Best of our wild blogs: 11 Apr 13

Eviction of residents at Kampung Melayu, Pulau Ubin: What's happening? from Lazy Lizard's Tales

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Sense of belonging tied to familiar places

Wong Boon Hong Today Online 11 Apr 13;

I agree with Ms Mallika Naguran, in her commentary “Bring culture to the people” (April 10), that Singapore must preserve its natural and built environments “instead of wiping them out in the name of progress”.

The environments we grew up with are what brings back the memories and keeps us emotionally attached to places we called home. These places, and not museums, give us a sense of belonging and identity.

Unfortunately, many of our familiar places, especially playgrounds, schools and gardens, either get upgraded or changed into a new environment. It would be a bittersweet experience to remember them only from photographs.

One way to remember kampungs
Sakina Yusuf Kagda Today Online 11 Apr 13;

I agree with Mallika Naguran’s analysis, in her commentary “Bring culture to the people” (April 10), that living spaces in public housing estates are devoid of culture.

That is also the case in private residential areas such as Frankel Estate and Opera Estate. Surely the latter, for instance, could have playgrounds in the appearance of musical instruments to enhance the flavour of its name?

The playgrounds I take my grandchildren to are mostly ubiquitous and sterilely similar.

That is what the writer means, I think: To use design as a medium for culture.

As for preserving habitats, we are trying to do so for birds, mangroves, forested areas, et cetera, but we have forgotten about human habitats of old.

How I loved the Changi Village Kampong. My father had a house next to the village chief and our weekend stays were filled with natural fun and frolic in the sea and sand, and around chickens and ducks.

Surely, some of these kinds of structures, albeit in concrete, could be incorporated into the play, common and open spaces of modern Singapore?

Bring culture to the people
Mallika Naguran Today Online 10 Apr 13;

Nearly 50 years after peeling away from British hold and influence, Singapore is still trying to paint its own identity and sculpt its destiny in the arts. It is still experimenting with the right mix of matter and gravitas to capture the hearts of its people with culture.

To appreciate culture, we are often told to go back to our roots and explore the connections to the traditions and customs of the past. For that, we are asked to visit museums.

The Singapore way of administering culture has taken on a sadly cookie-cutter approach: Pick a historical building, call it a museum, bring in interesting relics and monuments, promote the concept, charge a fee and watch the people come in. Visitor and volunteer numbers plus participation in events become the performance indicators of how well-received such museums are.

Not enough numbers? Make entry free, then, for Singapore citizens and permanent residents. No excuses now for Singaporeans to ignore culture and the arts.

The built environment for culture and the arts is growing, with most museums and galleries concentrated in the city. It is also commendable that several heritage buildings are being conserved. And effort is being put into taking these into the heartlands, such as the Museum@Taman Jurong at Taman Jurong Community Club.


As London compares the number of its museums and galleries with other cultural cities such as Paris, Berlin or Barcelona to benchmark its achievements, Singapore, too, can compete with other leading art and cultural meccas in Asia — but on a different tack.

I would argue that, for culture and the arts to thrive in Singapore, we should usher them to where we are.

Living spaces within housing estates and public spaces are devoid of cultural and artistic merit. The architecture of buildings, such as Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, is mostly modern, non-themed and uninspiring. Apartment walls and void decks, playgrounds, bus stations, pedestrian pavements, canal embankments — these are places frequented by residents, and they provide ready canvasses for artistic elements.

Take the iconic structures along Boat Quay — the sculptures of the kuching, the leaping boys and the bullock cart. Why not have similar figurines in non-touristy areas?

Expose residents to genres ranging from classical European, Indian or Chinese to contemporary or pop art — Ketna Patel’s witty blend of old and modern Asian elements, for instance, could put a smile on Singaporeans’ faces and a surge of pride for their identity in their hearts.

In Kallang, a mature estate, communal spaces have been upgraded. A circular amphitheatre with a lofty, maritime-inspired roof once stood by the meandering Kallang Canal. It drew youths in dance practices, elders in tai-chi moves and ordinary folk yodelling with their instruments.

This iconic structure has now been replaced with a banal flat roof over a rectangular space with a stage, and unsheltered benches on the periphery. This new structure is impractical and uninspiring. It still serves a purpose, but is no longer a draw.

It also sits right in front of my HDB flat, but my neighbours and I were not asked what sort of design we would like, or how we would like to enjoy this public space.


Collaborative design of public spaces is important. Art need not always be the product or end-goal; it can be the medium through which culture is introduced, remembered and celebrated with citizen participation.

To this effect, the Government should look at optimising design in townships to popularise heritage and culture. Let design turn bus stops into cultural stops or playgrounds into play heritage. The dragon motif on the playground of Block 28 in Toa Payoh should be commended for bringing to life mythology in a public space, firing children’s imaginations.

More cultural landmarks are welcome, too, such as the Chinese and Japanese gardens and the gripping Haw Par Villa theme park. As a child, I benefited from visiting all these, even monkeying around at Toa Payoh’s playgrounds. Remember our heritage roads, hills, forests, parks and playgrounds, and use design to preserve precious values and identities.

Let us look to Seoul in South Korea, which is banking on design for sustainable urban growth. Since the devastation of the 1950s Korean War, the city has picked itself up with practical efficiency to become a leading Asian powerhouse. But in recent years, the focus has shifted to using design solutions to make the city healthier, more eco-friendly and enjoyable to live and work in — even as it becomes more populated. Seoul’s design strategy is culturally led, and its people are oriented with five principles: Airy, Integrated, Preserving, Collaborative and Sustainable.

Another way for Singapore to bring culture to the people is to open up streets and parks in housing estates to roadshows and festivals. Cultural street festivals need not be tied to special occasions nor be elaborate and expensive, such as the annual Chingay procession. Schools, interest groups and communities can come together to liven up sterile estates with Asian-themed song, dance, theatre, visual arts and food.

As a way of promoting understanding of other cultures, especially that of migrant workers here, we could have Filipino, Thai and Burmese fairs and festivals. This also presents excellent opportunities for interaction between foreign and local communities in Singapore towards greater social cohesion.


There are also natural environments such as rivers, canals, coastlines and mangrove swamps that imbue vestiges of culture. Fishing by the river and in mangrove swamps for shrimp and crab are age-old cultural and recreational activities.

Urban development often eradicates such nature-oriented activities. Even traditional human settlements like kampungs, with open spaces for fowl and foal, have made way for concrete housing developments. Many kampungs along our coasts have been demolished. Kampong Lorong Fatimah, for instance, was among the few northern coastal villages flattened in the early 1990s to make way for the Woodlands Checkpoint extension, but memories linger. Offerings are placed in the now-abandoned grounds to honour the departed.

A former kampung inhabitant, Ms Nurul Munirah Abdul Samad, laments this change, writing in the media: “My father has this saying: A kampung is a society, but living in an HDB flat made us become individuals.” She notes that, in relocating to Marsiling, the family benefited from better sanitation but at the expense of cultural loss and societal exclusion.

The only surviving village in mainland Singapore is Kampong Buangkok in Hougang, which draws nostalgic Singaporeans each week and has inspired the making of films and documentaries.

Singapore needs to hang on to its natural and built environments instead of wiping them out in the name of progress. Traditional human settlements hold heritage and cultural elements and values that no amount of money or re-enactments in museums or showcase villages can replace.

Let us not promote museums, but culture at the heart of living spaces.


Mallika Naguran was born in Toa Payoh and lives in Kallang as an independent researcher and sustainability consultant. She is also the founder of Gaia Discovery.

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AIDS cure rumours short-lived: Tokay Geckos mainly traded for traditional medicine, finds new study

TRAFFIC 11 Apr 13;

Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia, 11th April 2013—A new TRAFFIC report finds that millions of Tokay Geckos are being harvested from the wild to supply the traditional medicine (TM) trade in East Asia. At the same time, the trade in Tokay Geckos for Novel Medicinal Claims (NMCs), including as a supposed cure for AIDS, has declined markedly.

The attractively patterned Tokay Gecko Gekko gecko is an adaptable lizard species found across much of Asia and in high demand for use in traditional medicines to treat a range of ailments including asthma, diabetes and skin disorders as well as for the international pet trade.

Since 2009, demand for Tokay Geckos in South-East Asia was reported to have sky-rocketed following rumours that extracts from the lizard could cure HIV/AIDS, a claim refuted by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Following such reports, TRAFFIC examined the Tokay Gecko trade in the region, including a case study in Peninsular Malaysia, the purported centre of demand in the NMC trade, but found that while such trade had been substantial, it has declined massively. In contrast, the trade in Tokay Geckos for traditional medicines was found to be booming according to the new study jointly funded by WWF-Malaysia and Wildlife Reserves Singapore: “The Trade in Tokay Geckos Gekko gecko in South-East Asia: With a case study on Novel Medicinal Claims in Peninsular Malaysia.”

Tokay Geckos are widely consumed in traditional medicine in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Viet Nam. In mainland China and Viet Nam, Tokay Geckos are reportedly bred in captivity, however; the supply does not meet demand and the industry relies predominantly on wild caught individuals. This has led to reported population declines in parts of the species’s range, notably in Thailand and Java, the primary source locations for Tokay Geckos in trade.

“More research is crucial to understanding the implications of the trade in Tokay Geckos on wild populations,” said Dr Chris R. Shepherd, Deputy Director of TRAFFIC in South-East Asia.

“Regulations and science-based quotas should be put in place and enforced if any trade is to continue at a sustainable level.”

According to Customs records, Taiwan has imported an estimated 15,000,000 dried Tokay Geckos since 2004. Over two thirds (71%) of these Tokay Geckos, came legally from Thailand. The remainder were from Java, Indonesia, where national legislation only permits the export of live Tokay Geckos for the pet trade. In 2011 a shipment of 6.75 tonnes (an estimated 1,200,000 individuals) of dried Tokay Geckos, illegally harvested in Java, was intercepted en route to Hong Kong.

Dealers interviewed during the TRAFFIC study claimed that fraud and criminal elements were rife in the trade, with robberies of Tokay buyers a common occurrence. They also reported that online forums were populated with fake-sellers, while the weight—and therefore the price—of individual Tokay Geckos was sometimes artificially inflated using silicone and metal implants. Heavier Tokay Geckos are thought to be more potent.

TRAFFIC has produced buntings to raise public awareness of the penalties for illegal trade in Tokay Geckos. The materials, produced in collaboration with Malaysia’s Wildlife and National Parks Department and the Malaysian Quarantine and Inspection Services, will be displayed at selected border crossings.

Download the full report, The Trade in Tokay Geckos Gekko gecko in South-East Asia: With a case study on Novel Medicinal Claims in Peninsular Malaysia (PDF, 1.2 MB).

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Alarm over vanishing frogs in the Caribbean

Ben Fox and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez Associated Press Yahoo News 11 Apr 13;

PATILLAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — A curtain of sound envelops the two researchers as they make their way along the side of a mountain in darkness, occasionally hacking their way with a machete to reach the mouth of a small cave.

Peeps, tweets and staccato whistles fill the air, a pulsing undercurrent in the tropical night. To the untrained ear, it's just a mishmash of noise. To experts tracking a decline in amphibians with growing alarm, it's like a symphony in which some of the players haven't been showing up.

In parts of Puerto Rico, for example, there are places where researchers used to hear four species at once and they are now hearing one or two, a subtle but important change.

"You are not hearing what you were before," said Alberto Lopez, part of a husband-and-wife team of biologists trying to gauge the health of frogs on the island.

Scientists report that many types of amphibians, especially frogs, are in a steep global decline likely caused by a mix of habitat loss, climate change, pollution and a virulent fungus. The downward spiral is striking particularly hard in the Caribbean, where a majority of species are now losing a fragile hold in the ecosystem.

Without new conservation measures, there could be a massive die-off of Caribbean frogs within 15 years, warned Adrell Nunez, an amphibian expert with the Santo Domingo Zoo in the Dominican Republic. "There are species that we literally know nothing about" that could be lost, he said.

Researchers such as Lopez and his wife, Ana Longo Berrios, have been fanning out across the Caribbean and returning with new and troubling evidence of the decline. In some places, especially in Haiti, where severe deforestation is added to the mix of problems, extinctions are possible.

It is part of a grim picture overall. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has found that 32 percent of the world's amphibian species are threatened or extinct, including more than 200 alone in both Mexico and Colombia.

"Everywhere we are seeing declines and it's severe," said Jan Zegarra, a biologist based in Puerto Rico for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Frogs may be less charismatic than some other troubled species, but their role in the environment is important. They are consumed by birds and snakes and they in turn are major predators of mosquitoes. Their absence could lead to a rise in malaria and dengue, not to mention discomfort.

There are also less tangible reasons for protection. The coqui, the common name for a genus that includes 17 species in Puerto Rico, including three believed to be already extinct, is important to the cultural heritage of the island; it's considered a symbol of the island, seen in everything from indigenous petroglyphs to coffee mugs sold to tourists at the airport. Frogs, which breathe and process toxins through their skin, are considered a promising area for pharmaceutical research and a bio-indicator that can tell scientists about what's going on in the environment.

"We are just starting to understand the ripple down effects and the repercussions of losing amphibians," said Jamie Voyles, a biologist at New Mexico Tech in Albuquerque and one of the principal investigators of Project Atelopus, an effort to study and protect frogs of an endangered genus in Panama.

Rafael Joglar, a biologist at the University of Puerto Rico, has noted the diminishing nighttime calls in decades of research on the island and not just from the three species believe to have gone extinct. "Many of the other species that were common when I was a younger student ... are now disappearing and are actually very rare."

In percentage terms, the worst situation for frogs is the Caribbean, where more than 80 percent of species are threatened or extinct in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica and more than 90 percent in Haiti, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In Puerto Rico, it's around 70 percent.

"The frogs in the Caribbean are in very bad shape," Joglar said.

One major reason the Caribbean is so vulnerable is that many species are found only within a small habitat on just one island. Take, for example, the coqui guajon, or rock frog, which was the focus of attention by Lopez and Longo on a recent night. About the size of a golf ball, it is what's known as a habitat specialist, found only in caves of a certain kind of volcanic rock along streams in southeastern Puerto Rico.

There are 17 known spots designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the rock frog, all of them on private land. Longo and Lopez, working for a research and public education initiative called Proyecto Coqui, have been trying to determine the health of the populations on those isolated patches.

"That's why it's such a vulnerable species," Lopez said. "If something happens to the habitat, people can't just grab them and put them in another place on the island because this habitat is only found on the southeast of the island."

In densely populated Haiti, the degradation of the environment has been so severe that only a handful of species are known for certain to still be viable in the country and even they are in trouble, said S. Blair Hedges, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University who has studied frogs in the Caribbean since the 1980s.

"I'm really certain that some species are going over the edge, are disappearing," Hedges said.

Frogs have been under siege around the world from a fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, known for short as "Bd," which has been known to be weakening and killing amphibians since the late 1990s though much about it remains under scientific study, Voyles said. Its effects, however, are dramatic.

"When I first went to Panama the sounds at night were incredible and now it's just silent," she said. "It's hard to communicate the absence of that incredible cacophony of beautiful sounds. It's very striking how much we have lost."

Among research efforts on the fungus is one by Lopez and Longo, who have been catching frogs in the forest, checking them for Bd and ticks, and then releasing them back into the night. They have started finding the fungus in the coqui guajon and are still trying to determine how it will affect the population.

After three weeks on the winding back roads of Puerto Rico, politely knocking on people's doors to ask if they could root around on their land for frogs, the researchers were relieved to find plentiful specimens. But they were also dismayed to confirm that one place designated as critical habitat had not a single coqui guajon left.

"To our surprise, the habitat is there, but no frogs, no frogs at all," he said.


Associated Press writer Trenton Daniel contributed from Port-au-Prince, Haiti; Lopez reported from the Dominican Republic; Fox reported from Puerto Rico.

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UK nature reserves attract new bird species

Ella Davies Reporter BBC Nature 10 Apr 13;

The UK's nature reserves act as 'ecological welcome mats' to new species, according to scientists.

Since the 1960s, there has been a natural influx of wetland bird species from continental Europe.

Species such as whooper swans, Cetti's warblers and little egrets have used the nature reserves to colonise new areas of the UK, found the scientists.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

The effectiveness of the UK's Protected Areas, from National Parks to nature reserves, was criticised in 2010 by a government review that concluded they were too fragmented and offered limited long term security.

"They fear that climate change might 'push' species out of static reserves," said Jonathan Hiley, a PhD student at the University of York and co-author of the study.

Protected Areas are often formed to protect individual species, so if these species move out the area's strengths can become redundant.

To examine whether nature reserves can still offer benefits in these situations, Mr Hiley and colleagues conducted research into migrant species as part of a wider project run by the RSPB.

"We have shown... that for birds which are shifting range in response to climate change or other factors, it is crucial they have good quality habitat to move in to, and our reserves provide that habitat," he said.

Twenty previously unrecorded species of wetland bird have arrived in Britain since the 1960s, six of which have established continuing breeding patterns.

"Although birds colonising new areas isn't a new phenomenon, the last half century has been notable for the number of new wetland bird visitors to the UK," said Mr Hiley.

"Some of these species, such as Cetti's warbler and little egret, were formerly limited to southern Europe, but appear to have moved north as a result of more suitable climatic conditions."

Looking at breeding records, Mr Hiley confirmed that all 20 migrant species first appeared in the UK within Protected Areas.

"It appears that UK´s Protected Areas provide excellent habitat for these colonisers; when they turn up they invariably breed in our nature reserves," he said.

The researchers also found that birds such as whooper swans and common cranes established breeding populations outside of Protected Areas after their initial breeding success in reserves.

"The species that we looked at here can be deemed 'natural colonists' in that they are arriving in the UK from the near continent of their own accord, as opposed to non-native invaders from further afield, such as Canada geese or ruddy ducks, which colonise as a result of man-made introductions," Mr Hiley told BBC Nature.

He described how the new arrivals are largely welcomed by conservationists and research into how they use nature reserves is ongoing.

"This gives some cause for optimism in the midst of concern that climate change and other factors will imperil many species," added co-author Professor Chris Thomas.

"Protected areas are helping to give birds and other species a fighting chance of moving into new regions where they can breed successfully."

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Air pollution scourge underestimated, green energy can help: U.N.

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 10 Apr 13;

Air pollution is an underestimated scourge that kills far more people than AIDS and malaria and a shift to cleaner energy could easily halve the toll by 2030, U.N. officials said on Tuesday.

Investments in solar, wind or hydropower would benefit both human health and a drive by almost 200 nations to slow climate change, blamed mainly on a build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from use of fossil fuels, they said.

"Air pollution is causing more deaths than HIV or malaria combined," Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization, told a conference in Oslo trying to work out new U.N. development goals for 2030.

Most victims from indoor pollution, caused by wood fires and primitive stoves in developing nations, were women and children.

He suggested that new U.N. energy goals for 2030 should include halving the number of premature deaths caused by indoor and outdoor pollution.

A 2012 World Health Organization (WHO) study found that 3.5 million people die early annually from indoor air pollution and 3.3 million from outdoor air pollution. Toxic particles shorten lives by causing diseases such as pneumonia or cancer.

"The problem has been underestimated in the past," Maria Neira, the WHO's director of public health and environment, told Reuters. Smog is an acute problem from Beijing to Mexico City.

The data, published as part of a global review of causes of death in December 2012, were an upwards revision of previous figures of 1.9 million premature deaths caused by household pollution a year and 1.3 million outdoors, she said.

The revision reflects better measurements and changes in methods, such as including heart problems linked to pollutants, she said. The numbers cannot be added together because they include perhaps 500,000 from overlapping causes.


"Still, it means more than 6 million deaths every year caused by air pollution," she said. "The horrible thing is that this will be growing" because of rising use of fossil fuels.

By comparison, U.N. reports show there were about 1.7 million AIDS-related deaths in 2011 and malaria killed about 660,000 people in 2010.

Solutions were affordable, the experts said.

"If we increase access to clean energy ... the health benefits will be enormous. Maybe the health argument was not used enough" in debate on encouraging a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies, she said.

Almost 200 governments have agreed to work out by the end of 2015 a deal to combat climate change. But negotiations have stalled, partly because of economic slowdown and divisions between nations about how to share out the burden of cuts.

Yumkella also urged the world to build 400,000 clinics and medical units in developing nations by 2030 as part of U.N. energy and health goals. Vaccines, for instance, are often useless without refrigeration, which depends on electricity.

The United Nations has previously urged 2030 targets for universal access to energy, doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in global consumption.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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