Best of our wild blogs: 21 Aug 12

Mission seahorse at Sisters Island
from wild shores of singapore

Lornie Trail to the Ranger Station
from Beauty of Fauna and Flora in Nature

Attacked by a Rock Pigeon
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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DNA tests tell trees from the wood; curb illegal logging

Reuters Yahoo News 19 Aug 12;

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Call it CSI: Singapore.

Unlike the Crime Scene Investigators from the popular TV series, these detectives are hired to look for evidence of rogue wood from stores increasingly worried about being duped by a global trade in illegal timber now worth billions.

They take wood samples into their lab and put them through DNA tests that can pinpoint the species and origin of a piece of timber. They also track timber and timber products from forest to shop to ensure clients' shipments are legal.

"This is like CSI meets save the planet," says Jonathan Geach, executive director of Double Helix Tracking Technologies, the Singapore company that has developed and commercialized DNA testing for wood, the only firm in the world to do so.

Every two seconds, an area of forest the size of a football field is clear-cut by illegal loggers, the World Bank said in a recent study. Annually, such illegally cleared land is equivalent to the size of Ireland.

The money earned from a trade that Interpol estimates at up to $30 billion annually is untaxed and often run by organized gangs to fund crime and conflict. The logging increases global warming with heightened carbon emissions, and landslides through loss of watersheds. It causes loss of livelihoods in forest communities and dents global timber prices.

Until now, the battle against trade in illegal timber has been waged with regulations and preventive measures, and has not met with much success. Now it is increasingly focused on using the criminal justice system and law enforcement techniques.

New laws threatening jail time and fines are inducing companies around the world to take a harder look at where they get their timber -- or pay the price of neglect.

Gibson Guitar Corp, which makes some of the world's most prized guitars, agreed on August 6 to pay a $300,000 penalty after it admitted to possible illegal purchases of ebony from Madagascar.

Mislabeling, lying about origin or substituting one type of wood for another have become common practices in the timber trade.

Industry officials say rapid advances and plunging costs for DNA testing of timber now make it commercially viable for companies trying to meet new regulations in the United States and Europe against such practices.

Retailers such as Kingfisher, Marks & Spencer and Australian timber wholesaler Simmonds Lumber are either already using the technology or looking to add it to their existing timber sourcing practices.


"We see this as the way forward," said Jamie Lawrence, sustainable forest and timber adviser for Kingfisher, Europe's largest home improvement retailer. Kingfisher has been using the services of DoubleHelix, as it is known, on an ad-hoc basis to unmask cases of possible timber fraud in their supply chains, he said.

With the miniaturization of genetic testing equipment, desktop-sized prototypes are already on trial. Laboratories around the globe could be carrying out cheap DNA timber tests for companies, customs agents and the police within two years.

A laboratory run by Andrew Lowe, the chief scientific officer at DoubleHelix and one of the world's top plant geneticists, is the frontline in the global fight against illegal logging.

It was at his laboratory at the University of Adelaide in South Australia that the method of extracting DNA taken from a log, a table or even flooring was refined -- the breakthrough needed to commercialize testing for timber importers, home improvement stores and law enforcement agencies.

Trees, like people, have unique DNA, said Lowe.

"The DNA is in every cell in a wood product and you can't falsify that DNA," he told Reuters in an interview.

By early 2011, Lowe was able to extract degraded DNA from decades-old wood and get accurate results. That led to an increase in business and DoubleHelix has 14 clients directly using their services, with most testing done in Adelaide.

In 2004, Lowe and colleagues extracted DNA from the oak timbers of King Henry VIII's flagship the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was salvaged in 1982.

When DoubleHelix opened shop in 2008, the DNA story was a hard sell. But as new U.S. laws started to bite over the past two years, and with tougher laws set for Europe in 2013, the number of clients is growing, says Kevin Hill, DoubleHelix's founder.

Within two years, the aim is to license Lowe's DNA extraction technique to accredited laboratories globally, as the $150 billion timber industry comes under increasing pressure to stamp out illegal wood.


While DNA testing per se is extremely accurate due to the unique DNA signature each species has, it has a major limitation to overcome -- an incomplete global map of tree genetics.

Constructing such a map is crucial because DNA for each species changes subtly from one area to another, acting like a postcode that can be used to determine a sample's origin.

Going into a forest to take DNA samples across a species' entire range is costly and time consuming. Building a database for teak, for instance, would cost about $1 million.

At present, databases exist for 20 tree species, mostly valuable tropical timbers, and is growing annually.

On the other hand, Kingfisher's B&Q home improvement stores carry 16,000 timber related products. For consumers, it is a bewildering choice of goods. For the illegal timber gangs, it is an opportunity for wood laundering.

Kingfisher has progressively put in place tougher checks of its timber sources to ensure all wood comes from sustainably managed forests. They use chain of custody certification schemes to follow the timber from forest to shop, but these are not fool-proof and illegal timber occasionally slips in.

"We're getting better at figuring out what's in our products and where it's coming from. So it's more difficult for rogue traders to pull the wool over our eyes," said Lawrence of Kingfisher, which has nearly 1,000 stores in eight countries.

The weakest link in timber supplies is between the forest and the sawmill, where stolen timber can be added to legitimate wood. In sawmill yards, too, logs from illegally cleared forests can be mixed with legal timber. DNA testing can overcome this, say DoubleHelix and their oldest customer, Simmonds Lumber, one of Australia's largest timber importers.

Simmonds imports merbau, a much-sought-after hardwood, from Indonesia, where illegal logging accounts for nearly half the timber cut in Indonesia, according to the World Bank study.

Using DoubleHelix's system, each shipment of merbau logs is tracked from forest to sawmill by taking DNA samples to ensure no other timber has been added. These DNA samples are then matched up with pallets of finished timber decking from the sawmill to Simmonds' warehouse in Australia.


Simmonds, however, has been unable to charge a premium for its DNA-tested products because of intense competition in the timber trade.

"DNA is about marketing and gaining share rather than gaining extra margin," current chief executive John Simon said.

As a forklift loads pallets of decking into a container at a sawmill near Surabaya, Indonesia, Paul Elsmore, Simmonds' former chief executive and now a consultant to the Australian firm, explains that each container-load is worth around $45,000.

The cost of DNA testing and verification services was $250 for a container, equal to about 0.5 percent of the wood's value.

DoubleHelix says the ultimate goal is to make DNA testing so cheap all companies will do it.

Doing so would help tackle one of the perversities of the illegal timber trade: An abundance of stolen timber depresses prices, slashes margins and can deter investing in better due diligence of their wood supplies.

Arguably the biggest push for DNA testing are new laws in the United States, Europe and possibly Australia, which will make it easier to prosecute timber criminals.

"One of the real values of this genetic marking is its ability to gather better quality evidence and therefore aid prosecutions," said Davyth Stewart, criminal intelligence officer at Interpol.

DNA testing was already having an impact in prosecutions, said Shelley Gardner, illegal logging program coordinator for the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

"Any time we've gone to the point where we got to court, they plea-bargained because the DNA was already such a deterrent. And these are just small cases, so when you start talking about real trade, I think that could have a big impact," she said.

Right now, nobody really knows the amount of illegal timber products in the market. So the detectives are going undercover.

Working with an international non-governmental organization, they plan to conduct spot tests in stores in Australia within a few weeks and then Europe and the United States, said Geach at DoubleHelix. The NGO did not want to be identified.

Lawrence at Kingfisher said better wood forensics just makes sense.

"Any retailer worth their salt should not just be thinking about risk, brand protection or even legality. They should be thinking this is a damn good idea."

(Editing by Bill Tarrant and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Australia: Koala numbers dive on east coast

ABC News 21 Aug 12;

In its advice to the Federal Minister on whether to list the koala, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee spelt out the rate of the koala's decline.

It is estimated that in the 20-year period between 1990 and 2010 the number of koalas in New South Wales had dropped by a third, and in Queensland the numbers were down by as much as 43 per cent.

While in parts of Victoria and South Australia some areas had so many koalas that steps had to be taken to control their numbers, the committee found that the populations overall were still in decline.

It concluded that across Victoria koala numbers had dropped between 5 and 15 per cent, and in South Australia by 39 per cent.

The regional picture is even starker. After intensive study, the Queensland Environment Department in 2010 produced the Koala Coast Koala Population Report.

It found that in 1999 there were 6,000 koalas in the area. By 2010, that had dropped down to 2000 - more than a 68 per cent loss in just over a decade.

In Queensland's Mulga Lands bioregion, near the NSW border, koala numbers crashed. The Threatened Species Scientific Committee reported that there, the koala population dropped 80 per cent between 1995 and 2009.

The destruction of koala habitat for urban development and the resulting impacts of dog attacks and vehicle strikes are the key reasons for the decline. Disease rates have also been rising, possibly caused by the loss of habitat. Land clearing for agriculture (now halted) and for huge mining projects (still underway) has also had a big impact on koala habitat.

The Queensland Environment Department data lists the number of koala deaths presented or located by koala hospitals between 1997 and mid-2011 as 15,644. It notes this would be an underestimation of the numbers being killed.

The hospital data (Advice to Minister from Threatened Species Scientific Committee, page 13) shows that in 2010 dogs killed 67 koalas, cars accounted for another 246, disease killed 131, and a combination of factors killed 567 koalas, while 88 deaths were listed simply as "other".

The Fur Trade: A brief history

Koalas began to be hunted for their skins during the second half of the 19th century.

They were shot and in some cases poisoned, and their pelts were then exported to the US, Canada and Europe to make hats, gloves and the inside lining of coats.

Koalas were being hunted in NSW, South Australia and Victoria in numbers that were staggering - in 1902, 600,000 koala skins were purchased in NSW alone.

Historian Ellis Troughton claims that in 1924, more than 2 million koala skins were exported from Australia's eastern states.

But by the early 1900s, koala numbers had dropped so sharply that governments in NSW, Victoria and South Australia all moved to put an end to koala hunting.

Church leaders and wildlife conservationists agitated for the end of koala hunting, but in Queensland, despite widespread public protests, the trade continued - in part because it provided employment for rural workers.

In 1927, public outcry increased dramatically in the lead up to what became known as "Black August". In that month, nearly 600,000 koala pelts were collected.

However, it is estimated that if the number of joeys killed and spoiled skins are also considered, close to 800,000 koalas may actually have died.

It turned out to be the last open hunting season on koalas in Australia. The backlash that followed helped topple the Labor government in elections in May 1929.

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Lions at risk as Indian states feud

Plan to relocate Asiatic lion stalls as states compete for tourism business
Krittivas Mukherjee Straits Times 21 Aug 12;

NEW DELHI - The world's last remaining Asiatic lions could become the victims of success of a plan to save them from extinction, as their swelling numbers in a small jungle in India make them vulnerable to disease, a shrinking prey base and territorial fights, animal conservationists say.

Yet a ready plan to move some of them to a new home in another patch of forest is caught in a bureaucratic catfight between two Indian states. The dispute has reached the Supreme Court, which now has to rule on the fate of these big cats.

There were fewer than 50 Asiatic lions at the Gir sanctuary in the western state of Gujarat at the turn of the last century, but successful conservation saw their population grow to 411 at last count in 2010.

But their fragile comeback from near-extinction is being threatened by overpopulation in the 1,400 sq km Gir sanctuary, which is quickly running out of space. Gujarat has created a smaller semi-sanctuary close to Gir but that is not enough.

Unless they are moved, experts warn, the big cats are still at risk of extinction from a single epidemic or a natural disaster. Overcrowding also means a shortage of prey, inbreeding and more frequent deadly turf fights.

Smaller grazing grounds have also increased man-animal conflict as Gir's lions have begun straying into nearby farms and villages. Over the past decade, some two dozen lions have drowned after falling into wells used by villagers living in the buffer zone.

Wildlife experts blame humans.

"Lions are not entering villages, humans are entering their habitats," Mr Debasis Chakrabarti, founder of animal rights group Compassionate Crusaders Trust told The Straits Times.

Conservationists saw a solution in a new home for the lions, far away from Gir in a rugged and hilly sanctuary called Kuno in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh state. But Gujarat has refused to send any of its lions there.

The tussle saw an ecologist involved in getting Kuno ready seek the court's intervention.

Earlier this month, Gujarat told the Supreme Court that Madhya Pradesh had failed to keep its dwindling tiger population safe from poachers, and hence relocating any of its lions there would be unwise.

"Asiatic lions are our unique pride, what is the need to send them anywhere when we are doing a great job of conserving them," Gujarat's environment secretary S.K. Nanda argued.

Almost as large as their African cousin, male Asiatic lions have less fluffy manes and their tails have larger tufts. This sub-species once roamed the jungles from Morocco and Greece across the Middle East to India. By the 20th century, trophy hunting had nearly decimated their population.

In India, though, the last few dozen Asiatic lions were given a shot at life after a princely ruler banned hunting in 1901.

Under protection, the Asiatic lions have thrived in Gujarat even as tigers and other wildlife across India have continued to be hunted or poached, pushing them ever closer to extinction.

The tussle between the two states, many experts say, is actually a fight for pride and tourism business, rather than concern for the big cats - Madhya Pradesh for boosting wildlife tourism, Gujarat for retaining its unique branding as the sole sanctuary of Asiatic lions in the wild in the world.

Mr Chakrabarti says the first option should be to try to secure and enlarge the buffer zone for lions in Gir itself.

"Airlifting these lions should be the last option," he said.

"There are issues with relocation like availability of prey and suitable conditions. Often translocation results in deaths of a species."

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Genetically Engineered Algae for Biofuel Pose Potential Risks

ScienceDaily 20 Aug 12;

Algae are high on the genetic engineering agenda as a potential source for biofuel, and they should be subjected to independent studies of any environmental risks that could be linked to cultivating algae for this purpose, two prominent researchers say.

Writing in the August 2012 issue of the journal BioScience, the researchers argue that ecology experts should be among scientists given independent authority and adequate funding to explore any potential unintended consequences of this technological pursuit.

A critical baseline concern is whether genetically engineered algae would be able to survive in the wild, said Allison Snow, professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University and lead author of the paper.

"If they're grown in big, open ponds, which is mainly what were talking about, could the newer types of microalgae get out into nature and mingle? We need to know if they can survive and whether they can hybridize or evolve to become more prolific when they get out of a controlled environment," Snow said.

"If they can survive, we also need to know whether some types of genetically engineered blue-green algae, for example, could produce toxins or harmful algal blooms -- or both," Snow noted.

And because algae are so small and could be dispersed by rough weather or wildlife activity, biologists worry that any transgenes they contain to enhance their growth and strength could be transferred to other species in a way that could upset a fragile ecosystem.

"The applications are new and the organisms are less well-known. They range from being very tame 'lab rats' that won't survive in nature to wild organisms that can presumably cross with each other unless some measures are taken to prevent crossing. It's a very new situation," Snow said.

Snow co-authored the article with aquatic ecologist Val Smith, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas.

Snow has a history in this area of research. She led a study in 2002 that was the first to show that a gene artificially inserted into crop plants to fend off pests could migrate to weeds in a natural environment and make the weeds stronger. She also has served on national panels that monitor and make recommendations about the release of genetically engineered species into the environment.

There are a lot of unknowns about this area of research and development in microalgae, and that's largely because algae don't have the breeding history that, say, corn and soybeans have, Snow said. In addition, few details are publicly available because much of this information remains confidential as businesses compete to be the first to commercialize their genetically altered algae.

"We're hoping to reach several audiences -- including ecologists, molecular biologists and biotech business owners -- and bring them together. There's a community of people like me who study genetically engineered crops and how they interact with the environment, and we need to get this started with algae.

"There's a lot of hype and speculation about algae as a biofuel source, and it's hard to gauge exactly what's going on. We see many indications, especially funding, that private companies and the government have decided this is important and worth pursuing," Snow said. "So much will depend on the economics of it. Whether you can get a lot of energy out of algae depends on these breakthroughs with biology, technology, or both."

In the same way that certain crop plants are bred with genes to help them repel pests and tolerate harsh conditions, different species of algae are likely being genetically engineered to grow rapidly because mass quantities of these tiny species will be needed to produce adequate fuel supplies.

The authors recommend, for starters, a comparative examination of genetically engineered algae strains intended for large-scale cultivation with their natural counterparts to determine the basic differences between the two. They also acknowledged that genetically engineered algae might be equipped with so-called "suicide genes" that would make it impossible for the algae to survive a release into the wild.

"If such precautions are taken in lieu of thorough environmental assessments, more information should be required to ensure their long-term success and to prevent (genetically engineered) algae from evolving to silence or overcome biological traits that are designed to kill them," the authors wrote.

Snow also noted that before genetically engineered crop plants can be commercialized, they are grown in various outdoor environments to test their endurance under different conditions. The permitting process for these plots helps inform the government and the public about these agricultural efforts. Even if the exact genes used to engineer these crops are protected as proprietary information, the species and new traits they carry are made public.

"With algae, this can all happen in a greenhouse because they're so small. That means they're not really accessible for scientists to find out what companies are working with, and it's going to be like that until very late in the process," Snow said.

And to be clear, Snow said she and Smith are not looking to hinder these efforts.

"We're trying to be constructive and get the word out, to get the conversation going," she said.

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Arctic sea ice likely to hit record low next week

Deborah Zabarenko Reuters Yahoo News 21 Aug 12;

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean is likely to shrink to a record small size sometime next week, and then keep on melting, a scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center said on Monday.

"A new daily record ... would be likely by the end of August," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the data center, which monitors ice in the Arctic and elsewhere. "Chances are it will cross the previous record while we're still in sea ice retreat."

The amount of sea ice in the Arctic is important because this region is a potent global weather-maker, sometimes characterized as the world's air conditioner. This year, the loss of sea ice in the Arctic has suggested a possible opening of the Northwest Passage north of Canada and Alaska and the Northern Sea Route by Europe and Siberia.

As parts of the Arctic melted, 2012 also set records for heat and drought in much of the Northern Hemisphere temperate zone, especially the continental United States.

This summer could see the ice retreat to less than 1.5 million square miles (4 million square km), an unprecedented low, Scambos said.

The previous record was set in 2007, when Arctic ice cover shrank to 1.66 million square miles (4.28 million square km), 23 percent below the earlier record set in 2005 and 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000.

However, 2007 was a jaw-dropping "perfect storm" of conditions that primed the area for thawing sea ice: warmer and sunnier than usual, with extremely warm ocean water and winds all working together to melt the Arctic.

Last year, Arctic sea ice extended over the second-smallest area on record, but that was considered to be closer to a "new normal" rather than the extreme conditions of 2007, NSIDC said then.

This year is similar to 2011, Scambos said by telephone from Colorado. The melt season started between 10 days to two weeks earlier than usual in some critical areas including northern Europe and Siberia.


If the sea ice record is broken this month, that would be unusually early in the season; last year's low point came on September 9, 2011.

Typically, the melting of Arctic sea ice slows down in August as the Northern Hemisphere moves toward fall, but this year, it has speeded up, Scambos said. "I doubt there's been another year that had as rapid an early August retreat," he said.

Overall, the decline of Arctic sea ice has happened faster than projected by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change five years ago, according to NSIDC data ( ).

To Scambos, these are clear signs of climate change spurred by human activities, notably the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide.

"Everything about this points in the same direction: we've made the Earth warmer," he said.

This summer has also seen unusual melting of the ice sheet covering Greenland, with NASA images showing that for a few days in July, 97 percent of the northern island's surface was thawing. The same month also saw an iceberg twice the size of Manhattan break free from Greenland's Petermann Glacier.

The change is apparent from an NSIDC graphic showing current Arctic ice cover compared with the 1979-2000 average, Scambos said. The graphic is online at .

"What you're seeing is more open ocean than you're seeing ice," he said. "It just simply doesn't look like what a polar scientist expects the arctic to look like. It's wide open and the (ice) cap is very small. It's a visceral thing. You look at it and that just doesn't look like the Arctic Ocean any more."

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

(This story corrects the name of the agency to U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, instead of U.S. National Climate Data Center, in the first paragraph)

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