Best of our wild blogs: 5 Apr 12

26-27 May (Sat-Sun): Festival of Biodiversity 2012
from Celebrating Singapore's BioDiversity!

Conservation & governance from a naive perspective
from Nature rambles

“Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time? Across an ocean of grief” from News from the International Coastal Cleanup Singapore

Job: Student field assistants wanted for plant traits in regenerating forests project
from The Biodiversity crew @ NUS

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How green is this little red dot?

Not all black and white when it comes to how S'pore does in surveys
Jessica Cheam Straits Times 5 Apr 12;

SINGAPORE'S reputation as a 'clean and green' city has taken a few hard knocks recently.

First was a University of British Columbia study in February that ranked the Republic bottom of 150 countries in its Eco2 Index. That index looked at 'ecological deficits' - how much of the Earth's resources it uses compared with how much resources it can supply. Media reports described 'ecologically bankrupt' Singapore as the 'world's unhealthiest country'.

Then came an Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency report quoting conservation group WWF president Yolanda Kakabadse saying that Singapore topped the list for the largest carbon footprint in Asia-Pacific in 2010. She reportedly described Singapore as perhaps 'one of the best examples of what we should not do'.

These recent claims have ruffled a few feathers on this Little Red Dot, which prides itself on its clean and green reputation built over the decades.

The Government has strongly rebutted these rankings, saying they are biased against 'import-dependent, land-scarce, densely populated countries such as Singapore'. Some netizens, however, have gleefully used it to validate why they think everything is wrong in this country.

So what's the truth? Is Singapore ecologically bankrupt or a green haven?

To be sure, these recent rankings seem to be making a fair point: Singapore consumes far more than it can offer ecologically. But dig further, and other points emerge.

A close look at the methodologies of the two rankings above show that both based their findings on data compiled by the Global Footprint Network (GFN), an alliance of scientists which calculates how many 'planet earths' we need to sustain our current growth rates. The GFN uses a complicated method that measures a country's 'ecological footprint' by defining how much resources - expressed in land area - is needed by a country for its consumption and waste generated.

This explains why the Eco2 Index put Singapore right at the bottom. As a built-up city with virtually no agriculture industry or natural resources, it has no ecological assets to speak of.

But ranking Singapore with land-rich and agriculturally endowed countries such as Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay which emerged top of the Eco2 Index is not only pointless, it is unfair.

It essentially penalises Singapore for its nature as an urban city-state with little natural resources.

In order to get a high ecological rating, Singapore would have to live within its means ecologically: That is, consume no more than its land can produce. The fishing village that was Singapore before 1819 might then have scored high on the Eco2 Index. In that sense, the Eco2 Index penalises small countries which refuse to be constrained by their natural resource shortage, and manage to outgrow their limits.

Then there is the matter of carbon footprints. WWF's Living Planet Report 2010 ranks Singapore with the highest carbon footprint in the Asia-Pacific. But this conflicts with that of other rankings.

The International Energy Agency, for example, uses a method adopted by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for all countries. This calculates a nation's emissions based on the country's production - any activity that takes place within the country's borders. Aviation and bunker fuel - which are tricky to attribute to any one country due to their transboundary nature - are excluded.

Using this method, Singapore was ranked below other Asia-Pacific countries like Brunei, Australia and South Korea in per capita emissions.

By contrast, the GFN method, which WWF's report is built on, uses a method that accords more weight to where an item is consumed than produced. So a car manufactured in Japan but sold and used in India will contribute to India's, rather than Japan's, consumption footprint.

This is an interesting, alternative way of looking at footprints - but there is no accurate or consistent way of calculating this globally at the moment. GFN's method takes into account differing ways of producing exports - for example, what type of energy is used - but does not apply the same to imports.

Emissions from aviation are also attributed to individual countries - which means an air hub like Singapore ends up with a high tally. Media reports like the one from AFP did not make all these different accounting methods clear.

In fact, there are other methods to rank green cities. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) developed an Asian Green City Index which scored 22 cities across eight categories, including energy and carbon emissions, land use, transport and waste.

It used 29 quantitative and qualitative indicators from how a city performs in say, waste production, to assessment of its policies, such as on energy efficiency. Singapore was ranked Asia's greenest city on this index. It was also the most energy efficient - using three megajoules of energy to generate a US dollar of gross domestic product (GDP), compared with the index average of six megajoules.

Consultancy firm Solidiance around that time also issued a green ranking of Asia-Pacific cities that put Singapore fourth, with Tokyo, Seoul and Melbourne ahead - but it did not publish its quantitative and qualitative indicators so there is no way to tell how it derived its results.

So which ranking is right?

The fact of the matter is, the Singapore authorities and citizens shouldn't get too hot and bothered over any particular rating as each has its methodology.

We need to look at the methods used, and examine their robustness and logic, before making up our minds on how much credence to give them. Those reporting on such ratings should also do some homework and not dismiss an entire country based on one survey.

Singapore agencies should also accept unfavourable ratings in the right spirit. There is much room for improvement on Singapore's green credentials. For example, it is slow on adopting electric vehicles, it does have high levels of energy consumption and buildings still waste too much energy on air-conditioning.

As for the WWF reportedly citing Singapore as what societies 'should not do': It made that comment at the same time it moved its global headquarters for Earth Hour, a well-known global environmental campaign, to Singapore from Sydney.

Bottom line? When it comes to green surveys, it's not all black and white.

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Malaysia: Dismayed by wanton clearing of Johor mangroves

The Star 5 Apr 12;

THE Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) is dismayed by the destruction of the mangroves in the riparian zones within the Iskandar Waterfront Development, which include the Sungai Skudai and its tributary Sungai Danga.

MNS is not anti-development and we respect the need to clear certain areas needed for the construction of certain physical structures within the development zone.

We are only against the wanton destruction of all the trees, especially the mangroves within the riparian (buffer) zones.

Is the total removal of the mangroves indicated in the the EIA report?

If so, who is responsible for monitoring for compliance?

Why is there the absence of signages at the development sites, which would give the necessary information of the planned development of the area (name of developer, type of development, name of architect etc.)?

The latest clearing of the mangroves is beside Taman Permata.

The mangroves on the right bank of Sungai Danga are totally cleared to the water’s edge.

The physical topography of the area indicates the area is a flood plain, which should be maintained for flood mitigation purposes.

Other riparian zone mangroves should maintain at least 30m of mangroves from the highest water mark, which must be conserved for various usages – natural purification for water, flood mitigation, fish breeding grounds, habitat for small mammals etc.

IRDA has indicated that the development within the Iskandar Development Region would be “sustainable” but the wanton destruction of these precious mangrove areas indicates otherwise, and it is MNS’ hope that this practice would cease immediately.

Coastal fishermen in the area have been complaining of poor catch since the development has been going on in the Sungai Skudai/Sungai Danga estuaries for the last few years.

Malaysian Nature Society.

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Malaysia: Borneo Elephant Sanctuary hits snag

Kristy Inus New Straits Times 5 Apr 12;

SHORTAGE: There is only one expert in Sabah to train elephants

THE Borneo Elephant Wildlife Sanctuary, which was expected to be ready by the middle of the year for the Borneo Pygmy elephants and other wildlife driven from their habitat, has hit a snag.

There is a shortage of experts to train the elephants.

In fact, there is only one specialist in the state.

He is Sabah Wildlife Department's elephant trainer Jibius Dausip, who is now tasked with recruiting and training mahouts.

Jibius, 48, from Tambunan, who had more than 20 years experience taking care of elephants, said he had seen many of his peers give up their careers as mahouts because it took a lot of sacrifice and dedication.

A mahout needs years of training and is expected to spend long periods away from his family while staying in the remote wilds of Sabah, including at wildlife reserves such as Tabin in Lahad Datu.

While training was mainly done with the elephants rehabilitated at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, Jibius said the job went beyond normal working hours as he resided in the Park, always on standby in case of emergencies.

"Elephants are huge but shy creatures and not everyone can handle them.

"That is why you need to create a special bond with each individual elephant.

"This, of course, requires spending a lot of time together.

"I guess I am still in this business because I love working with elephants," said Jibius, who was trained in Thailand and Europe before coming home to Sabah to help train the locals.

Sabah Wildlife Department senior veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan, who is also officer in charge of Lok Kawi Wildfire Park, said there were three full-fledged mahouts and five mahouts-in-training.

There are currently 16 elephants, including calves at the Park, with the youngest being a 6-month-old female calf named Ruandu, recently rescued from Tawau.

"The ideal situation is one mahout to one elephant as they have to develop a close relationship. But we cannot accommodate that under the current situation.

"We need more local talents once the BEWS initiative starts in July. We expect to have 15 working staff, including mahouts.

"The department did consider taking mahouts from Thailand or India but we prefer to take locals," Dr Sen said.

SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu said earlier news reports had said that Malaysian Palm Oil Council would allocate an initial funding of RM5 million for BEWS while several non-governmental organisations from Japan had pledged RM1.5 million.

The Borneo Pygmy elephant situation in Sabah is critical as there are only about 2,000 animals left in the wild, and an estimated 60 to 100 elephants are waiting to be rescued from remote areas.

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Tuna fishing ban in Pacific partially lifted

After two-year ban to replenish depleted stocks, limited access granted to fish in Pacific, where 60% of world's tuna are sourced
Kay Luiz 4 Apr 12;

Pacific nations have reopened the Pacific high seas to commercial tuna fishing after a two-year ban imposed to preserve declining bigeye tuna stocks.

In a meeting in Guam last week, member countries of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) lifted the fishing ban on pockets 1 and 2 of the Pacific Ocean.

The WCPFC is a 25-member organisation including Australia, the EU, Japan, Papua New Guinea, and the Philippines that oversees and regulates migratory fish stocks such as tuna and marlin in the Pacific. Its jurisdiction covers 20% of the planet's surface.

In January 2010, the WCPFC placed the ban on parts of the Pacific Ocean, where 60% of the world's tuna are sourced, to conserve the population of the bigeye tuna, which scientists classified as overfished. Other tuna species like skipjack, yellowfin, and albacore also found in the Pacific high seas but their numbers have not reached an alarming low.

Although it lifted the ban, the commission maintained that entry to the marine reserves would be limited, refusing proposals from the European Community and South Korea for a free-for-all access to one of the world's richest fishing grounds.

"The Pacific Commons is now open. But for all practical purposes, access will be limited," said Mark Dia of Greenpeace. "They knew that everybody would suffer if a free-for-all access is granted," he added.

The WCPFC approved the request of the Philippine government, the third top tuna harvester in the Pacific after Japan and South Korea, to fish in pocket 1 of the Pacific, which is bounded by the island nations of Micronesia, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Indonesia.

In exchange for fishing access, the Philippine government must report its catch and limit the number of fishing vessels to 36, Dia said. Filipino vessels must also apply for international fishing permits before entering pocket 1.

The Philippines' fisheries director Asis Perez said the ban brought hard times to the local fishing sector. He also noted that the fishing ban was counterproductive for the Philippines as it forced fishing companies to harvest in its national waters, which is considered to be a spawning ground for various types of tuna, he said.

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Endangered Right Whale Protection Goes High-Tech

Ros Krasny PlanetArk 5 Apr 12;

Efforts to protect the North Atlantic right whale have gone high-tech with the creation of an iPad/iPhone application that can warn mariners when they approach an area where the highly endangered mammals are congregating.

The Whale Alert app, available for free download, uses global positioning system and other technology to send the latest data about right whale detections, overlaid on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) digital charts, to the user's device.

The project is a joint effort between NOAA and other government agencies, including the National Park Service and the Coast Guard, universities, and conservation groups.

The system hopes to limit the number of deadly collisions between whales and vessels, especially large vessels such as cruise ships and container ships. When whales are detected in an area, ships can alter course slightly or slow down.

Marine authorities estimate there are only 350 to 550 of the massive mammals left in the world.

"Right whales are an iconic species for those who live on the coast of Massachusetts and the Northeast U.S.," said Patrick Ramage, director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

The U.S. commercial whaling industry was centered in New England for hundreds of years before it was wound down in the early 20th Century.

"In a region where for generations New Englanders have harnessed technology to find whales and kill them, now in the 21st century we are harnessing technology to find them and save them," Ramage said.

North Atlantic right whales live along the coast of North America from Newfoundland to Florida.

The creatures, which have a normal lifespan of 50 to 70 years and can weigh around 70 tons, are vulnerable to getting struck by ships because they live in near-shore waters, feed close to the surface, and are notoriously slow swimmers.

Collisions with vessels killed more than one third of the right whales which were reported dead between 1970 and 2007.

Given the fragility of the population, the loss of even one whale - especially a breeding-age female - can have a significant impact on the species.

In major shipping lanes to and from Boston, whale detection will be aided by real-time acoustic detection buoys that essentially listen for whale activity.

"The whales are calling each other. We are eavesdropping into the social network of right whales living off the coast of Massachusetts," said Christopher Clark, director of the bioacoustics research program at Cornell University.

The app was developed for Apple's iPads and iPhones by EarthNC, which specializes in spatial mapping systems for the leisure boating community, and Gaia GPS, which designs backcountry topographic maps.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Half of Giant Panda Habitat May Vanish in 70 Years, Scientists Say

Clara Moskowitz Yahoo News 5 Apr 12;

For all their cuteness, giant pandas are in a tight spot. There are fewer than 1,600 pandas left in the wild, and a new study found that more than half of the bears' already diminished natural habitat will be unlivable in 70 years thanks to climate change.

To protect the adorable black-and-white creatures, zoologists are working furiously to understand and improve panda-breeding in captivity. Toward that end, another recent study investigated male pandas' reproductive cycle, and found that, contrary to females, males are ready and able to mate during more than six months of the year.

This is welcome news, given that female pandas have a sharply limited fertility window of only 24 to 72 hours a year.

"The more we know, the more we can understand them and the better we're able to put guidelines in place for their protection," said Copper Aitken-Palmer, head veterinarian at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., and leader of the reproduction study. "We can potentially manage them better in captivity, and we're actually looking toward reintroduction programs to put captive pandas back into the wild."
When the time is right

Aitken-Palmer and her colleagues studied eight male pandas over the course of three years at the Chengdu Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China. They analyzed pandas' sperm density, hormone levels and testes size, as well as reproductive behaviors such as movement, scent-marking and vocalizations, to map out their reproductive viability over time.

The research showed that male pandas have a breeding season, but it is much longer than that of females.

"The coordinated increases in testes size, androgen production, sperm density, and sexual behaviors occur over a protracted interval, likely to prepare for, and then accommodate a brief, unpredictable female estrus," the scientists wrote in a paper reporting the results published today (April 4) in the journal Biology of Reproduction's Papers in Press.

Love is hard

Still, mating for pandas is notoriously difficult, especially in captivity.

For example, zoologists at Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo gave their female panda, Tian Tian, and their male, Yang Guang, some private time in an indoor enclosure with the cameras turned off on April 3 and 4, when Tian Tian's fertility window opened. Though the pair met repeatedly, zookeepers are losing hope of seeing a panda cub this year.

"Each time the pair met, we saw a huge amount of eagerness and attraction between Tian Tian and Yang Guang," Iain Valentine, director of research and conservation at the zoo, said in a statement. "There was lots of vocalization and encouragement from our female and physical contact between the two. He mounted her several times, however full mating did not occur. Although both have bred before and have borne cubs with other pandas, they are both still relatively inexperienced."

Yet scientists say we shouldn't blame pandas for their reproductive difficulties.

"All of this physiology and these adaptations worked great for the panda in the wild, historically," Aitken-Palmer told LiveScience. "In captivity, we changed all the rules and made it more challenging for them."

For example, while pandas are solitary in the wild, they are often put in enclosures with other pandas in captivity, which could complicate their natural behavior, she said.

Turning up the heat

Though pandas are the pride of many zoos around the world, their situation in the wild is growing dire. One of the greatest threats to the furry creatures is habitat loss from climate change and human encroachment, scientists say.

While the species used to roam over most of southeastern China, northern Myanmar, and northern Vietnam, now pandas are limited to six mountain ranges between the Sichuan plain and Tibetan plateau.

And that habitat is looking to grow much smaller, with pandas set to lose 60 percent of their current range due to climate change by 2080, researchersreported in a paper published in the International Journal of Ecology in March. That's a loss of more than 6,200 square miles (16,000 square kilometers).

As global temperatures become warmer, on average, the panda-suitable habitats will move to higher elevations and latitudes, according to climate models. In addition to pandas' limited geographic range, the species has other traits that suggest climate change could hit it hard.

"Giant pandas have a narrow range, do not disperse over large distances, produce one cub every two to three years, and depend on bamboo for 99 percent of their diet," the researchers, led by Melissa Songer of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, wrote in their paper. "These traits suggest they will be highly susceptible to climate change."

Holding out hope

While much of pandas' existing habitat may be lost, the bears might be able to move to new regions.

"New areas may become suitable outside the current geographic range but much of these areas [are] far from the current giant panda range and only 15 percent fall within the current protected area system," the scientists wrote. "Long-term survival of giant pandas will require the creation of new protected areas that are likely to support suitable habitat even if the climate changes."

And ultimately, there is reason for hope.

"The panda is so well-known, such a flagship species for conservation in general," Aitken-Palmer said. "I think if we can't have hope for the panda, who can we have hope for? I want to have hope, but conservation worldwide is in trouble. Only time will tell."

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Brazil wants Rio+20 meet to impose sustainable development

AFP Yahoo News 3 Apr 12;

Brazil wants the upcoming Rio summit on sustainable development to impose the concept as a development model for the world, one of the organizers said Tuesday.

"We are at a time when crises are multiplying, political crisis, environmental crisis," Ambassador Luiz Alberto Figueiredo told foreign correspondents here. "Rio+20 will provide an opportunity to review those crises triggered by the current development model."

The Rio+20 summit scheduled for June 20-22, the fourth major summit on sustainable development since 1972, is to take up a broad range of issues on the health of the world, including growth, food security, access to water, lifestyles, energy, biodiversity and climate.

Figueiredo said the gathering "will be a success if it adopts clear (sustainable development) goals" for the next 20 years which can balance economic growth, poverty eradication and protection of the environment.

Asked about the lack of sanctions in case of non-compliance with the goals set, he replied: "When one sets development targets for the millennium, one does not think in terms of sanctions."

"Rio+20 will establish bridges between the various perceptions and positions on the green economy," he noted. "Some countries fear that this green economy may be used as a trade barrier."

The first official draft of the June conference released in January recognizes the limitations of gross domestic product as a measure of wellbeing.

It stresses the need "to further develop and strengthen indicators complementing GDP that integrate economic, social and environmental dimensions in a balanced manner."

One of its key proposals involves defining "sustainable development goals" that commit countries to meeting targets in the areas of food security, access to water, green jobs and even "sustainable production and consumption models."

These goals would complement the poverty-reduction Millennium Development Goals set by 192 countries in 2000.

Figueiredo rejected as "unfounded" charges by 39 civil society groups that Brasilia under President Dilma Rousseff had "backtracked" with respect to protection of the environment.

"Brazil will arrive at the summit with outstanding results: It's a country which has made progress, which has fostered social inclusion and which has reduced like never before its deforestation rates," Figueiredo said.

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