to do real-time monitoring are singular.

“One of the remarkable things about Edie is that, for a biologist, she is the most technologically savvy scientist I’ve ever come across,” said Bruce Robison, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California.

Another homegrown project of Dr. Widder’s design is opening a new perspective on deep-sea life.

She long wondered what kind of animals lurked beyond the bubbles and lights of big and noisy manned submersibles. So she developed Eye-in-the-Sea, an ocean-floor camera that uses a type of red light that sea creatures cannot see.

She drew animals to the camera with a spinning dial of LED lights resembling the distress call of a species of bioluminescent jellyfish, Atolla wyvillei, that appears to use light as a kind of burglar alarm, luring predators to go after whatever is attacking it.

Less than a minute and a half after the jellyfish lights were activated in the Eye-in-the-Sea’s first test, in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2004, a six-foot squid lurched out of the darkness toward the camera. It was a species never seen before by scientists.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better proof of concept,” Dr. Widder said.

In December 2009, another Eye-in-the-Sea camera was placed in 3,000 feet of water in the Monterey Canyon, off the coast of California, where it remained for a year. The resulting videos, spanning about 5,300 hours, are being studied by researchers and graduate students at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who have discovered numerous new behaviors of deep-sea animals.

In March, Dr. Widder plans to deploy her system in Bahamian waters to study the behavior of deep-sea sharks that she hopes will be attracted to the spinning LED lights of her fake jellyfish.

Dr. Widder, 60, graduated from Tufts University, then earned a master’s in biochemistry and a Ph.D. in neurobiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She spent 16 years at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, where she was named senior scientist and director of the bioluminescence department.

She left Harbor Branch in 2005, and after reading a report by the United States Commission on Ocean Policy that described the perilous state of the world’s oceans, she founded the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, or ORCA. She won a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2006, and put the money toward her pollution monitoring project in the Indian River Lagoon.

Her tests have shown that specific areas of the lagoon are hot spots where pollution has reached levels that could endanger many of the 4,200 animal and plant species there. Some animals, like dolphins and manatees, are beloved local icons; others, like the eastern oyster, are no less important to the health of the ecosystem.

Scientists have long been aware of problems in the lagoon, where residential and commercial development has led to declining water quality and loss of habitat. But Dr. Widder’s work adds a visual element to what is already known, allowing people to see the hot spots most in need of immediate attention.

“It’s my belief if we can make pollution visible, and let people know what small things they are doing are actually making an improvement in this incredible environment,” she said, “I think it could make a huge difference. It can be a game-changer.”


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Seattle Officials Ban Single-Use Plastic Bags

The Associated Press NPR 19 Dec 11;

The Seattle City Council voted Monday to ban single-use plastic bags from groceries and other retail stores, joining a growing trend among cities that embrace green values.

The ordinance, which was approved unanimously following months of discussion and debate, takes effect in July 2012. It includes a provision to charge a nickel fee for the use of paper bags, to encourage people to bring their own bags when they go shopping.

The paper bag fee is not unique. In Washington, D.C., businesses that sell food or alcohol must charge 5 cents for each carryout paper or plastic disposable bag.

The ban is expected to reduce pollution, free up landfill space and improve the environment. Seattle's residents use 292 million plastic bags and 68 million paper bags a year. About 82 percent of paper bags are recycled, while only 13 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

Nearby communities such as Mukilteo, Edmonds, Bellingham and Portland also have banned plastic bags.

Numerous municipalities across the country — including Eugene, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Jackson, Wyo. — are also considering laws to restrict the use of plastic bags.

The Seattle council voted to charge a 20-cent fee on paper and plastic bags in 2008, but the plastics industry spent $1.4 million backing a referendum to overturn it. Voters defeated the fee in 2009.

Councilmember Mike O'Brien, the bill's prime sponsor, said he felt the months of work on this proposal, with lots of input from both businesses and environmental groups, resulted in an ordinance that will work for everyone.

He noted that low-income people who can show eligibility in a food assistance program will not be charged the paper bag fee.

Council President Richard Conlin commended the council and advocates for the positive way the ordinance evolved and the substantive public involvement in the process.

"It's going to really make a difference for our environment," he said.

During a short public comment session at the beginning of the meeting, four people dressed as "bag monsters" in costumes made from plastic bags serenaded the council with a holiday tribute. Only one person spoke out against the ordinance, saying she wondered if the ban would really help the environment and remove plastic already in the Puget Sound.

Even in the Evergreen state, reaction to the ban vote was mixed.

"We were not expecting a unanimous vote, but we knew that seven of nine councilmembers co-sponsored the ordinance," said Katrina Rosen, field director for Environment Washington, a statewide advocacy group, from a celebration at a Seattle restaurant.

Rosen called Seattle one of the largest cities to pass such a ban, but a similar ban in San Jose, Calif., goes into effect Jan. 1. San Jose has 946,000 residents compared with Seattle's 608,000. A plastic bag ban in Los Angeles County, but not the city, went into effect in July.

Hilex Poly Co., the country's largest plastic bag manufacturer, believes the ban pushes consumers toward more resource-intensive alternatives.

"By voting to implement a ban on plastic bags, the city of Seattle misses the opportunity to lead the way toward the meaningful reduction of litter through increased statewide recycling efforts," said Mark Daniels, vice president of sustainability and environmental policy for the company, in a written statement.

The Northwest Grocery Association, which represents QFC, Safeway and Fred Meyer stores in the state, supports the ban, but a group representing independent grocery stores does not.

"Tiny bits of plastics, including plastic bag film, are being found in all water samples taken in Puget Sound," said Heather Trim, Policy Director of People For Puget Sound, in a statement. "Reducing the use of single-use plastics, like bags, will make a difference for the health of wildlife in Puget Sound and out in the Pacific."


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