Best of our wild blogs: 8 May 12

19 May (Sat): Raffles Museum Children's Open House
from Celebrating Singapore's BioDiversity!

Doing the dirty job – part 1
from Through the Eyes of the Leopard Cat

A pond teeming with dragonflies
from Everyday Nature

Back to special reef of Sentosa at Serapong
from wonderful creation and wild shores of singapore and Peiyan.Photography

A Hot Sunday @ Ubin
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Earth Day Coastal Cleanup @ Tanah Merah
from Lazy Lizard's Tales

Little Sisters
from Singapore Nature and Big Sisters Island and St. John's Island

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About 100 trees fall in Changi Beach Park after storm

S Ramesh Channel NewsAsia 7 May 12;

SINGAPORE: About 100 fallen trees were found in the wooded areas of Changi Beach Park due to stormy weather over the weekend.

National Parks Board (NParks) said this on Monday after intense rain and strong wind uprooted many trees.

It added it is conducting additional inspection of trees.

NParks said 13 trees near the tracks at Changi Beach Park were uprooted but after inspecting deeper in the wooded areas, it found about 100 more fallen trees.

NParks said heavy rain over the weekend softened the soil in the area.

About 10 trees were affected by strong wind in other parts of Singapore.

No reports of injuries were received, and all the trees causing obstruction have been cleared.

NParks is conducting additional inspection of its trees.

It has advised the public not to visit parks and nature reserves during and just after a storm.

- CNA/wk

Over 100 trees uprooted at Changi
Intense storms, strong winds wreak havoc over weekend
Grace Chua Straits Times 8 May 12;

MORE than a hundred trees were uprooted after intense storms and strong winds hit Changi Beach Park over the weekend.

The National Parks Board (NParks) said 13 trees near a footpath at the coastal park fell on Sunday afternoon while 100 toppled trees were found deeper in the park's wooded areas.

They were casuarina trees, a slender, multi-branched type adapted to growing in coastal areas, said Mr Simon Longman, NParks director of streetscape.

He noted that exceptionally strong localised winds had downed the trees. Heavy rain over the weekend had also softened the soil in the area.

According to Meteorological Service Singapore, 33.8mm of rain fell over one hour in the Changi area on Sunday afternoon. The highest wind gust recorded there was 78kmh at around 1.10pm.

The strongest wind gust ever recorded in Singapore was 144kmh in April 1984.

The storm was a Sumatra squall, said a Meteorological Service spokesman. These eastward-moving thunderstorms, which bring strong winds and heavy rain, can develop at any time of the year.

Dr T. Appasamy, director of landscaping firm Flora Landscape, said the sandy soil in beach areas tends to become loosened more easily than clayey soil elsewhere.

'When heavy rain occurs, the sand cannot hold the tree roots properly,' he explained.

Trees with thick crowns are also vulnerable to being toppled by the wind. Another 10 trees were also hit by strong winds in other parts of Singapore.

No reports of injuries were received, and all trees causing obstruction have been removed, NParks said. Its officers are also conducting additional tree inspections in areas affected by storms.

Torn branches will be carted away while trees which show signs of instability because the soil around their roots is waterlogged, will be cut down.

NParks has advised the public not to visit parks and nature reserves during and just after a heavy storm.

Tree-fall in natural areas after severe storms is not uncommon. Last October, towering casuarina trees were no match for strong winds which uprooted them at the southern island of Pulau Hantu. Earlier last year, storms flattened a 1.2km swathe of trees at Mandai.

Weather reports can be obtained from radio broadcasts, the National Environment Agency's (NEA) weather forecast hotline on 6542-7788, website, mobile weather service at or Twitter at @NEAsg.

For feedback on fallen trees, the public can call NParks on 1800-471-7300.

The weather outlook for the next one week is for inter-monsoon conditions to prevail over the region, with thundery showers in the late morning and afternoon.

Rainfall this month is likely to be average to slightly above average, the NEA said.

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Government study on option of building below ground

Use of subterranean facilities to save land will be examined
Grace Chua Straits Times 8 May 12;

RESERVOIRS, power plants and other facilities such as landfills could be put together beneath the ground in order to save precious land, under an option to be studied by the Government.

The move could bring other benefits, with heat and energy from one plant potentially being used to run another.

A reservoir can also generate hydroelectric power if water is pumped up to a height and allowed to cascade downwards.

The Ministry of National Development is to look at the costs and benefits of clustering the facilities - which also include desalination and incineration plants - at specific sites such as Tuas.

The research, which may be the most extensive on the subject to date, will help the Government decide whether to go ahead and build, said a spokesman for the ministry. A tender was called for the study late last month, and a site briefing for interested parties will be held today.

The consultants hired will work out the cost, construction time, environmental impact, and technical, operating and maintenance requirements. Their final report will be due at the end of next year.

Going underground would save precious land, according to a key recommendation contained in the Economic Strategies Committee's report in 2010. It called for the development of an underground masterplan and a subterranean land rights and valuation framework.

A dedicated geological office was set up in 2010 by the Building and Construction Authority, but even before that, subterranean Singapore was thriving.

Most of its below-ground infrastructure, such as the Common Services Tunnel for utilities and the MRT rail network, is less than 20m down, but the Jurong Rock Cavern for oil storage is at a depth of 130m.

Other studies, such as one by the Society for Rock Mechanics & Engineering Geology, have already identified potential sites. For example, water-storage caverns could be sited at Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak, in the tough Bukit Timah Granite formation that makes up about one-third of Singapore's surface area.

And the sedimentary rock of the Jurong Formation could house warehouses at Mount Faber, propane storage at Pandan and an underground science city, already being studied by industrial developer JTC Corporation, at a 20ha geological formation beneath Kent Ridge.

Asked about safety and pollution concerns, rock-mechanics expert Zhao Jian of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne pointed out: 'Underground caverns are much safer against earthquakes than above-ground buildings, and pollution can be contained easily in caverns compared to above ground.'

As for flood protection, it is possible to design floodgates and diversion tunnels. Underground caverns are also generally more secure for military and energy installations such as Singapore's underground ammunition storage facility, he added.

Some types of underground installations have already been adopted in other countries. For instance, a hydropower station in Wales uses water rushing downwards to generate electricity, while in Norway, caverns in hard bedrock are used for drinking water storage.

Underground infrastructure does not come cheap - the first phase of the Jurong Rock Cavern, Singapore's first underground oil storage project, cost $890 million to build. But with land increasingly scarce, JTC is already exploring the possibility of a subterranean multi-utility hub for the One-North research and business park in Buona Vista.

Other experts, such as former chief defence scientist Lui Pao Chuen, have previously suggested recouping part of the cost by selling excavated rocks for construction works.

What can go below

Reservoir: This could be built with a hydropower station and/or a system to catch excess run-off from rainfall. This idea was mooted by former chief defence scientist Lui Pao Chuen earlier this year.

Liquefied natural gas storage facility

Landfill: Such a facility, when underground, gets around the problem of pollution.

Incineration plant

< water="" reclamation="" plant:="" <="" b=""> This is already in use in Norway. <>

Desalination plant

The following are already underground:

Underground Ammunition Facility: Opened in Mandai in 2008, it is Singapore's first such facility. Siting it underground freed up 300ha of land. Its depth has never been disclosed.

Jurong Rock Cavern: This is being built 130m under Jurong Island to store oil and petrochemicals. Its first phase is to start operations in the first half of next year.

The Deep Tunnel Sewerage System: This system of pipes and tunnels 20m to 60m underground channels waste water from across the island to a treatment plant in Changi.

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Hope remains in conserving Malaysia's three turtle species

Natalie Heng The Star 8 May 12;

It is too late to avert the decline of Malaysian leatherbacks but there is still hope for the three remaining turtle species.

IN RETROSPECT, it is easy to see how the wheels of the Malaysian leatherback turtle’s rapid decline were set in motion long before anyone truly understood the gravity of what was happening.

Once a prime attraction of Malaysia’s burgeoning tourism industry in the 1970s and 80s, leatherback turtle numbers have since declined so much that some scientists say the species has become virtually extinct locally. The species is critically endangered the world over but in Malaysia, the situation is more dire than most.

Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) marine biologist Juanita Joseph has dedicated the last decade or so to researching Malaysian turtles, and as much as she would like to believe there is hope, she does not think Malaysian leatherbacks are going to recover.

“This is because (most) sea turtles only return to breed at their natal beach. They may travel thousands of miles to reach foraging grounds, crossing transnational borders, but all turtles return to the area where they were born to breed and nest.”

The implication of this is that once the local population of breeding turtles has disappeared, it is gone forever. But convincing locals of this is not easy. There is a common misconception that should turtles disappear from our beach, more can always be brought back from elsewhere.

It took hard data to convince the Terengganu state government, once one of the world’s most significant leatherback hosts, of the need to ban leatherback turtle egg consumption. And eventually, data from studies on population genetics also led to the gazettement of important nesting grounds for a number of other endangered turtle species found in Malaysia.

Communicating the situation’s urgency however, especially to the older generations of states like Kelantan and Terengganu, where turtle eggs have been consumed as a delicacy for centuries, remains notoriously difficult.

It does not help that turtles lay so many eggs – a female can lay over 100 at a time, and she may repeat this six or nine times a year. Up to a thousand eggs per female each breeding season might seem like an enormous number but this is an evolutionary adaptation to the precipitous journey each hatchling must make during its life cycle – only 85% of those eggs will be viable. And of that, only one in one thousand will survive to adulthood.

Today, with a more comprehensive understanding about the biology, population genetics and behavioural patterns of the species, we can afford a fresh take on how these ancient reptiles have gone from a national icon and worldwide tourist phenomenon to little more than living fossils on Malaysian shores.

The tale of how it happened is worth retelling and must not be forgotten for it illustrates why it is in the interest of everyone that we start saving the other turtle species.

Taking stock of the past

Thousands of leatherbacks used to frequent the sleepy shores of Rantau Abang, a small fishing village on the coast of Terengganu. Eggs were aplenty. Hundreds of thousands were buried in scattered clutches across the shore, far more than egg collectors could carry, and plenty for the locals to eat. With road expansion, turtle eggs were soon transported to new markets as far afield as Kuala Lumpur. The eggs became a commodity: prices rose and more collectors started digging them up as egg sales became a lucrative source of income for the under-developed state.

Rantau Abang was soon transformed into one of the world’s most popular tourist locations to spot leatherbacks. Leatherbacks are a sight to behold. Unchanged since an age before the dinosaurs, these ancient reptiles are the turtle-king of superlatives – over 3m in length and weighing as much as 900kg, they are the largest, deepest-diving and most migratory of all sea turtle species.

In Rantau Abang, scenes of large groups of tourists crowding around a single nesting female turtle were commonplace in the 70s and 80s. When the tourists left, the eggs were scooped up for sale. At the same time, a rapidly developing fishing industry led to leatherbacks being caught in nets.

Leatherback eggs laid in Terengganu dropped from 10,000 clutches in 1955 to about 3,000 in the year 1965. In 1999, only 2% of that number was found and by 2002, only three female leatherbacks reportedly landed on Rantau Abang.

Once they realised numbers were dropping, conservationists and the state initiated efforts to protect the turtles. The first Malaysian leatherback hatcheries were established way back in the early 60s.

“At the time, about 4% of eggs in Terengganu were safeguarded against egg collectors,” says Liew Hock Chark, a marine biology lecturer at UMT.

That figure wasn’t enough, however, considering that 0.001% of hatchlings are statistically doomed not to make it to adulthood. Ironically, those early conservation efforts might have inadvertently done more harm than good. It was only in the late 80s that local scientists discovered that turtles undergo environmental sex determination – which means that eggs laid in hot spots on the beach lead to 100% female hatchlings, whilst eggs laid in cooler spots lead to male ones. Prior to this, incubation efforts had not been discriminating the temperature at hatchling sites. In addition to that, development and a decline in beach vegetation had led to a shortage of cooler nesting areas along the coast.

Joseph explains the situation: “Only a handful of female leatherbacks have returned to Rantau Abang to nest in the last few years but none of the incubated clutches contained eggs that actually hatched.” This, she thinks, could be a symptom of man-made distortions in the sex ratio of Malaysian leatherbacks, because reptiles will lay eggs even if they have not been fertilised.

Some say the ban on turtle egg consumption and the establishmentment of Rantau Abang as a turtle sanctuary came too late.

Patrolling the vast area to supervise the ban was difficult, and the Fisheries Department tackled this challenge by tendering egg collection out to locals.

Each vendor was required to sell all the collected eggs to the department for incubation in hatcheries. However, when market prices proved to be more enticing, many eggs ended up being sold for consumption. To make things worse, lights from resorts along the coast and vehicle ridden by sanctuary personnel patrolling the beach are thought to have disorientated the nesting females and hatchlings. Today, the shores of Rantau Abang are as good as barren.

Save the other species

While the local breeding population of leatherback might be as good as extinct, there are three other known species of turtle still nesting successfully on Malaysian shores. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, green turtles are endangered, olive Ridleys are vulnerable, and hawksbills are critically endangered.

In Peninsular Malaysia, however, none of these turtle eggs are banned from consumption. At sea, they get entangled in fishing nets and long lines, and starve after swallowing floating plastic bags. The fact that turtle migration is transboundary complicates matters. Green turtles migrate thousands of miles from their breeding ground all over the world, to converge at specific foraging grounds. However these rich beds of sea grass are dwindling due to coastal development.

In addition to all that, turtles are being picked off by poachers. In 2007, the discovery of a shipment containing 397 green and hawksbill turtles aboard a Chinese vessel in the Derawan Archipelago off eastern Kalimantan, shocked the world.

Some think allowing for the collection of eggs at home when there are so many threats to the hatchlings that do manage to survive an ocean full of predators, is ludicrous. Perhaps this is why, earlier this year, World Wildlife Fund Malaysia made fresh calls for the government to amend the Fisheries Act 1985 to ban the eating of all turtle eggs.

Countries hosting breeding populations of turtles might not be able to stop their turtles from being killed beyond their borders but the resilience of local populations that have benefited from a complete ban on turtle egg collection seem to indicate the merits of stemming egg consumption.

Sabah instituted a ban on commercial egg collection 30 years ago and there has since been a threefold increase in its breeding population of green turtles, despite numerous poaching cases in the waters surrounding Borneo.

Conservationists have this message: Turtle egg consumption, though adhered to for centuries, is no longer a sustainable practice. Unless action is taken to protect them now, it does not matter how many turtles are left outside of our national waters – seeing turtles in Peninsular Malaysia could eventually become a distant memory.

Turtle sanctuary at Chagar Hutang
The Star 8 May 12;

THE shores of Chagar Hutang on the northern part of Pulau Redang, off Terengganu, are covered with coral chips. Hardly anyone is around, or allowed to collect the coral debris that has washed ashore. The beach is quiet for most parts of the year because it is a turtle sanctuary.

Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) marine biologists Liew Hock Chark and Dr Chan Eng Heng were overjoyed when news of this came in 2005.

They have worked to conserve green and hawksbill turtles at this important nesting spot on the island since the 1990s; in 1993, the Sea Turtle Conservation Project at Chagar Hutang became official.

The duo’s legacy continues to this day. Over time, they have introduced outreach programmes while nest and turtle adoption schemes help secure funds for conservation. During the turtle nesting season from April to September every year, the volunteer programme sees local and international visitors help researchers spot mother turtles and guard the eggs at night.

Juanita Joseph is a researcher and UMT lecturer who currently heads the turtle conservation programme at Pulau Redang. It was her research on the population genetics of green turtles which helped make a solid case for the state’s decision to gazette Chagar Hutang Turtle Sanctuary.

And thanks to the project, the green turtle population at Chagar Hutang has stabilised somewhat over the years. Last year’s nesting season yielded 556 green and hawksbill clutches while hawksbill nestings on an island nearby have also grown.

However, Joseph believes there are many more ways her research can make a difference. The site of a burgeoning tourism industry, Redang and its surrounding islands are bringing in an ever increasing volume of tourists – and boat traffic. A growing number of turtles have been found washed ashore, their carapaces bearing signs of being hit by speedboat propellers.

“Turtles have to come up for air and very often, accidents occur, resulting in injuries. Last year, we found at least 10 dead turtles, and that was just what we observed. The Fisheries Department reported around 30 more,” says Joseph.

She suspects that the hits happened when female turtles hang around the reefs during inter-nesting periods.

A Master’s student is now conducting a radio tracking study to find out if boat paths coincide with spots frequented by turtles. Armed with such knowledge, she can then propose to the Marine Parks Department on areas where boat traffic and speed should be restricted during the breeding season.

Early last year, work began on DNA sequencing for the critically endangered hawksbill turtle (this information already exists for the endangered green turtle).

“This will be useful for forensics. Each breeding population will have a common haplotype (genetic sequence) that is distinct from other breeding populations, so you can match DNA samples taken from eggs or turtle products sold in the market and identify whether they have come from an illegal source, say, Sabah and Sarawak, where egg collection is banned.”

Although she does not currently have the kind of fancy DNA extraction required to analyse week-old eggs (which the ones from Sabah and Sarawak usually are), she believes building a database now represents important ground work for anyone who does have the resources for law enforcement later.

A lot of the equipment, including radio, ultrasonic and satellite tags, needed to conduct turtle studies is expensive. The most recent donation of two satellite trackers came from a volunteer group funded through a Dana Belia 1Malaysia grant. Last year, Berjaya Cares Foundation donated RM100,000 for radio tracking work. – Natalie Heng

* For more on the turtle conservation project, go to or

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Malaysia: Two elephant calves caught

Sharifah Mahsinah Abdullah New Straits Times 8 May 12;

TWO elephant calves, believed to be pining for their mother, were captured by state wildlife rangers at a jungle near Felcra Bukit Raja over the weekend.

MACHANG: State wildlife director Rahmat Topani said the baby elephants, aged 5 and 3 years and weighing 700kg and 500kg respectively, were in a rubber smallholding after a 30-year-old female elephant, weighing about 2.5 tonnes, was caught by the rangers at 11.45am on Saturday.

"It seemed that the calves were yearning for their mother that they kept searching for the adult elephant after it was caught."

He said rangers were sent to the Felcra settlement after residents complained that a herd of elephants had damaged their crops.

He said the first calf, a male, was caught at 10am on Sunday and the youngest, a female, was captured about six hours later in the same area.

"A large crowd of villagers gathered near the jungle to see our operation to catch the jumbos," he said.

Rahmat said the three elephants were believed to be in a herd of eight that had been destroying crops belonging to residents since last year.

He said the elephant family would either be sent to the National Elephant Conservation Centre in Kuala Gandah, Pahang, or released into the wild in the National Park tomorrow.

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Biodiversity could be casualty of Myanmar openness

Denis D. Gray Associated Press Yahoo News 7 May 12;

As many as 40,000 gorgeously plumed birds known as the Gurney's pitta thrive in the lowland rainforests of economically backward Myanmar. Across the border, Thailand's last five pairs are guarded around the clock against snakes and human predators.

The bird's status is among many reasons Myanmar is regarded as one of Asia's last bastions of biodiversity, and why environmentalists view the country's steps toward opening its doors with some fear.

Myanmar has avoided the rapid, often rampant development seen in Thailand and other parts of Asia because of decades of isolation brought on by harsh military rule. But as foreign investors begin pouring in, activists in what was once known as Burma say endemic corruption, virtually nonexistent environmental laws and a long-repressed civil society make it "ripe for environmental rape."

They hope that it will at least prove a race: pro-democracy reformers and conservationists are urging the government to put more safeguards in place against the unscrupulous eager to take advantage of their absence.

The rush is already on. Airplanes bound for Yangon, the nation's largest city, are booked up with businessmen looking for deals, along with throngs of tourists. Singapore dispatched a delegation with 74 company representatives in March while the Malaysians sent a high-level investment mission focused on property development, tourism, rubber and oil palm plantations. U.S. and European countries are not as involved because sanctions against Myanmar prevent them from starting new businesses there.

"The 'development invasion' will speed up environmental destruction and is also likely to lead to more human rights abuses," says Pianporn Deetes of the U.S.-based International Rivers Network. "Industries will move very fast, while civil society is just beginning to learn about the impacts."

Under President Thein Sein, the government last year began to loosen the military's grip on power, instituting some reforms and even allowing democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run, and win, a seat in Parliament. Reasons for the changes remain murky, but years as an international pariah have left Myanmar poor and in need of foreign investment.

Environmentally, Myanmar is certainly no longer pristine, but it has been spared some of the wholesale ravages seen in the economically booming, more open societies across Asia.

Positioned at the core of one of the world's richest biodiversity hotspots, it's endowed with plant and animal life of the flanking Himalayas, Malay peninsula, Indian subcontinent and mainland Southeast Asia.

Only three countries in the world have more extensive tropical forests: Brazil, India and the Congo. Myanmar is home to 1,099 of Southeast Asia's 1,324 bird species, and to extensive coral reefs. Unexploited rivers, on- and offshore oil deposits and minerals abound.

"The scale is just massive. It just dwarfs everything else in surrounding countries," says Robert J. Tizard, who heads the office of the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society in Myanmar. "It could be a curse that they have so many resources."

Environmentalists say Myanmar's government, which remains dominated by the military, has an abysmal record of protecting its resources, which are often exploited by enterprises linked to generals and their cronies.

One such enterprise, the Yuzana Company, operates in the Hukaung Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, which the government established with considerable fanfare as the world's largest tiger reserve in 2001. Yuzana has razed forests in the area to plant sugar cane, and gold mining is rife.

According to spokesman Ah Nah of the Kachin Development Networking Group, which has been monitoring the valley since 2007, virtually all the concessions are within the reserve boundaries. WCS, which pushed the regime to set up the sanctuary, says only 25 percent of Yuzana's plantations are in the park.

The Myanmar company's owner, tycoon Htay Myint, enjoys close links to the military. The country's largest money-spinning industries — energy, mining and electricity — and those related to the environment are all led by retired generals.

Jonathan Eames of BirdLife International, which has been tracking the status of the Gurney's pitta, says efforts to create a park to protect bird's habitat failed because of the military's push to replace forests with oil palm plantations in the Tenasserim Range. Similar clearing occurred earlier across the bird's territory in Thailand.

Myanmar operators proved less than competent so deforestation has slowed, but Eames expects it to accelerate again as Malaysians, Indonesians and Thais, experts at plantation management, move in.

Foreign enterprises already have taken advantage elsewhere. Thai companies, particularly in the 1990s, decimated teak forests in eastern Myanmar and are poised to become major players at Dawei, a deep sea port and vast industrial estate being built by Thailand's largest construction enterprise, Italian-Thai Development. It has recently drawn protests by locals fearing pollution of what is now an unsullied region.

Pianporn says a number of Thai companies, faced with increasingly tougher environmental laws at home, are planning to relocate their "dirty industries," including petrochemical and coal-fired plants, next door.

A surge in hydroelectric projects is also expected, with China, the No. 1 investor in Myanmar, leading the charge. In face of strong domestic protests, the regime last September suspended construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy River although environmental groups recently report that work by the China Power Investment company quietly continues around the dam site.

Chinese loggers have stripped large areas of northern Kachin state and others threaten southern regions.

Activists stress that environmentally harmful projects often go hand-in-hand with human rights abuses such as forced labor and mass relocations.

Myanmar officials say they are not blind to the dangers.

Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to the president, said bids by foreign investors will be scrutinized to ensure they adhere to a policy of sustainable development.

"We Myanmar citizens are quite aware of the consequences. We cannot allow our cherished motherland to be destroyed by greedy foreign investors," he said in a statement to The Associated Press.

In his inaugural address, Thein Sein pledged "serious attention" to protecting forests and wildlife, reducing air and water pollution and controlling dumping of industrial waste.

But the good intentions could be dashed given Myanmar's vulnerabilities.

The country ranked 180 out of 183 countries on Global Transparency's 2011 corruption index and is only now debating an environmental law in Parliament. Only sketchy guidelines for sustainable development exist.

None of the some 50 major hydro projects completed, under construction or on the drawing boards are known to have any environmental impact statements that would meet international standards, according to International Rivers Network and other environmental watchdogs.

The Ministry of Environment Conservation and Forestry was formed only last year and is still without a conservation division. Tizard, who works closely with the ministry, says it has some officials who are dedicated to their work, but he and other environmentalists note that their efforts can be easily subverted.

"Under-the-table deals are likely to continue because the military is so entrenched. They or their cronies control most of the businesses while civil society is still very weak. It needs a lot of education," says Wong Aung, of the Burma Environmental Working Group, a network of 10 grass-roots organizations.

"It's a double-edged sword. There will be economic development and you are going to have trade-offs with the environment," says Robert Mather, head of the IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature, in Southeast Asia.

There are, he says, some grounds for optimism.

Myanmar has a conservation tradition, including sound forestry practices that are lacking in many surrounding countries, and it appears eager to seek outside assistance. A number of international environmental organizations are already planning to set up there, some in partnership with the growing number of local groups. The Wildlife Conservation Society is currently the only major one with a permanent presence.

Mather says Myanmar, as "the last frontier," could play hard to get — picking only those investors with a history of transparency and environmental sensitivity.

The selection would expand greatly if economic sanctions by Western nations were lifted. The European Union announced last month it will suspend most sanctions for a year while it assesses the country's progress toward democracy, while the United States is taking a wait-and-see attitude.

"You are going back to Thailand in the 1950s with a conservation practices of the 21st century, so there is a lot of opportunity to do it right," Tizard says. "If they follow some of the best practices they could do incredibly well."

Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur and Alex Kennedy in Singapore contributed to this report.

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Fundraising blitz in South Africa to save the rhino

AFPBy Sibongile Khumalo AFP Yahoo News 7 May 12;

The battle against rhino poaching is at a fever pitch in South Africa, the country hardest hit by the scourge, spawning scores of fundraising campaigns running from glamorous to gory.

Carrying a trendy shopping bag or sporting a brightly beaded bracelet have become fashionable ways of flagging awareness of the plight of the rhino, whose horn is used in traditional Asian medicine in the false belief that it has powerful healing properties.

Meanwhile some online campaigns seek donations with visceral images of a hacked rhino lying dead with blood and froth oozing from its eyes and mouth.

The slaughter has reached record levels in South Africa, with more than 200 of the animals killed so far this year after a record 450 in 2011.

But not everyone is impressed by the seemingly good gestures, with worries about fraudsters and whether donations reach the intended organisations.

"A lot of campaigns have recently surfaced from every direction. Donors should be careful which cause they support," said Pelham Jones, chairman of the Private Rhino Owners Association, which represents private game reserves.

He said 272 fundraising organisations are now linked to rhino conservation, but he rates only 15 percent of them as credible.

"Some major corporates have made significant contributions towards various campaigns aimed at saving the rhino," he said. "Other people are just collecting money for their own benefit."

Wildlife organisations and parks are in dire need of resources to improve security and training of anti-poaching personnel and tracker dogs.

Rhino Force -- the company founded last year to distribute merchandise like bracelets, scarves, beaded baby rhinos and music CDs -- said proceeds of the sales are donated to the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an established charity.

With their heart-tugging slogan, "It's Not a Bracelet... It's Our Heritage," Rhino Force aims to sell one million bracelets throughout the country.

"We can't stand back and allow our heritage to disappear. I believe that each and every one of us can make a difference," Rhino Force founder Joanne Lapin told AFP.

"Each donation matters. I am not doing this for myself," she added. So far, her group has sold 150,000 bracelets, raising about 1.1 million rands ($140,000, 100,000 euros) for the trust.

Highlighting the country's devotion to rhinos, South Africa voted the animal as the offical mascot for the national Olympic team.

The tubby beast named Ckukuru, clad in green shorts and a matching t-shirt, has a horn adorned with beads resembling the colours of the Olympic rings and the national flag.

"The fact that the public voted for the rhino as the official mascot shows the level of awareness they have developed around the threat of poaching and the need to stop it," said Vinesh Maharaj, chief financial officer for the national Olympic committee.

Rhino poaching has been woven into the story line of a major soap opera.

A prominent radio station held an on-air public auction for a painting by a member of the Parlotones rock band, fetching 570,000 rands, which organisers say will be used to train tracker dogs.

And one of the country's major banks, Nedbank, offers services that make donations to World Wildlife Fund-South Africa based on a client's financial activity. Since the scheme began in 1990, the bank has donated 115 million rands. The rhino has become the programme's new poster image.

Overall donations to WWF-South Africa jumped nearly 20 percent last year, to almost 694,000 rands.

Aside from worries about how the money is being used, some are concerned that the campaign might be pushing the price of rhino horns even higher, making the illicit trade even more lucrative.

"We're caught in the spiral of having to take action but then that action in turn increasing the price of rhino horn and therefore making it more attractive," said Simon Gear of the Lead SA campaign, run by major media.

"In addition to that, I think a lot of the publicity around it has actually publicised quite how valuable these animals are and so criminals before who never thought of poaching are now starting to realise that there is money to be made."

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Backyard Biodiversity May Stem Allergies

Wynne Parry LiveScience Yahoo News 8 May 12;

A decline in the variety of life — including the plants and animals that live around us, as well as the microbes on our bodies — may play a role in the rapid rise in allergies and asthma, indicates new research.

The study focused on a predisposition for allergies among 118 Finnish teenagers, finding links between a healthy immune system (the body's system for fighting disease), growing up in more natural environments and the presence of certain skin bacteria.

The results support the idea that declining biodiversity might be contributing to the rapid rise in allergies, asthma, and other inflammatory diseases, which include autoimmune disorders and some types of cancers in the developed world, said Ilkka Hanski, a research professor at the University of Helsinki.

This idea — that the diversity of living things, including microbes, in an environment contributes to the development of normal immune system function in children — is called the biodiversity hypothesis. It builds upon the hygiene hypothesis, a theory that suggests exposure to certain microbes early in life helps train our immune systems not to respond to harmless foreign substances like pollen.

The hygiene hypothesis attributes an increase in allergies to a lack of childhood exposure to microbes. Essentially, we have become too clean for our own good, it says. [Infographic: Germs Are Everywhere!]

The more scientists learn about the tiny things that share our bodies — living in our guts, on our skin and elsewhere — the more questions arise about these microbes' role in our health.

In this study, researchers examined the microbes living on the skin sample of 14 to 18 year olds living in eastern Finland nearly all of whom had lived in the same homes throughout their childhoods. They classified the environment within a 1.9-mile (3-kilometer) radius around the homes in which the teens had grown up, noting if it was, for example, forested, agricultural or built up, and surveyed the plants living in the yard, a proxy for boidiversity around the homes.

They also analyzed blood samples from the teenagers for levels of an antibody, immunoglobin E. High levels are a sign of allergies, which occur when someone's immune system is overly sensitive to harmless substances, such as pollen. (Allergies trigger inflammation, which is part of the immune system's response to injury or invasion.) [Take the Allergy Poll]

The Finnish team found a web of connections among these three factors.

The skin of teenagers more prone to allergies had lower diversity of bacteria known as gammaproteobacteria than their healthy counterparts. (Gammaproteobacteria include the well-known gut microbe and some-time pathogen E. coli. They are not common skin bacteria, but frequently show up in soil and on plant surfaces.)

In fact, a particular group of gammaproteobacteria, in the genus Acinetobacter, appeared to be linked to higher levels of anti-inflammatory molecules among the healthy teens. Anti-inflammatory molecules help to quell allergic responses.

Environment also mattered. Teens living in more natural areas, as opposed to built-up ones, were less likely to have allergies and had more abundant gammaproteobacteria on their skin. A yard containing a diverse mix of uncommon, native flowering plants also appeared linked with healthy immune function. [5 Ways Climate May Affect Your Health]

These results raise plenty of questions, since it's still not clear why these relationships exist. For instance, it's not clear how gammaproteobacteria are connected to immune function. Likewise, exposure to a greater diversity of pollen from flowering plants may help children avoid allergies or, perhaps, the secret lies in the diversity of the microbes on the plants.

Writing in a study published online today (May 7) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers suggest microbes in the natural environment influence those living on our skin, which, in turn influence our health.

"The hypothesis here is if you have generally more diverse environments, you have more diverse microbe communities, perhaps including more of the microbes that are particularly beneficial to us," Hanski said.

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U.N. Fails to Finalise Rio+20 Plan on Sustainable Future

Thalif Deen IPS News 7 May 12;

UNITED NATIONS, May 7, 2012 (IPS) - After two weeks of closed door negotiations, a U.N. preparatory committee (PrepCom) has failed to reach consensus on a global plan of action, titled "The Future We Want," to be adopted by a summit meeting of world leaders mid-June in Brazil.

The negotiators, comprising representatives of all 193 member states, proclaimed limited success, including reducing the size of the action plan - formally called the "outcome document" - from nearly 200 to less than 100 pages.

The document, called the "zero draft", originally ran to more than 6,000 pages of submissions by member states, international organisations and civil society groups.

Still, after protracted negotiations ending last Friday, Ambassador Kim Sook of South Korea, one of the co-chairs of the PrepCom, said delegates had expressed "disappointment and frustration at the lack of progress" on reaching agreement on a plan aimed at a greener economy and a sustainable future.

In an effort to break the deadlock, the PrepCom will give another shot at the zero draft when it holds an unscheduled five-day session beginning May 29.

This will be a last ditch attempt to finalise the draft action plan, which has to be ready for approval by world leaders arriving in Rio de Janeiro for the three-day summit, beginning Jun. 20.

The summit will be the culmination of the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, also called Rio+20), a follow-up to the landmark 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil which adopted Agenda 21 and the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development.

"Let us be frank," UNCSD Secretary-General Sha Zukang said Friday, "currently, the negotiating text is a far cry from the 'focused political document' called for by the General Assembly."

He said the objective should be to arrive in Rio "with at least 90 percent of the text ready, and only the most difficult 10 percent left to be negotiated there at the highest political levels".

However, a statement released Friday by a coalition of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) warned that Rio+20 "looks set to add almost nothing to global efforts to deliver sustainable development".

"Too many governments are using or allowing the talks to undermine established human rights and agreed principles such as equity, precaution, and polluter pays," it said.

Antonio Hill of Oxfam said, "After four months of talks on the so- called zero draft outcome document, the Rio+20 talks are stuck at zero."

He said little or nothing has emerged that will deliver on what governments agreed was needed 20 years ago at the Earth Summit.

Besides Oxfam, the coalition includes Development Alternatives, Greenpeace, the Forum of Brazilian NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development (FBOMS), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Vitae Civilis.

Asked about the sticking points in the negotiating process, Zeenat Niazi, senior programme director at the India-based Development Alternatives Group, told IPS there was disagreement over the concept of green economy and "its relevance and meaning to the Global South - concerns of green associated with the creation of sustainable livelihoods".

She pointed out that other areas of disagreement include: issues of equity; sustainable consumption and production in the Global North; social justice, especially related to resource extraction from developing and least developed countries; technology transfer and trade.

Additionally, there were also disputes relating to Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how they deal with "the integration across the three pillars of sustainability, and not becoming a long laundry list".

"And what kind of commitments will nations need to make, and the readiness for them, and the building up of national capacities to facilitate the inclusion of SDGs in national development plans and priorities?" Niazi said.

Asked whether an additional week of negotiations will make any significant difference to the outcome document, Niazi told IPS, "It could, if there are spaces created to include the voices of civil society, and integrate the same in the outcome document and outline an inclusive road map to design the post-Rio+20 action plans."

In a statement released Friday, the United Nations identified some of the contentious issues which prevented agreement on the outcome document.

Some developed countries, the statement said, have embraced the green economy as a new roadmap for sustainable development, while many developing countries are more cautious, asserting that each country should choose its own path to a sustainable future and that a green economy approach should not lead to green protectionism or limit growth and poverty eradication.

Other countries and stakeholders, it said, have voiced concerns about implementation and accountability, pointing out that some commitments made at previous global meetings, such as for official development assistance (ODA), have yet to be fully realised.

Nonetheless, says the statement, virtually all countries appear willing to agree on a number of issues, including the overall need to recognise and act to meet pressing global and national challenges.

"It has been widely acknowledged that action is needed to provide for the needs of a growing global population that continues to consume and produce unsustainably, resulting in rising carbon emissions, degraded natural ecosystems and growing income inequality."

The need to find a better measurement of progress than gross domestic product (GDP) has also been widely acknowledged.

The statement further said that countries have also been examining the concept of new Sustainable Development Goals, a set of benchmarks to guide them in achieving targeted outcomes within a specific time period, such as on access to sustainable energy and clean water for all.

But some countries have differing views on what should or should not be included in the goals, as well as the formal process for how and when the goals may be defined, finalised and agreed to.


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