Best of our wild blogs: 10 May 13

11-12 May: World Migratory Bird Day
from wild shores of singapore

Soil investigation works for the Cross Island Line (Tampines-Jurong MRT) will cause irreparable damage, fragmentation and wildlife loss in our Central Catchment Nature Reserve from Habitatnews

Exploring Singapore’s biodiversity – reflections of a Canadian exchange student at NUS from Toddycats!

Random Gallery - Knight
from Butterflies of Singapore

Spotted Dove feeding on crepe ginger seeds
from Bird Ecology Study Group

New UN report gives Indonesia low marks in forest governance
from news by Rhett Butler

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Children are key to nature's future

Saving our natural environment starts with educating children in forests
Brady Barr, For The Straits Times 10 May 13;

OUR society is producing children who are out of touch with nature. As a biology school teacher in the US 20 years ago, I was amazed at the number of children who had never touched a frog, smelt a pine cone or experienced the marvel of fireflies on a hot summer night. Today, I still spend a lot of time in the classroom talking about conservation with children and what I do as a scientist for the National Geographic Channel. I can report that the problem of children being out of touch with nature has continued spiralling downwards.

Children spend the majority of their free time indoors and become increasingly disconnected from nature with the advent of the Internet, smartphones, video games and other technologies. With global environmental problems increasing, the decreasing number of children in tune with and passionate about the natural world is a scary proposition. Where is the next generation of environmentalists going to come from? Who will be the future stewards of the planet?

In Richard Louv's 2005 book, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, he writes about the scope of the situation: "After thousands of years of children playing and working primarily outdoors, the last few generations have seen such interactions with nature all but vanish… the implications for the future of environmentalism are immense."

Green zones everywhere

IT CERTAINLY isn't about lost access to city parks, neighbourhood playgrounds or local green zones. The total area covered by urban parkland in the United States exceeds one million acres, with virtually every major city boasting numerous urban green zones.

Singapore is often dubbed a Garden City, thanks not only to its Botanic Gardens, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and MacRitchie Reservoir but also the endless pockets of trees and vegetation that seemingly border every road and avenue. Singapore is a great example of an urban setting filled with "Backyard Nature".

Singaporean children do not have a problem finding green zones close to home so why aren't they using them ?

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found children aged between eight and 10 spend more than six hours a day playing video games, watching television and surfing the Internet. Another study by the Playing For Keeps Organisation said over 60 per cent of children between two and five do not play outdoors daily.

Clearly our children are becoming more "urbanised" in today's world, though likely not a result of diminished access to natural areas. So why have today's children lost touch with nature?

In my experience, today's schools and classroom environments have more rules and rigidly structured learning schedules. There is far too much "teaching to the test" and not enough inquiry- based exploration. Letting children touch, feel and experience things, to spark their interests and natural wonder, has all but disappeared. When I was a child, it was hard to find a classroom that did not have live plants, an aquarium or small animals, all periodically involved in the learning process. Yet today I rarely come across these things inside schools, the very things that can change a child's life.

On a recent visit to a public primary school in Singapore, I was astonished to find cutting-edge computers, smart-screen boards, interactive video technology and even an elaborate production studio... it made me want to enrol! But these tools simply cannot and should not replace the impact of hands-on learning, such as observing and interacting with a living organism.

Hands-on forests

WHEN compared to computer and written-based instruction, children learn concepts faster and retain that knowledge longer when hands-on learning is used - the two should go hand in hand. Maybe administrators and teachers are simply afraid of legal problems that might arise if there were ever an "incident" with a classroom animal/plant, a field trip or a venture outside the school walls to a green zone.

Recently, with a group of Singaporean children in a forest, I was astonished to find that not a single student in the class had set foot in a real forest. My intended discussion quickly changed course and became more of a "discover nature" pep talk. I went on to tell them that nature was all around them, even though they lived in urban Singapore.

That nature could be found outside in the school yard, in a city park and even in the overgrown vacant lot near their school - they did not need a lot of resources, the need to travel far or have special expertise to experience nature. They were astonished they could find everything from bats to 200-year-old trees in the city park just a few blocks away.

The children simply never had any guidance, direction or experience when it came to nature, albeit one of an urban variety. These children don't need wild tigers roaming the rainforest to get excited about nature. That is the beauty of being a child. They can get just as excited about discovering insects under rocks at the park or snails in the grass around their soccer field. The city park, the vacant lot or green zones all over the city offer these children, like countless others across South- east Asia, the best chance to experience nature first hand. Getting these children back in touch with nature is a good thing for all of us.

Educating natural future

PARENTS, teachers, scientists, organisations and the media need to become pro-active in reconnecting our children with nature. We must reintroduce our children to nearby nature in any way we can.

I am very encouraged by Singapore's education system making a concerted effort to get children out of the classroom and embark on inquiry-based exploration. The Young Scientist Cards Scheme and after-school Science Clubs are steps in the right direction. Singapore's Science Centre is a world-class facility dedicated to stimulating young minds by involving them with nature as well. Big organisations such as StarHub and National Geographic Channel have recently joined forces and made a commitment to help Singaporean children reconnect with nature through their National Geographic Channel Young Explorers Programme and the Mobile Garden, a live garden planted inside a bus. The Mobile Garden is essentially a rainforest on wheels. If you cannot get the children to nature, this mobile garden brings nature to them.

Lastly, parents need to limit their children's use of electronic devices and make time for outdoor play, investigation and exploration. We as adults, as conservationists, as parents, as concerned humans, all need to help children reconnect with nature. The planet will be a much better place for all of us.

The writer is a herpetologist and programme ambassador of National Geographic Channel Young Explorer Programme.

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Fishing in Singapore: Reel Deal

Fishing in Singapore is not restricted to just beachside locations. Here are some other places to go to for the big catch
Kezia Toh Straits Times 10 May 13;

They say the early bird catches the worm, and for avid anglers such as undergraduate Kang Bao Long, the best time to fish is during the "first and last light" of the day.

Rod and bait in hand, he eyes a time window for the best catch: 5 to 6am, and 5 to 7pm later in the day.

"You have to match the time to the type of fish you want," says the 26-year-old, who has been fishing for the past seven years.

The freshwater snakehead and peacock bass - a type of fish native to the Amazon River basin in South America - for example, come out to play as the sun rises.

Scratch the idea of placid fishermen grazing lazily on shorelines waiting for fish to bite: Fishing is a hunting game - pooling wits, strength and glory.

"It starts from planning which spot and what time to cast, followed by the thrill from that first tension in the rod, then tackling and finally landing your catch," says Mr Kang.

The angler community is about 200,000 strong - a number that has quadrupled in the past three years - says Mr Luke Cunico, 36, who runs local angling forum Fishing Kaki.

This is because the activity is an "easygoing and social" one, he adds, revolving around time spent with family and friends.

The Sport Fishing Association of Singapore does not keep track of angler numbers.

For those keen on netting a catch, Life!Weekend lays out the different types of fishing available in Singapore.

Fishing 101

For beginners, start with a general rod - about 1.8m to 2.1m long - for about $60.
A simple spinning reel to accompany the rod costs about $30, and add on a pack of hooks for a few dollars from fishing apparel shops.
Match the bait to the fish you are trying to catch. Catfish bite on raw chicken liver, for example, while breamfish like insects such as crickets.
Wear boots or non-slip footwear. These will be handy for the times you may have to unexpectedly wade into water. For deep sea or kayak fishing, a safety vest is a must.
When a fish bites, pump the rod back and reel the fish in, periodically dipping the tip of the rod down.
When the fish is reeled in close enough, scoop up your catch with a net.
When a fish comes close enough, net it head-first. A fish caught by its tail could jump out of the net.
To release a fish back into the water, wet your hands first, then gently unhook the fish and immediately slide it back into the water.
If a fish has swallowed the hook, cut the line close to its mouth and slide the fish back into the water. The hook will dissolve in the fish's stomach acid.

Pay Pond Fishing

This is the "convenience store" version of fishing.

"Everything is in one place because there are different types of fish swimming about in a controlled area, so chances of landing a catch are higher," says MrJimmy Aw, 39, a Sport Fishing Association of Singapore committee member.

The project controller at an IT company has been fishing for more than 30 years, a hobby that started when his parents took him and a younger brother to Boat Quay to cast for live prawns in the 1980s.

Pay ponds are popular with avid anglers hungering for a catch, but who have limited time to spend fishing, adds Mr Aw.

But it is also good for beginners keen on trying their luck, says Ms Eunice Boo, 30, owner of pay pond Fishing Paradise ($10 an hour or $50 for 12 hours, Bottle Tree Park, 81 Lorong Chencharu, go to or call 9753-2596).

"The bite rate is high as we replenish fish stocks every two months or so, and we are usually around to guide beginners," she says.

Her pay pond also has a small creek for beginners, teeming with fish such as the grass carp, red tail catfish and red-bellied pacu.

Anglers use artificial bait - shaped to wriggle like the tail of a small fish in water, which keeps the water clean - or bring their own bait such as pieces of bread, shrimp and small fish.

Pay ponds practise catch-and-release fishing where, after landing the fish, anglers unhook and return their live catch to the water. It is the same practice at C&R Pond (No. 2 Pasir Ris Farmway 1, call 9062-4923 for updated pricing). But the quick-fix thrill is the same, says owner Davy Ong, 38.

"Rather than waiting for hours on end, this is for people who want to come and enjoy the thrill of the fight," he says. "It is man versus nature: how man learns to outsmart the fish by understanding its habitat and feeding habits," he adds.

A pay pond is also a good stepping stone for beginners to socialise with more experienced anglers, says Mr Philip Lee, 60, owner of Anglers' Paradise ($55 for three hours, 60 Punggol East, 01-11, call 6886-4487). He says: "Newcomers start from here and make friends, and slowly 'graduate' to the open seas in a few months, as more experienced anglers guide them along."

Landfill Fishing

A landfill is not the first place that comes to mind when you think of clear, pristine water - but that is exactly what army regular Raymond Aw, 34, looks forward to each time he visits Pulau Semakau.

The island, an offshore landfill south of Singapore, is home to coral reefs, mangroves and a variety of marine life.

His most exciting catch: a 1.5kg barracuda in February. "It is very exciting because you can see the fish homing in on the lure and fighting in the clear water," he says.

The Sport Fishing Association of Singapore runs guided fishing trips to the island ($50 a person, go to for updated details on next trip) where anglers can net fish such as the blacktip reef shark, giant herring and Spanish flag snapper.

It takes just 15 minutes for a fish to bite and the "fight" to begin, because anglers on the island release their catch to maintain fish stocks, says Mr Aw.

He adds: "The fish behave very naturally in their own habitat, in the way they feed and move around, and this is a beautiful thing to see."

Jetty Fishing

Want to catch squid? Here is a secret: jetty fishing is the best way to do so, says fishing blogger Kerry Loh, 56.

Striking a match to the wick of a crusty 20-year-old kerosene lamp, he then secures it to a rope, dangling the lit beacon from his perch at Bedok Jetty - a hair's breath away from the water's surface.

"Squids are drawn to light, so I just cast and wait," says the executive in a trading company, who has been fishing for the past 39 years.

To up the chances of fish biting - he also dangles three baits - bits of herring fished from a portable cooler - instead of just one. "More bait, more chances," he says.

The jetty is also deep enough to net other types of fish: grouper, chermin and the golden travelly in the daytime; and stingray, marine catfish, snapper and even the shovelnose shark at night, he says. But it is a lesson in patience - a four-hour wait on average to reel in a catch.

The fish caught at jetties may be yours to keep, but can be too small in size, says service engineer Francis Yip, 52. A rule of thumb: He releases anything that weighs less than 800g.

He says: "In this case, I would just throw them back into the sea so they can grow."

Other jetties where you can try your luck: Certain stretches of the jetty at Woodlands Waterfront Park.

Reservoir Fishing

Angling at the reservoir is like a courtship dance, says fishing blogger Nigel Lian, 24. There are limited fish in the reservoirs, so observe "visible success patterns" when you cast out.

"Like a relationship, if you understand what the other party wants, you will get the fish," he says.

Fishing is allowed at designated sites in reservoirs such as Bedok, Lower Seletar and MacRitchie.

Using artificial bait - the only type permitted at reservoirs - shakes up the "dating game", says Mr Lian. "It is more technical and challenging than using dead bait - where a fish gets hooked just because it is hungry for food," he says.

Anglers are encouraged to release their catch to maintain the stock of fish in reservoirs.

Kayak Fishing

Take note: this one is for toughies game for a more "organic" fishing experience, says Mr Jack Lai, 33, of Kayak Fishing Singapore (free membership, search for its group on Facebook), a four-year-old online community that runs a resource website for kayak anglers.

It now has about 200 members.

Anglers typically set off from beaches on East Coast, Changi and Pulau Ubin, paddling in groups of two to eight, on fishing kayaks that come with holders for fishing rods.

This way, they glide silently to explore new hunting ground in a manner that does not scare off fish, says Mr Lai.

It costs about $50 a day to rent a kayak, but the activity brings a fruitful haul: a one-hour average wait for fish such as the seabass and queen fish.

Most kayak fishermen release their catch, but those keen on bringing it home store the fish in a small ice-box or bag, placing it on the deck at the back of the kayak, or stowing it in the kayak's watertight compartment.

"It is a different feeling to be so close to the fish, and you can enjoy your moment of peace in the sea or river," says Mr Lai, who has been fishing for more than 10 years but started kayak fishing two years ago.

Because of the close proximity to the open sea, anglers check the weather forecast for lightning, tide and current updates before heading out.

A safety vest is also a must, says Mr Lai, regardless of your level of expertise.

Still, this is a way to separate the serious anglers from the recreational ones, he adds.

"Out of the large angling community, few would be so 'hardcore' as to paddle up to 10km just to fish. This is a real workout," he says.

Kayak fishing is also cheaper and more convenient to arrange - it can take just two people to paddle out - rather than a deep sea fishing jaunt which typically needs a boat-load of anglers to split the high cost of boat rental, says interior designer Winston Lee, 33, who picked up the sport a year ago.

He now goes kayak fishing four times a month to paddle away the stress of daily life.

He says: "The freedom of fishing from a kayak in the early morning, just as the sun rises from the horizon, is so calming that I leave the exhaustion from my week's work at the shore."

Deep Sea Fishing

In the open seas, one man's castaway may well be another's treasure.

One example: A 20kg cobia swimming to freedom after it was released during an auspicious day on the lunar calendar was promptly scooped up by an enthusiastic angler.

Owner Bryan Ang, 25, who runs recreational fishing company Deep Sea Fishing (from $49 a tour, go to or call 9663-0330) netted such a "lucky" catch on a tour last year.

He runs guided fishing tours to the waters around Changi and the Southern Islands on a charter boat. About 70 per cent of his clientele are beginners.

"Beginners will usually ask this key question: whether the waters around Changi or Southern Islands are better," he says.

His take? The Southern seas, for its deeper waters and bigger fish, such as parrot fish, snapper and grouper.

But the area around Changi also teems with catch such as catfish in the sandy areas, grouper in rocky areas and other types such as the fingerbream snapper and seabass near the shoreline.

Deep sea jaunts are usually fruitful: about six to 12 fish from a group of about 10 people.

Most deep sea anglers will keep their catch as a "trophy", says Mr Ang.

But a rule of thumb on smaller fish: "If it is smaller than your own foot, it is probably a 'juvenile fish' you should release so it can grow in the wild," he says.

The ease of movement is a plus for those keen on deep sea fishing: If a spot does not "have any bite", the boat can take you to another fishing area to try your luck, says angler Fadzil Ismail, 35.

The manager in an F&B company has been fishing for the past 10 years, but picked up deep sea angling three years ago.

It takes about 11/2 hours before netting your first catch in a marine environment that is "more authentic", he says.

"Even the way the fish fights is more real - it has a stronger bite and you will take a longer time to reel it in, until your hands chafe and get numb from fighting," he says.

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Dugongs are safer in Torres Strait than Townsville

Helene Marsh Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science at James Cook University
The Conversation 10 May 13;

“How many are there?” and “how are they doing?” are the first questions people usually ask about species of conservation concern. These seemingly straightforward questions are tough to answer when it comes to the dugong.

What we do know is that dugongs are generally safer in remote areas, where traditional hunting is the major pressure, than they are around coastal urban areas where they are affected by habitat loss, gill netting, and vessel-strikes, rather than hunting.

We don’t know how many dugongs there are globally or in Australian waters. Estimating dugong numbers is difficult because the animals mostly live in turbid water and tend to surface discreetly, often with only their nostrils breaking the surface. Our best estimates mostly come from aerial surveys combined with sophisticated statistical models.

About one-fifth of the dugong’s range is in Australia. Dugong habitat extends from Shark Bay in Western Australia, along 24,000 km of our northern coastline to Moreton Bay near Brisbane. Our genetically healthy dugongs are the most abundant marine mammals in our northern coastal waters. While aerial survey data indicate more than 70,000 dugongs, the number is certainly higher. Large parts of the remote coasts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory have not been surveyed recently, or at all.

The status of Australian dugongs varies greatly. Shark Bay supports a large dugong population with minimal human pressures, making it the most secure dugong population in the world. On the other hand, the urban coast of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region between Cairns and Bundaberg poses many threats to dugongs.

Torres Strait is the world’s largest dugong habitat. Surveys conducted by my group at James Cook University show that the region contains a remarkable 58% of the habitat supporting high densities of dugongs in Queensland, as illustrated by the map below.

Relative density of dugongs along the coast of Queensland and adjacent Northern Territory waters based on 25 years of JCU aerial surveys. Dr Alana Grech

Archaeological research by Ian McNiven’s group at Monash indicates that dugongs have been hunted in Torres Strait for at least 4,000 years and that the harvest has been substantial since well before European settlement. Today dugong hunting is sanctioned by the Torres Strait Treaty between Australia and Papua New Guinea (PNG) and in Australia by the Commonwealth Torres Strait Fisheries Act and the Native Title Act.

The data to compare contemporary and past catch rates are not available. The current total regional dugong catch is unknown although the Torres Strait Regional Authority is attempting to correct this deficiency for Australian communities.

Dugong cow and calf killed by collision with a ferry in Moreton Bay, Queensland. Rachel Groom

In 2004, I was co-author of two modelling papers using different techniques that suggested that the current dugong catch in Torres Strait was not sustainable. I now question this conclusion for several reasons:

Dugong habitat in Torres Strait is much more extensive than we thought. In 2010, the Torres Strait Regional Authority partnered with scientists at Fisheries Queensland to conduct the first seagrass survey of far western Torres Strait. This survey discovered that this very remote region supported the largest continuous seagrass bed in Australia. My group subsequently extended our aerial survey of Torres Strait to cover this area and established that it also supports a sizable dugong population.

Our time series of aerial surveys conducted since the mid-1980s has not demonstrated a significant decline in dugong density in Torres Strait.

Studies of the diving behaviour of wild dugongs fitted with timed-depth recorders and GPS-satellite transmitters indicate that the aerial survey population estimates used in the modelling are significant underestimates.

Studies of hunter behaviour indicate that about two-thirds of the high density dugong habitat in Torres Strait is never hunted.

James Cook University research is being used by the Torres Strait Regional Authority in negotiations with the PNG Government and Islander leaders regarding the management of hunting. The Authority is also working with a veterinarian to address animal welfare concerns.

In the remote GBR region north of Cooktown the dugong situation is similar to Torres Strait. However, dugongs along the urban coast of the GBR, including around Townsville, have to cope with additional challenges. Analysis of the records of dugongs caught in shark nets indicated a precipitous decline in catch rates between the 1960s and 1980s.

The university’s aerial surveys since the mid-1980s indicated that the population had stabilised as a result of significant management interventions by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments.

But the 2011 floods and cyclones reduced the dugong population to the lowest level since surveys began. Worse, the dugongs stopped breeding because of a shortage of food – no calves were seen in the region during our 2011 survey.

Dugong mortalities recorded by the Queensland government’s StrandNet program in 2011 were the highest since reporting began in 1998. Some dugongs migrated from the region and are now returning, but the high level of coastal development is cause for grave concern.

The most serious human impacts on dugongs in the urban GBR are habitat loss, gill netting, and vessel-strikes, rather than hunting. All these impacts have associated animal welfare concerns.

If you were a dugong, where would you rather live: Torres Strait or Townsville?

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Fish piracy costs $10 billion to $23 billion a year: report

Deborah Zabarenko PlanetArk 9 May 13;

Fish piracy - seafood caught illegally, not reported to authorities or outside environmental and catch regulations - represents as much as $10 billion to $23 billion in global losses each year, a non-profit conservation group estimated Wednesday.

Because pirated fish is sold on black markets, specifics of the economic impact are tough to decipher. But Oceana, a Washington-based organization, looked at the records of fish catches by country as reported to the United Nations, then compared those statistics to seafood sales in various world markets.

When these numbers didn't match up, the group estimated the amount lost through fish piracy, a practice that U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco has called "one of the most serious threats to American fishing jobs and fishing communities."

The report said illegal trade could account for 11 million to 25 million metric tons of seafood, a minimum of 20 percent of seafood worldwide.

Illegal fishing targets some of the most expensive species, including shrimp, fugu pufferfish, lobster, whole abalone and sea urchin uni. Penalties are often a fraction of potential profit, the report found. In one U.S. case, an illegal catch worth up to $1 million brought a $3,5000 penalty.

The report estimated that illegal trade threatens 260 million jobs dependant on marine fisheries.

For example, the shark fin trade in Hong Kong suggests that three to four times more sharks are being killed than official reports say, with $292 million to $476 worth of shark fins sold.

Oceana said that Florida law enforcement agents' estimates showed that one illegal operator stole $1,400 a week from legal operators by exceeding the catch limit on king mackerel.

Fishermen who comply with legal standards can also lose business when they sell in the same market as illegal operators who don't follow environmental or sanitary standards, the report found.

In addition, adults and children have been trafficked into service on illegal fishing ships, making a catch more lucrative, the report said.


Illegally caught Russian sockeye salmon is estimated to be 60 percent to 90 percent above reported levels, a loss of $40 million to $74 million, according to Oceana.

Annual black market sales of bluefin tuna may reach $4 billion, with the amount of illegally caught fish five to 10 times higher than the official catch, the report said.

"I don't think people think of fish as valuable, and when they think of crime, I don't think they think about seafood," Oceana senior scientist Margot Stiles said in a telephone interview. "But behind closed doors and out at sea, there's all this money made by stealing fish."

In the past, governments have stepped up enforcement to combat the problem, but that approach was limited.

Stiles suggested a two-part solution: first, cut back government fishing subsidies, which ultimately pay for some of the illegal catch, and increase seafood tracking from its source to the consumer.

Using the same technology as in the package delivery industry, some large seafood dealers, markets and restaurants are already tracking fish.

MJ Gimbar, chief fishmonger at Black Salt Fish Market in Washington, said his company's program is inexpensive to implement and offers customers assurances about what they are buying: "It allows them to put a face with the fish."

The market's website offers species-specific information on the sources of its seafood, here .

Oceana reported in February that one-third of seafood tested in the United States was mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

(Reporting by Deborah Zabarenko; Editing by Marilyn Thompson and Philip Barbara)

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