Best of our wild blogs: 5 May 12

Prickly Porcupines
from Lazy Lizard's Tales

Professor Peter Ng’s featured interview! Why you should care about Singapore’s natural history from Raffles Museum News

Big Sisters Island is lovely after the storm
from wild shores of singapore

A Common Sandpiper Coming Face-to-Face with A Wasp
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Chek Jawa Boardwalk trip on 12th May
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

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Myopia in kids: Spend more time outdoors

Feng Zengkun Straits Times 5 May 12;

INSUFFICIENT time spent outdoors is the main contributor to short-sightedness among children in East Asian cities, including Singapore.

This is according to a paper published in medical journal The Lancet today. 'Most of (the myopia) we've seen in East Asia is due to the environment, it is not genetic,' said Professor Ian Morgan, a researcher at the Australian National University who co-authored the paper.

The researchers said children who spend two to three hours outdoors a day are 'probably reasonably safe' from getting myopia. This could include time spent on the playground and walking to and from school.

The researchers stressed that being a bookworm or spending time on the computer is not detrimental to eyesight, as long as time is also devoted to outdoor activities during the day.

Exposure to the sun's rays is believed to stimulate production of the chemical dopamine, which stops the eyeball from growing elongated and distorting light that enters the eye.

Prof Morgan noted that children in East Asia spend the majority of their time indoors, studying and watching television.

More than half of Singapore's 10-year-olds are short-sighted.

Its myopia rate is among the world's highest because children here spend only about 30 minutes outdoors after school on weekdays, said Professor Saw Seang Mei who co-authored the Lancet paper.

The professor at National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, who recommends spending at least 10 hours outdoors every week, led a recently-concluded, year-long trial here that took children to parks every weekend to gauge the outdoor effect on myopia. The team is now studying the data.

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Survival of Singapore refineries seen under threat

Facts Global Energy chairman points to impact of Asia and Middle East newcomers
ronnie lim Business Times 5 May 12;

SINGAPORE'S oil refining/petro-chemicals industry will have to fight for survival in the coming two to five years, warned the chairman of Facts Global Energy.

The start-up of new refineries in Asia and the Middle East, as well as new US petrochemical plants using cheap gas from shale gas projects there, will impact Singapore, said Fereidun Fesharaki.

"It's a survival issue for the Singapore industry. If the refineries and petrochemical plants here can hold up (against the competition), they've done well already. That's my view," he told BT in an interview on Wednesday.

Dr Fesharaki said this in regard to concerns here over the big new US petrochemical crackers planned by oil majors which will tap ethane from shale gas projects.

Shell for instance is developing a multibillion-dollar cracker facility in Pennsylvania, while Aither Chemicals is looking at a US$330 million cracker in Kanawha Valley, West Virginia.

Chevron Phillips is similarly building a cracker in Baytown, Texas. The Marcellus Shale Play, which underlies part of the Appalachians, will supply gas to the plants.

"All the products from the upcoming US petrochemical plants will be for export," Dr Fesharaki said. "We see the US becoming the next most important petrochemicals exporter after Saudi Arabia, with at least 10 US plants brought out of mothball."

Because of the cheap gas available there, the oil majors are investing in the United States, and not Asian economies such as Taiwan any more, he added.

This clearly spells yet more competition for Singapore which currently has three petrochemical complexes operated by Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore, Shell and ExxonMobil, with a fourth new complex being started up by ExxonMobil.

The Singapore crackers use naphtha feedstock, although Shell and ExxonMobil's crackers are integrated with their refineries, which means they have some flexibility to use other feedstocks such as hydrowax. They are also looking at a liquefied petroleum gas terminal to help them further diversify feedstock.

Dr Fesharaki said that while "biggies" such as Shell and ExxonMobil - which have established their largest global manufacturing sites in Singapore - are likely to maintain the status quo here, their attention will now turn towards US petrochemical projects.

This suggests that "there is likely to be a holding pattern on their petrochemical investments here", he said.

"It is going to be worst for refining, with huge, new capacity emerging in Asia and the Middle East between 2014 and 2017. . . People will struggle. Essentially, Asia will be in surplus, so products will have to be transported to Europe and the US," he added.

On the impact on Singapore refiners, Dr Fesharaki said: "Don't look for growth."

"If they manage to keep running and don't close, that's success already," he added, saying that Japan for instance is closing 1.4 million barrels per day capacity.

"Singapore's advantage is its location. Besides, for the biggies here, Singapore is part of their global (supply) system."

Meanwhile, in its bid to increase competitiveness and add value to its refineries, ExxonMobil is building a US$500 million ultra-low sulphur diesel plant here, while Singapore Refining Company is mulling over a US$300 million-US$400 million "green" petrol expansion plus a base oil plant investment.

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Malaysia: Enforcement officers foil bid to smuggle snakes and turtles to Hong Kong

The Star 5 May 12;

A SHIPMENT declared as papayas was found to contain hundreds of cobras and freshwater turtles worth some RM110,000 meant for the “cooking pot” in Hong Kong.

The animals were rescued by the Wildlife and National Parks Department in a joint raid with the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services at the Kuala Lumpur Airport Services’ (KLAS) local cargo complex in Batu Maung, Penang.

Wildlife department’s Penang director Jamalun Nasir Ibrahim said the 555 cobras and 171 turtles, worth some RM110,000, were found inside 80 polystyrene boxes which were mixed among 100 boxes of papayas in a container.

He said the shipment was declared as papayas and was destined for Hong Kong.

He said the driver of the lorry carrying the container was arrested during the raid at about 4.30am on Wednesday.

“We arrested the driver, in his 40s, to facilitate our investigation to track down the mastermind,” Jamalun told a press conference at the department’s office in Jalan Gurdwara yesterday.

He said he believed a syndicate was behind the smuggling of the animals — the giant Asian pond turtle (heosemys grandis) which is a type of freshwater turtle and the monocellate cobra (naja kaouthia).

“We believe the animals were to be smuggled out to meet the demand for exotic animal dishes,” he added.

Jamalun said the cobras could fetch a market price of more than RM200 for the bigger ones and about RM80 for smaller ones while the turtles cost about RM200 each.

He said both species were listed under Appendix II of the Convention of International Trade of Species which means that their trade are only permitted with an appropriate export permit and certificate of origin.

He said the papayas in the shipment were harvested from a farm in Kedah, according to the shipment’s document.

Jamalun said the case was being investigated under Section 10 of the International Trade in Endangered Species Act 2008 that carries a fine of not more than RM100,000 for each animal but not more than RM1mil in aggregate, or a maximum seven-year jail term or both.

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Kalimantan Species Put At Risk: Researcher

Tunggadewa Mattangkilang Jakarta Globe 4 May 12;

Balikpapan, East Kalimantan. The planned expansion of the Kariangau industrial estate in Balikpapan poses a serious threat to the survival of local species such as the proboscis monkey and sun bear, an environmentalist warned on Thursday.

Stanislav Lhota, a researcher from the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, said the expansion of the zone from 2,189 hectares to 5,130 hectares would result in large areas of land being developed, even if the expanded area was classified as open green space.

“What will happen is we will have a fragmentation of the habitats of endangered species such as the orangutan, proboscis monkey and sun bear, which can’t survive in small fragments of forest,” he said. “It will also give access to poachers and illegal loggers, and most crucially to land speculators.”

Lhota, who has been in Balikpapan for five years, said land speculators were already at work in the affected area, clearing land right up to the border of the Wain River Reserve, a protected area.

He said that in addition to the loss of habitat, the expansion of the industrial estate up to Balikpapan Bay would also lead to an increase in pollution and wastewater discharge into the coastal area, threatening the small local population of the Irrawaddy dolphin.

There are just 80 of the dolphins left in the area and around 1,300 proboscis monkeys, Lhota said.

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Thailand: Drought threatens Thai Map Ta Phut industrial estate

Reuters 4 May 12;

BANGKOK, May 4 (Reuters) - Thailand's biggest industrial complex, Map Ta Phut, escaped the flooding that devastated other estates last year but its factories could soon suffer the opposite problem, a shortage of water, as the eastern region is threatened with drought.

A local reservoir is only half-full, worrying the 147 businesses on Map Ta Phut, although officials say there is no immediate problem with water supply and they are looking at ways to address any shortage.

The director of the estate, Pratheep Aeng-Chuan, said estate officials would meet relevant agencies including the Royal Irrigation Department and the provincial Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation on May 14 to discuss the situation.

"Currently we are coordinating with the Meteorological Department to provide information regarding water levels and climate forecasts for the coming three to four months, which may have a significant impact on water collection within the reservoir," Pratheep told Reuters.

He said the authorities would look at various measures to tackle any problems that arose, including alternative water sources and creating artificial rain over the reservoir.

The region suffered its worst drought in 30 years in 2005, when water levels in the reservoir receded to less than 20 percent.

However, Pratheep insisted the situation was nowhere near as serious yet and that businesses were operating as normal.

"There hasn't been any impact on the businesses operating here yet ... There is a sufficient amount of water production in the area for usage. No orders for water supplies from other sources have been placed yet," he said.

The reservoir contained 139.47 million cubic metres of water, whereas 160 million was generally considered necessary to ensure normal supply, East Water Resources Development and Management, which oversees supplies to the industrial sector in the region, said in a note on Friday.

Other areas of Thailand are suffering from a heat wave. The maximum daily temperature in Bangkok in April averaged 40.1 Celsius (104.2 Fahrenheit), the highest in 30 years.

Manufacturing in Thailand has still not recovered from last year's flooding. Seven big industrial estates had to close in October and the Industry Ministry says a quarter of the factories have still not reopened.

Although Map Ta Phut was spared the flooding, it has seen other disruption in recent years. Construction work on dozens of new plants was suspended for almost a year in 2009/2010 because of health and environmental complaints pursued through the courts by activists. (Reporting by Sinsiri Tiwutanond; Editing by Alan Raybould)

Bangkok Heat Stokes Debate Over mega-City Planning
Amy Sawitta Lefevre PlanetArk 4 May 12;

Bangkok Heat Stokes Debate Over mega-City Planning Photo: Sukree Sukplang
Monkeys enjoy a cold bath in a pond during a hot day in a rural neighbourhood in Ayutthaya province, 80 km (50 miles) north of Bangkok May 3, 2012. Bangkok is seeing the hottest average temperatures in the last 30 years.
Photo: Sukree Sukplang

Five months after the worst floods in half a century, the Thai capital is facing a near record heat wave with temperatures at three-decade highs, stoking debate over the often chaotic urban planning in one of Asia's hottest and largest cities.

The daily average high in Bangkok in April was 40.1 Celsius (104.2 Fahrenheit), the Meteorological Department says, prompting warnings from authorities for residents to be alert for heat-related ailments.

Critics say the heat has been exacerbated by poor urban planning in the fast-growing city of 12 million people - from a thinning of trees by city workers, often to accommodate electrical power lines, to heat-trapping building designs and a relatively small number of parks.

"It is a factor," Prawit Jampanya, director of the Central Weather Forecast division at the Meteorological Department, said, referring to the lack of green spaces in trapping Bangkok's mercury-pumping heat.

"Having trees does help to relieve poor air quality and urban heat traps," he said.

Though a tropical city, Bangkok has fewer trees and green spaces in proportion to its population than other Asian cities. An Asian Green City Index of 22 cities released last year by the Economist Intelligence Unit put Bangkok's green spaces at 3 square meters per person in the metropolitan area.

That is well below the index average of 39 square meters and contrasts with Singapore, a fellow Southeast Asian tropical city 1,430 km (890 miles) to the south, which has 66 square meters of green space per person.

Urban planning in Bangkok can seem arbitrary - from chronic congestion on main roads to obstructed or non-existent sidewalks, and poorly enforced zoning laws that allow homes and apartment buildings next to office towers and shopping malls.

Authorities hope to bring some order to the city with a new urban plan that takes effect from May next year.

Chalermwat Tantasavasdi, associate dean at the Faculty of Architecture and Planning at Thammasat University, says Bangkok's heat is made worse by outdated building designs that lack the proper insulation needed to keep buildings cool, leading to a rise in energy consumption.

The heat coincides with drought in 50 out of Thailand's 77 provinces, plus an increase in man-made and natural fires, just months after the worst floods in more than 50 years.

Businesses report surging sales of air conditioners, sun-screen and other cooling products.

Mistine Cosmetics Thailand, for example, saw sales of sunscreen products, lotions and creams jump 14 percent in April compared with the same period last year, says the company's marketing planner, Cholacha Subeuong.

Humans aren't the only ones suffering.

"Because of the heat, we have had to put in place cooling measures for the animals," says Waraporn Gunton at Bangkok's Dusit Zoo.

Measures have included mixing ice with animal food and watering some animals down with sprinklers.

(Editing by Jason Szep and Robert Birsel)

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U.S. clean water shrinking in "Last Call at the Oasis"

Jordan Riefe Reuters 4 May 12;

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - If you thought only Third World countries have water crises, a new documentary asks you to think again. Increasingly, problems are rising to the surface in the United States.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu harnesses the celebrity power of actor Jack Black and environmental activist Erin Brockovich - immortalized by Julia Roberts in the 2000 movie about Brockovich's work - to give the looming U.S. water crisis a thorough wringing out in "Last Call at the Oasis".

"A third of U.S. counties face water shortage by the year 2050," Yu told Reuters. "It's not really a solvable problem but we can manage it so much better."

"Last Call at the Oasis" follows environmental activists as they try to hold accountable those who contaminate the Earth's most precious natural resource - clean water.

In Las Vegas, they find a desert city is straining limited resources as it grows exponentially. Rural mid-western states are home to industrial cattle farms where tons of manure is improperly disposed, contaminating streams and drinking water. In farming communities, local towns see a spike in cancer cases after chemicals are used in pesticides.

According to Yu's research, in just 60 years the aquifer in California's Central Valley could be depleted, leaving barren an area that provides one fifth of the nation's produce.

Brockovich, who won a 1996 multi-million dollar settlement against energy giant Pacific Gas and Electric for polluting the water supply of a California town, said that water pollution is causing health issues throughout the United States.

"There are 4000 individual communities on my map now, and I can barely keep up with the incoming data," she told Reuters.

"Tropic Thunder" comic actor Black appears in a spoof commercial for bottled water, dubbed Porcelain Springs, that has been reclaimed from sewage - a concept that has been a hard sell in the United States despite being practiced elsewhere.

Singapore, for instance, satisfies 30 percent of its requirements through reclaimed water, the documentary notes.

"We're taught that in a survival situation if you don't have any water, you can drink your own urine," laughed Brockovich. "I just think none of us want to be in a position where we find ourselves drinking our urine if we can just make other options and choices now."

The sources of pollution include household products, pesticide manufacturers and the natural gas industry, to name a few. While the movie refrains from pointing the finger at any one company or group, industry representatives nevertheless declined to be interviewed for the film.

"The film is not about a bad guy," said Yu. "These industries are representative of a system that lets these things happen. We give the benefit of the doubt to industry. The burden of testing being on the producers of the chemicals - that seems like something that is fundamentally flawed."

Solutions discussed in the film also include better oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency and tighter regulations particularly on the natural gas industry and chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in drilling for gas.

"Nobody wants industry and those companies to go away because these people need jobs, but they don't want you to poison them," said Brockovich.

"There's a moment here where industry does not have to be the villain. You could create jobs to better dispose of waste - how we're going to reclaim and recycle that water, so that it's usable," she added.

In a 2008 report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that by 2080 nearly half the world's population will be without clean water.

"We see third world countries that have these problems," noted Brockovich. "If you think it can't be us, then think again."

(Reporting By Jordan Riefe, Editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)

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