Best of our wild blogs: 9 Dec 12

Giving back to nature
from mndsingapore by Minister Khaw Boon Wan

Wild boars, hornbill and an unusual gathering of fiddler crabs at Chek Jawa
from Peiyan.Photography

brown shrike @ labrador nature reserve - Dec 2012
from sgbeachbum

Indian Cuckoo feasting on caterpillars
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Life History of the Orange Tailed Awl
from Butterflies of Singapore

Endangered Species of the Week: Asian elephant
from ARKive blog

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New research facility to use large animals

Thumbs up given after feasibility study; centre will boost Singapore's biomedical capabilities
Chang Ai-lien Straits Times 9 Dec 12;

A national facility to provide large animals such as monkeys and pigs to research groups has been given the thumbs up, following an extensive feasibility study.

Researchers say the move will help speed up the development of new drugs and treatments, and take Singapore's biomedical capabilities up a notch.

Such a facility will enhance Singapore's overall capability in translating discoveries to the clinic, said Professor Wong Tien Yin, group director of research at SingHealth.

"It will increase our strength in pre-clinical research such as drug discovery, drug development, testing of biomarkers and medical technology, prior to first-in-man studies," said Prof Wong, who is also executive director of the Singapore Eye Research Institute.

Large animals are needed for such work because a compound that looks like a successful drug in the petri-dish or on a mouse might not work as well in larger creatures and humans, said scientists.

Before clinical trials on people, research on vaccines and diseases including glaucoma, myopia and HIV infection is carried out on monkeys such as macaques, which are genetically similar to humans.

In Singapore, the primates are being used in research projects on myopia, for instance, and to reverse age-related far-sightedness.

Pigs, with their physiology and anatomy relatively similar to humans, are used to test new drugs and medical devices such as artificial knee joints and dental implants, and for surgical training.

Details of the national large animal research facility are still being worked out, said the Ministry of Health. But according to earlier reports, up to $10 million, for a start, could be set aside to set up the facility for academic and commercial research.

According to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), there are 28 licensed facilities for animal research. They include those at the National University of Singapore, SingHealth and the Biopolis research hub in Buona Vista.

Generally, rats, mice and fish are used in experiments, although rabbits, dogs, pigs and monkeys are also used in some. Most are euthanised at the end of a trial.

Any research facility that uses animals for scientific purposes must obtain a licence from the AVA, which inspects each facility annually, said an AVA spokesman.

Research using animals has long been condemned by animal welfare groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But scientists say that while they continue to develop alternatives to animal testing, in many cases it is still impossible for a computer or test tube to substitute a complex biological system when studying a disease, vaccine or drug for efficacy and side effects.

"Monkeys are more similar to us than mice, and pigs are closer in size," said one scientist, who declined to be named. "Sometimes, it's a necessary evil and there's no way around it."

To make sure animals are treated in an ethical manner, a research facility must comply with guidelines of the National Advisory Committee for Laboratory Animal Research for the proper care and use of animals for scientific purposes.

Its guidelines are aligned with international standards for laboratory animal welfare, said the AVA.

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NParks sees healthy increase in volunteer numbers

Claire Huang Channel NewsAsia 8 Dec 12;

SINGAPORE: The National Parks Board (NParks) has seen a 33 per cent increase in the number of active volunteers this year, compared to 2011.

Over 800 volunteers now serve on a regular basis and they range from as young as nine years old to over 80. Thirty nine of them have served for more than 10 years.

The volunteers are involved in activities such as leading tours, running programmes and helping out with surveys.

A 15-year-old volunteer, Choo Yi Feng, said: "I get to share what I know about sea shore life and at the same time, I'm also very interested in sea shore life myself. It does good for me, it does good for the people I'm guiding and it also does good for the environment."

65-year-old retiree Katherine Oehlers said: "I get to interact with people from all walks of life and I also get to interact with tourists from all over the world and that has enriched my life."

NParks on Saturday honoured its volunteers as part of celebrations for International Volunteer Day, which fell on 5 December, at HortPark.

Dr Leong Chee Chiew, deputy chief executive officer of National Parks Board and Commissioner of Parks and Recreation said: "By making planned programmes like guided walks and talks available to people from all walks of life, our volunteers' efforts have made it possible for everyone to learn more about biodiversity and enjoy nature.

"Thanks to their commitment to various volunteer programmes, they have made it possible for all of us to enjoy a dose of nature as we go about our daily lives.

"Our City in a Garden provides Singaporeans with a high quality of life because of our volunteers."

- CNA/ck/xq

Hats off to park volunteers
Jessica Lim Straits Times 9 Dec 12;

They tag birds, plant herb specimens and, on occasion, even guide the President around green spaces in Singapore - and they're not paid a cent.

But no one's complaining.

In fact, more people are stepping forward to help out at public parks, with the number of volunteers growing by a third from last year.

There are more than 800 people giving up their time to fulfil the vital roles, according to the National Parks Board (NParks) which manages over 300 parks.

The agency celebrated its inaugural Volunteers Appreciation Day yesterday.

Volunteering in Singapore's parklands began in the early 1990s when a group of 50 helped to tag birds in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

Enthusiasts - ranging in age from nine to 84 - help out as guides, conduct public workshops and assist with biodiversity surveys.

Present at yesterday's Appreciation Day was 15-year-old Choo Yi Feng, who has been a guide at the Chek Jawa wetlands on Pulau Ubin since 2008. The Secondary 3 Dunman High School student told how his love for sea animals was sparked by a visit to Underwater World in 2000. He fell in love with Chek Jawa on a visit in 2005 and was invited to volunteer at the 100-hectare wetlands in 2008.

"I saw a lot of animals I didn't recognise. Some had many legs, feelers, soft bodies. You couldn't find a face or an eye," he said. "I wanted to know more."

He conducts tours for groups of 15 people - and last year he even guided President Tony Tan Keng Yam around the area.

Retired teacher Katherine Oehlers, 65, started leading tours of the Singapore Botanic Gardens five years ago.

"I go to the Botanic Gardens every Saturday for breakfast with my husband. After that, my husband walks the dog and I walk the people," she said.

Volunteers have allowed NParks to accomplish more than it could by itself, said its deputy chief executive officer Leong Chee Chiew. "Our volunteers' efforts have made it possible for everyone to learn more about biodiversity and enjoy nature."

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan yesterday handed out awards to those who have volunteered for more than 10 years.

In a blog he urged others to give up time to help out in the "vital" roles.

More people volunteering at National Parks
Jessica Lim Straits Times 9 Dec 12;

The number of volunteers who help out regularly at parks this year has swelled to 800 or 33 per cent more than last year.

In the 1990s, there was just 50.

The National Parks Board, which manages more than 300 parks here, revealed these figures at its inaugural Volunteers Appreciation Day today.

These volunteers - from as young as nine to 80-years-old - help out with activities including gardening, as well conducting guided walks and marine biodiversity surveys.

Minister for National Development Khaw Boon Wan, who handed out awards to those who have volunteered for more than 10 years, called such roles "vital", in a blog about the event posted later in the day.

"Kudos to all our volunteers!" he said, thanking them for their commitment and dedication. "We welcome more to come and join us in this endeavour to make Singapore a City in a Garden."

Related link
Giving back to nature on Minister Khaw's blog

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UN climate talks extend Kyoto Protocol, promise compensation

Roger Harrabin BBC News 8 Dec 12;

UN climate talks in Doha have closed with a historic shift in principle but few genuine cuts in greenhouse gases.

The summit established for the first time that rich nations should move towards compensating poor nations for losses due to climate change.

Developing nations hailed it as a breakthrough, but condemned the gulf between the science of climate change and political attempts to tackle it.

The deal, agreed by nearly 200 nations, extends to 2020 the Kyoto Protocol.

It is the only legally-binding plan for combating global warming.

The deal covers Europe and Australia, whose share of world greenhouse gas emissions is less than 15%.

But the conference also cleared the way for the Kyoto protocol to be replaced by a new treaty binding all rich and poor nations together by 2015 to tackle climate change.

The final text "encourages" rich nations to mobilise at least $10bn (£6bn) a year up to 2020, when the new global climate agreement is due to kick in.
Final turmoil

There was last-minute drama as the talks were thrown into turmoil by the insistence of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus that they should be allowed extra credit for the emissions cuts they made when their industries collapsed.

After a long delay, the chairman lost patience, re-started the meeting and gavelled through the agenda so fast there was no chance for Russia to object.

A cheer exploded into prolonged applause. Russia bitterly objected at what it said was a clear breach of procedure, but the chairman said he would do no more than reflect the Russian view in the final report.

The big players, the US, EU and China accepted the agreement with varying degrees of reservation. But the representative for the small island states at severe risk from climate change was vociferous.

"We see the package before us as deeply deficient in mitigation (carbon cuts) and finance. It's likely to lock us on the trajectory to a 3,4,5C rise in global temperatures, even though we agreed to keep the global average temperature rise of 1.5C to ensure survival of all islands," he said.

"There is no new finance (for adapting to climate change and getting clean energy) - only promises that something might materialise in the future. Those who are obstructive need to talk not about how their people will live, but whether our people will live."

The island states accepted the agreement because for them it is better than nothing. Other diplomats will point to the immense complexity of the UN process, which is attempting to move away from the old Kyoto Protocol into a new phase binding rich and poor nations together in the task of tackling climate change.

The proposed new Loss and Damage mechanism is held up as an example of the success of the diplomatic process.

Until now rich nations have agreed finance to help developing countries to get clean energy and adapt to climate change, but they have stopped short of accepting responsibility for damage caused by climate change elsewhere.

But in Doha that broad principle was agreed.

"It is a breakthrough," said Martin Khor of the South Centre - an association of 52 developing nations. "The term Loss and Damage is in the text - this is a huge step in principle. Next comes the fight for cash.

"What helped swing it was [US President Barack] Obama asking Congress for $60bn for the damage caused by [Hurricane] Sandy," he said.

Saleem ul-Huq, from the think-tank IIED in Bangladesh, told me the text should have been firmer, but he said: "This is a watershed in the talks. There is no turning back from this."

Nick Mabey, from the UK think-tank E3G, said: "This agreement really opens a can of worms - it might be applied to countries damming transboundary rivers, for instance. It could be very significant in future."

No US veto

The US had been adamant that this measure would be blocked, and the EU nearly vetoed it, too.

Todd Stern, the US head of delegation here, was seen for much of the past few days walking in circles near the tea bar on his mobile phone to Washington. He told me: "We don't like this text, but we can live with it."

Andy Atkins, from Friends of the Earth, says the current agreement is an 'empty deal'

The key to US agreement was the positioning of the Loss and Damage mechanism under an existing process promising to mobilise $100bn a year for poor nations to adapt to climate change.

Facing tough budget decisions at home over the "fiscal cliff" it was essential for the US to avoid the impression that it was giving away more cash at this time.

The UK Climate Secretary, Ed Davey, told me: "We haven't agreed to set up a new institution - and there's no blank cheque. But there is clearly an issue if, say, an island state is lost underwater."

Ronny Jumea, from the Seychelles, told rich nations earlier that discussion of compensation would not have been needed if they had cut emissions earlier.

"We're past the mitigation [emissions cuts] and adaptation eras. We're now right into the era of loss and damage. What's next after that? Destruction?" he said.

The US has been blamed on finance and on failure to cut its emissions more aggressively.

The EU has also been under fire for failing to raise its promised cuts from 20%, which it is reaching easily, to 30%. (Scientists say it should be 40%.)

The EU has been held back by Poland, which insists on its right to burn its huge reserves of coal.
'Crushing Russian revolt'

Warsaw was refusing to sign the extension to the Kyoto climate protocol until it had a reassurance from the EU that it would receive flexible treatment on emissions cuts.

Russia, Belarus and Ukraine then further delayed the endgame of the conference with an argument over so-called "hot air" - the pollution permits they were given to allow their heavy industries to thrive.

Those industries collapsed but Poland and Russia insist that - as they suffered economic pain during the collapse - they should be allowed to use up the pollution permits as their economies grow again.

In effect, they want to be able to increase their emissions as other nations are obliged to cut theirs.

The nature of the Russian objection was unclear, but an EU negotiator told me he believed the Russians were making a point of principle and did not expect further action.

The major task of this two-week conference has been untangling of the diplomatic spaghetti from climate agreements that have grown piecemeal over the past 15 years.

It is widely agreed that a useful house-keeping job was done to help the UN move towards the next phase, which aims at a globally-encompassing agreement.

Preliminary discussions were held on this, and it was quickly evident that making a global agreement fair to all parties will be monumentally difficult.

The talks were chaired by Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former head of the oil cartel Opec.

He was widely criticised for his laid-back style earlier in the week but at the last there was the unlikely spectacle of environmentalists cheering the ruthlessness of the chair in crushing the Russian revolt.

Climate change diplomacy makes strange bedfellows.

UN conference adopts extension of Kyoto accord
Karl Ritter and Michael Casey Associated Press Yahoo News 9 Dec 12;

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Seeking to control global warming, nearly 200 countries agreed Saturday to extend the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that limits the greenhouse gas output of some rich countries, but will only cover about 15 percent of global emissions.

The extension was adopted by a U.N. climate conference after hard-fought sessions and despite objections from Russia. The package of decisions also included vague promises of financing to help poor countries cope with climate change, and an affirmation of a previous decision to adopt a new global climate pact by 2015.

Though expectations were low for the two-week conference in Doha, many developing countries rejected the deal as insufficient to put the world on track to fight the rising temperatures that are shifting weather patterns, melting glaciers and raising sea levels. Some Pacific island nations see this as a threat to their existence.

"This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you," said Nauru Foreign Minister Kieren Keke, who leads an alliance of small island states. "It certainly isn't where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts."

The two-decade-old U.N. climate talks have so-far failed in their goal of reducing the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions that a vast majority of scientists says are warming the planet.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which controls the emissions of rich countries, is considered the main achievement of the negotiations, even though the U.S. rejected it because it didn't impose any binding commitments on China and other emerging economies.

Kyoto was due to expire this year, so failing to agree on an extension would have been a major setback for the talks. Despite objections from Russia, which opposed rules limiting its use of carbon credits, the accord was extended through 2020 to fill the gap until a wider global treaty is expected to take effect.

However, the second phase only covers about 15 percent of global emissions after Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Russia opted out.

The decisions in Doha mean that in future years, the talks can focus on the new treaty, which is supposed to apply to both rich and poor countries. It is expected to be adopted in 2015 and take effect five years later, but the details haven't been worked out yet.

U.S. climate envoy Todd Stern highlighted one of the main challenges going forward when he said the U.S. couldn't accept a provision in the Doha deal that said the talks should be "guided" by principles laid down in the U.N.'s framework convention for climate change.

That could be interpreted as a reference to the firewall between rich and poor countries that has guided the talks so far, but which the U.S. and other developed countries say must be removed going forward.

"We are now on our way to the new regime," European Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said. It definitely wasn't an easy ride, but we managed to cross the bridge."

"Hopefully from here we can increase our speed," she added. "The world needs it more than ever."

The goal of the U.N. talks is to keep temperatures from rising more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 Celsius), compared to preindustrial times. Temperatures have already risen about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 Celsius) above that level, according to the latest report by the U.N.'s top climate body.

A recent projection by the World Bank showed temperatures are on track to rise by up to 7.2 Fahrenheit (4 Celsius) by the year 2100.

"For all of the nations wrestling with the new reality of climate change - which includes the United States - this meeting failed to deliver the goods," said Alden Meyer, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"At the end of the day, ministers were left with two unpalatable choices: accept an abysmally weak deal, or see the talks collapse in acrimony and despair — with no clear path forward," Meyer said.

Poor countries came into the talks in Doha demanding a timetable on how rich countries would scale up climate change aid for them to $100 billion annually by 2020 — a general pledge that was made three years ago.

But rich nations, including the United States, members of the European Union and Japan are still grappling with the effects of a financial crisis and were not interested in detailed talks on aid in Doha.

The agreement on financing made no reference to any mid-term financing targets, just a general pledge to "identify pathways for mobilizing the scaling up of climate finance."

Tim Gore, climate policy adviser at British aid group Oxfam said the Doha deal imperiled the lives and livelihoods of the world's poorest communities, who are the most vulnerable to shifts in climate.

"It's nothing short of betrayal of the responsibilities of developed countries," he said. "We are now in the red zone in fighting climate change."

Small island nations scored a victory by getting the conference to adopt a text on "loss and damage," a relatively new concept which relates to damages from climate-related disasters.

Island nations under threat from rising sea levels have been pushing for some mechanism to help them cope with such natural catastrophes, but the United States has pushed back over concerns it might be held liable for the cleanup bill since it is the world's second-biggest emitter behind China.

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