Best of our wild blogs: 12 Mar 13

Oriental Pied Hornbill fledges at Changi Village
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Please Help Us Out With Our Survey!
from Green Drinks Singapore

Golden-backed Weaver: Stages of moulting
from Bird Ecology Study Group

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Government seeks to retain one-tenth of land for nature reserves: Tan Chuan-Jin

S Ramesh Channel NewsAsia 11 Mar 13;

SINGAPORE: The Singapore government said it is committed to retain about a tenth of land for nature reserves and parks.

Acting Manpower Minister and Senior Minister of State for National Development, Tan Chuan-Jin, said this is significant for a highly urbanised city-state.

Speaking in Parliament during the committee of supply debate for the National Development Ministry on Monday, he said Singapore has protected four nature reserves, representing the key native ecosystems that are found in Singapore.

Their biodiversity is among the richest in the region.

Singapore has also planned green recreational areas where Singaporeans live.

At least 85 per cent of homes will be within a 400-metre walking distance to a park and Mr Tan said the government will do more.

He said this year, Singaporeans can look forward to the completion of new parks like Holland Village Park, Woodlands Town Park East and Choa Chu Kang Park extension, adding to the 350 parks today.

Some of the older parks like Sembawang and Changi Beach Park have been given a fresh new look.

These parks will be complemented by more park connectors, vertical greenery, rooftop gardens and the transformation of waterways into recreational areas.

Mr Tan explained that as Singapore ramps up infrastructure, some Singaporeans are naturally concerned that these developments will have an impact on the natural environment, the collective socio-cultural heritage, and with it, personal memories and identity.

Mr Tan said he understands and shares these concerns and so the country must be careful and deliberate, and take a balanced approach to development.

He said: "As a government, we need to balance the different views and needs. Our responsibility, above all, is to ensure that every Singaporean, today and tomorrow, have good homes, good jobs and a good quality of life. Our heritage and environment are important parts of this equation. But they are not an end by themselves. Within 714 square kilometres of land, we have to decide where to live, work and play. There are also defence and security needs, and the need to be self-sufficient in water. In planning development, we must put our people and their needs first."

Like the greening efforts, the government's approach to conserving the built heritage has and will continue to develop over time, said Mr Tan.

Since the 1980s, the URA has conserved over 7,000 buildings in more than 100 areas, including the historic districts of Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India.

Mr Tan added that URA will conserve more significant older buildings when there is opportunity to do so, and weigh this with the other needs of the population.

- CNA/xq

One-tenth of Singapore will be green
Residents can expect new parks and green spaces and facelifts for existing parks
Sumita Sreedharan Today Online 12 Mar 13;

SINGAPORE — The Government has pledged to commit a tenth of Singapore’s land to nature reserves and parks, with new parks and green spaces set for completion this year and in the years to come, and existing parks to get a facelift.

Speaking during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of National Development (MND) yesterday, Senior Minister of State for MND, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, said the pledge is “significant for a highly urbanised city-state”, but stressed that a balance has to be struck between conservation and development.

“As a Government, we need to make decisions that reflect the collective interest of Singaporeans, not specific interest groups. However, we can and have been working closely with interest groups to tap on their expertise and knowledge,” he said.

This year will see the completion of new parks, including Holland Village Park, Woodlands Town Park East and the Choa Chu Kang Park extension.

Older parks like Sembawang and Changi Beach Park will be given a fresh new look, while the authorities are planning to create a 60-km Nature Way that will include the Tampines, Yishun-Mandai and Admiralty areas by 2015.

Mr Tan noted that the issue of conservation and development is “highly subjective and contextual”. “One may strongly believe that a particular green area or an old building should be conserved. Someone else may not share the same attachment and ask ‘what is the big deal?’” he said.

“Yet others will think that we can develop and conserve at the same time — a win-win arrangement which we have achieved in many cases, and which we should always strive for, but is not always possible.”

Addressing concerns by Nominated Member of Parliament (MP) Faizah Jamal and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong on the Government’s processes on assessing the environmental impact of development projects, Mr Tan said it was not possible to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) on all developments.

“EIAs are also resource and time intensive. As such, we should apply them selectively to projects that may most adversely impact our protected natural spaces as well as our coastal and maritime environments,” he explained, adding that the EIAs, when done, are gazetted and available for public viewing.

Mr Tan also touched on the issue of celebrating heritage in the heartlands and incorporating an area’s heritage into its development.

For example, the Housing and Development Board will be studying the feasibility of retaining some of the mature trees in the Bidadari area and incorporating the existing memorial garden into the area to “retain the spirit of the space”.

He also said that plans for the Rail Corridor will be announced soon, and assured that the Government is committed to retaining a continuous green corridor as a “key element” in its planning, design and development.

Heritage areas: Singapore must strike balance
Grace Chua Straits Times 12 Mar 13;

SINGAPORE must strike a delicate balance between conservation and development, putting people first - even if not everyone agrees on where that balance should lie, said Senior Minister of State for National Development Tan Chuan-Jin in Parliament yesterday.

He was responding to MPs' concerns about conflicting uses of heritage areas like Kampong Glam, and requests to carry out environmental impact assessments (EIAs).

Nominated Member of Parliament Faizah Jamal brought up the example of Kampong Glam, a heritage area once settled by Bugis, Javanese, Arabs and other ethnic groups.

Now there is more nightlife, she said, but alcohol is drunk at bars within sight of the Sultan Mosque, causing tension in the Muslim community there.

She also asked if preliminary impact assessments were done for plans such as large-scale reclamation or the 50km cross-island MRT line through the Central Catchment Nature Reserve, while Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong asked for EIAs to save wooded areas that help keep Singapore's carbon footprint in check.

Mr Tan said the balance between conservation and development was subjective and highly contextual.

"For example, one may strongly believe that this patch of greenery is very important. But somebody else might say, does it really matter? Why are we spending so much time, so much resources, dragging our feet on the issue?"

The Government strives to achieve win-win situations, he said, by seeking out and balancing views and engaging stakeholders.

Responding to Ms Faizah's and Mr Yee's questions, he said major projects already undergo EIAs, and that firm decisions on reclamation are taken only after EIAs are conducted.

These EIAs are gazetted and available for public viewing, he added. But they are time- and resource-intensive and should not be done for every single development.

Meanwhile, he said, Singapore keeps a tenth of its land for nature reserves and parks.

New parks at Holland Village and Woodlands will be completed this year, adding to Singapore's 350 parks, while a Kheam Hock Road corridor of trees and plants which allows butterflies and birds to move between green areas has also been launched.

As for heritage areas, Mr Tan said the community should discuss and shape their character.

For instance, the business community at Kampong Glam closed Haji Lane to cars on a Sunday afternoon, and there will be more such car-free pilot projects there and in Chinatown.

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Buddhist practice may be endangering frogs here

Chytrid fungus detected on local frogs partly responsible for global decline of amphibian species
Zara Zhuang Today Online 11 Mar 12;

SINGAPORE — The Buddhist practice of releasing live animals into the wild to demonstrate piety may be harming the local frog population, with a deadly fungus recently detected for the first time on frogs in Singapore.

According to Assistant Professor David Bickford of the National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences, well-meaning practitioners could be introducing diseased frogs into the wild, causing the spread of the chytrid fungus.

In a study conducted by NUS and the Wildlife Conservation Society, the samples that tested positive for chytrid fungus were obtained from local pet stores and the wild, showing that the fungus is being spread through complex international trade of frogs.

The fungus is believed to be partly responsible for the global decline of amphibian species as it inhibits frogs’ ability to breathe through their moist skin, causing them to suffocate, explained Asst Prof Bickford.

On the importance of raising awareness of the chytrid fungus and the role frogs play in the local ecosystem, Asst Prof Bickford said that frogs play a vital role in the food web.

As amphibians that straddle land and aquatic habitats, they also serve as indicators of water quality. ZARA ZHUANG

Related links
Please don't release animals in our wild places on wildsingapore

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Makeover for mountain bike trail at Bukit Timah

Grace Chua Straits Times 12 Mar 13

AN AGEING, fast-eroding mountain-biking trail at Bukit Timah may soon get a facelift to make it smoother and safer.

The National Parks Board (NParks) put out a tender for upgrading works to the 17-year-old, 7.5km route, which loops around the outer edge of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve.

The tender, which closed last month, attracted three bids between $398,009 and $497,830, but has not been awarded.

It details plans to improve trail drainage, remove chunks of tree trunks and re-route sections, among other measures.

The project will take about three months from the time the contract is awarded, and be done in sections while the rest of the biking-only trail remains open.

The mountain-biking community here is growing, and some 500 to 700 cyclists trundle through the trail on weekends, said NParks director of conservation Wong Tuan Wah. Such intense use, along with Singapore's heavy downpours, increases erosion.

"We aim to improve rider safety and experience, and make the trail attractive for responsible mountain-bikers of all competency levels," Mr Wong said.

NParks decided to upgrade the trail after a dialogue with members of the mountain-biking community. It also plans to invite them to trail-building and trail maintenance sessions, he said.

Avid mountain-biker Calvin Chin, 39, said the Bukit Timah trail is one of the most popular and accessible in Singapore. Others are at Tampines, Chestnut, Kent Ridge and Pulau Ubin.

Last year, NParks caught a group of bikers entering an illegal trail further north, closed off to recreational use because it passes through ecologically sensitive forest.

"We understand there are sound reasons behind why they don't want us to ride there," said Mr Chin, a supply chain manager and member of a community group that met NParks last year to advocate for bike-trail users. "But there are a lot more mountain-bikers, and trails are jam-packed."

Improving the Bukit Timah trail would help, as would adding new trails, he said.

Riders have started doing volunteer maintenance at other trails, such as the one at Kent Ridge.

"We hope that the provision of better mountain-bike facilities will help to discourage usage of non-designated trails," said Nature Society vertebrate study group chair Tony O'Dempsey.

But Nature Society president Shawn Lum said nature reserve visitors in general need to change their mindset, from that of "customers" to "co-owners", and not wander down closed paths, to let the forest regenerate.

Bukit Timah resident Vinita Ramani Mohan, 34, who lives close to the nature reserve, complained of noise from bikers there late at night, at around 10pm or 11pm.

"I would like to see bikers be a little more considerate to the nocturnal wildlife in the reserves and cease biking at night," she said.

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Singapore looks to Myanmar as potential food source

Channel NewsAsia 11 Mar 13;

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans can expect to see more vegetables and seafood from Myanmar.

In a blogpost, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said his ministry works closely with the local food industry to diversify food sources.

He said MND is particularly hopeful of Myanmar becoming a good food source.

Mr Khaw said MND's Senior Minister of State Lee Yi Shyan led a business delegation to Myanmar last year.

One possible item is vegetables like chillies.

Mr Khaw said the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will facilitate partnerships between Singaporean farmers and Myanmar supply chain partners.

Another potential item is seafood as the Myanmar seafood sector is well developed.

Mr Khaw said while there are some concerns about lack of suitable infrastructure, Myanmar holds a lot of promise.

He believes that through more exchanges and transfer of technical expertise from the AVA, Myanmar farmers will, over time, be able to increase their food exports to Singapore.

Mr Khaw added that our traders can also help support technology transfers to achieve win-win outcomes.

- CNA/ck

Related link
More food from Myanmar on mndsingapore

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Endangered sharks to be protected under international law

Paul Carsten PlanetArk 12 Mar 13;

An international conference voted on Monday to ban trade in some shark species whose populations have fallen to crisis levels due in part to demand from China, the world's biggest consumer of shark fins for use in soup.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) agreed to ban international trade in the oceanic whitetip, the porbeagle and three types of hammerhead sharks unless shipments are accompanied by documentation showing they were caught legally.

Around 7 percent of sharks are killed each year, according to a paper in the Marine Policy journal this year, an unsustainable amount that is threatening certain populations with extinction.

Governments will have 18 months to comply with the restrictions, agreed by a two-thirds majority of the countries at the CITES conference in Bangkok.

If countries are found to be non-compliant, they may be subject to sanctions that can cover trade in all CITES-listed species.

Japan and China, major consumers of shark products, opposed the listing, citing difficulties in identifying the specific species' fins.

They also said regional fisheries management bodies should manage marine issues, rather than CITES, but most countries, including the original proponents in Latin America and the European Union, and environmental NGOs rejected that view.

"In reality we need fisheries management bodies managing the fishing and CITES managing the trade," said Elizabeth Wilson, manager for global shark conservation at The Pew Charitable Trusts, an NGO.

The vote will require final approval at a CITES plenary on March 14, the final day of the meeting, which is likely given the large majority in favor.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Michael Urquhart)

'Historic' day for shark protection
Matt McGrath BBC News 11 Mar 13;

Three types of critically endangered but commercially valuable shark have been given added protection at the Cites meeting in Bangkok.

The body, which regulates trade in flora and fauna, voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the sharks' status.

Campaigners hailed the move as historic and said the vote represented a major breakthrough for marine conservation.

The decisions can still be overturned by a vote on the final day of this meeting later this week.

The oceanic whitetip, three varieties of hammerheads and the porbeagle are all said to be seriously threatened by overfishing.

Their numbers have declined dramatically in recent years, as the trade in shark fins for soup has grown.

Manta rays are killed for their gill plates which are used in Chinese medicine.

Shark supporters have been attempting to get Cites to protect these species since 1994. But there has long been strong opposition to the move from China and Japan.

But a number of factors have changed the arithmetic.

Experts say the critical factor has been a shift in South American nations, who've come to understand that sharks are more valuable alive than dead.

"They've come to realise, particularly for those with hammerhead stocks, the tourist value of these species and the long term future that will be protected by a Cites listing," said Dr Colman O'Criodain from WWF International.

Regulate, not ban

While the vote to upgrade these shark species to Appendix 2 does not ban the trade, it regulates it. Both exporting and importing countries must issue licences. If a nation takes too many of these species, they can be hit with sanctions on the range of animal and plant products that are governed by Cites.

As the votes went on there were smatterings of applause in the hall and some high fives among campaigners.

"It is really significant for Cites to come of age like this," Dr Susan Lieberman told BBC News.

"To say we can deal with these species, we can manage the international trade and lets not be afraid of marine species."

The extension of the authority of Cites into the international trade in fish has long worried China and Japan and the Asian nations were strongly against these proposals.

But many West African countries, who have seen their native shark fisheries destroyed by large offshore operations, voted in favour of the restrictions.

Another factor was money. Especially cash from the European Union.

The head of delegation told the meeting that extra money would be made available to help poorer countries change their fishing practices.

"If there's a need for it the funding will be available," Feargal O'Coigligh told the meeting.

The amendments can still be overturned in the final session of this meeting. And this realisation is tempering the celebrations.

"Cites is ready to come of age for marine species, " said Dr O'Criodain.

"As long as we hold these results in plenary. Maybe warm champagne is the right note."

Five shark species win protection against finning trade
Cites summit votes for strictly controlled permits to export fins of oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three species of hammerhead
Damian Carrington 11 Mar 13;

The millions of sharks killed every year to feed the vast appetite for shark-fin soup in Asia now have greater protection, after the 178 nations at the world's biggest wildlife summit voted to crack down on the trade.

Those fishing for oceanic whitetip, porbeagle and three species of hammerhead shark will now require strictly controlled permits to export the fins. The move is a landmark moment for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) because many previous attempts to protect marine species – including these sharks – have failed, largely due to opposition from Japan and China. Those nations argued other bodies have responsibility for fisheries, but their opponents, including the EU, US and Brazil, said Cites is far more effective and conservation campaigners were delighted. Manta rays also won new protection.

"Dealing with fisheries is always hard due the huge economic and political interests involved," said a delegate from one of the world's top fin-exporting nations. She added the cultural attachment to serving shark fin soup at weddings in China – now affordable for millions more in the country's swelling middle class – was very strong and very hard to break: "It would be like telling the French not to have champagne at their wedding."

Sharks are highly sought after but are slow to mature and have few offspring, making them extremely vulnerable to overfishing. The culling of 1 million oceanic whitetip sharks every year has resulted, for example, in its Pacific population crashing by 93% between 1995 and 2010. Today the species was given protection in a close vote that just achieved the two-thirds majority required.

The porbeagle, once sought for its valuable meat especially for European markets, also saw a population crash, dropping 85% from 1981 to 2005 in the north and west Atlantic. In 2010, the EU had to halt fishing due to the tiny numbers left. The porbeagle shark lost out on protection in 2010 at Cites by one vote, but this summit, being held in Bangkok, saw a much wider coalition of 37 nations backing the shark proposals.

The fins of the scalloped hammerhead are among the most valuable of all and it is estimated that 2 million a year are killed. They are one of the rare sharks to school together, making it easy to catch large numbers. The Cites summit also voted to protect the great and smooth hammerhead sharks, because their fins are very similar and could have been targeted if only the scalloped hammerhead was protected.

Previous Cites meetings had seen similar protection proposals for sharks rejected, but new support from Latin American and west African countries, and the promise of cash from the European Union to help change fishing practices, won the day. The decisions could be reopened for debate at the final plenary session of the summit and potentially overturned. If, not all the measures will be implemented after an 18-month period in which enforcement measures can be set up.

Scientists estimate that about 100m sharks are killed by humans every year, representing 6-8% of all sharks and far above a sustainable level.

The shark fin trade is a global one, with Hong Kong at its hub, where 50% of all fins end up. Ten million kilogrammes of shark fins are shipped to its port every year, from 83 countries. Spain and Indonesia the leading sources, but other top 10 nations include countries such as Argentina, Nigeria, New Zealand and Iran.

One-third of the 450 known species of shark are endangered by overfishing, but the species protected on Monday are the most valuable and sought after. Vessels are often officially fishing for tuna or swordfish but can in fact catch far more sharks, particularly the oceanic whitetip shark. By finning the fish at sea and throwing the bodies back, single trips can results in many thousands of dead sharks.

The impact of the huge fishing fleets of Spain and France has been particularly severe on the porbeagle shark, whose meat is sold for a high price, and it has fallen by more than 95% in the Mediterranean an 90% in the north-east Atlantic.

Prof Nick Dulvy of Simon Fraser University in Canada and a member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature expert panel on sharks, said wiping out populations of the fish often plays havoc with the ecosystem: "When we remove the top predator, their prey can burgeon and affect the food chain all the way down." This can affect seafood prized by people, as happened off North Carolina when commercial fishing destroyed the big shark population, leaving rays to thrive which in turn destroyed bay scallops.

"We are thrilled that the tide is now turning for shark conservation, with governments listening to the science and acting in the interests of sustainability," said Elizabeth Wilson, manager of Pew's global shark campaign. "With these new protections, they will have the chance to recover and once again fulfil their role as top predators."

Manta rays, known by divers as friendly and inquisitive gentle giants with a seven-metre wingspan, also got new protection against exports at the Cites summit, backed by 80% of the voting nations. They are easy to catch but extremely slow to reproduce, delivering just one pup every two to five years. Their populations are being devastated off Sri Lanka and Indonesia to feed a newly created Chinese medicine market in which their gill plates, used to filter food from the ocean, are sold as a purifying tonic. Around 5,000 a year are killed, generating $5m for traders, but where protected they bring in $140m from tourism.

Finally, the nations at the Cites summit chose unanimously to ban all international trade in a species of freshwater sawfish that is now restricted to northern Australia. They are virtually extinct over much of their former west Pacific range, and have not been seen for decades in Indonesia and Thailand. They were sought for their highly valuable fins ($4,000), their saws ($1,500) and by aquariums. Monday's vote means all sawfish species have been banned from international trade.

Carlos Drews, head of WWF's Cites delegation, called the shark votes "a landmark moment". Ralf Sonntag, shark specialist for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "This is a bold move by Cites. These sharks are worth far more alive than dead to local communities."

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Thailand can offer a ray of light to an endangered species

Stamps Howard The Nation 12 Mar 13;

Manta rays - a charismatic and valuable marine species - are experiencing drastic decline across Southeast Asia due to trade-driven unsustainable fisheries.

Last week in Bangkok at the Conference of the Parties on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Thailand and other CITES member countries, had a chance to vote on doing something to stop that decline. Moreover, as chair of CITES, Thailand has a chance to lead the CITES membership in this direction. Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have proposed to add manta rays to the list of species regulated in international trade under CITES. However, confused information recently published in the media may threaten the adoption of this important proposal.

Thai Fisheries Department chief Wimol Jantrarotai has reportedly said that his agency disagrees with the proposed listing, as it could hurt local fishermen and the ornamental fish industry.

There are further claims that Thailand imports freshwater manta rays from South American countries for breeding and then exports the fish to Europe, Japan and the US. Further, that listing the manta ray could pose difficulties in the export of the fish species. Three of the four manta ray species proposed for listing are said to be popular among Thai breeders.

This information is incorrect. Wimol may have confused the manta ray (Proposal 46) with the Ceja river stingray (Proposal 47), in which there is an ornamental fish industry in Thailand, and in which Thailand is the number one exporter in the world.

However, there are only two species of manta ray - giant manta rays (Manta birostris) and reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) - and neither is a freshwater fish. Manta rays are not bred in Thailand, or anywhere else commercially, or for the ornamental fish breeding industry. Mantas are a very large (up to seven meters across), slow-growing species that are not suitable for captive breeding. Only four manta captive births have been reported, all occurring in one large public aquarium in Japan.

The giant manta ray is a majestic, highly migratory, ray native to Thailand, which the IUCN has included on its "Red List" of threatened species as vulnerable to extinction. Manta ray populations have been declining rapidly in recent years due to unsustainable fisheries spurred by a growing international trade in their gill plates. These gill plates are used in a purported health tonic in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macau. With more than 80 percent of the profits from this unsustainable trade going to the international traders and retailers, manta ray populations in many coastal communities are being decimated to enrich the pockets of these few foreign traders and retailers.

This trade is driving the exploitation of manta rays at a rate that is entirely unsustainable and could lead to their complete demise within a short time span if not regulated by CITES.

Manta rays are hugely popular among snorkellers and scuba divers, who pay large amounts of money to dive with them. Places such as Micronesia, the Maldives and Hawaii that have banned the fishing of manta rays have thriving tourism industries devoted to manta rays. In Hawaii, for example, every evening more than 100 snorkellers and divers paying over US$5,000 to swim with manta rays, generating over $500,000 per day. A recent study on the value of manta ray tourism estimates the tourist expenditures on manta ray watching in Thailand at over Bt369 million annually, with each manta ray potentially worth a million or more baht per year over its long lifetime of 40 or more years.

Last Wednesday night, at the Retro Live Cafe, at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, where CITES was held, a manta ray reception was held. At that event, Vinit Rungpheung, director of the Promotional Material Products Division of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told CITES delegates that manta rays are very important to Thailand's lucrative dive tourism industry and the Thai fishermen do not target manta rays.

Dive operators in the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea, however, have witnessed illegal fishing for manta rays in Thai national marine parks, and have reported steep declines in manta ray sightings. Additionally, as manta rays are highly migratory animals that swim into other national and international waters, fishing of manta rays outside of Thailand can also have a large impact on manta ray populations in Thailand.

Thailand stands to benefit from a CITES listing because of tourism, but stands to benefit more if all Asean countries regulate the manta ray trade in their waters. Because manta rays are a migratory ocean species, a CITES listing is needed to ensure the regulation of trade, and that other states establish a permit trading system for mantas. Otherwise, even if Thailand were to protect its own tourism industry by protecting mantas in Thai waters, they could be slaughtered and collected for trade when they pass through neighboring Asean waters. Hence, Thailand also has an interest in ensuring other Asean countries support the proposal too.

Wiith the listing of the manta ray on Appendix II of CITES, all member countries would take an important step towards sustainable use and conservation of an iconic and vulnerable marine species.

Dr Stamps Howard is president of Wildlife Technology and Guy Stevens is founding director of The Manta Trust.

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Cristiano Ronaldo to champion mangrove conservation in Indonesia

Antara 11 Mar 13;

Jakarta (ANTARA News) - Real Madrid`s soccer star, Cristiano Ronaldo, named ambassador for Bali-based Forum Peduli Mangrove (Mangrove Care Forum), has agreed to champion the conservation of mangroves in Indonesia, the Artha Graha Peduli Foundation announced Monday.

In its press release made available to Antara in Jakarta, the Foundation said the Forum Peduli Mangrove is supported by five community empowerment organizations from regencies in the southern part of Benoa Bay in Bali.

The Forum, to be launched in the next two months, aims to raise public awareness of the importance of conserving mangrove forests, to encourage community action to clean and preserve them, and to restore the biodiversity of the mangrove ecosystem.

Ronaldo`s appointment as ambassador for the Forum was sealed at a meeting in Madrid on Friday (March 8) between the Real Madrid star and Tomy Winata who was in Europe to attend the 56th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the central policy making body of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which also provides forms of cooperation applying to wildlife and forest crimes.

Winata was in Madrid with Gories Mere, former chief of the Indonesia`s National Narcotics Board (BNN).

"I am absolutely delighted that Ronaldo has agreed to support our cause to conserve mangrove forests in Indonesia. He is an ideal ambassador for mangrove conservation as he has mass appeal and we want the message of Save Mangrove, Save Earth to reach the young and old, rich and poor," Winata said.

"Mangrove conservation is an important but neglected area of conservation. We are running out of time. The world is losing mangroves at an alarming rate. The situation in Indonesia is particularly dire, we have lost more than two million hectares of our mangrove areas. Conserving mangroves is not only about protecting the environment but also the livelihood of many villagers," he said.

Indonesia`s Forestry Ministry estimates that the country has over nine million hectares of mangrove forests, of which some 70 per cent has been lost to shrimp farming, oil palm plantations, rural and urban redevelopment.

Ronaldo said: "I am privileged to be able to play a role in conserving mangroves in Indonesia. I was in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami and the devastation I saw left a deep impression. I understand that in places where there were mangroves to provide the ecosystem buffer against high waves, more lives were saved and less damage sustained."

Winata founded the Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation (TWNC) 16 years ago, a conservation and rehabilitation sanctuary where wildlife, trees, flora and fauna, marine life, corals, are protected. It is set over 44,500 hectares of land and 14,500 hectares of sea on the southern tip of Sumatra.

TWNC has over 3,000 hectares of mangrove forests spread over two lakes, and is famed for its project to save and rehabilitate the Sumatran tigers, which are fast facing extinction.

TWNC also works with the Indonesian government to provide post-rehab facilities for drug addicts. Its initiatives have been commended by the UNODC and will be showcased at the forthcoming Commission on Narcotic Drugs session in Vienna this month.

Editor: Jafar M Sidik

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Evidence grows of rainforest resilience to global warming

Nina Chestney PlanetArk 11 Mar 13;

The world's tropical forests are less likely to lose biomass, or plant material, this century due to the effects of global warming than previously thought, scientists said in a paper published in the journal Nature Geoscience on Sunday.

This adds to growing evidence that rainforests might be more resilient to the effects of climate change than feared.

Tropical forests play an important role in the world's climate system because they soak up carbon dioxide and use it to grow leaves, branches and roots.

It is estimated that they store around 470 billion metric tons (518.09 billion tons) of carbon in their biomass and soil, some of which can be released back into the atmosphere when plants rot or get burnt.

Rising global temperatures cause droughts and fires, which can kill trees, but estimates vary on how much forest cover would be lost in a warming world.

In 2009, a group of British scientists said that 20 to 40 percent of the Amazon could die off within 100 years if global temperatures rose by 2 degrees Celsius and 85 percent would be lost if temperatures rose by 4 degrees, which is seen as increasingly likely.

But a study last month said the Amazon rainforest was less vulnerable to dying off because carbon dioxide also acts as an airborne fertilizer.

In this study, scientists and tropical ecologists from Britain, the United States, Australia and Brazil used computer simulations based on 22 climate models to study the response of tropical forests in the Americas, Africa and Asia to rising global temperatures.

The research team found forest cover loss in only one model, in the Americas (Amazonia and Central America).

"We conclude that ... there is evidence of forest resilience for the Americas, Africa and Asia," said lead author Chris Huntingford, from Britain's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

However, there are still uncertainties in gauging how ecosystems respond to global warming, the study said.

"While these new results suggest that tropical forests may be quite resilient to warming, it is important also to remember that other factors not included in this study, such as fire and deforestation, will also affect the carbon stored in tropical forests," said co-author David Galbraith from the University of Leeds.

The impacts of these factors are difficult to gauge so further study is needed, he added.

Deforestation derives from human activity and can aggravate the effects of climate change by releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.

Brazil has sharply reduced forest losses in recent years. But predictions of a die-back in coming decades had led some people to conclude that there was no point safeguarding trees.

(Editing by Jon Hemming)

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Will Cloning Ever Save Endangered Animals?

Right now, cloning is not a viable conservation strategy. But some researchers remain optimistic that it will help threatened species in the future
Ferris Jabr Scientific American 11 Mar 13;

In 2009 the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. (Embrapa) and the Brasilia Zoological Garden began scavenging and freezing blood, sperm and umbilical cord cells from roadkill and other wild animals that had died, mostly in the Cerrado savanna—an incredibly diverse collection of tropical forest and grassland ecosystems home to at least 10,000 plant species and more than 800 species of birds and mammals, some of which live nowhere else in the world. Specimens were collected from the bush dog, collared anteater, bison and gray brocket deer, among other species.

The idea was to preserve the genetic information of Brazil's endangered wildlife. One day, the organizations reasoned, they might be able to use the collected DNA to clone endangered animals and bolster dwindling populations. So far the two institutions have collected at least 420 tissue samples. Now they are collaborating on a related project that will use the DNA in these specimens to improve breeding and cloning techniques. Current cloning techniques have an average success rate of less than 5 percent, even when working with familiar species; cloning wild animals is usually less than 1 percent successful.

Any animals born during Brazil's new undertaking will live in the Brasilia Zoo, says Embrapa researcher Carlos Martins. Expanding captive populations of wild animals, he and his team hope, will discourage zoos and researchers from taking even more wild animals out of their native habitats. Martins and his colleagues have not yet decided which species they will attempt to clone but the maned wolf and jaguar are strong candidates. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies both animals as "near threatened" on its Red List of Threatened Species, two levels below "endangered."

Many researchers agree that, at present, cloning is not a feasible or effective conservation strategy. First of all, some conservationists point out, cloning does not address the reasons that many animals become endangered in the first place—namely, hunting and habitat destruction. Even if cloning could theoretically help in truly desperate situations, current cloning techniques are simply too ineffective to make much of a difference. Compared with cloning domestic species—particularly cattle, which have been successfully cloned for years to duplicate desirable traits—cloning endangered species is far more difficult for a number of reasons.

Successful cloning generally involves at least three essential components: DNA from the animal to be cloned; a viable egg to receive that DNA; and a mother to gestate the resulting embryo. Often, hundreds of embryos and attempted pregnancies are needed to produce even a few clones. Scientists usually have a poor understanding of endangered animals' reproductive physiology, which makes it too risky to extract a sufficient number of eggs from that species or rely on females of that species to give birth to clones. Legal protections sometimes preclude threatened species from such procedures as well. To compensate, researchers fuse the DNA of an endangered species with eggs from a closely related species and select mothers from the latter. Such hybrid embryos often fail to develop properly.

Although they are keenly aware of these problems, Martins and his colleagues, as well as a few other scientists around the world, think that efforts to archive the genetic information of endangered wildlife are worthwhile. Some researchers remain optimistic that cloning will become a useful tool for conservation in the future. Optimists point to recent successes cloning wild mammals using closely related domestic species, improved techniques for preventing developmental abnormalities in a cloned embryo, better neonatal care for newborn clones and in vitro fertilization made possible by stem cells derived from frozen tissue.

The first clones
In the early 1950s, at the Lankenau Hospital Research Institute in Philadelphia, Robert Briggs and Thomas King successfully cloned 27 northern leopard frogs through a process known as nuclear transfer. The nucleus, often called the command center of the cell, contains most of a vertebrate's DNA—except for the DNA within bean-shaped, energy-generating organelles named mitochondria. Briggs and King emptied frog eggs of their nuclei, sucked nuclei out of cells in frog embryos and injected those nuclei into the empty eggs. Many of the eggs developed into tadpoles that were genetically identical to the embryos that had donated their nuclear DNA.

In 1958 John Gurdon, then at the University of Oxford, and colleagues cloned frogs with nuclear DNA extracted from the cells of fully formed tadpoles. Unlike embryonic cells, which are genetically flexible enough to become a variety of different tissues, a tadpole's cells are "differentiated"—that is, the patterns of genes they express have changed to fit the profile of a specific cell type: a skin, eye or heart cell, for example. Gurdon demonstrated that, when transplanted into an egg, nuclear DNA from a mature cell reverts to the more versatile state characteristic of DNA in an embryo's cells. This breakthrough encouraged scientists to try cloning far larger animals using DNA from adult cells.

In 1996 researchers in Scotland attempted to clone a female Finn-Dorset sheep. They injected nuclei extracted from her udder cells into nearly 300 empty eggs derived from Scottish blackfaces, a different sheep breed. Out of those prepared eggs, the scientists managed to create more than 30 embryos. Only five of those embryos developed into lambs after being implanted in surrogate Scottish blackfaces. And only one of those lambs survived into adulthood. The researchers named her Dolly.

Since then some biologists have repeatedly suggested that cloning could help save endangered species, especially in dire situations in which only a few dozen or a handful of animals remain. The smaller, more homogenous and more inbred a population, the more susceptible it is to a single harmful genetic mutation or disease. Clones could theoretically increase the genetic diversity of an endangered population if researchers have access to preserved DNA from many different individuals. At the very least, clones could stabilize a shrinking population. And, some researchers argue, a genetically homogenous but stable population would be better than extinction; some highly inbred groups of wild animals, such as Chillingham cattle in England, have survived just fine for hundreds of years.

One species that might benefit from cloning is the northern white rhinoceros, which is native to Africa. In 1960 the global northern white rhino population was more than 2,000 strong, but poaching has reduced their numbers to as few as 11 today. By last count, three live in zoos—two in San Diego and one in the Czech Republic—four live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and as few as four individuals may still live in the wild based on unconfirmed reports, but they have not been spotted in several years. Most of the captive animals are uninterested in mating or infertile, although two rhinos mated in the summer of 2012.

Right now, though, cloning is unlikely to help the white rhino or any other threatened species. To date, the story of cloning endangered animals is one of a few high-profile successes and many, many failures. Since the early 2000s, using the same technique that produced Dolly, researchers have cloned several endangered and even extinct mammals, including a mouflon sheep and a bovine known as a gaur in 2001; a kind of wild cattle called a banteng in 2003; a wild goat known as the Pyrenean ibex in 2009; and wild coyotes in 2012. In each case many more clones died before birth than survived; in most cases none of the clones survived into adulthood.

All those attempted clones of endangered or extinct animals died in different ways for different reasons, but they all shared one fundamental problem—they were not exact replicas of their counterparts. In most cases, researchers have combined DNA from the threatened species with eggs from a related domestic species. Each surrogate mother is often implanted with dozens of hybrid embryos in order to achieve at least a few pregnancies, a strategy that requires extracting hundreds of eggs. Because the reproductive physiology of most endangered animals is so poorly understood, researchers are often unsure when the animals ovulate and how best to acquire their eggs. In some cases legal protections prevent scientists from harvesting eggs from threatened species. For all these reasons, they turn to more familiar domestic species instead.

Injecting the DNA of one species into the egg of another species—even a closely related one—creates an unusual hybrid embryo that often fails to develop properly in the womb of a surrogate mother. Hybrid embryos have the nuclear DNA of the cloned species and the mitochondrial (mtDNA) DNA of the donor egg. This mismatch becomes problematic as the embryo develops. Nuclear DNA and mtDNA work together; they both contain genetic recipes for proteins with which cells extract energy from food. In a hybrid embryo these proteins do not always fit together properly, which leaves cells starved for energy. Complicating matters further, the surrogate mother often rejects the hybrid embryo because she recognizes some of the embryo's tissues, particularly the placenta, as foreign.

Another problem—and the most intractable so far—is that a hybrid embryo created via nuclear transfer is not a genetic blank slate like most embryos. All vertebrates begin life as hollow balls of embryonic stem cells, which can become almost any type of adult cell. Each of those stem cells contains a copy of the exact same genome packaged into chromosomes—tight bundles of DNA and histone proteins. As the embryo develops, the stem cells begin to take on their adult forms: some become skin cells, others heart cells and so on. Different types of cells begin to express different patterns of genes. Inside each cell an assortment of molecules and enzymes interacts with DNA and histones to change gene expression. Some molecules, such as methyl groups, physically block cellular machinery from reading the genetic instructions in certain segments of DNA; some enzymes loosen the bonds between histones and DNA, making particular genes more accessible. Eventually, each cell type—skin cell, liver cell, brain cell—has the same genome, but a different epigenome: a unique pattern of genes that are actively expressed or effectively silenced. Over time, an adult cell's epigenome can change even further, depending on the animal's life experiences.

So when researchers inject an adult cell's nucleus into an empty egg, the nucleus brings its unique epigenome with it. As Gurdon's early experiments in the 1950s and subsequent studies have shown, an egg is capable of erasing the epigenome of introduced nuclear DNA, wiping the slate clean—to some extent. This process of "nuclear reprogramming" is poorly understood, and the egg often fails to complete it properly, especially when the egg is from one species and the nuclear DNA from another. Incomplete nuclear reprogramming is one of the main reasons, scientists think, for the many developmental abnormalities that kill clones before birth and for the medical issues common to many survivors, such as extremely high birth weight and organ failure.

Some researchers see ways around these problems. Pasqualino Loi of the University of Teramo in Italy was part of a team that successfully cloned endangered mouflon sheep in the early 2000s; the clones died within six months of birth. Loi and his colleagues think they can increase the chances of a hybrid embryo surviving in a surrogate mother's womb. First, they propose, researchers could nurture a hybrid embryo for a short time in the lab until it develops into what is known as a blastocyst—the ball-shaped beginnings of a vertebrate composed of an outer circle of cells, the trophoblast, surrounding a clump of rapidly dividing stem cells known as the inner cell mass. Eventually, the trophoblast becomes the placenta. Researchers could scoop out the inner cell mass from the hybrid blastocyst, Loi suggests, and transplant it into an empty trophoblast derived from the same species as the surrogate mother. Because the surrogate mother is far less likely to reject a trophoblast from her own species, the developing embryo within has a much better chance of surviving.

Scientists have also figured out how to encourage nuclear reprogramming by bathing the egg in certain compounds and chemicals, such as trichostatin A, which stimulate or inhibit the enzymes that determine a cell's epigenome. Most recently, Teruhiko Wakayama of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan and his colleagues produced 581 cloned mice from a single donor mouse over 25 generations, using trichostatin A to achieve success rates as high as 25 percent in some but not all generations. To solve the mismatch of mtDNA and nuclear DNA, Loi suggests simply removing the egg's native mtDNA and replacing it with mtDNA from the species to be cloned—something that researchers tried in the 1970s and '80s, but have not attempted recently for reasons that are unclear.

Some of the most successful attempts to clone endangered animals in recent years have involved two of the most beloved domestic species—cats and dogs. At the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species in New Orleans, Martha Gomez and her colleagues have created many African wildcat clones since the mid-2000s, using domestic cats as surrogate mothers. Gomez says eight clones have survived into adulthood so far and are all healthy today. She attributes her success, in part, to the fact that wildcats and domestic cats are much more closely related to each other than are most wild and domestic species paired for the purpose of cloning. She and her team have also learned to increase success rates with caesarian sections—to spare clones the stress of a typical birth—and to keep newborn clones in intensive care for a few weeks, as though they were premature babies. In 2008, B. C. Lee of Seoul National University in Korea and his colleagues achieved similar success using domestic dogs to create three healthy male gray wolf clones. Lee's team had previously created two female gray wolf clones. All five animals survived into adulthood, Lee confirms.

Working with black-footed cats, which are native to Africa and listed as "Vulnerable" on the Red List, Gomez is now focusing on a method of cloning that differs from nuclear transfer. She is trying to transform adult cells from black-footed cats into stem cells and subsequently induce those stem cells to become sperm and eggs. Then, through in vitro fertilization or similar techniques, she could impregnate domestic cats with black-footed cat embryos. Alternatively, stem cell-derived sperm and eggs could be used to impregnate females of the endangered species.

To say that this approach is technically challenging would be an understatement, but researchers have made impressive progress. In 2011 Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., and her colleagues produced stem cells from the frozen skin cells of two endangered species—the northern white rhino and a baboonlike primate known as a drill. And in 2012 Katsuhiko Hayashi of Kyoto University Graduate School of Medicine and colleagues turned skin cells from adult mice into stem cells, which they then transformed into viable eggs. After fertilizing the eggs with sperm in test tubes, the researchers implanted the embryos in surrogate mother mice that gave birth to healthy and fertile offspring.

"I'm not saying cloning is going to save endangered species," Gomez says, "but I am still a believer of cloning as another tool. It's not easy, though. The research moves slow."

Teramo’s Loi remains optimistic too. He thinks that scientists should continue to collect and preserve the genetic information of endangered animals, as Brazil has done, creating bio-banks of tissue on ice, such as the "frozen zoo" at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. If researchers manage to dramatically increase the efficiency of cloning wild and endangered animals—whether with nuclear transfer or in vitro fertilization—then the DNA they need will be waiting for them. If they do not, bio-banks will still be useful for more basic research. "Once cloning of endangered animals is properly established, it will be a very powerful tool," Loi says. "If something can be done, it will be done in 10 years."

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