Best of our wild blogs: 22 Apr 12

Wild Malayan Porcupine found on Ubin
from Pulau Ubin Stories

Earth Day with kids at Pasir Ris mangroves!
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

A Trio of Rarities
from Butterflies of Singapore

Read more!

MOE camp stops water activities after croc sighting

Straits Times 22 Apr 12;

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has stopped all water-based activities at its Jalan Bahtera Adventure Centre after a crocodile was spotted in the waters off Lim Chu Kang.

The unwelcome visitor first appeared on March 29, said a spokesman for MOE.

Mr Sim Song Huat, who runs a fish farm opposite the centre, told The Sunday Times he had noticed a 2m-long crocodile nearby. 'I saw it swimming around where the students usually kayak,' he said. 'I decided to notify the camp operators since it could be dangerous.'

The operator then reported the matter to the ministry. Schools that have booked activities such as canoeing from now until the end of the year have been told of the suspension, said the MOE spokesman.

But it appears there may be more than one crocodile lurking in the area. Mr Sim's friends from other fish farms had seen a bigger 4m-long crocodile at a nearby pier.

In waters near Kranji Reservoir, other fishermen have also spotted crocodiles, Mr Sim said. He estimated there could be six of them in all.

The last time he saw one was about a year ago, he added, noting that in his 20 years of running a fish farm in the area, these were his only sightings.

At the nearby Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, a few estuarine crocodiles have visited over the years, appearing in the water or at the mudflats away from the visitor routes.

'We suspect that they move about freely in the Johor Strait,' said Mr Wong Tuan Wah, National Parks Board's director of conservation. He advised visitors to stay calm and back away slowly if they encounter a crocodile.

Meanwhile, fishermen in the area seem unfazed and were still wading into the sea to cast their nets. 'They usually run away when they see us, so we are not worried,' quipped Mr Sim.

Read more!

Ayes all round for Singapore eye in the sky

First locally developed satellite invaluable in helping to monitor environmental change
Jermyn Chow Straits Times 22 Apr 12;

One year in space, and Singapore's first locally designed and built satellite has not only captured images of Sumatra's forest fires and the Bangkok floods, but also had a few near misses with floating debris.

Since last May, X-Sat, which hovers 800km above ground, has taken and beamed back more than 1,000 satellite images from space to help researchers on the ground monitor the effects of environmental changes.

Associate Professor Low Kay Soon, one of X-Sat's team leaders, said the National Environment Agency and environmental consultancy Sentinel Asia have benefited from X-Sat's images.

The red-and-black photographs - with red denoting vegetation and black representing bodies of water - can be used to measure soil erosion, sea pollution and environmental changes within an area of 50km by 30km.

The 105kg fridge-size microsatellite has also had seven close shaves with space debris - mostly remnants of satellites that have been decommissioned or fragments chipped off from other satellites.

The most recent encounter was on April 13, when the solar-powered X-Sat, which circles the Earth once in 100 minutes at a speed of 7.5km a second, came as close as 200m to one of the fragments.

'It is harrowing because even debris the size of a five-cent coin can inflict a lot of damage on the satellite,' said Prof Low.

The success in beaming back images to Singapore capped more than nine years of work by more than 40 scientists and engineers from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and Singapore's defence research body, DSO National Laboratories.

The experience so far has been invaluable for Prof Low and his team who run NTU's Satellite Research Centre.

Lessons learnt will be applied to Singapore's second locally made satellite - but the first to be made by students - scheduled to be launched next April.

Called Velox-I, the nanosatellite is smaller than the X-Sat and is being put through its paces by NTU engineering students in the Undergraduate Satellite Programme that began in April 2010.

NTU hopes to launch four smaller satellites in the next 10 years.

Read more!

Expect another large quake in next 10 years

Grace Chua Straits Times 22 Apr 12;

When a massive, 8.6-magnitude earthquake struck off Sumatra on April 11, people there headed for the hills.

They feared a repeat of 2004's horrors, when a 9.1-magnitude quake off Aceh caused a tsunami that left more than 230,000 people dead in countries across the Indian Ocean, from Indonesia to Somalia.

For several hours, the region braced itself for killer waves. But there were none.

So what made this month's quake and its 8.2-magnitude aftershock so different from what happened in 2004?
Dr Paul Tapponnier, one of the world's foremost seismologists, is a pioneer in the field of tectonics, unravelling the puzzle of how the forces acting on the Earth's plates cause them to move, slide and collide.

Now with the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS), he explained that earthquakes can occur at three main types of faults: When two pieces of the Earth's crust split from each other, slide horizontally away from each other, or collide.

Typically, these faults are found at the boundaries between tectonic plates, which are large pieces of the Earth's crust. But lesser faults can also develop within plates, at weak spots that form when the plate grows and cools.

Most of the large (magnitude 7-plus) quakes off Sumatra are along the Sunda megathrust, the boundary formed by the Indo-Australian plate thrusting into and under the Eurasian plate.

But, Dr Tapponnier explained, the story is more complex. The Indo-Australian plate is actually trying to shear apart into Indian and Australian plates, producing stresses and weak spots.

And within the Indo-Australian plate, there are many smaller faults running north to south.

Scientists believe the April 11 undersea quakes were the result of these small faults interacting with the stresses, as well as the megathrust. The quakes occurred within the Indo-Australian plate, when two strips of the Earth's crust slid horizontally past each other, a type of sidelong motion called a strike-slip fault.

Because they did not push large amounts of sea water upwards, they did not cause much of a tsunami. Indeed, news reports indicate that the April 11 wave was generally less than a metre high in Aceh.

In contrast, the Dec 26, 2004 earthquake caused such a powerful tsunami and massive damage in all directions from its epicentre off Sumatra because it was what is known as a 'megathrust' earthquake.

That occurred when the Indian and Australian tectonic plates suddenly dived under the Eurasian plate with such great force that it moved the sea floor and sea water up or down by many metres.

That generated a series of large waves - a tsunami - capable of travelling right across the Indian Ocean to Africa.

Although there was no tsunami on April 11, coastal communities did the right thing by evacuating to higher ground.

'It takes time for scientists to determine the tsunami potential of a large earthquake, and warnings do not reach all areas in time,' said Dr Tapponnier, 65.

The largest strike-slip earthquake ever recorded?

The 8.6-magnitude earthquake on April 11 might have been the largest strike-slip earthquake ever recorded, said Dr Tapponnier, who joined EOS as head of its Tectonics Group in 2009.

The $287 million centre was set up in 2008, four years after the 2004 disaster, to study the triple threat of earthquakes, volcanoes and climate change.

Now, he and his colleagues are working to reverse-engineer the April 11 quake, much like crime scene investigators reconstructing a murder from the surrounding evidence.

They are using data from a network of 50 Global Positioning System stations in Sumatra and its outer islands.

The data from the land-based stations shows how some points in northern Sumatra were shunted north-east as much as 35cm on April 11, while other points in central Sumatra were shifted west.

The scientists are trying to model how deep the fault went, how far the strips of crust slid along each other, and the amount of force involved.

Earthquakes come in cycles, and there are more to come

Historic records show that earthquakes seem to come in cycles. Indeed, Sumatra saw megathrust earthquakes in 2004, 2005 and 2007 and those were larger than any other recorded off the island by seismographs.

But scientists at EOS and the Indonesian Institute of Sciences' geotechnology division, in Bandung, have been looking even further back in time.

For clues to understand the history of earthquakes in the area, they have been scrutinising coral growth patterns on the chain of outer islands off western Sumatra.

As the land mass rises or sinks in successive earthquakes, the sea level changes too. This affects the growth of corals, as exposed portions of coral die off.

In Aceh, they found that large earthquakes happened in 1394 and 1450. In the intervening centuries, the strain between the moving tectonic plates built up till the 2004 earthquake released much, but not all, of that strain.

Mirroring the two-stage release of strain in 1394 and 1450, there might be a second large earthquake and tsunami in the coming decade, say scientists.

And they are watching a 400km section of the megathrust along the Mentawai Islands and the city of Padang in West Sumatra.

That is where a series of large earthquakes has occurred about every two centuries. The scientists say a new series began there in 2007 and is likely to conclude with a quake as strong as magnitude 8.8 and a large tsunami.

But Dr Tapponnier said: 'Science cannot predict the day, month or year of an earthquake, but can show us which areas face high earthquake and tsunami potential.'

The immediate concern: individual earthquakes can trigger more

Besides these historical cycles of earthquakes, individual earthquakes occur and change the stress on neighbouring faults.

In a span of just three years, the large Sumatran megathrust earthquakes of 2004, 2005, and 2007 triggered one another in short order.

Taken together, scientists say, they have effectively pulled on the Indo-Australian plate, perhaps triggering the April 11 earthquakes.

And the April 11 quakes themselves may have changed the stresses on the megathrust in ways that scientists are now trying to anticipate, said EOS researcher Emma Hill.

She said: 'We can't say that it's suddenly going to cause an earthquake tomorrow - it can happen tomorrow or in 20 years - but it's good to know if we should be more worried than we were before the April 11 quakes.'

Dr Tapponnier, who has studied earthquakes for about four decades now and has observed the destruction they can cause, pointed out that greater awareness of quakes and tsunamis can save lives.

'Always move to higher ground. The water does not always recede before a tsunami, so waiting to watch the ocean is not a safe thing to do after a large earthquake,' he said.

Earthquakes on land worry him more than those at sea, because it is falling buildings that tend to kill people.

He pointed out, somewhat ominously, that there is a fault in Myanmar due for a rupture, and another in western China, under a new high-speed rail line.

More quake studies can help.

'Society can take many steps to reduce vulnerability to these hazards, from the individual and community to national and international levels,' he said.

Read more!

Kalimantan elephant population continues to dwindle, says official

Antara 21 Apr 12;

Samarinda, E Kalimantan (ANTARA News) - The population of Kalimantan elephants continues to dwindle as a result of damage to protected forests, an environment official said.

"If the protected forests continue to be cleared away and change their function, we fear the elephants will become extinct. Therefore, we hope two district heads, whose jurisdiction cover the protected forests, will always guard them," the head of the East Kalimantan provincial environmental board, H Riza Indra Riadi, said here Saturday.

The Nunukan and Malinau district heads played a decisive role in conserving the protected forests, particularly those belonging to the Heart of Borneo, he said.

The forests, which are home to the endangered elephants, were under threat from coal mining and oil palm plantations, he added.

Riadi noted that much forested land in a number of areas in East Kalimantan has been cleared to make way for coal mining and oil palm plantations.

The population of Kalimantan elephants was estimated at 20 to 80 in 22 villages in Sebuku subdistrict, Nunukan district, he said.

Riadi added that five of the 22 villages were frequently visited by Soliter elephants. The villages are Sekikilan, Semunad, Rembalang, Salang, and Kalun Sayan.

He has asked the governments of the two districts to stop issuing operating permits to plantation and mining companies in the protected forests, including those in Malinau, Nunukan, Kutai Timur, West Kutai and Berau.(*)

Editor: Aditia Maruli

Read more!

Elephants not about to pack up their trunks

Giant creatures fight back as human activities encroach on their habitats
Nirmal Ghosh Straits Times 22 Apr 12;

Narendra terrified people whenever he emerged from the forest to walk through a new herbal garden set up near the town of Rishikesh in northern India, where the Ganges gushes out of the high mountains to meet the plains.

The big bull elephant - hurt, angry and confused to find his old habitat altered and teeming with human beings - fought back, killing people and trashing walls and small buildings.

Finally, in January, a team of wildlife managers subdued him with a tranquilliser dart, roped him and transported him many kilometres away to be released deep in the jungle.

Narendra was not a 'rogue' or hardened killer elephant, insists wildlife warden Brijendra Singh, who was part of the operation.

Across India and the rest of Asia, conflicts between man and elephant are on the rise, with regular reports of rampaging beasts and human casualties in India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand.

'The herbal garden is constructed right on the old elephant track, virtually blocking off a centuries-old forest corridor used by the elephants,' wrote Mr Singh in a personal e-mailed note on the episode.

'We have paid heavily for this by having innocent people killed by confused and irritable elephants in chance encounters.'

Calling the herbal garden a huge mistake, he said it was pushed through by a powerful politician, who wanted a fitting tribute for his late wife.

The elephant in question, nicknamed Narendra, had become bold and fearless after daily close encounters with people.

The elephant had been shot at, and had boiling water and oil and flaming sacks hurled at it, said Mr Singh. 'Humans were everywhere. There was no place for the elephant to go.'

When Bangalore-based elephant scientist Raman Sukumar first began his field work in the early 1980s, around 150 people were being killed by wild elephants across India every year.

Today, the annual figure has risen to more than 400.

Elephant communities are highly evolved and family ties are close. The killing of individual elephants for ivory, or through culling in Africa to keep populations down, disrupts the family hierarchy and community structure.

In his field work in one location in south India, Dr Sukumar noted that female elephants often became unusually angry and charged at him; he noticed that the area had seen big males killed, depriving families of the alpha male and making females more aggressive.

The invasion of forests by roads, mines, loggers and plantations has degraded and fragmented the elephant habitat.

And with crops such as rice and sugar cane edging closer to forest habitats, elephants are known to raid crops even if their own habitat offers good forage. Ripe sugarcane is to an elephant like a chocolate brownie to a 10-year-old child.

This has brought elephants into contact with humans more often, setting off reprisals and a spiral of conflict.

A growing body of research is now documenting how elephants suffer post traumatic stress disorder, and damaged communities produce dysfunctional and dangerous individuals. This is much like in human societies which, under stress produce aberrant behaviour.

This phenomenon is at its worst in some parts of Africa where culling - referred to as 'lethal management' - is in practice.

This has decimated elephant societies, leaving orphans deprived of social conditioning and growing up angry. Some wildlife biologists are now advocating birth control through a long-acting vaccine contraceptive, rather than culling.

The impact of broken societies has been seen not only in elephant communities.

When dingoes - feral dogs - on Australia's Fraser Island were shot to control their population growth, the survivors became more aggressive and there have been recent cases of tourists being attacked.

There is gathering evidence that supports the premise that elephants become aggressive towards humans only in response to aggression by humans. In some places in Africa and India, such aggressive behaviour declines when hunting pressures ease and an elephant population is protected and left undisturbed.

'A whole generation of elephants since the 1990s has grown up seeing nothing but conflict in some places,' says Kathmandu-based Dr A. Christy Williams, coordinator of the World Wide Fund for Nature Asian Rhino and Elephant Action Strategy.

'There are now elephants who are 25 years old and have been chased by humans since the day they were born. They don't know what it is like to have a normal life. Since they have been calves they have been chased and harassed,' said Dr Williams.

'If they are growing up with conflict they quickly realise humans can only make a lot of noise and throw things at them, and if they charge them, the humans will run away and are easy to kill. Once they start doing that, they do it again and again.'

Nirmal Ghosh has been involved in elephant conservation in India for more than 20 years, has made films on elephants and is a former member of the Steering Committee of the Government of India's Project Elephant.


Asian elephants are hard to count because they inhabit dense forests. Estimates place their numbers in the wild at between 37,000 and 51,000, and at about 15,000 in captivity.

But this population is spread thin - across 14 countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and peninsular Malaysia.

A subspecies found in Borneo has suffered from the galloping expansion of oil palm plantations.

As Asia's economies grow rapidly, big infrastructure projects such as dams and highways; and mines and plantations have shrunk the elephant habitat, precipitating increasing conflict between man and beast with casualties on both sides.

Read more!

8 Ways Global Warming Is Already Changing the World

Stephanie Pappas Yahoo News 22 Apr 12;

Over the last 100 years, global temperatures have warmed by about 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit (0.74 degrees Celsius) on average. The change may seem minor, but it's happening very quickly — more than half of it since 1979, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Though it can still be difficult to tease out how much climate change plays in any given weather event, changes are occurring.

In the spirit of Earth day, here's a look at our marvelous blue marble and the ways people and other living things are responding to global warming.

1. Moving the military northward

As the Arctic ice opens up, the world turns its attention to the resources below. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 30 percent of the world's undiscovered natural gas and 13 percent of its undiscovered oil are under this region. As a result, military action in the Arctic is heating up, with the United States, Russia, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Canada holding talks about regional security and border issues. Several nations, including the U.S., are also drilling troops in the far north, preparing for increased border patrol and disaster response efforts in a busier Arctic.

2. Altering breeding seasons

As temperatures shift, penguins are shifting their breeding seasons, too. A March 2012 study found that gentoo penguins are adapting more quickly to warmer weather, because they aren't as dependent on sea ice for breeding as other species.

It's not just penguins that seem to be responding to climate change. Animal shelters in the U.S. have reported increasing numbers of stray cats and kittens attributed to a longer breeding season for the felines.

3. High-country changes

Decreased winter snowfall on mountaintops is allowing elk in northern Arizona to forage at higher elevations all winter, contributing to a decline in seasonal plants. Elk have ravaged trees such as maples and aspens, which in turn has led to a decline in songbirds that rely on these trees for habitat.

4. Altered Thoreau's stomping grounds

The writer Henry David Thoreau once lovingly documented nature in and around Concord, Mass. Reading those diaries today has shown researchers just how much spring has changed in the last century or so.

Compared to the late 1800s, the first flowering dates for 43 of the most common plant species in the area have moved forward an average of 10 days. Other plants have simply disappeared, including 15 species of orchids.

5. Changed "high season" at national parks

When's the busiest time to see the Grand Canyon? The answer has changed over the decades as spring has started earlier. Peak national park attendance has shifted forward more than four days, on average, since 1979. Today, the highest number of visitors now swarm the Grand Canyon on June 24, compared with July 4 in 1979.

6. Genetic changes

Even fruit flies are feeling the heat. According to a 2006 study, fruit fly genetic patterns normally seen at hot latitudes are showing up more frequently at higher latitudes. According to the research, the gene patterns of Drosophila subobscura, a common fruit fly, are changing so that populations look about one degree closer in latitude to the equator than they actually are. In other words, genotypes are shifting so that a fly in the Northern Hemisphere has a genome that looks more like a fly 75 to 100 miles (120 to 161 kilometers) south.

7. Hurting polar bears

Polar bear cubs are struggling to swim increasingly long distances in search of stable sea ice, according to a 2011 study. The rapid loss of sea ice in the Arctic is forcing bears to sometimes swim up to more than 12 days at a time, the research found. Cubs of adult bears that had to swim more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) had a 45 percent mortality rate, compared with 18 percent for cubs that had to swim shorter distances.

8. More mobile animals

Species are straying from their native habitats at an unprecedented rate: 11 miles (17.6 km) toward the poles per decade. Areas where temperature is increasing the most show the most straying by native organisms. The Cetti's warbler, for example, has moved north over the last two decades by more than 90 miles (150 km).

Read more!