Best of our wild blogs: 17 Jul 12

Wildfacts updates: cool critter maps and more!
from wild shores of singapore

Differentiating Millipedes and Centipedes
from Macro Photography in Singapore

from The annotated budak

Feeding birds in Punggol Park
from Urban Forest

Spiderhunter collecting nest material
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Solomon Islands at centre of “captive breeding” shenanigans

WWF 17 Jul 12;

Over the past decade, Singapore and Malaysia combined have accounted for 93% of all birds imported from the Solomon Islands, with significant numbers being re-exported, especially to Taiwan.

Singapore — Tens of thousands of wild birds exported from the Solomon Islands have been laundered into the global wildlife trade by declaring them as captive-bred, a new TRAFFIC study has found.

Between 2000 and 2010, more than 54,000 birds, mainly parrots and cockatoos, were imported from the Solomon Islands and declared as captive bred. Yet local authorities confirmed to TRAFFIC that the Solomon Islands is not known to have substantial bird breeding facilities and registered bird breeders in the islands primarily use their facilities as holding sites for wild-caught birds bound for export.

All the birds were of species listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), which restricts trade in wild-caught individuals, but has less stringent rules if they are captive-bred.

Native species exported included 18,444 Yellow-bibbed Lories, 15,994 Solomons Cockatoos, 8,050 Eclectus Parrots, 5,803 Cardinal Lories and 4,957 Rainbow Lorikeets. 12,820 of these birds were declared as wild-caught and 40,428 were reportedly captive-bred.

“Declaring exported birds as being captive-bred has all the hallmarks of a scam to get around international trade regulations,” said Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Regional Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia and an author of the new report.

More than 13,000 non-native birds, mostly species naturally occurring in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, were exported, yet no export records exist that could explain how any stock for captive-breeding operations had reached the Solomon Islands.

They included Critically Endangered Yellow-crested Cockatoos, which cannot be commercially traded under CITES regulations even if captive-bred, plus other threatened parrots, such as Pesquet’s Parrot, Chattering Lory, Blue-eyed Cockatoo and White Cockatoo, all claimed to be captive-bred.

Even more extraordinary was the claim that in 2005, 76 birds-of-paradise of seven species, including the threatened Blue Bird-of-paradise, were captive-bred in the Solomon Islands. Birds-of-paradise are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity, and only a few specialized centres have ever succeeded. No records of birds-of-paradise being imported into the Solomon Islands exist.

In August 2006, the Solomon Islands government suspended trade in the country’s native wildlife, to allow new legislation to be drafted. Although bird exports have fallen sharply since, expired permits are revalidated to allow existing stock possessed by traders to be exported, creating an obvious loophole for the captive-breeding scam to continue.

Over the past decade, Singapore and Malaysia combined have accounted for 93% of all birds imported from the Solomon Islands, with significant numbers being re-exported, especially to Taiwan.

Because of concerns over the trade, Malaysia has suspended bird imports from the Solomon Islands. Now TRAFFIC considers Singapore should do the same.

“Singapore should follow Malaysia’s lead in suspending bird imports, not only from the Solomon Islands but anywhere else if there is a lack of clarity as to their legal origin,” said Shepherd.

The report recommends an investigation into captive breeding operations in the Solomon Islands is carried out through CITES processes. If irregularities are found, CITES ultimately has the authority to suspend all trade in CITES-listed species from the island archipelago.

Later this month, a CITES meeting takes place in Switzerland, where a report into the use of captive-breeding to circumvent CITES trade regulations is on the agenda for discussion.

Wild birds 'smuggled through Solomon Islands'
(AFP) Google News 18 Jul 12;

SINGAPORE — More than 54,000 wild birds, including critically endangered species, were laundered through the Solomon islands into the global wildlife trade between 2000 and 2010, a wildlife group said Tuesday.

The birds, classified as "captive-bred" to skirt wildlife trafficking laws and in the main not native to the islands, were exported mostly to Singapore and Malaysia from where they were sold to other parts of the world, TRAFFIC said in a report.

"Between 2000 and 2010, more than 54,000 birds, mainly parrots and cockatoos, were imported from the Solomon Islands and declared as captive-bred," said the report, launched in Singapore.

"Yet local authorities confirmed to TRAFFIC that the Solomon Islands is not known to have substantial bird breeding facilities," it added.

TRAFFIC said Singapore and Malaysia accounted for 93 percent of all birds imported from Solomon Islands between 2000 and 2010.

Malaysia however has suspended its bird imports and TRAFFIC is urging Singapore to do the same.

"Singapore should follow Malaysia's lead in suspending bird imports, not only from the Solomon Islands but anywhere else if there is a lack of clarity as to their legal origin," said TRAFFIC's Southeast Asia deputy director Chris Shepherd.

The birds included vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered species such as the Yellow-crested Cockatoo, which cannot be traded under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna, or CITES.

In addition, a majority of the birds were not native to the Solomon Islands but are found in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea.

The absence of records showing the Solomon Islands had imported the birds indicated that they had been caught in the wild, TRAFFIC said.

Shepherd said the smugglers were deceiving authorities to gain access to the global pet trade.

"Declaring exported birds as being captive-bred has all the hallmarks of a scam to get around international trade regulations," he said in the report.

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Minnesota Zoo exhibit raises dolphin captivity questions

Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio 16 Jul 12;

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. — When a young dolphin named Taijah died on Feb.6, officials at the Minnesota Zoo knew they had a problem on their hands.

Dolphins are one of the most popular attractions at the zoo, and Taijah was the sixth in the collection to die in as many years.

Staff emails show zoo officials were worried about bad publicity in the days and weeks following the death. Those fears were warranted, as news about Taijah's death quickly spread throughout the world.

"A dolphin dies in Minnesota, and people in Singapore know about it five minutes later," Zoo Director Lee Ehmke said in an interview.

The string of dolphin deaths at the zoo has become a flashpoint for a broader debate about keeping dolphins in captivity. Zoo officials were worried about the fatalities and the public heat surrounding them, according to emails and other documents MPR News obtained through the state Data Practices Act.

Zoo officials, however, say the deaths had nothing to do with their decision to close the exhibit this fall, which they said largely has to do with the scarcity of dolphins.

When officials decided a few months later to close the dolphin exhibit, Ehmke received thousands of phone calls and emails. He said they were split between dolphin-rights groups applauding the decision, and zoo visitors outraged to see the animals go. The response shows just how divided people are about keeping these smart, fascinating creatures in concrete tanks.

Industry experts say the zoo's decision to find new homes for the dolphins doesn't portend any kind of national trend. Forty-four zoos and aquariums in the United States display dolphins, and that number has held steady over the years.

The documents obtained by MPR News suggest zoo officials were paying attention to that larger debate. Taijah's death quickly prompted a high-level discussion about whether to keep dolphins on display.

Kevin Willis, the zoo's director of biological programs, raised key questions in an email to Ehmke.

"Is the question whether we can responsibly keep dolphins, or is the question whether anyone can responsibly keep dolphins?" Willis asked. "Maybe the question is: Given that dolphins are going to die, can we stand the political and public heat in terms of maintaining a good reputation (and of course our attendance and donors?)"

When asked about the email, Willis said he did not mean to express doubt about whether dolphins belong in captivity. He said he was simply trying to determine where the conversation about the exhibit's future was headed.

"I just asked, 'What is the framework of this discussion? Is it philosophical? Is it money?' " he recalled.

Willis said he believes zoos can and do responsibly care for dolphins. He's not convinced that dolphins in human care are under more stress than those in the wild.

"They're not worried about predators, they're not worried about food," Willis said of dolphins in captivity. "They generally know everybody. There are no dolphins coming in, trying to disrupt the social order. I don't know which would have more or less stress."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates zoos, found that Minnesota's dolphin tanks were in compliance with federal rules.

Willis points out that the six dolphins in the zoo's care died of unrelated reasons.

"If there was some way we could tie the deaths together, it would be very helpful," he said.


The first death came in 2006, when a seven-month-old calf named Harley popped out of the water and cracked his skull. At the time, zoo officials said he smacked his head on the concrete deck when he landed. But it's also possible he hit his head while trying to swim between two pools, Willis said.

Harley's mother, Rio, died two months later of an undetermined cause.

Fourteen-year-old Ayla was euthanized after suffering complications from scoliosis.

In 2009, a calf was stillborn.

Last year, 44-year-old April died of respiratory and cardiac arrest.

Taijah died in February after experiencing an ulcer that could have been related to stress. The exact cause of the death is unknown, said University of Minnesota veterinarian Arno Wunschmann, who performed the necropsy.

Taijah's medical records from the zoo showed that a fire alarm set off four days before her death caused her to act nervously. Dolphins have excellent hearing and can be sensitive to vibrations. But Willis said trainers didn't think much of Taijah's anxiety. He said it wasn't out of the ordinary.

"She's had the same reaction when we've wanted to install a graphic and started drilling somewhere," he said. "That vibration is enough to get her nervous, and swimming back and forth. Some dolphins react strongly."

Willis doesn't believe the fire alarm contributed to Taijah's deterioration.

Her death was a hard blow for the zoo, which had spent years trying to breed new dolphins in hopes of making the collection sustainable.

After she died, the zoo's dolphin group dwindled to two. Zoo officials preferred to have at least three or four to create a healthy social group.

Acquiring new dolphins is no easy task. Zoos can apply for permits to catch wild dolphins from U.S. waters, but public pressure against such captures makes that practice highly unlikely.

Zoos and aquariums rely on other breeding facilities for dolphins, but reproduction is not keeping up with demand.

Officials at the Minnesota Zoo say it's that dolphin shortage that forced their decision to close the exhibit — not concerns about the safety of dolphins in their care.

Zoo officials were coached to tell the media that animal-rights advocates had no bearing on the decision to get rid of the dolphins, according to plans zoo communications officials distributed to staff to read, provided by the zoo in response to the MPR News data request.

But it's also clear from zoo documents that zoo officials considered the controversy over captive dolphins. A zoo task force that met to determine the future of the exhibit was briefed on the growing influence of groups opposed to keeping dolphins and whales in tanks.


On the other hand, many Americans have an unabated love affair with the ocean creatures, and there is popular support for opportunities to experience dolphins in captive situations. A poll released last year by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums found 97 percent of people ages 18 to 24 would like to swim with a dolphin.

Despite the controversy, crowds at the Minnesota Zoo adore the dolphins. At a noontime training session, hundreds sitting on concrete steps cheer the two remaining animals, Allie and Semo.

Semo is believed to be approaching 50, making him the oldest male dolphin in human care. This geriatric star is like the Billy Crystal of show dolphins. He jumps arcs across the pool, and in the next beat, he's dribbling a ball with his nose.

Thirteen-year-old Dana Marble of Eagan, Minn., grew up watching Semo. Dolphins have been part of the state zoo since it opened in 1978, and the animals are still a big draw for kids like Dana and her friends.

"It's always fun to see them," she said. "They're so happy all of the time. It always brings a smile when we see them."

Yet the aging Semo can't do the tricks he used to, and a few years ago the zoo scaled back the high-flying shows to shorter and less demanding presentations. The zoo's decision to close the exhibit was the nail in the coffin for what zoo officials have described as a dysfunctional dolphin group.


Many of the families cheering in the stands want the dolphins to stay. But activists and scientists who oppose dolphins in captivity hope other zoos and aquariums across the country will follow Minnesota's example. They say these highly social animals don't thrive in captive settings — even if they appear to be enjoying themselves.

"It's an illusion," said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "The dolphin smile is an illusion.

"The fact that they are active during the shows, and seem to be happy, doesn't mean that they are."

More than a decade ago, Marino co-authored a groundbreaking study showing dolphins could recognize themselves in the reflection of a mirror. At the time, that kind of self-awareness was proven only in humans and chimps. Marino's research on captive dolphins advanced scientific understanding of the animals.

But the two dolphins that were Marino's test subjects died of infections shortly after they were transferred to new facilities. That led her to conclude dolphins did not belong in captivity.

That would become a personal crusade for Marino.

"What we were doing was manipulating these individuals' lives in a way that was causing them a lot of damage," she said. "I started to feel that was not something I wanted to participate in anymore."

Marino now considers herself a scientist-advocate, and opposes any research on captive dolphins. She said saltwater pools like the one at the Minnesota Zoo cannot duplicate a dolphin's natural ocean environment, where it can swim tens of kilometers a day. She said dolphins swim not only for food, but as part of their social life.

"Even the largest tank in the world is a small fractional percentage of what their natural range would be," Marino said. "There's nothing about the captive situation that is natural."

That stress is compounded if a dolphin is trying to flee a bully in the tank, Marino said.

Semo, for instance, has been known to show aggression toward his poolmates, especially young males. One email from Willis described Semo's tendency to, in his words, "womp" on other dolphins.

Marino and others say that kind of aggression could have caused Harley, the calf, to jump out of the water and fatally crack his skull six years ago.

"The problem with captivity is there is no way for these individuals to work out their differences," Marino said. "There's nowhere to go. In the wild, if there was aggression, the way they would work that out would be to disperse. But in a tank, you don't have that option."

A dolphin at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago last year suffered a similar fatal injury. In that case, the animal may have collided with another dolphin as they jumped into the air.

Proponents of dolphin exhibits say keeping dolphins under close watch is what has brought people closer to the animals. They say it's through these captive settings that our understanding of dolphins, and our love for them, has grown.

"I think it's really ironic that the semi-deification, almost, of dolphins among some people probably didn't happen until dolphins were brought into captivity in the '50s and '60s, when they first came into marine parks," Zoo Director Ehmke said. "That's where people really got to experience how incredible these guys really are. Before that, many people assumed they were just fish."

The Minnesota Zoo plans to renovate its aquarium exhibit this fall, and then introduce fish and stingrays into the pools where dolphins once swam.

Fish might not be exciting as dolphins, but they'll probably be a lot less controversial.

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Game-changers in ecology research

Easier to gather field data with technology like sensors, drones
Grace Chua Straits Times 17 Jul 12;

ECOLOGY research often involves trekking deep into the jungle for hours, or taking thousands of time-consuming, tedious tree measurements.

But researchers have come up with new technologies to get around these issues, in a foretaste of the future of ecology and conservation research.

Singapore firm BioMachines, started by three engineers and a biologist a year ago, can put together any combination of sensors to monitor tree girth, say, and beam data to researchers each time the tree grows.

The start-up uses commercially available or custom sensors.

At its heart lies a set of instructions to make the various sensors, even those of different brands that use different technology, talk to each other and transmit data en masse via Wi-Fi, ZigBee, GSM or other wireless communication methods.

The start-up has a four-month-old test site at Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education (NIE), and is testing the equipment on a couple of scrawny trees with NIE natural sciences researchers Shawn Lum and Ngo Kang Min.

Usually, it takes several months, working in teams, to measure every tree in a 2ha Bukit Timah study site, Ms Ngo said.

It is a painstaking process. While the new method does not replace all fieldwork, measuring trees digitally rather than by hand could cut fieldwork time by half.

So what would Ms Ngo do with the time saved?

'I would have more time to analyse the data,' she said. 'Maybe look at new projects.'

The system's parts still have to be trekked into the forest, but once they are there, they can be installed and left for weeks or months.

It can be solar-powered, and its range, cost and energy use depend on how many sensors are used and how often they have to transmit data, explained BioMachines co-founder Sven Yeo, 27.

Now, NIE's partner institution, the United States-based Smithsonian Institute Centre for Tropical Forest Science, is interested in using larger-scale systems at its field site in Panama.

These could also measure wind speed, temperature and even the strain that high winds put on trees.

Meanwhile, Switzerland-based Singaporean Dr Koh Lian Pin has turned a remote-controlled model airplane into a low-cost conservation tool.

In his studies of tropical deforestation, the assistant professor of applied ecology & conservation at the ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) needed quick, real-time information on tree felling, but found that satellites did not pass over his research areas often enough - and cloudy tropical weather meant the images were often obscured.

So Dr Koh, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, and his University of Zurich colleague Dr Serge Wich used open-source software to turn a model plane into a drone that flies itself over a programmed course.

They attached cameras to capture photos and videos, and flew more than 30 test missions in Sumatra without a single crash, covering some 50ha in one 25-minute flight.

The whole system costs less than US$2,500 (S$3,160) and can be carried to a field site in a backpack.

At their website,, Dr Koh and Dr Wich have outlined how to build, program and use the lightweight craft so that scientists in developing countries can adopt the method.

In fact, the drones are already being used to monitor elephant habitats in Peninsular Malaysia.

'We believe conservation drones... might soon become a standard technique in conservation efforts and research in the tropics and elsewhere,' they wrote.

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India's delayed monsoon may squeeze food supply

Lower farm output could worsen inflation, hurt economy further
Krittivas Mukherjee Straits Times 17 Jul 12;

NEW DELHI - India could be staring at lower farm output this year due to deficient monsoon rains, sparking worries that it may worsen inflation and pile pressure on a government already struggling with a slowing economy.

The nation is the world's second-largest producer and a major exporter of commodities like rice, sugar, wheat and cotton, and a bad monsoon could mean a supply squeeze and price hike in domestic and global markets.

'There are reasons to worry if the rains are not good... which is a possibility,' Mr D.K. Joshi, chief economist at rating agency Crisil, told The Straits Times.

Rains irrigate nearly 60 per cent of arable land in India where 600 million people - about half the population - are connected to the farm sector, which accounts for about 15 per cent of the trillion-dollar economy.

Bad rains will almost certainly hit output, possibly stoke the already-high inflation and force the government to consider costly handouts to farmers - its core voter bank - at a time when the economy is flagging and the fiscal deficit is getting out of hand.

The country's annual monsoon season runs from June 1 to Sept 30, and this year, the deficit up till last week stood at 22 per cent below average. The rains were down by a third until July 4.

The rains have picked up since, ensuring the country avoids a drought. But they may have come too late for farmers, as the window for sowing rain-fed crops such as rice, cotton, pulses and sugar cane is almost over, affecting key farming states. Sowing, as of the middle of this month, had contracted by a fifth of what it was last year.

Farm Minister Sharad Pawar said: 'This year, the monsoon is playing hide and seek. It is a challenge for our farmers to maintain the same performance as compared with the last two years.'

An uncertain monsoon could not have come at a worse time. Growth has slowed to 5.3 per cent in the quarter ending in March, the lowest in nine years. Foreign investor confidence is at a low, battered by policy flip-flops, lack of reform and political inertia.

Inflation has crept back up - the wholesale price index was 7.25 last month - with prices of fruits and vegetables rising 50 per cent to 70 per cent over past months.

A poor monsoon could spell trouble for the Manmohan Singh government, already battling an economic slowdown and fleeing investments. Faced with a fiscal deficit of 5.8 per cent of gross domestic product from last year, Dr Singh may not have much ammunition to pump up the economy in the manner that India faced down the 2008 global crisis by investing in a massive rural jobs scheme and writing off US$15 billion (S$19 billion) worth of farm loans.

Food shortages could also cause inflation to balloon next year, just as the government prepares for nationwide polls that must be called by May 2014.

'The monsoon's impact on Indian politics cannot be overstated,' said political commentator Amulya Ganguly.

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Geoengineering Could Backfire, Make Climate Change Worse

Joel Winston Wired UK 16 Jul 12;

Deploying giant space mirrors and spraying particles from stadium-sized balloons may sound like an engineer’s wild fantasy, but climate models suggest that the potential of geoengineering to offset rising atmospheric carbon dioxide may be significantly overstated.

Through a variety of computer simulations used for reporting to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the team investigated a scenario where an increase in the world’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was balanced by a “dimming” of the sun.

Across all four models tested, the team showed that geoengineering could lead to adverse effects on the Earth’s climate, including a reduction in global rainfall. They therefore concluded that geoengineering could not be a substitute for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, in a field with divided opinion on geoengineering’s potential role in addressing climate change, some doubt the significance of this conclusion. “From a policy standpoint, this doesn’t provide very helpful guidance to decision-makers,” said Steve Rayner of the Oxford Geoengineering Program. “No serious player in this field suggests that [geoengineering] could ever be a substitute for mitigation and adaptation.”

The leader of the research, Hauke Schmidt of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, believes their experiment still contributes important details on how the Earth’s systems might respond to geoengineering. “The first thing we realized was that we had to ‘dim’ the sun 25 percent more than expected, in order for the Earth’s systems to show a response, which translates to needing more geoengineering than previously thought,” says Schmidt.

A reduction in global rainfall is not necessarily an equal one. “It becomes interesting when you look into the regional responses,” continues Schmidt. “If you have just a carbon dioxide increase, most models predict a global rainfall increase, but a strong decrease in the Mediterranean and subtropics. But if you try to balance this with geoengineering, these zones shift to Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America.”

There’s also the question of how effective these simulations are in recreating real-world deployment of geoengineering. One particular concern is the study’s assumption of a quadrupling of carbon dioxide levels. “If it ever gets to that stage, then we have probably passed the point where geoengineering can be useful anyway,” says Rayner.

The researchers recognize this level is at the upper end. “But one of the simulations we’re running for the next IPCC has more than a quadrupling of CO2,” explains Schmidt. “That’s called the ‘business as usual’ scenario, and it’s not completely outside what’s conceivable.”

The team have also run simulations with smaller (and perhaps more realistic) CO2 increases and will publish results in the upcoming months. But they say the extreme CO2 increase in this first scenario helps to identify signals and understand how the system responds. “From the point of view of a climate researcher it is the most interesting scenario,” continues Schmidt. “While those who are interested in geoengineering applications may find it unrealistic.”

One scientist particularly interested in geoengineering applications is Matthew Watson, leader of the volcano-inspired Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project. The government-funded project was investigating the potential effects of spraying solar-reflective sulphates into the stratosphere from a 20 kilometer-high, stadium-sized balloon. However, a scaled-down field test of a smaller balloon spraying water droplets was cancelled due to governance and patent issues.

Now Watson is concerned by the report’s conclusions, which he says could be used to suggest that geoengineering research is a waste of time. “Only through combined modelling and field research can we generate the evidence-base for a salient answer on whether climate engineering is a good or bad idea,” says Watson. “It’s vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions.”

To understand different components of the Earth’s systems, Schmidt agrees that a few experiments are necessary. “I’m not generally against small-scale field experiments if they help us understand processes in nature,” says Schmidt. “But they should obviously be benign, and we should be very careful.” However, small-scale field tests are also limited, Schmidt believes, with climate simulations possibly being the only way to fully grasp the long-term and large-scale climate effects of geoengineering.

Both options may have their individual limitations, according to Watson. “That small-scale experiments are, by their nature, incomplete is often used as an argument against climate engineering, but that can also be said of models, which are, by definition, imperfect.” In addition to large-scale simulations, Watson accepts the need for small, benign and well-governed field experiments in the interim.

Despite the controversy on the best course of action to take, there is agreement between all parties on the need to determine the effects of geoengineering with confidence. But this confidence may perhaps only be found by both peering through simulations to see long-term global effects, and engaging in detailed examination of field tests to assess the practical potential of specific interventions.

Watson says time is short: “Unfortunately, we don’t have hundreds of years before climate change really takes hold. So researching climate engineering now is much better than undertaking that effort only when it becomes clear it is necessary.”

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