Best of our wild blogs: 29 Apr 12

Free guided walk at Pasir Ris Mangroves with the Naked Hermit Crabs from Peiyan.Photography and Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs and The case of the missing and reappearing bird nest

12 May (Sat): World Migratory Bird Day at Sungei Buloh
from wild shores of singapore and Mangrove talk by Dr Dan Friess at Sungei Buloh

Oriental Pied Hornbill feeding on discarded rice
from Bird Ecology Study Group

White-barred Duskhawk in Bishan Park
from Everyday Nature

Butterfly of the Month - April 2012
from Butterflies of Singapore

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The vanishing forest of Yishun

Melissa Lin Straits Times 29 Apr 12;

I used to ask my father if there were lions living in the forest opposite our Housing Board flat in Yishun.

He was a rubber inspector, working hard to support his family of four and I was his younger daughter. He would chuckle at my question and say: 'Of course not!'

But I was just a child then, and that was before I learnt that lions were found in the wild only in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent.

My parents, elder sister and grandparents moved into a new multi-generational flat near Yishun Park in 1987, two years before I was born. It was much bigger than the family's previous flat in Marine Parade and more conducive for child-rearing, my mother thought.

Always the practical one, she also liked that the bus stop was right next to the block and that the 11th-floor flat escaped the direct glare of the morning and evening sun. My father, a nature lover, was happy to live at a walking distance from the park and its untamed forest which included durian trees.

They swopped the sea view for this sea of greenery, which became the landscape of my childhood.

In my young mind, I would wonder about what was concealed beneath the towering trees and thick foliage.

My imagination would run wild, in a good way. Maybe if I ventured in deep enough, I would find the Faraway Tree that my favourite childhood author Enid Blyton described - a magical tree in the heart of an enchanted forest that was the doorway to places with names like The Land Of Toys and The Land Of Goodies. I desperately wished it existed.

My best friend from primary school and I would walk home in the afternoons along a road that cut through the park. At times, when there were no cars or other people present, we would shush each other, letting minutes pass in a silence broken only by the rustling of leaves. It was a lovely sort of quiet.

Over the years, our paths diverged and we have grown apart, but those moments still stay with me.

When I grew older, I would stand along the corridor of our flat in the evenings, gaze out at my forest and watch it darken as the sky became awash in breathtaking shades of orange, pink and purple. I no longer looked out for lions, but took in the tranquility, familiarity and a sense of home.

Unlike when I was a child and the tall trees seemed to stretch on forever, I could now see beyond its boundaries. The route around it was popular with joggers, including my mother who would go there for her daily evening exercise.

Earlier this year, my mother returned from a jog and announced that there was an excavator perched atop a small hill, and an army of workers looked like they were levelling the trees.

I cried out: 'No!' I was upset before I understood why.

Like my parents growing older or the waning of childhood friendships, this was another change I would have no control over and would have to learn to accept, grudgingly.

It is harder to articulate why I feel a tinge of sadness seeing heavy construction vehicles rumble down the road I used to walk to my primary school or watching the evening sun set against tree stumps and bare land.

To most people, trees are just trees. Nobody mourns their loss for long, not when they are removed for much-needed flats in land-scarce Singapore. No doubt the new development, when complete, will come with new landscaping, including new trees, which is the Singapore way.

But also being removed is the backdrop to my childhood memories, the setting of my imaginary adventures and a pocket of greenery that all my life provided respite after a long day, even when I merely stood and gazed at it.

From the corridor outside my flat, I can now spy other new developments in the distance. There are newly built HDB blocks and condominium showrooms peeking out from behind what remains of my beloved forest.

Perhaps I am just being sentimental, but surely, there is room for that in Singapore?

I will miss having this reminder of my childhood at my doorstep. Now, I will just have to dig deeper into my memories to remember what used to be.

Melissa Lin is a final-year student at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University and a former intern at The Straits Times.

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'Island hop' at Jurong Lake Park

NParks to carve out islets and streams for visitors to enjoy at this Destination Park
Miranda Yeo Straits Times 29 Apr 12;

'Island-hopping' inland in Jurong will be possible when the Jurong Lake Park gets a makeover.

The National Parks Board (NParks) will draw inspiration from the local terrain and the park's water features to carve out islets and streams so visitors can enjoy island-hopping.

This vision of an adventure playground was mapped out by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the media launch of the Jurong Lake Run 2012, which will take place on July 8.

In his speech at the JCube mall yesterday, Mr Tharman, who is an adviser to Jurong GRC's grassroots organisations, revealed that the new developments will also include more nature spaces and trails to support the rich biodiversity in Jurong Lake Park.

It is home to 78, or a third, of the country's resident bird species.

The park is one of three Destination Parks announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month, with the other two being East Coast Park and Admiralty Park.

The Destination Parks, part of NParks' City In A Garden initiative, will be designed to attract visitors from all over Singapore, not just residents in the vicinity.

Jurong Lake Park will also be one of the key points in a 150km Round Island Route, linking a host of attractions like the Gardens By The Bay, Rail Corridor and Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

NParks' initiatives prove that 'despite being a very small island, we can actually provide a remarkable amount of recreational opportunities and family activities', said Mr Tharman, who is also Minister for Finance and Minister for Manpower.

He cited the Round Island Route as a prime example, and urged cyclists and joggers to make full use of the upcoming recreational facilities to get closer to nature.

NParks has been gathering feedback on what features users would like to have in the Destination Parks and the Round Island Route.

Three rounds of interviews have been conducted with parkgoers at Jurong Lake Park so far. Some 70 per cent of respondents appreciated the place for its tranquillity, and 22 per cent wanted more wildlife habitats in the park.

Mr Tharman assured nature enthusiasts that NParks is 'absolutely clear' about preserving such habitats.

He added that within the next five years, there will be 'significant development' of the park, and that it will be 'transformed' within 10 years.

The public can visit an NParks roadshow in Jurong Point that aims to collect feedback over the weekend, or visit the City In The Garden website at to share ideas on the Destination Parks and Round Island Route.

Jurong Lake Park will be part of island-wide green corridor
Claire Huang Channel NewsAsia 28 Apr 12;

SINGAPORE: Jurong Lake Park will be one of the key nodes of the Round Island Route.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam announced the vision of "an island-hopping playground" Saturday morning at a community event.

It is one of three destination parks announced by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last month.

Together with recreational attractions like Gardens by the Bay and Southern Ridges, Jurong Lake Park will be part of the Round Island Route - a seamless green corridor that goes all round Singapore.

The 150-kilometre route was announced in February this year.

It was mooted by the Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2008 and will connect natural, historical and cultural attractions to the parks and park connectors.

When completed, Jurong Lake Park will be a destination park with unique features.

When designing, NParks will draw inspiration from the area's terrain and characteristics.

Rich in biodiversity, the park will have plenty of natural spaces and trails to allow the public to get closer to nature.

Mr Tharman, who is also MP for Jurong GRC, said: "The fact that we have the lake is a wonderful advantage. So NParks is going to create little running streams in a playground, and allow families and children and everyone to hop from one island to another in the playground itself."

Mr Tharman was speaking at the launch of Jurong Lake Run 2012.

MediaCorp is one of the main sponsors of the run.

The theme for the run in July is "Running as One", reflecting the commitment to attain inclusiveness within the community.

- CNA/cc

A run through nature at Jurong Lake, for a cause
Today Online 29 Apr 12;

SINGAPORE - With about 120 bird species having been spotted at the Jurong Lakeside area - including the rare Ruddy Kingfisher and Grey-headed Fish Eagle - Jurong Lake Park, when developed, will feature plenty of nature spaces and trails to support its rich biodiversity, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

And to take advantage of the park's proximity to the lake, little islets and running streams will be carved out to build an island-hopping adventure playground.

Highlighting the features park-goers can expect once Jurong Lake Park is developed as a destination park to attract visitors from all over Singapore, Mr Tharman yesterday also said the park will be one of the key nodes of the 150km Round Island Route (RIR).

The RIR links many major natural, cultural and historical attractions to parks, park connectors and intra-town cycling networks.

Mr Tharman was speaking at the launch of Jurong Lake Run 2012, which takes place on July 8. The first mega-running event in western Singapore when it debuted last year, it is now set to become an annual nationwide event, he said.

This year's run will see a portion of proceeds donated to seven charities. It is also significant because it "was conceptualised and continues to be spearheaded by youth volunteers keen to play their part for society," he said.

He unveiled the run's revamped identity of "Running as One", and this year's theme as "Run for a Cause" featuring inspirational heroes from the community.

Last year, more than 6,500 runners from 47 countries took part. Event organiser Taman Jurong Community Sports Club said more than 5,250 have signed up for this year's run so far. About 12,000 participants are expected.

The run is held in conjunction with the Community Sports Festival organised by the People's Association.

10km-race title sponsor MediaCorp invites all to 'RUN WITH ME'
MediaCorp is the main sponsor for this year's Jurong Lake Run, held on Sunday, July 8.

The broadcaster is the title sponsor of the 10km Competitive Run, which has been named "RUN WITH ME", MediaCorp 10km run.

It is one of three main categories in the Jurong Lake Run. The other two are the 6km Competitive Run and the 3km Community Walk-a-Jog.

Mr Patrick Yong, MediaCorp's head of strategic marketing, said: "MediaCorp is proud to support Jurong Lake Run 2012. As a national broadcaster, MediaCorp is always looking at opportunities to support relevant local sports and community projects as part of our engagement with our audience."

The 10km and 6km competitive runs are further divided into six sub-categories each, catering to runners 13 and above, while the 3km Community-Walk-a-Jog will be open to all ages. A total of S$17,500 in prize money will be up for grabs.

The event will also feature activities at the Chinese Garden, as the grounds transform into a playground filled with games and giveaways.

Registration for the run is open until June 8. Participants can register at or at the Taman Jurong Community Club. Fees start from S$22.

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Look mum, no shark

Eve Yap Straits Times 29 Apr 12;

Five years ago, documentary film-maker Jonn Lu's 'stomach developed a conscience' - he found he could no longer consume shark's fin soup because of the cruelty involved in its preparation.

When the dish was served to him, he would 'quietly refuse' to eat it.

Initially, his stand put his family in a spot.

His father is Mr John Y. Lu, 69, a businessman and chairman of the Singapore National Shippers' Council, who frequently hosted and attended lavish dinners where shark's fin was always served.

His Filipino-Chinese mum, Mrs Polly Lu, 65, a porcelain artist, felt it was rude to refuse the dish at the important business dinners.

She says: 'I would say to him, 'The shark is already dead. The food will be wasted if you don't eat it, a greater crime for the environment.''

So he 'ate it grudgingly', says Jonn, 40, who is also a rock climbing and technical diving instructor.

But his family, including an elder and a younger sister, came around to his way of thinking.

Jonn has been the volunteer director of Shark Savers South-east Asia for two years.

Based in Hong Kong for the past 14 years, he is back in Singapore for a spell to launch the local chapter of the pro-shark group.

On Tuesday at Orchard Cineleisure, the non-profit organisation here will be holding SharkAid Singapore 2012, the first in a series of awareness-raising concerts to be held around the world.

Jonn says the aim is to persuade the authorities to impose a trade ban as well as a ban on the dish during official functions, and drum up mass support for the message, 'I'm FINished' with shark's fin soup.

What was Jonn like as a child?

Mrs Lu: He was a handful, couldn't sit still and was always irritating his sisters. They would be playing masak-masak and he would upset all their toys.

Jonn: I was very disruptive. Now looking back, it could have been attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but we never knew.

Mrs Lu: He liked to climb like a monkey.

Jonn: When I was in kindergarten, a boy fell and broke his arm while mimicking my monkey antics on the monkey bars.

Mrs Lu: The teacher called me and said, 'Mrs Lu, how do you train your child?'

Jonn: All through primary school, in Catholic High, I used to pretend that the erasers, pencils and rulers were good and bad guy characters, and every story ended with destruction. I would sweep all the stationery onto the floor.

Mrs Lu: Or he would draw cartoon strips in his homework book. I got calls from his teachers every other day.

What was the naughtiest thing he did as a child?

Jonn: Scoring 30 marks for Chinese was good in my book. When I got zero once, I forged Mum's signature.

Mrs Lu: One day, when he was seven, he took apart his father's favourite transistor radio. When I saw it, I was horrified.

Jonn: I told her, 'Don't worry, mummy, I can put it back.'

Mrs Lu: He said, 'See. You take this wire and this wire and put it together.' I couldn't get angry with him because it was funny. But when he bullied his sisters because he was bigger in size, that was a no-no. He would get whacked.

Who was stricter: mum or dad?

Jonn: Mum was the disciplinarian. I got righteously thrashed. Thin bamboo canes, feather-dusters... and when these could not be found, it was rulers, clothes hangers, sometimes even wooden rice ladles.

Mrs Lu: He used to hide the canes in the piano. One day when we were moving house, the movers removed a panel and more than a dozen canes fell out.

Do you resent your mum for disciplining you?

Jonn: With my mum there's always closure. After she whacked me, she sat me down and talked to me. It always ended with a hug and a kiss.

What do you think of his extreme sports?

Mrs Lu: Why does he want to do all that? Very silly.

Jonn: In everything I get into, I make sure I am properly trained and know exactly what I'm doing.

Mrs Lu: Aiyah, this son of mine. I still worry for him. If not, I'm not his mummy.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Mrs Lu: I wouldn't be so naughty. I wouldn't have upset my mother so much as to make her punish me so heavy-handedly.

Jonn: I wouldn't change a thing. My mum was tough on me but I needed that, otherwise I would have been a hell-raiser.

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Tapirs and seed dispersal

Tom McLaughlin Borneo Post 29 Apr 12;

HOW are seeds dispersed now that large animals – elephants and rhinoceroses – have been hunted from their ecological habitats? Will tapirs take their place?

Rhinoceroses were once plentiful throughout the Southeast Asian ecosystem. They consumed vast quantities of plants and seeds and moved from one area to another releasing seeds in their excrement, thus aiding in dispersal.

However, the demand for rhinos because of Chinese medicine claims has decimated the population to the point where they are now on the critically endangered list. Conservation efforts by governments have largely failed throughout the world.

Elephants were also responsible for the wide dispersal of seeds – eating and then leaving their excrement from one place to another. Their habitat has been decimated from hunting for ivory and the planting of plantations.

Accumulating evidence has demonstrated the understory of the forest has shown a dramatic reduction in fruit trees formerly dispersed by these gentle giants. The ecological cascade has affected many species in the food web.

Could the Malayan tapir, the third largest ruminant after these great beasts, replace these wonders for seed dispersal? There are a couple of things in their favour. None of their body parts are used in traditional medicine. Their meat is not favoured. Although an endangered species, their survival looks a bit brighter than for rhinos and elephants.

Malayan tapirs are usually about 1.8 metres long and weigh about 350kg. They are solitary animals and eat fallen fruits and twigs from the forest floor. Running into thick bushes is their defence from tigers – their major predator.

An experiment conducted at the Wildlife Reserves in Singapore made an attempt to answer whether the tapir could replace the rhino and elephant for seed dispersal. Nine plant species, seven from Southeast Asia, were fed to eight Malayan tapirs, seven of which were born in captivity.

The fruits, purchased at a local market, included mango, durian, cempedak, rambutan, mangosteen, tamarind, longan, Dillenia sp (locally known as air simpoh) and papaya. A known number of seed fruit were fed to the tapirs. For example, the rambutan has a large central seed and the number the tapirs ate were counted.

Five hours later, the tapir dung was collected and the seeds counted. The seeds were then planted in pots to see if they would germinate after a journey through the digestive system.

Large seeds (durian, cempedak and tamarind) failed to germinate. Very few mid-sized seeds did not survive the gut passage. In comparison, elephants defecated 75 per cent of ingested tamarind seeds where 65 per cent germinated in a similar experiment performed elsewhere.

The tapirs are picky eaters. They have a special aversion to durians. They spat out or dropped many seeds eating only the flesh. Elephants gobbled and gulped everything in a single swallow. The tapirs also found great difficulty with eating hard elephant apples although the researchers concede this could possibly be because they were captive and had not been exposed to the fruit.

The digestive system of tapirs and elephants could also be major factor. Because of their teeth, tapirs are much better in crushing seeds than elephants or rhinos. The gut passage time is much longer in tapirs than in the larger denizens allowing the digestive juices to work more effectively.

These preliminary conclusions suggests the tapir will not replace elephants and rhinos for seed dispersal. However, the authors suggest many more studies must be performed in order to assess the role played by other dispersing critters including bears and hornbills. They also relate there needs to be further studies on the digestive systems of all major participates in seed dispersal before any concrete conclusions can be reached.

As the world’s rainforests become more fragmented and will eventually become islands surrounded by agriculture and human living space, the management of these remaining areas needs to be fully understood. This first study of the role of tapirs and seed dispersal is an important step in saving the ecosystem that will be left.

For more read ‘Asian Tapirs Are No Elephants When It Comes To Seed Dispersal’ by Campos-Arceiz et al, Biotropica 44(2):220-227 2012.

All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.

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Malaysia: Terrapins thriving in Sungai Kemaman

Sean Augustin New Straits Times 29 Apr 12;

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Terengganu govt urged to gazette turtles’ habitat

KEMAMAN: THE discovery of a healthy southern river terrapin population along Sungai Kemaman in Terengganu has ushered in hope for the much threatened species, especially in the state.

The Turtle Conservation Society (TCS), which made the discovery earlier this year, is hoping the state government will gazette certain areas as sanctuaries. It is also urging the latter to stop issuing sand mining licences around the area.

TCS co-founder Professor Dr Chan Eng Heng said sand-mining activities would destroy their nesting habitat and would not bode well for terrapins along the river bank here, whose population, despite being a viable one, was also aged.

“Fortunately the number of breeding adults is viable and can help rebuild the population. We have time to save the population. It is critical we encourage a younger generation to be bred in the area,” she said, adding that her main concern was to maintain and augment the current population.

While the population along Sungai Kemaman, south of Kuala Terengganu, was viable, Chan said that they were still threatened by fishing and sand-mining activities as well as rampant illegal clearing of river banks for agricultural purposes.

The recent discovery of the terrapins here, which came as surprise to TCS, also augurs well for the society’s conservation efforts in Setiu, north of Kuala Terengganu.

Setiu had been described as “ground zero” for such efforts by the Turtle Survival Alliance, a non-governmental organisation which, in 2009, had stated that Malaysia was the last stronghold in the world when it came to the conservation of painted and river terrapins due to its significant population, especially in Terengganu.

“The healthy population in both Kemaman and Setiu means the state can become a research and conservation hub for this species,” Chan said.

River terrapins, or batagur affinis, are among the top 25 most endangered turtle species in the world, according to the Turtle Conservation Coalition.

Apart from Malaysia, the species is also found in Indonesia and Cambodia.

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Philippines: Tourists Flock, But Where’s the Whale Sharks?

Ellalyn B. De Vera Manila Bulletin 28 Apr 12;

MANILA, Philippines - International conservation group, World Wide Fund for Nature- Philippines (WWF-Philippines), expressed concern yesterday over the dwindling number of whale shark (locally known as “Butanding”) sighting, mainly due to unrestrained tourism in Donsol, Sorsogon.

“Donsol now has far more visitors than it can handle. Coupled with the fact that sightings are decreasing, more and more interaction violations are being reported,” WWF Donsol Project Manager Raul Burce said.

Citing the Donsol Tourism Office’s data, WWF said the office has recorded more than 25,000 visitors in 2011.

The Department of Tourism (DOT) had earlier predicted that over 50,000 tourists will flock to the town before the whale shark season ends this June.

Burce explained that standing rules include having no more than a single boat with six swimmers per shark, limiting interactions to 10 minutes, staying at least three meters away from the shark’s body and four meters from its tail, prohibiting physical contact plus flash photography and keeping to the three hour tour limit for boats.

“I saw some swimmers break the rules today. Some touched the sharks. Twice swimmers from different bancas raced in when our spotter saw a shark. I think it’s be¬cause the guides aren’t seeing as many sharks as they are used to. Some boats saw none at all,” tourist Anton Lim said.

WWF-Philippines urged tourists, boatmen and guides to observe the existing rules in interacting with the whale sharks.

“The policies were designed not just to protect the whale sharks, but tourists as well. A 30-foot shark can accidentally swat a swimmer straying too close to its tail. By respecting the rules, we’re minimizing our impacts on the ecosystem, especially the sharks,” Burce said.

At present, WWF is attempting to track whale shark movements within Donsol Bay through the use of state-of-the art fish tracking monitors.

The current spotting system banks solely on the trained eyes of whale shark spotters, seeking shadows plying the water.

“Using just your eyes can be difficult, particularly if it is raining or overcast. When it rains, the chance of a successful interaction drops,” former Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) Association president Allan Amanse said.

The new trackers utilize stationary sonar modules, which bounce sound-waves off all solid objects. Large creatures such as whale sharks or shoals of fish can easily be made out.

Likewise, the trackers also log water temperature.

WWF noted that the extreme heat has also a negative effect on Donsol’s eco-tourism industry.

Currently, Donsol’s surface water temperature averages 28.3 degrees Celsius or over two degrees Celsius hotter than the average of 26.1 degrees recorded during the same period in 2010.

“Our initial findings seem to indicate that the whale sharks are staying in deep water, possibly to avoid the heat,” WWF whale shark expert Dave David said.

“They are also highly migratory creatures, so it is not easy to regularly predict their whereabouts. In the summer of 2001, very few sightings were reported. It seems this year is similar,” he added.

The province of Sorsogon is host to one of the highest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. These creatures have been frequenting the waters off Donsol for generations and in 1998, the DOT declared this area an official sanctuary for the whale shark, thus protected this fascinating species.

Although “Butanding” are enormous in size and power, reaching lengths greater than 15 meters, they are remarkably gentle and docile enough that it is generally safe to swim among them. Swimming among the whale sharks is a captivating experience. If one is not comfortable swimming in the waters, then it is just as amazing to experience them from the boat. The Butanding swim along side the boat all the time. Generally, the whale sharks at Don¬sol swim very close to the surface of the water.

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New Bumblebee Gecko found in Papua New Guinea

Christine Dell'Amore National Geographic News 23 Apr 12;

The latest buzz in the reptile world is a new "bumblebee" gecko species discovered in Papua New Guinea.

The bumblebee gecko on Papua New Guinea's Manus Island, possibly the new species' only home. Photograph courtesy Robert Fisher, USGS

Dubbed Nactus kunan—kunan meaning "bumblebee" in the local Nali language—the black-and-gold striped animal belongs to a genus of slender-toed geckos, a new study says.

That means "these guys don't have the padded, wall-climbing toes like the common house gecko or the day gecko in the car-insurance commercials," study co-author Robert Fisher, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center in San Diego, said in a statement.

In 2010 Fisher was searching for invasive brown tree snakes on Manus Island (map) when locals brought him two specimens of the odd-colored animal, which appears to live nowhere else.

It's unknown how many of the roughly 5-inch-long (13-centimeter-long) geckos exist, or if the species is threatened, according to the study.

New Gecko Has Rare Coloration

The evolutionary impetus for the bumblebee gecko's colors is unknown, though the banded pattern likely helps the lizard hide on the rain forest floor.

Only one other species in the Nactus genus sports colors other than dull brown: Nactus galgajuga, a "striking" black-and-white striped species that lives in northern Queensland, Australia, said study co-author George Zug of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

In fact, genetic research revealed that N. galgajuga's closest relative is the bumblebee gecko, said Zug, whose study was published April 4 in the journal Zootaxa.

Zug and colleagues expect that more new gecko species will be discovered on Manus Island, which few scientists have explored.

La Sierra University herpetologist L. Lee Grismer, who wasn't involved in the study, said via email, "What's really amazing is that the [locals] knew ... all the time being that the specimens were found in their houses.

"It just goes to show that we cannot stop looking anywhere and everywhere."

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Slaughter of rhinos at record high

Poaching could lead to extinction by 2025
David Randall and Jonathan Owen The Independent 29 Apr 12;

Rhinos are being killed in such unprecedented numbers that there are realistic fears they could be wiped from the face of the planet within a generation. If this happens, it will be the first major extinction of an animal in the wild since the worldwide conservation movement began.

The bare statistics are horrifying. In South Africa, more rhinos are being slaughtered for their horns in a single week than were killed in a whole year a decade ago. And the death toll is fast accelerating. In 2007, a mere 13 were killed. In 2008, it was 83, and, a year later, 122. Last year it was 448, and this year, by 19 April, it was 181. That is equivalent to 600 a year in a country which is home to 93 per cent of all white rhinos. One expert thinks that at this rate the species could be wiped out by 2025. Others think it could take longer. Patrick Bergin, chief executive of African Wildlife Foundation, said: "If the poaching of rhino continues at current rates, we could see their extinction within our lifetime. The situation is absolutely at crisis levels."

This attrition is being driven by the astonishing street value for rhino horn, which fetches £40,000 a kilo, more even than gold. Chinese medicine and jewellery are the main markets, but, in recent years, widespread rumours in Vietnam that rhino horn can cure cancer has seen demand there rocket. As a result, the Javan rhino became extinct in that country in November, the last known animal being found dead with its horn hacked off.

There has also been a huge and sharp rise in elephants being killed for their ivory. Mozambique reports that in just one reserve the number of elephant carcasses found in 2011 is nearly 25 times greater than 10 years before. And the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic said that 2011 was by far the worst year for ivory seizures since the group's records began more than 20 years ago. The amount of ivory seized last year probably equates to some 2,500 dead elephants, according to Traffic.

Organised crime has moved into both rhino and elephant poaching, with hi-tech equipment used for industrial-scale killing. Reuters reported last week from the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo on a family of elephants killed when poachers swept over them in a helicopter gunship. The report said: "The scene beneath the rotor blades would have been chilling: panicked mothers shielding their young, hair-raising screeches and a mad scramble through the blood-stained bush as bullets rained down from the sky. When the shooting was over, 22 elephants lay dead ... their tusks and genitals removed for sale in Asia."

Richard Emslie, scientific officer for the African rhino group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said: "We are facing a horrific situation at the moment where some of the poachers are using veterinary drugs, drugging the rhinos and then hacking off the horns and part of the face at the same time, so they get the whole lot, while the animal is still alive."

So critical is the situation that earlier this month, an emergency summit of wildlife authorities, scientists, owners of private rhino reserves and security experts was hosted in Nairobi by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Kenya Wildlife Service.

A statement issued afterwards said: "The situation is rapidly reaching crisis levels and requires far-reaching efforts to ensure the continued survival of rhinos across Africa ... Africa's rhino population is currently estimated at 25,000 – still low in relation to historical numbers – and it is suggested that, if poaching continues at current rates, there will no longer be any rhino left in the wild by 2025."

Jo Shaw, a Johannesburg-based rhino specialist for Traffic, said: "Very serious levels of organised crime are orchestrating this illegal activity. The people now trading in rhino horn used to be trading in drugs and arms and human trafficking, and probably still are, but they've found this new valuable resource that is less well protected."

Helen Gichohi, president of African Wildlife Foundation, said: "Wildlife authorities, private rhino reserve owners, conservation organisations and others have made valiant efforts to halt the rhino poaching crisis, but these disparate actions have sadly been no match for this epidemic that is plaguing Africa."

As an example of the kind of resources available to crime groups, Ken Maggs, the head of the environmental crimes investigation unit for South African National Parks, said one person who was recently arrested for trade in rhino horn had £401,180 in cash in the boot of his car.

Ben Janse van Rensburg, head of enforcement for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), the international treaty that governs trade in plants and animals, said: "The biggest challenge is that in the past few years there has been a big shift from ordinary poachers to organised crime groups. They are really, really well resourced and they have significant networks globally. You're dealing with serious transnational organised crime." And their targets are Africa's white and black rhino, a total population estimated by some to be as high as 25,000, but by others to be as low as 11,000.

This month's Kenya summit listed the actions needed to combat the situation; these included increasing the number of anti-poaching units, creating a DNA database of rhinos, using helicopters to track poachers, and establishing tougher laws on poaching and trading in horn. A statement said: "Strong protection forces on the ground are a must. Case studies of Asian rhino protection in certain national parks in Asia have demonstrated that the more trained and properly equipped anti-poaching staff there is in the field, the lower the rates of poaching."

In addition, Cites officials are in talks with authorities in South Africa and Vietnam in an effort to find a solution to the rhino poaching crisis. And Britain is leading a special working group to find ways of tackling the illegal trade. This will report to Cites in July.

Meanwhile, on the ground in Africa, according to the African Wildlife Foundation's Dr Bergin: "There is an arms race going on as to who can first use the latest advanced technologies – the rhino horn poachers or those of us fighting to protect this endangered species. For example, Namibia has been piloting the use of automated drones to monitor large areas for illegal incursions by poachers. In small areas, sonar can actually be used to monitor for incursions, but it is very expensive." So bad has the situation become that South Africa has sent in scores of troops to guard the border of Kruger National Park, and increased the number of rangers from 500 to 650.

These measures are unlikely to be enough on their own. A more militant approach is needed says Damien Mander, a former special forces soldier and the founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation in Zimbabwe, which trains rangers in combat skills.

He said: "If we're to save the rhino, we really have no choice other than to employ these kinds of tactics against the poachers. Rangers can no longer function like a bunch of boy scouts in the bush. We're no longer dealing with amateurs here; we're dealing with professional criminals who have access to the latest technology. They've militarised their assault on rhino so we must militarise our response against them."

The stakes could hardly be higher. Dr Emslie, of IUCN, said: "In terms of African rhinos, we've lost one and almost lost another of the six subspecies that existed when I was born. Just recently, the Javan rhino subspecies in Vietnam was poached to extinction; the Javan rhino is reduced to 44. There are probably only 150 to 200 Sumatran rhinos – poaching threatens them, too. If the illegal demand continues to increase and prices remain high, then it's a severe threat, not just to rhinos in Africa but all the world's five species."

Mr Janse van Rensburg of Cites said: "If the world's enforcement authorities cannot stop this increasing trend, rhino population growth will not be sustained and we could see populations in Southern Africa decline to highly endangered status in a very short time, which will be a tragedy in terms of conservation and for the rhino."

There are very few wildlife specialists who are optimistic. The conservationist Ian Craig, who helped to found Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, said: "The current surge in poaching of rhino, and more recently elephant, across Africa, led by demand from the Far East is essentially just starting. I expect that the worst may yet still be to come."

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