Best of our wild blogs: 15 Apr 13

Latest Green Jobs in Singapore [8 - 14 Apr 2013]
from Green Business Times

22 Apr: Earth Day in Singapore
from Celebrating Singapore's BioDiversity!

Celebrate Earth Day with the Naked Hermit Crabs at Pasir Ris Park mangroves
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

The "Youth for Ecology Dialogues" in April and May 2013
from Habitatnews

Hantu Blog 10th Anniversary Organic Cotton Tee!
from Pulau Hantu

Seagrass-Watch check up on Cyrene
from wild shores of singapore and TeamSeagrass

Rescuing Yellow-vented Bulbul chicks
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Unesco Heritage site bid - Why not Bukit Brown too?
from Rojak Librarian

House Shrew
from Monday Morgue

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Planting roots in Singapore: interview with Nigel Taylor, Director Singapore Botanic Gardens

Director Nigel Taylor draws on his tenure as Kew curator to help the Singapore Botanic Gardens in its efforts to be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site

Melissa Sim Straits Times 15 Mon 13;

For the last 19 months since taking up his appointment as director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Dr Nigel Taylor has gone from botanist to historian, sieving through old newspaper clippings and annual reports, to piece together its history.

And with good reason. Besides running the 154- year-old gardens, he is also fronting the bid for it to be Singapore's first Unesco World Heritage site.

Thankfully, Dr Taylor, 57, is no greenhorn. He was curator of Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and prepared its submission to Unesco. It was listed as a World Heritage site in 2003.

"That put me in touch with the history of Kew, which I hadn't really understood very well," says Dr Taylor, who had worked at Kew from 1977.

He describes his past experiece as "very useful", especially since Singapore has never made a submission to Unesco before.

The Republic's initial application to Unesco was made in December last year and a formal submission has to be made by Feb 1 next year.

A dossier containing documents and images will have to be submitted to show the Gardens' social and historic value to society. For example, it played an important historical role in the introduction and promotion of plants of economic value to South-east Asia, including the Para rubber tree.

Singapore will also have to spell out how it plans to protect the site.

But even if there had been no push for the Gardens to be classified as a World Heritage site, defined as one with outstanding cultural or natural heritage value, he says he would still have done research on it.

"If you want to understand what you've been placed in charge of, it's really important to understand the history of the place," says the botanist, who graduated from the University of Reading in 1977 and completed his doctorate in 2000, studying the cacti of eastern Brazil.

He is now a walking compendium of facts and anecdotes on the 74ha Singapore Botanic Gardens.

He says that 101 years ago, Swan Lake - the main pond in the Gardens - was drained in search of a crocodile which had attacked a staff member. It was the pet of a British colonel and had escaped from the British barracks opposite the Gardens, where the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Dempsey Village are located now.

Dr Taylor also knows the ages of nearly all the 34 heritage trees in the Gardens. As the Life! photographer searches for a location for the photo shoot, he says: "We can take a picture with the Kapok, it's 80 years old - my mother-in-law's age."

Getting the 132ha Kew on the list of Unesco World Heritage sites - there are 962 in the world - most definitely gave him a leg up over other applicants when he applied for the job here.

National Parks Board chief executive Poon Hong Yuen says the board was looking for someone who "understands what it takes to run a public garden" and has "scientific heft".

"We looked worldwide and found Nigel," says Mr Poon, who looked at more than 20 candidates.

Dr Taylor says he found out about the job from a senior colleague at Kew, who passed a digital copy of a Straits Times advertisement to him. "I think he intended for me to distribute it to my staff," he says, adding that he sent his CV after seeing it.

He came to Singapore - his first time ever - in January 2011, went through two rounds of interviews and was offered the job on his fourth day here.

His previous trips to Asia included two field trips to Nepal and a trip to Hong Kong, where he was an adviser to Kadoorie Botanic Gardens & Farm.

He says he had achieved a lot at Kew, but he "wanted to go to the next stage" of his career. Making a career switch at the age 56 was not difficult, he adds, for "in Kew, it was a continual battle to find resources to do the things you wanted to do, but it is a lot easier in Singapore".

Kew, he says, is barely 50 per cent government- funded, so the money comes from other sources, including ticket prices and sponsorship from individuals, corporations and foundations.

The Singapore Botanic Gardens has "substantial funding from core government through the National Parks Board and Ministry of National Development, but people are still very keen to support it," he says.

That is not to say that the British do not care for Kew Gardens. "They do, but there are so many other things competing for their interest, whereas, in terms of position in the national league table, Singapore Botanic Gardens is much higher up," he adds.

"I hate to say this because my ex-colleagues at Kew will probably never forgive me, but the standard of maintenance here is fantastic. It's a slightly smaller garden than Kew but it's much better maintained, again partly because of being better resourced."

Kew surpasses Singapore in one aspect: scientific research. "It's a huge scientific institution, Singapore Botanic Gardens' science is on a more modest scale, but that isn't to say it can't grow - it can."

The Gardens, for example, has 650,000 dried specimens in its Herbarium, a library of biodiversity, whereas Kew Gardens has 8 million.

To Dr Taylor, a botanic garden is more than just a "glorified park".

There are laboriously labelled plant collections which are used for research, and preserved plant specimens which are used to understand plant diversity and the economic potential of plants. That sets it apart from a regular park, he says.

"I get quite cross if people call it a park. I have had to tell some very senior colleagues here they are not to call it a park. It's a botanic garden because a botanic garden has a very different function."

When he was curator - or what he calls head gardener - at Kew, he took it upon himself to work half a day a week with the staff.

"I wanted to know how the staff think and whether they had any complaints," he says.

He has brought this practice with him to Singapore and has met each manager and most of the junior staff on a one-on-one basis. He was in charge of about 200 people at Kew and has about 100 staff members here.

But there are cultural differences between working here and in the United Kingdom, he says. In Singapore, he adds, people do not question the decisions he makes, whereas back home, the culture is to question, so he is careful not to present a new idea as something he wants done, but more like an idea to be discussed. "You never realise how much power you have here."

He worked in Kew for 34 years, starting as a horticultural taxonomist. "It was a common assumption that if a plant had a label on it in Kew gardens, it was correctly named," says Dr Taylor, who joined Kew fresh out of university.

"But the reality was not so, the label might be there but the identification of the plant might be wrong," he adds.

So for nearly eight years, his job was to go through the collection of temperate plants that were suspected of not being accurately labelled.

That gave him a broad knowledge of plants which prepared him for his subsequent position as curator of the garden and now director of Singapore Botanic Gardens.

"If you are a scientific specialist in one particular group and then given responsibility for a whole garden, there's a severe risk that you don't understand all those things you've never studied, so you kind of ignore them," he says.

But that does not mean he is content with being a generalist.

Dr Taylor studied cacti for his doctorate degree at the Open University in the United Kingdom. He has also collected and prepared cacti specimens for the Herbarium at Kew, and wrote and co-wrote books on cacti.

His love of cacti, in fact, started when he was seven years old. His mother, an avid gardener, took him to visit a friend who had a collection of cacti in a large greenhouse.

He was given a few plants to take home and he put them on the window sill of his family home in north London.

The spines would often get caught in his mother's net curtains and she "didn't like them very much but she could see it was an interest," he says.

His mother was a nurse and father a cabinet maker. Both are dead. His 53-year-old sister is a chiropodist.

In fact, he was just five years old when he started gardening in a 3 sqm patch in his parents' garden.

His aunts gave him some seeds - poppy, forget- me-nots and snap dragon - and told his mother to give him a plot of land. "So I was given these seeds and I never looked back," he says.

"I was five. And at seven, I got the cactus bug and it's still with me 50 years later."

The cactus bug also led him to his wife, 48-year- old botanist Daniela Zappi.

In 1988, while he was a taxonomist in the Herbarium at Kew, one of his senior colleagues had a big research programme in Brazil and needed someone to study cacti.

Dr Taylor went to Brazila and was introduced to his future wife, who was studying for her master's. "She had the same interest as me and she is a very lovely lady, and I thought, 'This is fantastic, I now can combine my interest in women, with my interest in cacti'."

Ms Zappi, who is on a three-year sabbatical from Kew and is currently working as a senior researcher at Gardens by the Bay, says: "We were very competitive and would see who would be the first to find the cactus in the field.

"I know he was drooling over a new species that I had found," she says, gloating.

The couple got married in 1991 and have two daughters - Vanessa, 17, who is studying at Chatsworth International in Singapore, and Beatrice, 15, who is in a state school in the UK and staying with Dr Taylor's cousin.

He says he has adapted well to Singapore and often goes to hawker centres and the market in Redhill, and takes public transport.

On Sunday morning, he enjoys a breakfast of yong tau foo with laksa gravy at Redhill market.

"When we first started going to Redhill market during the weekend, we were the only angmohs there and everybody look at us. But now, we go so frequently, they are not surprised," he says.

He spends his weekends in the various nature reserves in Singapore and in his own back garden.

He and his family live in a ground-floor unit of a condominium in Tanglin, a far cry from their last home, which was a house on the expansive grounds of Kew Gardens. He also used to garden in a plot of land, also within the Gardens, 100m away from his house.

Despite having a small garden here, he becomes very animated when he starts to talk about it. "It's a bit of a jungle," he confesses, his eyes lighting up with delight.

"I'm waiting for the day when someone in the apartment above us says the view out of their window is obscured by my papaya or by one of my other little trees that are now getting rather large."

He has planted Chinese chestnut, kapok, dwarf starfruit and papaya trees, to name a few.

"I like to collect seeds and grow them and see what they look like as babies," he says, adding that the form and structure of young plants are often different from the adult.

"It's the thing of how puppies and kittens always look cute, I find seedling trees cute," he says, with a geeky grin.

Dr Taylor, who used to take part in vegetable- growing competitions in the UK, says the only thing he misses are the long summer days when he can potter in his garden till 10pm.

"Whatever you do, it still gets dark at quarter past 7pm here," he says.

But that does not stop him from spending time in his garden every day. "I could not live without plants. They are a complete drug for my addiction," he adds.

My Life So Far

“I have done something I thought I would never do. In the world of plant specialities, particularly in gardening, if you’re a cactus specialist, you can never be an orchid specialist, the things are diametrically opposed. The people who grow orchids think the people who grow cacti are inferior; the people who grow cacti think the people who grow orchids are rather snobbish, and so you never get a cactus person growing orchids and vice versa.”

On how he has an equal number of cacti and orchids growing in his garden

“I don’t hang around the expat community. I made a conscious effort in the beginning to get to know Singapore and the people of Singapore, so I travel everywhere by bus. I’m also into living in a sustainable way and public transport is the sustainable way forward, I think.”

On living in Singapore

“When I came here, I knew it was a proper job but I felt like I was going on vacation because I associated vacations with going to the tropics... so I had been here a year, when it occurred to me, ‘you’re not on holiday anymore, this is a job’. That bubble has now burst but that’s not a bad thing because I’m enjoying the job so much.”

On how he is enjoying his work

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Are Australian dugongs catching a cold?

Anna Salleh ABC 15 Apr 13;

Dugongs in one of Australia's largest populations appear to be getting sick and dying as a result of exposure to cold water, say researchers.

If confirmed, the findings may have implications for dugong conservation strategies.

The findings are reported in a recent issue of the journal Diseases of Aquatic Organisms.

Dugongs (Dugong dugon) are a member of a small group of aquatic mammals called sirenia -- or sea cows -- that don't like cold water, says marine epidemiologist, Dr Mark Flint, of the University of Queensland.

In the US, the closely related endangered manatees Trichechus manatus is known to gather around warm water that comes out of power plants when it gets cold.

In the past decade, manatees in Florida have been dying from a condition known as cold stress syndrome (CSS), which occurs when the animal is exposed to water temperatures lower than 17 or 18°C.

The animals' skin becomes cracked and susceptible to opportunistic infections and they can die within a few days, says Flint, who has worked on manatees suffering CSS in Florida.

Animals with chronic CSS can die after several weeks, during which time they lose weight and their body fat atrophies.

"When you cut them open [they're body fat is] just like water instead of being that nice white stuff you expect to see," says Flint.

Now, Flint and colleagues have documented signs of what could be CSS in dugongs, recovered from Moreton Bay in southeast Queensland, which is home to one of the largest populations of the animals in Australia.

"It's exceptionally important because it's a large population. We know there's about 1000 dugongs in Moreton bay," says Flint. "It's probably about the best-studied group of dugongs in the country."
Post mortems

Between 2010 and 2012, the team, which included veterinary pathologist Dr Helen Owen, carried out post mortems on 14 dugongs collected from Moreton Bay by government authorities.

While there were obvious explanations for four of the deaths, ranging from a twisted gut to a blunt trauma likely from a boat, 10 of the dugongs had more mysterious symptoms, says Owen.

"They were emaciated and had increased burdens of parasites, and most had thickened fissured skin," she says.

This looked suspiciously like cold stress syndrome, which Owen says is thought to be due to a suppressed immune system, making the animal prone to opportunistic infections.

The CSS hypothesis was supported by the record of water temperatures in areas where the dugongs are known to graze.

These records showed that during the year, water dropped below 20°C, sometimes to less than 15°C.

There is some evidence that dugongs head out of Moreton Bay into the warmer coastal waters of the East Australian Current.

But, say the researchers, even outside the bay, water could still get below 20°C in the coldest months of the year, and this would prevent dugongs from escaping persistent exposure to cold water and the risk of CSS.

"Based on this study, like Florida manatees, it appears the dugongs of southeast Queensland develop clinical signs consistent with CSS when water temperatures drop below 20°C," write the researchers.

Although they note that while most dugongs died in winter, some of them also died in summer, which could be due to chronic cases of CSS persisting into the warmer water periods.
Seagrass factor

Research shows water temperatures at the level of seagrass, is lower than surface temperatures which means dugongs would be exposing themselves to colder water to feed.

The researchers say habitat disruption could force dugongs to feed on seagrass in deeper and colder water and increase their risk of CSS.

They say maintenance of seagrass pastures in the warmer areas of Moreton Bay during winter may aid in the conservation of this vulnerable species.

Flint says researchers are not sure if CSS a recent phenomenon and is on the increase.

It could have always have been there, but only now be being picked as a result of greater surveillance. Alternatively, CSS could be increasing due to environmental factors, he adds.

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This is our only home: Pulau Ubin residents

Linette Heng and Audrey Kang The New Paper AsiaOne 15 Apr 13;

PULAU UBIN - They sleep without locking the doors at night. Surrounded by the constant buzz of mosquitoes and animals like wild boars and monkeys, the elderly women who live alone have called Pulau Ubin home for their entire lives.

Madam Hamidah Awang, 58, and her mother, Madam Jariah Garib, 75, are two of the few remaining villagers in the Malay kampung in Pulau Ubin.

But their lives may change soon - they received a census notice from the authorities last month.

For both of them, the possibility of having to resettle elsewhere is upsetting.

"My mother's first reaction was worry. (The time she spent on the mainland) made her feel uneasy," Madam Hamidah said in Malay. The Singapore Land Authority last Friday said that these residents are living on State land without a Temporary Occupation Licence (TOL). As a result, they have two options - pay a fee to use the land or resettle.

Lost contact with husband

Madam Hamidah, who is estranged from her husband, said that she has also lost contact with three of her four children.

But her 28-year-old daughter, who she said is the only one to care about her, has five children and lives in a one-room flat at Beach Road. And she can take only her grandmother in to live with them, Madam Hamidah said.

Madam Hamidah, who is the eldest of five children, has lived in their current house for about 30 years.

It is decorated with memorabilia from their old house in another part of Ubin.

They don't own a telephone or TV set.

They get electricity from a neighbour's generator, for which they pay about $30 a month, but they prefer to light candles around the house. Her younger brother, who now lives in the Bedok Reservoir area, had built the house, which is about the size of a two-room HDB flat, with the help of his friends.

The village is now home to only eight people. Only three of the five wooden huts in the village are still occupied, Madam Hamidah said.

Madam Jariah is the oldest person in the village. Both mother and daughter have tried living on the mainland in the past, but prefer life on Pulau Ubin.

Madam Hamidah used to work as a cleaner at a hawker centre when she lived in Singapore.

"In Singapore, the moment you step out of your lift, you spend money. When you wake up and open your eyes, the first thing you think of is how to earn more money," she said.

"Life here is better... more peaceful, more calm."

Both women fish and pick shellfish for food as well as forage the forest for edible plants.

She draws fresh water from a communal well across the road.

Visiting cousins and nephews occasionally give them money, but they hardly spend any.

"Two of us, $100 a month is enough," said Madam Hamidah.

They have never needed to see a doctor. If they fall ill, they self-medicate.

Madam Hamidah said that even if she had to move out, she would still go back to visit Pulau Ubin once a week.

"My mother will need some coaxing to move away, so we will have to come back at least once a week to visit."

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