Best of our wild blogs: 8 Jan 12


Life History of the Malay Dartlet
from Butterflies of Singapore

120106 Kampong Chantek to Durian Loop
from Singapore Nature

Sunny Paddle to Kampong Jelutong on 7 Jan 2012
from Soaring c-eagle

Berlayar Creek - Bkt Chermin fishing 07Jan2012
by sgbeachbum

Berlayer / Bukit Chermin Broadwalk
from Fahrenheit minus 459

Seven Links Blog Project: A Milestone Year
from Lazy Lizard's Tales


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Tide turning against shark's fin, especially among the young

The traditional delicacy has been falling out of favour, particularly among the younger generation, as concerns over cruelty grow
Jessica Lim and Siau Ming En Straits Times 8 Jan 12;

She reaches for a packet of dried shark's fin at the dried goods store in Queen Street. She's planning something special for the family dinner.

But she is stopped by her young daughter.

'Ma, don't buy that. It's very cruel,' the girl insists, referring to the practice of 'finning' - in which sharks are tossed overboard while still alive after their fins have been cut off.

The mother hesitates, then returns the packet of shark's fin to the shelves.

This is a true story related by a shop assistant, and staff at dried goods stores around Singapore say that such scenes are not uncommon here these days.

They reflect slowly changing attitudes towards eating shark's fin here. And it is not just individuals who are stepping up to the plate.

NTUC FairPrice, the largest supermarket chain here, recently said it will stop selling shark's fin products from April, following a public outcry.

Carrefour soon followed suit, affirming that it will stop selling the delicacy when its current stock runs out.

Last September, the Cold Storage chain was the first to pull shark's fin products from the shelves, at all of its 42 outlets.

Some restaurants and hotels have also taken it off their menus. They are receiving fewer orders too, and have started dissuading customers from ordering the dish.

And last month, hotels Grand Mercure Roxy and Novotel Singapore Clarke Quay - both operated by the Accor group - included a notice on their Chinese restaurant menus dissuading diners from ordering shark's fin.

Wedding planners attached to the hotels now offer clients alternatives like abalone and lobster soup.

'We want customers to think twice. Our aim is to eventually take it off our menus,' said Mr Kevin Bossino, a manager with the Accor group.

Demand for shark's fin for weddings at the two hotels, he said, has fallen by 20 per cent in the past year.

The drop is even greater for a la carte orders.

At Imperial Court Shark's Fin Restaurant in Ang Mo Kio, daily orders of shark's fin average out to about five tables out of the restaurant's 30. This is down from 10 tables ordering the dish two years ago.

But its service captain, Ms Lily Liau, said the drop is significant only for a la carte orders. Demand for the delicacy for catered functions remains strong because these customers are 'order regulars', said the 28-year-old.

Grand Hyatt Singapore saw a 5 per cent to 6 per cent increase last year in requests to replace shark's fin on wedding banquet menus.

Fairmont Singapore has stopped serving it altogether, while Resorts World Sentosa has taken it off its menu but will serve the dish on request.

A check with three shark's fin importers shows that demand has dipped by 10 to 15 per cent in the past two years.

Ms Eileen Mok, the owner of Mok Liang Lee Trading, a dried goods store in Queen Street, said there has even been a drop in the number of customers buying the delicacy for the coming Chinese New Year.

'They told me their children think the way sharks are treated is cruel, and do not want to eat them any more,' said the 53-year-old.

Figures on just how much shark's fin is consumed here each year are hard to estimate, given the nature of the trade: Importers buy the delicacy from overseas suppliers, but some stock is cleaned, packaged and re-exported.

Figures from the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, however, show that over the past three years, about 8,200 tonnes of shark's fin were imported. In that same period, exports of shark's fin stood at approximately 6,900 tonnes.

While it has seemed to be an uphill fight to remove shark's fin from meals here in the past, Mr Bernd Schmitt, 54, executive director of the new Institute on Asian Consumer Insight, senses a sea-change, especially in the attitude of the younger generation. The delicacy is 'going out of tradition', he declares.

'The dish was popular because customers wanted to show their appreciation of their guests by ordering expensive items,' he said. 'But now there are other items like caviar and black truffles.'

'Values are changing and shark's fin is slowly falling out of fashion,' he said, adding that demand will keep falling as more retail outlets and restaurants stop serving it.

Activist groups have also raised public awareness, with even youngsters urging parents to stop eating shark's fin.

Most of all, this campaign is being won on the wedding dinner front.

Ms Joanne Tan, 22, who got married at a hotel here last month, served her guests fish maw soup instead of shark's fin.

'It was my decision but we had to persuade a few family members who had insisted on it,' said the student at the National University of Singapore.

Fellow NUS student Ong Say Lin, 24, showed his parents a shark finning video before they went to a wedding dinner last year.

'They didn't touch shark's fin soup that day,' he said with a triumphant grin.


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Lower fish supplies from region driving up prices ahead of Lunar New Year

Channel NewsAsia 7 Jan 12;

SINGAPORE: It will be Lunar New Year in a few weeks but fish markets in Geylang are not as busy as they have been in previous years.

The supply of fish from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand for the new year is expected to slip to half its usual volume.

Fishmongers say recent bad weather and rising oil prices have made fishermen reluctant to go out in their boats.

The lower supplies are driving up prices and overall, prices are up between 30 per cent and 50 per cent.

In contrast, the price of frozen fish is relatively stable.

In his blog, Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan said Singaporeans are eating more frozen fish than fresh fish because of changing lifestyles.

And he urged fishermen to take note of this trend as they formulate future business plans.

- CNA/fa

Frozen fish goes down well with Singaporeans
Amanda Tan & Huang Lijie Straits Times 7 Jan 12;

SINGAPOREANS are showing a greater appetite for frozen fish, doubling consumption over the past decade.

Citing figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said in a blog post yesterday that the consumption of frozen fish had increased from 17,150 tonnes in 2002 to 34,297 tonnes in 2010.

But demand for chilled fish - kept fresh by ice at a temperature close to 0 deg C - has dipped. Frozen fish is kept at temperatures below 0 deg C.

Mr Khaw wrote about his visit to Jurong Fishery Port last month, when he heard that business had dipped in previous years. This was despite the fact that Singaporeans were the second-largest consumers of fish per capita in Asia, after the Japanese.

He cited statistics from the AVA which showed that at Jurong Fishery Port, the amount of fish handled had dropped by 24 per cent in the last decade.

At Singapore's other fishery port in Senoko, the drop was 32 per cent.

'Within a decade, the market share of chilled/live fish has shrunk from about 80 per cent to 60 per cent. And the declining trend is likely to continue,' he wrote.

'This also explains why wet markets are losing market share to supermarkets. This reflects (the) modern lifestyle of nuclear families with working couples.'

At NTUC FairPrice, sales of both chilled and frozen fish have increased by about 10 to 15 per cent, while sales of live fish have remained relatively stable.

Mr Tng Ah Yiam, the chain's managing director for group purchasing, merchandising and international trading, said: 'We expect to increase our supply of frozen fish by about 15 per cent this year due to the limited supply of chilled and live fish.'

Similarly, daily sales of frozen fish at supermarket chain Sheng Siong had increased over the last four years by at least 50 per cent, while demand for fresh and chilled fish slipped by at least 20 per cent over the same period.

Mr Goh Thiam Chwee, vice-president of the Singapore Fish Merchant's General Association, said prices for frozen fish could be as much as 30 per cent cheaper because supplies, unlike those of fresh catches, were stable.

He added that advances in freezing techniques had made it possible for frozen fish to maintain much of the freshness and quality of fresh and chilled seafood.

Consultant chef Sam Leong said there is no discernible difference in taste between frozen and fresh fish when the fish is deep-fried or pan-fried.

He added, however, that frozen fish is significantly tougher in texture than fresh fish when steamed because the freezing process causes the fish to lose moisture.


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Easier to go ethical

With prices coming down and retailers stocking up on 'ethical' groceries, more Singaporeans are trying to be sustainable consumers. But some things could still be better
Cheow Xin Yi Today Online 8 Jan 12;

Out for a fine dinner with friends, one of them may order foie gras and tease her with: "You're sure you don't want?" She sticks to her guns and declines. And when Sarah Ong indulges in the occasional bag of potato chips, it has to come from Marks & Spencer.

It is not just a taste issue; she is a fan of the British retailer's efforts to source sustainably. "It is one of the prominent retailers who look at sustainability as the core of its business. In the United Kingdom, they support local produce and they communicate that very actively and advocate it to their customer," said Ms Ong, 35.

She admits, though, to the irony that its wares sold here are imported and hence exact a high carbon footprint.

Still, Ms Ong represents a growing segment of consumers who are embracing in their diets the principles of sustainability, minimal harm to the environment and to animals, and equitable trade for the producers. Once, ethical eating would have been considered niche - these days it commands a market share that is anything but.

Ethical consumers Today spoke to opt for one or more of several broad categories of food: Organic, free-range eggs and meat, seafood that is sourced or farmed sustainably, and local produce with minimal carbon footprint from source to plate.

Such consumers would also look out for fair trade products, which ensure decent wages and better living conditions for farmers. (Marks & Spencer, for one, sells fair trade coffee and tea; bakery chain Cedele serves its cuppas brewed from fair-trade coffee beans too.)


'NOT EASY, BUT GETTING BETTER'

In a sign that greater consumer awareness and pressure for sustainable consumption are gaining traction, NTUC FairPrice, Singapore's largest supermarket operator with more than 100 outlets, announced this week that it would cease the sale of shark's fin by the end of March. The move follows Cold Storage's trail-breaking pledge last October. Carrefour has since too followed suit.

Ms Ong, a Singaporean who lives in a five-room housing board flat with her parents, says she became more aware of environmental issues some five years ago while working for a logistics firm that was trying to reduce its global carbon footprint.

But the real turning point - when she made the conscious effort to change her lifestyle - occurred two and a half years ago, after volunteering at an organic farm in Japan. "Leading their lifestyle inspired me a lot. Being organic is also about your outlook in life. You want your way of life to be as natural as possible. So, the way you grow your crops and cultivate your food should respect the ecosystem and let it do its work," said Ms Ong, now a campaign manager with World Wide Fund for Nature (Singapore).

Still, only about 30 per cent of her food selections when she goes grocery shopping are organic - mainly because of budget and availability constraints. She admits that it is not easy going down the ethical eating route in Singapore, but things have definitely improved. "There are more options now compared to two to three years ago."


PRICES COMING DOWN AT SUPERMARKETS

Once available only at speciality stores and at a high premium, these days organic produce and products are within easy reach of heartlanders - thanks to FairPrice, which now stocks more than 800 varieties from cherries, greens and strawberries to wine, noodles and household cleaners.

Besides a dedicated "Just Organic" section at its nine FairPrice Finest stores, the retailer also carries organic products at more than 10 other outlets and organic fresh produce at more than 20.

A FairPrice spokesperson said prices for fresh produce under its household Pasar Organic brand, which the company sources through contract farming with Thai farmers, can be 50 per cent lower than those from other organic brands.

At Cold Storage, fresh organic fresh produce makes up less than 5 per cent of the retailer's selection (but up from less than 1 per cent five years ago). Prices tend to be at least 5 to 15 per cent higher than - sometimes even double - that of conventional stocks, depending on factors like supply availability or whether it is sea or air shipped, said a spokesperson.

Even so, the retailer said, the premium has come down by 30 to 40 per cent in recent years. "With the consistent demand put through to our partners, they are able to manage their crops and supply properly. Over the years, with the increased supply due to growing demand, prices have come down."

Even Sheng Siong supermarket, which caters to the more price-sensitive, said it is looking at bringing in organic vegetables and fruits. Its sales of the Elephant Brand of organic brown rice (S$5.10 for a 1kg pack or S$9.30 for two, compared to S$3.10 for their non-organic housebrand) have grown since it made the product available at all 25 outlets early last year.


PRODUCER WHO KEEPS IT CHEAP

Zenxin-Agri Organic Food - a wholesaler and retailer of organic products in Malaysia and Singapore, which also distributes to Cold Storage, Giant and Shop N Save - has been able to keep prices down because it controls the whole supply chain, said its executive director Tai Seng Yee.

At its retail store at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre, which stocks more than 50 varieties of organic vegetables and fruits at prices similar to those in supermarkets, kang kong can go for as little as S$1.70 for a 250g-pack, while broccoli sells for a mere S$2.30 per kg (compared to $15 to $20 per kg at other speciality organic stores Today on Sunday visited).

The firm has nine organic farms in Malaysia and a compost factory to make organic fertilisers, all certified by Australia's leading organic certifier, The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture. It also has its own packing unit and logistics network.

"We do everything ourselves, so we don't, for example, have to go to the farmer and check their fertilisers. Or if you're a farmer and you try to sell to the retailer, the retailer will ask a very high price from you. Since we take the whole chain, we are able to make it more reasonable," said Mr Tai.

Sometimes, it also depends on what you buy, says Ms Natalia Angel, a vegetarian whose groceries are least 80 per cent organic. She opts for non-organic nuts because they are "way less expensive than organic ones". "They sell almonds at the shop near my place in a big bag for S$20, and you're paying that much for a tiny 100ml bag at the organic shop."

But for other items the price difference can be marginal, she says. At one supermarket, she found regular raspberries priced at S$3.50, "and two steps away, in the organic section, there were organic raspberries for S$3.95. It was an obvious choice".


SOURCING LOCALLY

For every consumer trying to walk the ethical path, priorities often come into conflict.

Four Seasons Organic Market owner Joe Tan put the conundrum thus: "If you want to have locally-produced strawberries, that's almost impossible: It must come from the US or New Zealand, a six- to 12-hour flight. There are strawberries from Indonesia, but it has a lot of pests, very hard to grow organic.

"Organic grapes must be air-flown because of shorter shelf life, and have the higher carbon footprint. Normal grapes can be sea-freighted."

Thankfully, there is plenty that can be locally produced. FairPrice taps local farms for eggs, mushrooms and vegetables such as Kai Lan, Chye Sim, Spinach, bean sprouts and Xiao Bai Chye.

Singapore consumers are "increasingly appreciating and demanding" the freshness of locally produced food, the supermarket said, with the shorter turnaround time from harvest to point of sale.

In fact, 10 per cent of fish offerings at FairPrice come from local fish farms, a partnership initiative which began three years ago. Local fishes on sale - which as of last month is now distinguished by the "SGfish" label - include grey mullet, golden pomfret and green mussels. Sales increased 50 per cent in 2011 from a year earlier.

Local speciality stores such as Four Seasons (with outlets at City Square Mall, Great World City and Parkway Parade) and Eat Organic at Bukit Timah also carry local organically-grown vegetables, such as those from Quan Fa Organic Farm.

While there are no lack of local farms in Singapore - Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority statistics show about 180 local farms producing fish, vegetables and eggs - Ms Angel said the most difficult thing about eating local is making the journey to the farms to stock up. "I haven't gone out there and bought local food exclusively," said the Canadian expat, who came here to Singapore about two years ago.


NOT-SO-FREE RANGE?

Free-range products are another story. Most consumers Today spoke to, and even retailers, cite price and bird flu concerns as major challenges in rearing livestock under more humane conditions where they are free to roam around.

While Cold Storage carries free-range pork from Australia, it does not stock free-range poultry "due to the issue with avian flu". A Sheng Siong spokesperson said: "To prevent 'interaction' with other poultry or birds and to better control hygiene issues related to their droppings, the chickens we obtain are mostly bred in a controlled and contained environment. We think these considerations outweigh market demand for 'free-range' eggs and chicken."

When contacted, an AVA spokesperson clarified that while all meat and egg products imported into Singapore must come from approved sources, the regulator does not differentiate whether the farm in question is free-range, organic or conventional in its assessment.

This means eggs brought in can be from chickens that roam outdoors, so long as the farm has "in place a bird-proof structure to prevent contact with wild birds", said the spokesperson. This applies to eggs produced for consumption on local farms as well.

But to entrepreneur Adrian Chong, the concept of bird-proofing itself "defeats the purpose of having (chickens) free-range".

Mr Chong took one year to set up Freedom Range Company two years ago, to plug what he sees as a gap in the local market for affordable free-range eggs - a common item in England where he grew up.

"Bird-proofing means having them under shelter, basically.

"We spoke to an AVA guy and he said that even if we let them out and have netting, the bird droppings can flow through the netting," he said.

In the end, Freedom Range settled for barn-laid chickens, which do not roam outdoors but are housed in a barn system with "lots of natural sunlight and cross ventilation". Selling for S$2.75 to $$3 for six, Mr Chong said the eggs are offered at a "price point accessible to people who care about how their chickens are treated".

Free-range chicken meat meanwhile at Four Season Organic Market comes at a hefty S$30 per kg (Eberly's brand), compared to about S$7 per kg for a normal chicken.


A FISHY TRAIL

In February 2010, WWF Singapore released a guide on how to choose seafood from sustainable sources, dividing fish species, and their origins, into "recommended", "think twice" and "avoid" categories.

But putting the advice to practical use has been difficult with fishes rarely coming labelled.

Cold Storage, which joined WWF Singapore's Sustainable Seafood Group last year, said it is working with the NGO and suppliers to source for items that are certified by Friends of the Sea or Marine Stewardship Council. The retailer said it also indicates country of origin on seafood stocks.

Today on Sunday found no such labels at the Parkway Parade outlet and staff who were asked were none the wiser. But WWF's Ms Ong said she had seen labelled seafood at some other Cold Storage outlets.

In general, Ms Ong said, it is a challenge tracing the origins of imported seafood here because of the multiple intermediaries before the stock gets to retailer shelves. "You have to trace right back down the supply chain," she said. The fishmongers at the wet market can only tell her that they get their fish "from Jurong Port".

Restaurants, however, have a different supply line, especially those that use better-grade seafood - and Ms Ong thinks consumers can do their bit to push for information when they order. "When more consumers ask (where the food comes from), it makes the business realise, 'we need to prepare that kind of information'.

"It is funny how they can be so specific when they put on the menu 'fish with oregano' or 'fries with truffles or rosemary'. Why provide such information? Because they think consumers want to know," she said, adding that this approach can be applied to origins of food as well. "As a consumer, we have a right to know what we are paying for."


What does 'organic' mean? The jury's out
by Cheow Xin Yi
Most consumers think of organic foods as being pesticide- and chemical-free, and non-genetically modified - but definitions set by various international bodies can confound, rather than enlighten, consumers.

In Singapore, supermarket Cold Storage, for one, depends on the North America-based Organic Trade Association's definition of organic products as "foods that are minimally processed without artificial ingredients, preservations, or irradiation to maintain the integrity of the food".

FairPrice, on the other hand, defines organic food as "grown, handled and processed using organic standards set by international bodies", which include ensuring no synthetic pesticides and fertilisers are used at farms; sustainable practices to enhance the farm environment and ensure balance in the ecosystem; and no genetic modification. Food retailers which handle food are also expected to follow organic handling practices, it added.


THE 'FREE OF' MYTH

The challenge is grasping exactly what these standards are, which are typically detailed in technical jargon on the websites of such international bodies.

A 2010 BBC article reported that it is a myth that organic food is free of pesticides, insecticides, fertilisers and additives. It cited a list of approved products that organic farmers can use, with up to 20 per cent of chicken feed and 10 per cent of cow feed allowed to be non-organic. A spokesman for Soil Association - the certifier of organic foods in UK - is quoted as saying organic food meant "a minimal amount" of pesticides.

FairPrice, meanwhile, has developed its own Organic Assurance Programme, with its Pasar Organic produce certified by the Organic Thailand Agriculture Standards Certification and audited by an independent third-party auditor, Agrifood Technologies, an Agri-food and Veterinary Authority subsidiary.

Several retailers Today on Sunday spoke to, including FairPrice, point to the misconception of what is "organic" and "organically-grown".

"'Organic' is a labelling term for produce grown by applying organic principles and farming practices. Audit trails are conducted throughout the organic supply chain to ensure that the organic status of the produce is maintained," said FairPrice.

"Organically-grown" refers to crops grown using organic farming practice with no audit trails and therefore no indication if the produce is truly organic, it added.


MUST BE CERTIFIED: AVA

But checks with the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) seem to clear things up a bit, as far as labelling is concerned.

"Regardless of whether a food is imported or locally produced, if the food product is labelled 'organic foods', 'organically produced' or words of similar meaning, they have to be certified by an organic food certification body that the products are 'organic', based on guidelines established by the Codex Alimentarius Commission," said an AVA spokesperson, referring to an intergovernmental body by the United Nations and World Health Organization to determine world food standards.

AVA added that importers and retailers of organic foods must produce original organic certificates for verification. False labelling of "organic" produce upon inspection will subject retailers to fines of up to S$5,000 for first conviction, and up to S$10,000 or a three-month jail-term, or both, for subsequent ones. Cheow Xin Yi

A Couple Of Tips
by Yu Pei Fern and Cheow Xin Yi
THE DIRTY DOZEN

An apple a day doesn't keep the doctor away , unless it is organic.

The fruit is on the 'Dirty Dozen' list of produce that consumers are advised to eat only if certified organic. Others on thedailygreen.com's 2011 list include all berries, celery, peaches, spinach, bell peppers, potatoes, lettuce, collard greens and imported grapes.

On such produce, it is not a simple matter of rinsing off the pesticides before eating, as these chemicals often penetrate deep beneath the skin. "Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries … because they're very porous and are among the fruits that get sprayed most with pesticides, they also absorb the chemicals more," entrepreneur Natalia Angel said.

There is, conversely, the 'safe dozen' for eating in non-organic form, such as onions, pineapples, avocados and mangoes.


HOW TO READ LABELS

It is standard practice for labels to list a product's ingredients in descending order, greenies note. "The first three ingredients are the ones most abundant in the product. So if these three are not good, what you are buying probably isn't very good," Ms Angel said. "If you are don't know what the ingredients listed are, then you probably shouldn't buy it."

Look out also for little numbered stickers. Price look up (PLU) codes are admninistered by The International Federation for Produce Standards, a global body of national produce association ( www.plucodes.com). For organically grown products, the number '9' is added to the front of the regular four-digit PLU code. Genetically engineered produce is distinguished with a number '8'.


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Indonesia: Singapore`s satellite detects 45 hot spots in Sumatra

Antara 6 Jan 12;

Pekanbaru, Riau Province (ANTARA News) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 18 (NOAA 18) satellite of Singapore has detected at least 45 hot spots in Sumatra island, a meteorological agency spokesman said here on Friday.

"On Wednesday, January 5, 2012, the satellite of NOAA 18 detected at least 45 hot spots in the provinces of Jambi, North Sumatra, South Sumatra, Riau, and Aceh," Pekanbaru Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) spokesman Marzuki said.

Marzuki said that in Riau province alone a total of 22 hot spots at the districts of Pelalawan, Rokan Hilir, Kuantan Sengingi, Bengkalis, Indragiri Hulu, Kampar, Rokan Hulu, and Dumai city were detected by the Singapore`s satellite on Wednesday.

"The number of hot spots in Sumatra island tends to increase if the temperature remains above 33 Celsius degrees with less rain fall," Marzuki said.

According to him, Riau provincial capital of Pekanbaru since the past week has been hit by extreme weather with an average temperature of over 33 Celsius degrees both in the day time and at night.
(Uu.O001/H-NG)

Editor: Priyambodo RH
COPYRIGHT © 2012


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Begging whale sharks stir debate in Philippines

(AFP) Google News 7 Jan 11;

MANILA — Whale sharks begging for food in the central Philippines have sparked a debate on whether feeding the giant fish may ultimately be hurting the creatures, officials said on Saturday.

While the mayor of the coastal town of Oslob insists that the practice of feeding the whale sharks does no harm and is good for tourism, environmentalists have recommended that it be halted.

Fishermen in Oslob in the central resort island of Cebu have been feeding whale sharks with baby shrimp since the 1980s and now use this feeding to make the creatures rise to the surface of the water for the amusement of tourists.

"This has been practised for a long time. When tourists come in, they want to see the whale sharks. So when they (the boatmen) spread these baby shrimps, these whale sharks would surface," said Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren.

However Edmundo Arregadas, regional head of the coastal marine management division, said he had discouraged the mayor from continuing the practice of feeding the whale sharks, the world's largest fish.

"We told them it might have a negative effect on the natural way of life of the whale shark," he told AFP. By feeding the whale sharks, the giant fish might become dependent on handouts from people, he warned.

"They are feeding it so they can have more tourists. But whale sharks are now used to the feeding act."

Expecting food, whale sharks might approach other boats and risk colliding with them. They also might be more vulnerable to poachers who will catch and kill them, Arregadas said.

However Mayor Guaren said that even after years of feeding, no whale sharks had turned up dead and insisted that the animals were not dependent on feeding and could still find food on their own.

"If that would be harmful, the whale sharks would not have stayed in the waters of Oslob," he said.

Guaren said that the local government was regulating the feeding, ensuring that only a small number of boatmen would feed the whale sharks in a designated area only in the mornings.

Tourists are also barred from feeding or swimming with the whale sharks and the boatmen are required to use rowing boats and keep their distance to avoid hurting fish with their propellers or in collisions, Guaren said.

Arregadas said he had advised people in Oslob, which attracts many beach tourists, not to feed the whale sharks. But he could not impose rules on them.

"I hope they will come to understand that. We are not in a position to take sanctions against local government officials," he said.

Whale sharks measure as much as 12 metres (39 feet) long but are harmless to humans and feed on tiny marine animals. They are classified as "vulnerable" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN.)

The Philippines has banned the catching and killing of whale sharks and they have become popular tourist attractions in some towns.


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New Primate Species Discovered On Madagascar

ScienceDaily 7 Jan 12;

A Malagasy-German research team has discovered a new primate species in the Sahafina Forest in eastern Madagascar, a forest that has not been studied before. The name of the new species is Gerp's mouse lemur (Microcebus gerpi), chosen to honour the Malagasy research group GERP (Groupe d'√Čtude et de Recherche sur les Primates de Madagascar). Several researchers of GERP have visited the Sahafina Forest in 2008 and 2009 to create an inventory the local lemurs.

They captured several mouse lemurs, measured them, took photos and small biopsies for genetic studies, and released them again. Prof. Ute Radespiel, Institute of Zoology of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover, analysed the samples and the morphological dataset, and confirmed that the animals from the Sahafina Forest belong to an undescribed species of the small nocturnal mouse lemurs.

„We were quite surprised by these findings. The Sahafina Forest is only 50km away from the Mantadia National Park in eastern Madagascar, which contains a different and much smaller species, the Goodman's mouse lemur," commented Prof. Radespiel. In contrast, the Gerp's mouse lemur belongs to the group of larger mouse lemurs, i.e. has a body mass of about 68g, and is therefore almost "a giant" compared to the Goodman's mouse lemur (ca. 44g body mass).

The distribution of the Gerp's mouse lemur is probably restricted to the remaining fragments of lowland evergreen rain forest of this region in eastern Madagascar. Continuing deforestation poses a serious threat for these animals. The researchers from Hanover/Germany, and Madagascar published their discovery together in the journal Primates.

Journal Reference:

Ute Radespiel, Jonah H. Ratsimbazafy, Solofonirina Rasoloharijaona, Herimalala Raveloson, Nicole Andriaholinirina, Romule Rakotondravony, Rose M. Randrianarison, Blanchard Randrianambinina. First indications of a highland specialist among mouse lemurs (Microcebus spp.) and evidence for a new mouse lemur species from eastern Madagascar. Primates, 2011; DOI: 10.1007/s10329-011-0290-2


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Africa's rainforests 'more resilient' to climate change

Mark Kinver BBC News 6 Jan 12;

Tropical forests in Africa may be more resilient to future climate change than the Amazon and other regions, a gathering of scientists has said.

An international conference agreed that the region's surviving tree species had endured a number of climatic catastrophes over the past 4,000 years.

As a result, they are better suited to cope with future shifts in the climate.

The event at the University of Oxford looked at the "fate of Africa's tropical forests in the 21st Century".

Conference organiser Yadvinder Malhi, professor of ecosystems at the university, said the main reason was that Africa's climate had been far more variable than, say, the Amazon or South-East Asia, even over the past 10,000 years.

"In some senses, African forests have gone through a number of catastrophes in the past 4,000 to 2,000 years," he told BBC News.

"They are already much lower in diversity, and have lost species that would have been potentially vulnerable. But the species that remain are relatively adaptable, have broad ranges and have adapted to quite rapid changes in rainfall.

"So, overall, the remaining system - although it may be poorer to some extent - may be much more resilient to the pressures from climate change in this century."

Data deficit

The three-day conference - entitled Climate Change, Deforestation and the Future of African Rainforests - focused on the tropical forests of West Africa, which helped highlight a key issue.

"One thing that really came out was how little we know about African climate compared to other regions of the world," Prof Malhi observed.

"There are large gaps [in the data]. If you look at a map of where weather stations are reporting, there is no data coming out of almost the entire Congo Basin."

It was an issue that was also highlighted by one of the speakers, Mark New from the University of Cape Town.

"A colleague of mine put it very nicely when he said that if you took a scale of what is known in various regions, and if you went into West Africa and the Sahel region, which has been extensively studied, and made that 100, if you then went down to the West African coast where the tropical forests are, it would probably be about 50 in terms of relative knowledge," he explained.

"But then if you carried on down to the Congo Basin, then you would probably get five or 10 out of 100."

Prof New added: "One of the critical points that I made is that what we know and understand about what controls the climate and variability, in the Congo especially, is basically zero.

"This makes it very difficult to make any strong predictions of what the future might be."

As well as issues surrounding climate data, the conference also heard about research projects assessing characteristics of the region's tropical forests.

Simon Lewis from the University of Leeds, UK, outlined findings regarding long-term forest plots.

"One of the big findings has been that African forests have more biomass, and have much bigger trees, in comparison with the forests in the Amazon," he told BBC News.

"That is partly because the trees are longer lived so they are becoming bigger over time, and partly because the whole forests are more productive.

"But we are not entirely sure why the African forests are more productive than those in the Amazon."

More than trees

He said that although there was a smaller diversity of tree species in Africa - the second largest area of rainforest on the planet - compared with the Amazon, it did not mean the forests were not important biodiversity hotspots.

"We must not just consider the trees, because in terms of mammal diversity, it is extremely high," Dr Lewis added.

"There are many species of monkeys, and you then have things like pigmy hippos and forest giraffes.

"In terms of its animal diversity, it really is a remarkable place. And the majestic stature of the trees, it is again remarkable."

Prof Malhi explained that the results of the conference would soon be outlined in briefs and drafts for policymakers summarising "some of the key points of what we know and what we need to know".

"We will also make some scientific recommendations about what are the immediate gaps in the research areas, that with a focused effort, we could know in five years time," he added.

"We are also planning to have a smaller follow-up meeting in central Africa, where the region's key policymakers will be invited to attend."


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China's Largest Freshwater Lake Shrinks in Record Drought

Environment News Service 5 Jan 12;

NANCHANG, Jiangxi Province, China, January 5, 2012 (ENS) - The surface area of China's largest freshwater lake has shrunk to less 200 square kilometers (77 square miles) due to China's worst drought in 50 years, according to the Jiangxi Provincial Hydrographic Bureau.

Poyang Lake, situated in the southeastern province of Jiangxi, is fed by five rivers and empties into the Yangtze, China's longest river.

Statistics released by the hydrographic bureau to the state-run Xinhua News Agency show that average precipitation in Jiangxi in 2011 was 21 percent lower than the annual average in the past several years.

Currently, the water level of the middle and lower reaches of the Ganjiang River, one of the five rivers that flows into the lake, has reached a record low for this time of year of 12.35 meters (40.5 feet). This level is 0.47 meters (1.5 feet) lower than the previous record low for January, according to the hydrographic bureau.

Cities along the Ganjiang River are preparing for a possible water shortage, the bureau said on Wednesday

The shrinking of Poyang Lake has been going on for years. In June 2011, provincial officials announced that the lake was 87 percent smaller than it had been in previous years due to the drought that has plagued the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River for months.

In April 2011, workers at the lake's main water station, recorded the water level at just 9.48 meters (31 feet), which was 4.1 meters (13.4 feet) lower than at any point in its history, said a spokesman with the Poyang Hydrology Bureau at the time.

The lake provides habitat for half a million migratory birds, including the only surviving population of critically endangered Siberian white cranes.

The lake also is inhabited by some 140 kinds of fish and about 600 other animal species.

Sand dredging has become a mainstay of local economic development in the last few years, and is an important source of revenue in the region that borders Poyang Lake. But high-density dredging projects and heavy shipping traffic in the lake have resulted in the decline of for the local wildlife population, particularly the unique and endangered freshwater finless porpoise, N. a. asiaeorientalis, according to a 2007 report by Kejia Zhang of the "China Youth Daily."

The Yangtze River once was ideal habitat for these unique porpoises, but human economic activity has squeezed them into Poyang Lake and Dongting Lake, where they are only just surviving, Wang Ding, deputy director of the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Zhang for her report.

"An optimistic estimate would put numbers at no more than 1,400 - less than half of the 1997 population. But although the porpoise population is currently dropping at a rate of 7.3 percent per year, it still has a hope of survival - if enough action is taken," said Wang.

Jiangxi Province plans to build a 2,800-meter (9,186 foot) high dam to protect Poyang Lake from the impact of the world's largest dam, the Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze River, provincial officials said in June.

The Three Gorges dam has had a great impact on Poyang Lake because it prevents Yangtze River water from entering the lake, Wang Xiaohong, director of the Mountain, River and Lake Development Committee of the province, told the Shanghai newspaper in June.

Water levels had been above 19.5 meters (64 feet) but dropped to only 16 meters (52.5 feet) after the main part of the Three Gorges dam was completed in 2006, the report said.

The Poyang dam plan was approved by the State Council, the country's Cabinet, in December 2009, but work has yet to begin as experts fear the dam might worsen the situation of the lake.

On May 18, 2011, the State Council issued a statement promising continued efforts to protect the environment, prevent geological disasters and minimize the Three Gorges Dam's impact on the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River.

Lake Poyang reached its greatest size during the Tang Dynasty, 618-907 A.D., when it covered 6,000 square kilometers.


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Pollution rise 'worsens' South Asia's winter smog

Navin Singh Khadka BBC News 6 Jan 12;

A rapid rise in air pollution from fossil fuels and biomass burning has worsened winter smog and extended its duration in many parts of South Asia, scientists and officials have said.

In Bangladesh, India and Nepal the temperature has plummeted and clouds of fog and smoke hang in the sky blocking sunlight for several days.

Normal lives have been affected with many flights diverted and suspended and trains delayed because of low visibility.

Experts say they have noticed that the intensity of smog has grown in the Indo-Gangetic plains in the last few years, leading to increased impacts.

"Since 1990 onwards, there has been increase in the number of [smog-affected] days in northern India," says BP Yadav, director of the Indian Meteorological Department.

"It is not a linear trend showing an increase every year. There are, of course, year-to-year fluctuations.

"But there are more years that have seen dense fogs."

Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology director-general Keshav Prasad Sharma agrees the issue of smog is becoming increasingly serious in the plains in southern Nepal bordering India.

"Until 10 years ago, we did not have such dense fog for long durations like we have these days," he says.

"Although the 10-year period is too short for statistical trends, it is indeed being seen as a major issue now."

Some are also investigating whether the conditions can be linked to health problems in parts of the region. Although widely reported as the direct effect of a cold wave, medical professionals say deaths and illnesses are often related to respiratory diseases.

"None of our patients died of hypothermia," says senior consultant physician Gaurang Mishra of a regional referral hospital in south-eastern Nepal where dozens of people have been reported to have died during the last three weeks that saw many smoggy days.

"They mostly suffer from chronic pulmonary obstructive disease that is caused by burning of wood and cow-dung cake and pollution from industries and vehicles, mainly during winter season."

The number of such patients, particularly children and elderly people, is also in the rise in Bangladesh.

"But it is not just about people's health in our country," says Iqbal Habib of the Bangladesh Environment Movement (BAPA). "At times, all means of transport come to a complete halt because of zero visibility and all walks of lives are affected.

"The working hours come down to as little as four hours a day."

Experts say besides regular sources like vehicles, industrial factories, power plants and dust from gravelled roads, air pollution in some areas in Bangladesh is getting worse because of fast increasing numbers of brick kilns.

Some studies have shown that they account for around 40% of air pollution in and around the capital Dhaka.

"Since we have a sustainable economic growth rate, we need more bricks and the number of brick kilns is going up day by day," admits Monowar Islam, director general of Bangladesh's Department of Environment.

"We know the situation is becoming serious but it is not alarming.

"We have been demolishing unauthorised brick kilns and have been implementing the World Bank-supported clean air and sustainable environment project through which we patronise new technologies that reduce air pollution."

Just like in Bangladesh, India also sees lots of constructions during winter as this is the dry season before the region gets monsoon rainfall preventing such works.

"Construction works too are major contributors for the smog in this season as they lead to more pollution in the air," says the Indian Meteorological Department's BP Yadav.

That is in addition to pollutants from energy sources.
Energy demand

In its World Energy Outlook 2010, the International Energy Agency said: "India is the second-largest contributor to the increase in global energy demand to 2035, accounting for 18% of the rise."

Scientists say pollutants and aerosols in the air enhance condensation of water in the atmosphere causing dense smog.

"The more pollutants in the air, the denser the smog," says Keshav Prasad Sharma at Nepal's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology. "In some Nepal-India bordering areas, smog blankets can be seen from early evening."

When such blankets of smog block sunlight, sending temperatures down, people make fire from wood, cow-dung cake and hay to warm themselves and that creates more air pollution which leads to denser smog.

Scientists say the real trouble is that smog during winter cannot escape to the upper atmosphere as it can during other seasons, because of meteorological conditions.

"During winter, the cold air that blows towards the southwest from the northeast tends to push the boundary layer (the layer of atmosphere closest to the Earth surface) low," William Lau, deputy director for atmospheres at Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center told BBC News.

"As a result, all the pollutants get trapped in the boundary layer that is pushed down to as low as one kilometre from the Earth's surface while it is more than five kilometres away during other seasons.

"The cold wave becomes severe because of this local trapping of the aerosols and other pollution that block off the solar radiation and create very unhealthy air in this part of the world."


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