Best of our wild blogs: 22 Aug 12

Biodiversity for kids during the September holidays!
from Celebrating Singapore's BioDiversity!

Feather star and coral garden at Big Sisters' Island
from wonderful creation

Downsized dragons
from The annotated budak

Random Gallery - Lesser Harlequin
from Butterflies of Singapore

Ottergirl reflects on Otter Cycling Trail v1.0!
from Toddycats!

Featured video: a Sumatran rhino love story
from news

Read more!

Tiger population of India facing 'total disaster' due to tourism ban

High court decree condemned by environmentalists as well as those who earn their living from the endangered beast
Helen Pidd 20 Aug 12;

It is not difficult to guess which animal the town of Sawai Madhopur has tethered its fortunes to. Fancy a drink? Pop into the Tiger bar at the Taj hotel. Want to rest your head? Try the Tiger Moon Resort. Want to shop? There are tiger-print pyjamas, aprons, tablecloths, bedspreads. Little in this Rajasthani town has not succumbed to tiger mania.

Sitting cross-legged on a stage by the main road last Saturday, Yadvendra Singh handed over his business card, decorated, of course, with orange and black stripes. Since 1992 he has run Tiger Eye Adventure Tours, taking visitors from around the world on safari inside the nearby Ranthambore national park.

But for the past three weeks, Singh has not been allowed in the park to check on the 27 adult tigers and 25 cubs who call it home. No one has, after India's supreme court issued an order banning tourism in all core tiger habitats.

The decree was temporary, until 22 August, when the court meets again to assess whether tigers and tourists can co-exist in India. The decision will have ramifications not just for India's approximately 1,700 tigers, but for the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Indians whose livelihoods depend on the big cats.

"I couldn't believe it," said Singh. "I've spent 20 years, half my life, doing this. And suddenly I'm supposed to find a new job."

But Singh, and many environmentalists and conservationists, insist the real losers will be the creatures who have helped pay his bills for two decades. "If the ban on tourism continues, it will be the end of the tiger in India," he said. "We're the ones who put energy into tracking them. We deter poachers. Tourists are only allowed in the park for six hours every day, but we guides take it in turns to patrol the park from sunrise to sunset. Voluntarily."

Belinda Wright, executive director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India, based in New Delhi, said a tourist ban would be a "total disaster".

Stressing she was pro-tiger rather than pro-tourist, she said: "There is no way the forestry department alone can protect tigers from poachers and local encroachment on the land."

The Corbett Foundation, another wildlife protection charity in India, agrees. "While in principle, we all agree that wildlife tourism in India needs to be controlled and strictly regulated, placing a complete ban on any kind of tourism activities in the core areas will certainly not help the wildlife of the tiger reserves," it said in a statement.

Since the court's judgment on 24 July, Singh has not earned a penny. Along with dozens of other guides and drivers who feed their families by servicing the tiger tourists who flock to Ranthambore every year, he has been holding a roadside protest to remind the authorities how integral tigers are to the town.

There are no reliable figures to show how many tourists visit Sawai Madhopur each year, but in 2011, 288,000 tickets were sold to enter the national park. Demand is much higher, say locals, but numbers are restricted so a maximum of 40 vehicles carrying a total of 520 tourists are in the park at any one time.

The interim order has hit hard, said Goverdhan Singh Rathore, a doctor who runs a free hospital from the profit made from his guest house, Khem Villas. "We've already had 10% of bookings for next season cancelled," he said, sitting in the courtyard of his house, which is decorated with orange and black striped tiles. "Forty per cent of guests have asked us to let them know what happens on the 22nd. If the ban is extended, next season is over." He would have to close the hotel, and the hospital, which treated 90,000 patients last year, he added.

Ajay Dubey, a campaigner who filed the petition to the supreme court, said all he was doing was asking it to enforce the 1972 Wildlife Protection Act. He claims the act prohibits tourism in India's tiger breeding areas. "By God's grace I just want respect of rule of law – nothing else," he said in an email.

No one was enforcing the law, Dubey added, and with tragic results. He points to the central state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), which has six tiger reserves. "There were 700 tigers in MP in the year 2000; now the number has come down to 257," said Dubey. "It speaks volumes."

He added: "Tiger conservation is being adversely affected by mindless tourism; the large number of vehicles loaded with people were traumatising the endangered species in the critical tiger habitat."

But Wright said Dubey was using unreliable figures. "Until the 2008 census, the tiger population was calculated using a discredited, unscientific method which allowed states to dramatically overestimate," she said over the phone in Delhi.

The law says tiger reserves should have a core area that only forestry officials enter, surrounded by buffer land that can be visited by tourist vehicles. In April, the court ordered 13 states with tiger parks to file their zoning plans. Only three complied, amid difficulties in creating the buffers related to land acquisition, compensation for relocated villagers and local politics.

Angered by the states' poor response, on 24 July the supreme court made an interim order banning all tourism from the core zones until the states complied. They have until 22 August to do so, until which time interested parties, such as guides and state governments, can submit evidence arguing why they believe tourists should be allowed in core areas.

In Ranthambore that means not just the 393 sq km national park but also just over 900 sq km of adjoining land. YK Sahu, divisional forest officer at Ranthambore, said he believed that the presence of believes tourists saved tigers rather than endangered them.

"Look at where our tigers live. Just 6% to 10% of the park is visited by tourists, and yet it is in those areas where tigers flourish."

Tourists also report illegal wood cutting, he said, and help deter poachers. "If the Taj Mahal was not a tourist site, would it look as it does in its present form?", he asked. "All of the marble would have been stolen by now."

Rathore, whose father, Fateh, founded the non-governmental organisation Tiger Watch and who was one of India's most renowned tiger experts until his death last year, said there was "not one scrap of evidence" to prove tourists kill tigers, directly or indirectly, or hamper their breeding. In fact, he claims, "the relationship between the presence of tourists and the number of tigers is not inversely proportional, but directly proportional." In 2005-06, the park had 26 tigers. Despite increasing tourism, the population risen to 53.

"People make up their mind that tourism is bad for tigers without consulting science. They see a picture of a queue of jeeps filled with tourists with long lens cameras pointing at a tiger and they say, 'poor tiger'. But how do they know that the tiger is unhappy? Maybe the tiger is enjoying it. Ecology tells us that when a creature is upset, they stop breeding. Yet in Ranthambore the tiger population has increased with tourism."

The supreme court seems to want the tiger states to restrict tourism to the buffer zones. But the problem in Ranthambore, as well as other reserves, is that the only area it can designate as buffer is not somewhere tourists would want to visit – let alone tigers. There, the buffer is a wilderness with very little flora or fauna, littered with gravel mines. To reach the zone, tigers would have to travel 35 miles from the main park, and even cross main roads.

There are also many people living in the buffer – 62 villages have been relocated there from the core area since the 1970s. Before tiger tourism came to the area, they made their living chopping down trees in the tiger reserve and, in some cases, poaching tigers to serve the lucrative Chinese medicine market.

In Kanha national park, a tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, tribal people this week held a protest against the tourism ban. "You do what you can to earn a living, whether that means cutting down trees … or even hunting tigers," one man told NDTV.

Back in Ranthambore, August is always a lean month because most of the park is closed anyway during the monsoon. But some tourists usually come to visit the three zones that normally remain open, and fears are widespread about the effect of a permanent ban on the community.

"It's not just the guides who will be affected," said Singh as he protested by the roadside. "It's the mechanics who service the jeeps, the hawkers who sell T-shirts, the hoteliers, the women who make handicrafts."

"If tourists are not allowed in the core tiger zone, our economy will collapse," said Satish Jain, who has been a guide in the park since 1997.

"Our economy is based on tourism. It has to be – a lot of people used to be employed in a cement factory, but that was closed because of the national park. There was a gas bottling plant, but that was shut down too. How do they expect us to earn a living?"
Tiger facts

India is home to half the world's tiger population. According to the latest census released in March 2011 by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, the current population is estimated at 1,706 – up from 1,411 in 2008, but a long way off the 45,000 which reportedly roamed India 100 years ago.

In India, the tiger is found in 18 states, from the Himalayas in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south and across the north-east into Burma.

They occupy a variety of habitats including tropical evergreen forests, deciduous forests, mangrove swamps, thorn forests and grass jungles.

A total of 923 tigers were killed by poachers between 1994 and 2010, according to the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI).

An undercover investigation by the WPSI and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) in 2005 revealed that the trade in tiger and leopard body parts in China continues to thrive.

Read more!

World's Sea Life Is 'Facing Major Shock', Marine Scientists Warn

ScienceDaily 20 Aug 12;

Life in the world's oceans faces far greater change and risk of large-scale extinctions than at any previous time in human history, a team of the world's leading marine scientists has warned.

The researchers from Australia, the US, Canada, Germany, Panama, Norway and the UK have compared events which drove massive extinctions of sea life in the past with what is observed to be taking place in the seas and oceans globally today.

Three of the five largest extinctions of the past 500 million years were associated with global warming and acidification of the oceans -- trends which also apply today, the scientists say in a new article in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Other extinctions were driven by loss of oxygen from seawaters, pollution, habitat loss and pressure from human hunting and fishing -- or a combination of these factors.

"Currently, the Earth is again in a period of increased extinctions and extinction risks, this time mainly caused by human factors," the scientists stated. While the data is harder to collect at sea than on land, the evidence points strongly to similar pressures now being felt by sea life as for land animals and plants.

The researchers conducted an extensive search of the historical and fossil records to establish the main causes of previous marine extinctions -- and the risk of their recurring today.

"We wanted to understand what had driven past extinctions of sea life and see how much of those conditions prevailed today," says co-author Professor John Pandolfi, of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and The University of Queensland, an authority on the fate of coral reefs in previous mass extinction events.

"It is very useful to look back in time -- because if you forget your history, you're liable to repeat it."

Marine extinction events vary greatly. In the 'Great Death' of the Permian 250 million years ago, for example, an estimated 95 per cent of marine species died out due to a combination of warming, acidification, loss of oxygen and habitat. Scientists have traced the tragedy in the chemistry of ocean sediments laid down at the time, and abrupt loss of many sea animals from the fossil record.

"We are seeing the signature of all those drivers today -- plus the added drivers of human overexploitation and pollution from chemicals, plastics and nutrients," Prof. Pandolfi says.

"The fossil record tells us that sea life is very resilient -- that it recovers after one of these huge setbacks. But also that it can take millions of years to do so."

The researchers wrote the paper out of their concern that the oceans appear to be on the brink of another major extinction event.

"There may be still time to act," Prof. Pandolfi says. "If we understand what drives ocean extinction, we can also understand what we need to do to prevent or minimize it.

"We need to understand that the oceans aren't just a big dumping ground for human waste, contaminants and CO2 -- a place we can afford to ignore or overexploit. They are closely linked to our own survival, wellbeing and prosperity as well as that of life on Earth in general.

"Even though we cannot easily see what is going on underwater, we need to recognise that the influence of 7 billion humans is now so great it governs the fate of life in the oceans. And we need to start taking responsibility for that."

He adds "The situation is not hopeless. If fact we have seen clear evidence both from the past and the present that sea life can bounce back, given a chance to do so.

"For example, in Australia we have clear evidence of that good management of coral reefs can lead to recovery of both corals and fish numbers.

"So, rather, our paper is an appeal to humanity to give the oceans a chance.

"In effect, it says we need to stop releasing the CO2 that drives these massive extinction events, curb the polluted and nutrient-rich runoff from the land that is causing ocean 'dead zones' manage our fisheries more sustainably and protect their habitat better.

"All these things are possible, but people need to understand why they are essential. That is the first step in taking effective action to prevent extinctions."

Read more!

UN agency calls for global action plan on drought

AFP Yahoo News 22 Aug 12;

The worst effects of drought could be avoided if countries had a disaster management plan to confront the problem, the UN World Meteorological Organization said Tuesday.

With world food prices 6 percent higher now than at the start of the year and approaching the 2010 record, "it's time for countries affected by drought to move towards developing a policy", said Mannava Sivakumar, director of the WMO's Climate Prediction and Adaptation Branch.

Such a global approach would also help counter the "major impact" of El Nino, said Sivakumar, in reference to the weather system credited with causing dry conditions in countries including Australia, India and much of east Africa, and flooding in Latin American countries.

Initial forecasts for El Nino show that water temperatures in the Pacific are likely to be warmer than normal for September and October, he said, echoing recent Japanese meteorological research that the phenomenon is likely to last until winter in the northern hemisphere.

"If it continues through the winter months there could be some consequences but we will carefully monitor (them)," said Sivakumar.

Despite repeated droughts throughout human history and their long-term impact compared with other natural disasters, Australia is the only country in the world to develop a risk management policy for drought, Sivakumar said.

"To fill the existing vacuum in virtually every nation (for drought management)" the WMO is to host a high-level meeting on national drought policies in Geneva next March, the UN agency said in a statement.

Such measures would include better drought monitoring by countries, implementing early-warning systems and most importantly putting in place an "effective system to help the poorest of the poor", Sivakumar said.

Communicating the information to largely uneducated rural farming communities was essential, said Sivakumar, since this would enable them to avoid the worst effects of droughts by taking measures such as thinning crops to reduce the overall water requirement.

This would ensure that they would have "some crop instead of no crop", said Sivakumar.

Read more!

How A Biofuel Dream Called Jatropha Came Crashing Down

NPR 21 Aug 12;

From Congress to The Colbert Report, people are talking about the Midwestern drought and debating whether it makes sense to convert the country's shrinking corn supplies into ethanol to power our cars.

It's the latest installment of the long-running food vs. fuel battle.

But wouldn't it be lovely if somebody came up with a biofuel that didn't take food out of people's mouths?

A few years ago, some people thought they'd found it: A miracle tree called Jatropha. Unfortunately, the miracle turned out to be a mirage.

Jatropha does not, at first glance, seem all that enticing. It's a big bush that can grow into a small tree. Its leaves are poisonous. So are its little football-shaped fruit pods. But inside those pods are several black seeds, each one about twice the size of a coffee bean. Crush those seeds, and you get oil. The oil is good for making soap, burning in lamps — or converting into diesel fuel.

Ywe Jan Franken, an expert on biofuels for the FACT Foundation, a research group in the Netherlands, says this plant grows all over the tropics, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, India and Latin America. (It originated in Central America, and Europeans spread it to their various colonies several centuries ago.)

It's an extremely hardy plant, and grows in places where most plants would die. "If you grow it on sandy soil, with not too many nutrients, and with dry periods, the plant miraculously survives," says Franken.

This is what really caught people's attention about a decade ago.

At that time, oil prices were soaring. People were getting increasingly worried about global warming. And some governments came to the conclusion that part of the answer could be biofuels, such as corn or palm oil. These biological fuel factories take carbon dioxide out of the air as they grow, which reduces the planet's burden of greenhouse gases.

As soon as they started to scale up biofuel production, however, they ran into the food v. fuel problem. More fertile land for biofuels means less food or forests.

At that point, a few experts recalled the virtues of Jatropha. If this bush could thrive on unused land, barren land, they thought, the world could enjoy biofuel without the guilt of cutting into food production.

The Jatropha Boom, Then Bust

Investors loved the idea. Around 2007 and 2008, they threw money at Jatropha projects, including huge plantations covering tens of thousands of acres, all over the tropics.

Mozambique, in southern Africa, was among the most active new centers of Jatropha cultivation. The country's president himself went from village to village, telling people to plant Jatropha trees. Home-grown fuel, he said, could turn life around for small villages. Belchion Lucas, a former reporter for Radio Mozambique, says that the president "used to say that they can even produce oil at home, without a factory."

Within just a few years, though, the dream of the perfect biofuel collapsed.

This was partly due to the financial crisis. When it hit, late in 2008, the easy money dried up. Foreign investors pulled out of some projects, leaving them in limbo.

But there was a bigger problem. The miracle plant turned out not to be so miraculous, after all.

Ywe Jan Franken, from FACT Foundation, says much of the enthusiasm about Jatropha was based on a misunderstanding. It's true, he says, that the tree can survive droughts, and poor soil. But under those conditions, it won't produce many seeds. If you actually want a good harvest of oil, he says, the plant "needs nutrients and water, just like any other crop." (Here is FACT Foundation's full technical assessment of Jatropha.)

This means that Jatropha fields will compete for the same fertile land as food crops. Welcome back, food vs. fuel.

Many of the companies that jumped into the Jatropha business have now climbed back out again; others are cutting back their operations.

Franken says the collapse of the Jatropha boom is disappointing for everyone, but it's most disappointing for the small farmers who bought into the dream.

Some of the projects, he says, "promised the farmers high returns, as has been done so many times with new ideas, or crops. And in this case, they thought, 'Wow, we can make some money here, because there is such high demand for biofuels.' And they actually lost money, because they could have done something else."

The Future Of The Biofuel

But Franken also believes that the Jatropha story isn't quite finished.

Two things are happening. In some African villages, there's now some low-tech, small-scale production of Jatropha oil. Farmers can grow the trees as hedges or on poor land, and it costs them very little time or money.

Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, scientists are studying this tree for the first time. They're selecting plants that produce more seeds, breeding high-yielding varieties, turning it from a semi-wild plant into a real crop. Perhaps, after many years of such breeding, it will become as productive as corn or palm trees.

Yet it still will do best on fertile land, with plenty of water, just like every other crop, whether for food or biofuel.

Read more!