Best of our wild blogs: 22 Jun 13

Chained to Our Roots petition & picnic: "Reroute the Cross Island Line to protect our oldest forests" - Sat 22 Jun 2013: 3.00pm @ Hong Lim Park from Habitatnews

Hazy at special Changi shore
from wild shores of singapore

Festival of Biodiversity, 13-14 July, VivoCity
from Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs

Random Gallery - Common Tiger
from Butterflies of Singapore

Singapore air pollution hits worst level on record, government blames palm oil and timber plantations in Sumatra from news by Rhett Butler

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Singapore: PSI hits new all-time high of 401 on Friday

Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: The haze in Singapore once again reached the hazardous level on Friday morning, with the 3-hour PSI reading hitting a new all-time high of 401 at noon.

The latest reading surpassed the previous high of 371 recorded at 1pm on Thursday afternoon.

Indonesian and Singaporean officials have been holding emergency talks on how to extinguish the fires on farms and plantations on Sumatra island, which are also affecting Malaysia.

General practitioner Philip Koh said he had seen a 20 per cent spike in consultations in the past week, and estimated that about 80 per cent of all his patients are suffering from haze-related ailments.

"My patients are telling me they are worried about how long this is going to last and how much higher this is going to go. It is already high at 400 now, how much higher will it go?" he said.

Hazy conditions are also expected this weekend, with dry weather and prevailing winds continuing to bring over dense smoke haze from fires in central Sumatra.

According to the National Environment Agency, the 24-hour PSI forecast for Saturday is in the "very unhealthy" 200-300 range.

- CNA/AFP/ac/jc

Shipping firms warn of haze danger in Malacca Strait
Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Shipping companies warned Friday that the haze emanating from forest fires in Indonesia could lead to accidents in the busy Malacca and Singapore straits, risking a potentially devastating oil spill.

The Singapore Shipping Association (SSA) said more than 140 ships, including oil tankers and passenger ferries, navigate the narrow waterways on any given day and reduced visibility due to the haze has made conditions dangerous.

"The SSA is gravely concerned with the effects of the worsening hazy conditions on the safe navigation of ships through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore," it said.

Daniel Tan, the trade body's executive director, said the Malacca and Singapore straits are among the busiest and narrowest shipping lanes in the world.

"Reduced visibility in such heavy shipping traffic will definitely affect the safe navigation of ships in the straits," Tan said in a statement.

"In the event of any unfortunate accident, human lives and the marine environment will be at risk, especially if it involves a fully laden VLCC (very large crude carriers)," he warned.

"The oil spillage from the tanker can have serious consequences not only on the marine life in the straits but also affect the livelihood of fishermen and those who depend on the tourist industry."

Haze from the forest fires in Indonesia's Sumatra island caused by slash-and-burn land-clearing activities has blanketed Singapore, parts of Malaysia and the straits this week.

In Singapore, the pollution index reached a historic high of 401 at midday Friday as thick grey haze surrounded skyscrapers, crept through homes and shrouded streets for a fifth day running.

Massive oil tankers, container ships, cruise liners as well as smaller crafts like passenger ferries, tugs and barges ply the straits daily. Many of the ships pass through Singapore, a global bunkering centre and one of the world's busiest ports.

While ship captains are trained to navigate through foggy and stormy weather, transiting through the waterways "can be very challenging and dangerous especially under extreme smoky conditions," the SSA said.

The Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said it has been broadcasting regular safety messages to all ships transiting the Singapore Strait and operating in the Port of Singapore since Monday.

MPA said shipmasters are advised to navigate with caution in accordance with the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.

These include travelling at a safe speed to allow more time to assess the situation and posting additional look-outs.

Other measures include displaying navigational lights and using appropriate sound signals to notify other ships of its presence.

MPA has also issued port marine notices to remind the shipping and harbour craft communities to monitor the PSI level.

It has asked them to follow the Ministry of Manpower's guidelines for the protection of employees against effects of haze at workplaces.

MPA noted that port operations in Singapore continued with no significant delays, despite the additional measures taken.

- AFP/CNA/xq

N95 masks run out at shops in Singapore
Dylan Loh Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: N95 face masks used for protection against the haze in Singapore are sold out at many shops across Singapore.

Some netizens have also reported seeing masks sold for S$10, when the usual price is around S$2 or S$3.

Masks are also selling out online, owing to high demand.

The Health Ministry has urged Singaporeans to be patient, as it works with suppliers to speed up deliveries to shops.

Adrian Lo, director of Singapore Test Services, said: "The frustration is definitely there as a citizen. But I know the challenges of distribution so we just have to be patient and then hope the government intervenes and do something to spread out the availability of the masks."

Dr Ng Eng Hen, chair of the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, added the government will supply retail outlets with more masks and that NTUC FairPrice will get the stocks next week.

The FairPrice chain of stores said close to two million masks will be re-stocked from Monday across all its 115 outlets.

Dr Ng said: "NTUC FairPrice will cap the price of these masks, but also limit the number that each person can buy. Because when people buy more, they create more demand and artificial shortages, so they will cap the price and limit the numbers that each person can buy."

More than 1.5 million N95 masks are also on their way to being delivered to retail pharmacies.

- CNA/xq

Haze may impact economic growth if condition does not improve: economists
Wong Siew Ying Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Economists said the thick haze that is shrouding Singapore could potentially cast a pall over its economic growth if the situation does not improve in the coming months.

CIMB Research estimated that for each day the haze lingers, over S$60 million in tourism receipts could be at stake.

klapsons The Boutique Hotel, located in Singapore's central business district, has shut two outdoor dining outlets for now as air quality remains in the unhealthy range.

The two outlets contribute about 40 per cent of the hotel's revenue.

It said some guests have also decided to give Singapore a miss.

Anna Tong, general manager at klapsons The Boutique Hotel, said: "Our customers are business people. So as they come to Singapore to do business and because regionally it is known that the haze is really affecting our part of the world, so they have redirected their travel plans and gone somewhere and hopefully come back later. So we did have some cancellations of about maybe 12 per cent of our occupancy.”

Meanwhile, the crowd at Boat Quay, a popular spot with tourists and office workers, has also thinned.

Some F&B operators at Boat Quay said earnings have dropped by more than 50 per cent in the last two days and some customers have also cancelled their reservations.

As business slows down, some operators said they will probably cut back on the hiring of part-time staff.

If the haze persists throughout the third quarter, economists said it could potentially hurt Singapore's economy, which is expected to grow by between 1 and 3 per cent this year.

Alvin Liew, senior economist at United Overseas Bank, said: “We did some back-of-the-envelope numbers looking at weakening in the key sectors due to this haze. We think it could affect anything from 0.3 to maybe 0.5 percentage-point of headline growth this year. Our growth forecast this year is looking at 3 per cent growth, so it may be lower at 2.5 per cent.”

Last year, over 14 million tourists visited Singapore, spending some S$23 billion.

Economists said the growth picture could get cloudy if they stay away.

In response to Channel NewsAsia's query, the Singapore Tourism Board said it is premature to determine the extent of the impact of the haze on the tourism sector, and it is monitoring the situation closely.

Meanwhile, the construction sector - another important growth driver - may be affected if the government issues work restrictions.

Song Seng Wun, regional economist at CIMB Research, said: "If we were to put the two together… (If) 5 per cent from the construction sector stop work, in the hospitality-related tourism industries another 5 to 6 per cent, that's 10 per cent of Singapore's economy. If assuming everything remains constant, that can potentially be knocked off the Singapore economy, so it can make a difference between growth and contraction in that worst-case scenario."

On top of that, a decline in economic activity could also affect productivity.

But economists said even if Singapore's economy takes a hit in Q3, it should rebound fairly quickly in the following quarter once the haze clears, and assuming the global economy holds up well.

- CNA/xq

Beating the haze, from the ground up
Grassroots initiatives, govt agencies and MPs working together to assist those in need
Eugene Neubronner Today Online 22 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — Before the Government’s announcement yesterday evening that some 200,000 low-income households will receive one million N95 masks starting tomorrow, some Singaporeans swung into action to offer some relief to the less fortunate, by collecting and distributing masks and appealing for donations of air purifiers and electric fans for nursing homes.

Businessman Laurence Wong, 40, who plans to distribute masks today around Bukit Batok, managed to collect about 100 after a frantic islandwide hunt. “We want Singaporeans to know you can do your part to your neighbourhood,” he said, adding that he had hoped — and failed — to find more masks.

On the Internet, news site The Online Citizen posted an open call on its Facebook page asking for information on hospitals or nursing homes which did not have enough air purifiers. After St Luke’s Hospital responded, Jurong GRC Member of Parliament (MP) David Ong got in touch and air coolers and purifiers were secured for the hospital.

SG Haze Rescue, which began collecting and giving out masks on Thursday, yesterday posted a Google document with information on which areas were in need of them and which have received help to avoid duplication of efforts.

To give voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) a hand, the Community Chest yesterday set aside an “initial sum” of S$200,000 for VWOs to tap to purchase items like masks, mobile fans, air filters or portable air-conditioners to protect the elderly and the young.

Several MPs have also kicked off assistance efforts. Marine Parade GRC MP Tin Pei Ling said in a Facebook post last night that some of the Residents’ Committee centres in the constituency will extend their opening hours, with timings to be adjusted according to the situation.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Alex Yam said he is looking into having volunteers to man Community Club halls so that they can remain open round the clock.

Worried about ventilation issues for those who kept their windows closed at night, he has also made a plea for donations of fans. So far, about 360 fans have been donated — the majority by electrical appliances company Akira — and they will be distributed door-to-door tomorrow.

Mr Yam said that one challenge was educating those who might not have kept track of the news, especially the elderly. A “personal touch” is needed to explain the benefits of wearing masks or staying indoors, he added.

Indeed, when TODAY visited housing estates in Redhill yesterday, many of the elderly playing checkers or lounging around at void decks appeared nonchalant about the poor air quality — even though three-hour Pollutant Standards Index readings surged to a record 401 yesterday before dropping to below 150.

A 56-year-old retiree who gave his name only as Mr Mubarak said he had been coughing “on and off” for the past few days but had yet to see a doctor. The wheelchair user suffers from asthma and diabetes, but he said: “Even with a mask, it is pointless. (The pollutants) are in the air.”

One of the onlookers at the checkers game said none of those present could afford a mask and, “even if we could, we do not know where to buy them”.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who is the MP for Marine Parade GRC, said there was a need to “assure our residents and to clarify concerns and misperceptions”.

“We need to assure our residents about the situation and to stay calm. Not everyone needs the mask as it depends on their condition and the nature of their exposure,” he said in an email in response to TODAY’s queries.

He said volunteers and grassroots leaders visited some rental units last night.

“We want to check on their conditions so that we can follow up if needed. We are updating them on MOH (Ministry of Health) subsidies. We are also distributing N95 masks to those who may need (them),” he added.

24-hour PSI reading a better reflection of haze impact on health
Tan Weizhen Today Online 22 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE — The Government yesterday took pains to explain its use of the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading when calibrating its response to the haze situation, saying that it is a better reflection of the impact of the smog on health, compared to the three-hour reading.

At a press conference helmed by the Haze Inter-Ministerial Committee, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu pointed out that the three-hourly PSI readings fluctuate widely.

“The health impact of the air pollutants is determined by both the concentration and the duration of exposure. When we measure the health impact, the 24-hour measurement is a better reflection of the total exposure of the individual to particulate matter,” said Ms Fu, who was standing in for Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was flying back from a ministerial meeting in Jakarta.

Defence Minister and Chairman of the committee Ng Eng Hen elaborated on this point, saying that the effects of exposure to pollutants are based on a “continuum” rather than a “threshold”.

“The effects are based on factors such as the length of exposure, how dense the pollutants are and individual variation. Second, the studies co-relating such exposure to pollutants are for 24-hour measurements. There have been much less data correlated with three-hour measurements. For this reason, our health guidance is based on 24-hour PSI,” said Dr Ng.

However, doctors pointed out that Singapore’s situation is different from that of, say, Hong Kong or Mexico, where the level of pollution is constant throughout the day.

Associate Professor Philip Eng, a senior consultant in respiratory medicine, said: “In our situation, it is different because the winds and the PSI levels change so drastically. The studies might be looking at health impact based on pollution levels that are more constant ... here the PSI in one day can swing from 100 to 400. So it is hard to assess the health impact like this.”

Dr Lim Ing Ruen, an ear, nose and throat surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, felt that neither a 24-hour nor a three-hour measurement will give a very good picture of the health impact.

“People should be assessing the PSI level right before they go out, to see if the level at that particular hour poses a threat. An average figure for the whole day may not be that reflective, as the figures can fluctuate wildly throughout the day. The key is spot PSI.”

Whether one has a pre-existing condition is also a factor.

“If you are asthmatic, any level of PSI can set you off,” she said.

The committee was also asked why previous advisories indicated that the public should avoid physical activities outdoors when the PM2.5 reading — which measures particles smaller than 2.5 microns — was between 150 to 250, but now they are only told to avoid strenuous activities and stay at home or wear a mask.

Dr Ng stressed that a “higher-level advisory” would be issued when PM2.5 levels warrant it, but for the sake of clarity, the readings for now are “simplified” for the public. He added that medical professionals have said this is “sensible”.

He also reiterated that the daily advisories for the public and workers do not indicate “a hard line for stoppage of work or closure of schools”.

“It is not sensible to have these thresholds now because for some, the home environment is no different from the school or work. So if you stop work or close schools, they go back to the home environment, the exposure is the same,” he said. “It is not sustainable because it means a mass closure of outdoor businesses, airports, ports and other sectors.”

Minister of State for Health and Manpower Amy Khor urged employers to “remain vigilant and exercise flexibility”. She said: “There is no hard line for everything to come to a stop ... it depends on the nature of work, whether it’s indoor, outdoor, whether it’s strenuous, the health of the workers, whether they are frail, elderly and so on.” She also urged employers to show understanding and allow their staff to take leave if necessary.

At a technical briefing after the press conference, Dr Lee Hock Siang, Director of Occupational Safety and Health Specialist Department at the Ministry of Manpower, said that employers could be prosecuted if they do not follow the advisory, for example, if a worker is made to operate cranes when visibility is low.

Govt moves to address concerns over haze
It spells out game plan to tackle issue, including free masks for needy
Salma Khalik Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

THE Government yesterday set out to assure a country coming to grips with the haze, as it pledged to give out free one million N95 masks to lower-income households and sketched its game plan if pollution levels rise.

For a start, some 200,000 of the poorest households and the vulnerable will get the free masks, which will be distributed by grassroots groups from tomorrow, with the Singapore Armed Forces helping with the roll-out.

National guidelines will also be spelt out for how businesses and the community should respond if the 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading rises beyond 300, which has not happened to date.

In the first briefing by the Haze Inter-ministerial Committee, chairman Ng Eng Hen also urged people not to let the haze overwhelm them as the country cannot grind to a halt because of it.

"We need to keep Singapore going even if the haze worsens, but take further steps to alleviate the exposure," he said, stressing that therefore stop-work orders or closure of schools were not sensible or sustainable prescriptions.

His comments came after the grey fog shrouding the island worsened yesterday at one point to another record high, hitting the three-hourly PSI reading of 401 around noon, even as queues formed at pharmacies for the N95 masks. Some shops put up sold-out signs, as tempers frayed.

Giving the assurance that there are enough masks for Singapore's needs, Dr Ng, who is also the Minister for Defence, said panic-buying was creating "supply chain bottlenecks". "We are dealing with this decisively, to push more masks to retail outlets."

Popular outlets, including FairPrice, will be getting more masks. FairPrice will cap the price, but also limit the number a person can buy.

Dr Ng also reiterated that healthy people do not need masks unless they work outdoors when the 24-hour PSI reading is over 300. Indeed, whether a person needs an N95 mask depends on the PSI level, the state of his health and only with prolonged exposure, such as having to work outdoors for hours.

On the free masks, he said the task of distribution will take a few days. "I ask for understanding and cooperation from the public," he said.

People with pre-existing diseases who have difficulty getting such masks can also approach their grassroots organisations, and "we will give it to them", he said.

Turning to guidelines for when the 24-hour PSI reading crosses 300, he said these should not be treated as "panic lines" to enforce work stoppage or school closure. Rather, the focus should be on protecting the vulnerable and limiting their exposure.

The haze pollutants exist "all around us", he noted.

Various ministries and the agencies they work with will draw up continuity plans that will minimise exposure to the pollutants. These include childcare centres, voluntary welfare organisation homes, schools and shipyards.

The Manpower and Trade and Industry ministries are also working with businesses to ensure that they get N95 masks needed for employees who work outdoors.

At the press conference, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that public hospitals can cope with the expected surge of patients caused by the haze.

N95 masks sell out quickly at pharmacies
Outlets restocking them fast; enough here for everyone, say health officials
Amelia Teng And Maryam Mokhtar Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

SINGAPOREANS rushed out to buy N95 masks yesterday morning, the day after the Government announced it would be releasing stocks to pharmacy stores.

But many shoppers could not get their hands on them at pharmacies such as Unity, Guardian and Watsons as most of their outlets had run out of the masks by lunchtime.

Printing manager Amin Mohamed, 61, visited two Guardian outlets and a Unity pharmacy in Tampines but could not find any N95 masks for his family of five.

"I had to come out in the smog to look for them, and there is supposed to be enough for everyone," he said.

Eventually, he bought two-ply surgical masks from Giant hypermart, "which is better than nothing", he said.

Watsons' merchandising and marketing director Micheas Chan told The Straits Times it has more than one million masks.

They are being delivered to its stores "in the shortest time possible", but there may be "intermittent lack of stock at various outlets" owing to overwhelming demand, he said in an e-mail reply.

A Guardian spokesman said about 50,000 N95 masks will be distributed across its stores at the weekend, starting last night.

To ensure there is enough for all, she said Guardian has set a limit of 10 masks per customer.

Queues also formed at pharmacies in hospitals, which ran out of masks quickly, leaving many people disappointed and upset.

To beat the crowds and queues, people are also searching for masks online.

Ms Goh Yiping, founder of group-buying site AllDealsAsia, said it has received orders for nearly 30,000 N95 masks and 100 air purifiers.

Her company ordered about 100,000 masks from Hong Kong, China and the United States, and they were to arrive in batches from yesterday.

A new fund of $200,000 was set aside yesterday by Community Chest, the fund-raising arm of the National Council of Social Service, to help buy masks and air filters for the vulnerable, like the elderly in senior day activity centres.

As of yesterday, there were two takers - Persatuan Pemudi Islam Singapura East and Marine Parade Family Service Centres.

Meanwhile, the Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) has raised the red flag over those profiteering from mask sales.

In a statement yesterday, its president Lim Biow Chuan urged suppliers and retailers to "remain transparent and abide by the regular recommended retail price".

Case also advised people to exercise caution when buying masks of unknown brands or from online retailers, as these "may not provide adequate protection from the haze".

At a briefing yesterday, health officials said there was enough stock of N95 masks for the public. These masks, they added, can be re-used as long as they are not bent out of shape or soiled.

People do not need to wear them indoors.

The officials also said pregnant women should not keep the masks on for too long as they limit air intake.

As N95 masks are now not certified for children, it is better that they stay indoors as far as possible rather than wear the masks when outdoors.

The N95 masks retail at between $1.80 and $3 each.

Business down for shops, eateries
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

People braving the haze at Bras Basah Road around noon. Shops have seen a dip in business, even with the Great Singapore Sale on, while restaurants have had cancellations. -- ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

By Rachel Tan And Maryam Mokhtar

MALLS, restaurants, hawker stalls and tourist attractions are bracing themselves for smaller crowds as the haze bites on what should have been a typically busy June holiday weekend.

Business had already been slow all week, said the Singapore Retail Association, which estimated an 8per cent to 12per cent dip so far.

Shops in town areas say the situation is far worse, and is likely to deteriorate further - even with the ongoing Great Singapore Sale.

"Despite our end-of-season sale, which was launched last weekend, we have seen a 60per cent drop in customer footfall," said Mr Stan Lee, director at Swagger boutique on Ann Siang Road.

Restaurants are faring no better, especially those with outdoor seating. At Dempsey Hill, reservations at Jumbo Seafood are down by as much as 40per cent.

"Customers have been calling to change outdoor reservations to indoors. If that option is not available, they cancel their reservations," said Mr Shaun Chan, marketing manager for the Jumbo Group of restaurants.

Some have even removed al-fresco seating entirely. "For now, no one is allowed to go to the rooftop," said supervisor Shah Rul of Kinki Restaurant and Bar, which overlooks Marina Bay.

Hawkers are also suffering. At the Toa Payoh Lorong8 food centre, stallholders reported thinner crowds in the evening. Diners who braved the smog said they were finishing their food quickly or having it packed for home.

Business had dipped by up to 50per cent for some stalls. "The air is bad, and the smoke from our woks doesn't help," said Mr Wu Cai Xing, a helper at Good Luck BBQ Chicken Wings.

On the flip side, online stores and food delivery services are reporting better business.

But on the tourism front, attractions have drawn fewer visitors - or shut down altogether. Resorts World Sentosa closed three of its outdoor attractions yesterday, while Wildlife Reserves Singapore suspended all shows and activities at its parks yesterday.

Association of Singapore Attractions chairman Kevin Cheong warned that revenue will slide sharply if the haze does not subside in the coming weeks.

The Singapore Tourism Board said yesterday that "it is premature to determine the extent of the impact of the haze on tourist arrivals and revenue".

But Barclays Research noted that Singapore's tourism arrivals fell by 15per cent during the 1997 haze, and by 6per cent when the smog last hit in 2006. This year's slide in revenue is likely to fall between those figures, it said.

Professor Euston Quah, head of economics at Nanyang Technological University, calculated that the 1997 haze cost Singapore up to $268.3million in tourism receipts. This year's figure could be higher due to the higher PSI.

Hotels and travel agents said there were few cancellations so far, but there were ominous signs at the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark, which was almost empty during sundown. The few tourists who braved the open air retreated indoors quickly.

Said Japanese visitor Toshiaki Tominga, 34: "I wanted to stay for a shot of the sunset, but I think I won't any more."

Singapore haze hits record high from Indonesia fires
BBC News 21 Jun 13;

Pollution levels soared for a third day in a row in Singapore, as smoky haze from fires in Indonesia shrouded the city state.

The Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) hit 401 at 12:00 on Friday (04:00 GMT) - the highest in Singapore's history.

The index also reached 400 in one part of Indonesia, which is readying helicopters and cloud-seeding equipment in an effort to tackle the fires.

Indonesia has said it is unfair to blame it solely for the forest fires.

A senior official in the Indonesian president's office said fires had been spotted on land owned by 32 companies in the region, some of them based in Malaysia and Singapore.

Schools in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia have closed temporarily.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong warned on Thursday that the haze could remain in place for weeks.

"We can't tell how this problem is going to develop because it depends on the burning, it depends on the weather, it depends on the wind," he said.

"It can easily last for several weeks and quite possibly it could last longer until the dry season ends in Sumatra which may be September or October."

'Life threatening'

A PSI reading above 300 is defined as "hazardous", while Singapore government guidelines say a PSI reading of above 400 sustained for 24 hours "may be life-threatening to ill and elderly persons".

"Healthy people [may also] experience adverse symptoms that affect normal activity," the government says.

The PSI dropped down to 143 at 17:00 (09:00 GMT), although this is still classed as "unhealthy".

Before this week's episode, the previous air pollution record was from September 1997 during the 1997-1998 South East Asian Haze, when the PSI peaked at 226.

Singapore resident Nicole Wu told the BBC that she had stayed indoors for the past two days.

"It's terrible. In my flat the windows are all closed with the air conditioning on," she said. "My mother has to wear a mask to go shopping."

"I can't even see what's happening outside my house due to the smog. You can't see birds [or] moving objects," she added.

Philip Koh, a doctor, told AFP news agency that the number of medical consultations he had had in the past week had increased by 20%.

"My patients are telling me they are worried about how long this is going to last and how much higher this is going to go," he said.

In Indonesia's Riau province, where the fires are concentrated, the PSI reached 400 on Friday, the head of the local health office told the BBC.

Schools there are to remain closed until the air quality improves.

The chief of the health department Zainal Arifin said there was an "increasing number of asthma, lung, eye and skin problems due to higher CO2 levels".

"I call for residents to stay at home and reduce outdoor activities," he said.

Diplomatic strain

Singapore's National Environment Agency has started providing hourly PSI updates on its website, in addition to the three-hourly updates it previously provided.

Around 300 schools in southern Malaysia have now been closed as a result of the smog. Schools in Singapore are currently closed for the holidays.

There are also reports of flight delays affecting both Singapore's Changi airport and Riau province in Indonesia.

The fires are caused by illegal slash-and-burn land clearance in Sumatra, to the west of Singapore.


Karishma Vaswani
BBC News, Jakarta
Indonesia is struggling to contain the raging forest fires that are causing the thick smog which is enveloping Singapore, parts of Malaysia and some Indonesian cities.

On Friday, the government despatched helicopters to the worst affected areas, in a bid to create artificial rain. The plan is to seed the clouds once the temperature is a bit cooler to induce rain over the burning forestland.

It is a big challenge. Fire-fighters on the ground have been working around the clock to put out the blazes, but they have spread to peatlands and are proving to be very difficult to extinguish. Officials have complained about a lack of resources and say they desperately need some rain to help.

Indonesia's weather agency says rainfall is not likely until 29 June. Singapore and Malaysia have both urged Indonesia to do more to solve this crisis. Singapore has offered aircraft to help with the cloud-seeding operation, but there needs to be clouds in the sky for it to work. This time of year is typically the hottest and driest on the island of Sumatra.

Haze Doesn’t Deter Malacca Strait Shipping Traffic
Abhrajit Gangopadhyay Southeast Asia Realtime 21 Jun 13;

Street traffic in Southeast Asian cities is thinning out and air traffic controllers are taking extra measures to ensure planes are well-spaced to account for the thick haze that has blanketed parts of the region, reaching hazardous levels over the past couple of days, but sea traffic in one of the world’s busiest waterways is proceeding without serious interruptions, at least so far.

The 805-kilometer Strait of Malacca, a channel that separates Indonesia’s Sumatra island and the Malay peninsula, is the shortest sea route between the Persian Gulf and Asian markets. Over 70,000 vessels a year ply the channel, carrying a third of global trade and almost half of world’s oil shipments.

Although authorities and industry officials worry that poor visibility raises the likelihood of accidents when the haze thickens–an annual event in the area, mostly fed by smoke from fires that are deliberately set to clear land for oil-palm plantations–they aren’t moving to enforce any systematic changes in how the traffic flows through the strait.

“We have had no diversion of vessels due to the haze situation,” said Peter Corfitsen, the Singapore-based Head of Asia Pacific Liner Operations Cluster, Maersk Line. “We have encountered some occasional, short stoppages at terminals due to limited visibility for the quay crane operators, which has extended some of our vessel port stays, but it has not been significant.”

That isn’t to say there aren’t any precautions that can be taken

A drop in visibility below two nautical miles, around 3.7 kilometers, automatically triggers hazard warnings by port authorities. These include among others, tracking all inbound vessels and issuing specific navigational advisory to ships in the vicinity of a port and even a complete ban on small vessels in the area, said K. Subramaniam, assistant general manager at Malaysia’s Port Klang.

Although visibility sometimes dips to one nautical mile in the area during the June-September period when annual monsoon winds carry the smoke from fires on Sumatra to Singapore and Malaysia, that level hasn’t been reached yet at Port Klang. Mr. Subramaniam said visibility is currently six miles, classified as “clear.”

Visibility at Singapore’s port is, well, unclear. A PSA Singapore Terminals spokesman told The Wall Street Journal Friday that he didn’t immediately have any information on any warnings. On Thursday, the PSA said it was “monitoring the situation closely,” and was taking precautions with respect to workers’ health.

“Although the sailors are trained to navigate through low visibility, the density of traffic raises the danger of contact in the narrow channel,” said Daniel Tan, executive director at Singapore Shipping Association, a grouping of shipping companies in the city-state. At Phillips Channel, close to Singapore, the Strait of Malacca narrows to just 2.8 kilometers.

Accidents due to haze have been rare, as most vessels are equipped with sophisticated satellite-guided navigational devices.

In 2005, a container ship ran aground due to poor visibility when Malaysia declared a state of emergency in coastal areas of Port Klang and Kuala Selangor. In July 2009, shipping was halted near Indonesia’s Port of Damai, where visibility fell to less than 0.2 nautical miles.

–Gaurav Raghuvanshi in Singapore contributed to this post.

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Indonesia identifies eight companies which may be involved in starting forest fires

Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Indonesia has identified eight companies which may be involved in starting the forest fires in Sumatra, and it expects to name the companies within the next few days.

Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya revealed this to reporters after meeting his counterpart from Singapore, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan in Jakarta on Friday. Dr Kambuaya said investigations are still ongoing and he was not able to elaborate further where these companies are from.

Dr Balakrishnan expressed his appreciation to his Indonesian counterpart that enforcement actions have been taken.

Dr Balakrishnan met Dr Kambuaya to hand a letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Dr Balakrishnan also welcomed Indonesia's commitment that further action will be taken on the ground to put out the fires within the next two days. This may include activating water bombs.

He said Indonesia has agreed to bring forward the meeting of ASEAN Ministers of Environment to address this issue of haze on a more systematic and progressive basis.

- CNA/ac

Balakrishnan delivers PM Lee’s letter on haze to Indonesia
Saifulbahri Ismail Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 13;

SINGAPORE: Singapore's Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has personally delivered a letter from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the haze problem to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

The minister had travelled to Jakarta as Prime Minister Lee's Special Envoy and met Indonesian Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya to deliver the letter, said a statement from Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore wanted to convey in a personal and direct way how serious and urgent the current haze situation is.

He said: "The communication we've had over the past few days, the telephone calls, the letters that have been sent, the meetings that was held yesterday (Thursday) at the officials' level, all these interactions have registered with them. I was very glad therefore when I met them, they said sorry for the situation that had unfolded this way and he (Dr Kambuaya) agreed with our point that there is a necessity for immediate action on the ground."

Prime Minister Lee noted in the letter that he and President Yudhoyono had agreed to cooperate to combat transboundary pollution at their recent Leaders' Retreat in Singapore in April.

He conveyed his grave concern at the impact the severe haze was having on Singapore and Singaporeans, urging Indonesia to take timely and concrete actions to solve the problem.

Prime Minister Lee offered Singapore's help to put out the fires in Sumatra, including an aircraft for cloud seeding, satellite pictures and hotspot coordinates to identify the culprits involved in the illegal burning.

He also encouraged Indonesia to ratify the ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Dr Kambuaya acknowledged Singapore's concerns and informed Dr Balakrishnan of the measures Indonesia had taken to combat the fires in Sumatra.

This included water bombing and investigating plantation companies involved in illegal burning activities.

Dr Kambuaya also agreed to convene the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze earlier than the original date in August.

Dr Kambuaya promised to consider Singapore's offer of assistance and explore how both countries could follow up on the suggestions in Prime Minister Lee's letter.

"I would characterise the meeting as frank, constructive, (which) showed some early signs of potential progress," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"We (now) have to see over the next few days whether this translates into effective actions or not on the ground. We want to see concrete attempts to put the fires out, we want to see publication of suspect companies behind these fires and I'm sure we then can make progress on the other medium to long term issues," he added.

Dr Balakrishnan said bilateral relations between the two countries remain strong and that both countries are committed to work together to resolve the real, serious and urgent problem.

- CNA/jc

‘We can’t wait for the rain or wind to rescue us’
Today Online 22 Jun 13;

JAKARTA — As the Indonesian government despatches military planes to douse the raging forest fires and investigates plantation companies involved in illegal burning activities, Singapore’s Minister for Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday met his counterpart to discuss the haze problem and hand-deliver a letter by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

A statement from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said Dr Balakrishnan travelled to Jakarta as Mr Lee’s Special Envoy to personally deliver the letter, in which Mr Lee noted that he and Mr Yudhoyono had agreed to cooperate to combat transboundary pollution at their Leaders’ Retreat in Singapore in April.

The MFA said Mr Lee also “conveyed his grave concern at the impact the severe haze was having on Singapore and Singaporeans and urged Indonesia to take timely and concrete actions to solve the problem”.

Mr Lee offered Singapore’s help to put out the fires in Sumatra, including an aircraft for cloud seeding, as well as satellite pictures and hotspot coordinates to identify the culprits involved in the illegal burning. He also encouraged Indonesia to ratify the Association of South-east Asian Nations Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Writing on Facebook, Dr Balakrishnan said he held a “frank constructive meeting” with Indonesian Minister for Environment Balthasar Kambuaya. He said: “I told him that our three-hour PSI had reached 401 today and that millions of Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indonesians were badly affected by the haze. We needed immediate definitive action on the ground. This was a man-made disaster and men had to fix it. We could not wait for the rain or wind to rescue us.”

Dr Balakrishnan said Mr Balthasar told him that Indonesia “appreciated the seriousness of the situation”. He also urged Mr Balthasar to expedite Indonesia’s investigations — which had used satellite maps provided by Singapore — into the errant companies, identify these firms publicly and to prosecute them.

Mr Balthasar agreed to convene the Sub-Regional Ministerial Steering Committee on Transboundary Haze earlier than the original date in August. He also promised to consider Singapore’s offer of assistance and explore how both countries could follow up on the suggestions in Mr Lee’s letter.

Yesterday, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong responded to Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for People’s Welfare Agung Laksono’s jibe that Singaporeans were “behaving like a child”.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Goh said: “The Singapore Child is being suffocated. How can he not scream?”

He added: “Former Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi used to say that Malaysians and Singaporeans are like neighbours living in a pair of semi-detached houses. What each does will affect the other. So we have to be considerate in our behaviour like not putting on the TV too loudly or burning our garden refuse openly if the smoke will enter our neighbour’s house.”

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry General Secretary Hadi Daryanto told The Jakarta Post on Thursday that Indonesia could not guarantee that necessary measures taken to combat the fires would be effective without a miracle in the form of a heavy downpour. Its meteorological service predicted a downpour next Friday.

“We have considered creating artificial rain to put out the fires, but that would take two weeks. So we’ve decided to leave it in the hands of nature. And let’s just pray for that,” Mr Hadi was quoted as saying. “If there is no downpour, then the haze could last for weeks, or even months, as we try to generate artificial rain.”

Indonesia investigating eight firms
Zakir Hussain Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

INDONESIA is investigating eight firms for causing fires that led to the haze, Environment Minister Balthasar Kambuaya said at a meeting here with his Singapore counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan.

Those culpable will be named today, he told reporters later.

He did not name the firms, but Indonesian officials working with non-governmental groups separately identified 17 pulp and paper and 15 palm oil companies on whose land fires had been burning over the past nine days.

The majority of the hot spots in Riau province is inside concessions affiliated to Royal Golden Eagle, of which April Group - with an office in Singapore - is part, and Sinar Mas Forestry, which supplies to Asia Pulp and Paper, presidential delivery unit chief Kuntoro Mangkusubroto told a briefing yesterday. April Group said yesterday that the firm and its third-party suppliers practise a strict "no-burn" policy.

There are also fires on the land of firms affiliated with Malaysia's Sime Darby and Singapore-listed Wilmar and First Resources.

"The information on concession licences was gathered from publicly available sources and confirmed against satellite images of hot spots," said Mr Samadhi Nirarta, the presidential unit's deputy on moratorium monitoring.

Dr Balakrishnan, who travelled to Jakarta yesterday as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's special envoy, welcomed his counterpart's update on enforcement.

"We have got to join the dots and get that trail of accountability back to the companies and the stakeholders who are responsible for this disaster," he told Singapore media. "If we don't do that, there will not be sufficient deterrent on the ground."

On Thursday, PM Lee said his Government will act against Singapore companies found responsible for the fires.

Yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan met Professor Balthasar to deliver Mr Lee's letter to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono conveying his grave concern at the impact the haze was having, and urging Indonesia to take timely and concrete action to solve the problem.

Mr Lee also offered Singapore's help to put out the fires, including an aircraft for cloud seeding and satellite pictures and hot- spot coordinates to identify the culprits behind them.

No fires on land co-owned by Temasek
Alvin Foo Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

A TEAM sent by Temasek Holdings to check on Sumatran plantations it co-owns with United States commodities giant Cargill has confirmed there are no fires or hot spots on its land.

The Singapore investment agency said yesterday that the joint venture's plantations are at South Sumatra near Palembang, about 500km south of Singapore. The spots causing the haze are in Riau province, central Sumatra, less than 300km west of Singapore.

Temasek has 30 per cent of the joint venture CTP Holdings, with Cargill owning the rest. Earlier this week, the US firm had issued maps showing that the hot spots were not within its plantations.

CTP has a no-burn policy and clears land by mechanical means, said Temasek, with the whole process overseen by its staff. It also has emergency equipment and water tanks on standby, as well as fire patrol and security teams to monitor potential hot spots near boundaries and prevent fires spreading onto its property.

A Temasek spokesman said: "As a matter of good governance, Temasek expects the boards and management of its investee companies to oversee their operations according to sound commercial principles, including compliance with laws, regulations and recognised industry practices."

Plantation stocks shrug off haze blame
Wilmar, Indofood outdo STI in mixed showing
Goh Eng Yeow Senior Correspondent Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

IT IS not surprising to see accusatory fingers pointed at giant, listed plantation firms amid the worst haze crisis to envelop Singapore and other parts of the region.

With the blame game in full swing, they make easy targets. But if the mixed performance of their shares this week offers any guide, it is that the controversy is very much a storm in a teacup.

Wilmar International rose 3.83 per cent for the week, while Indofood Agri Resources was up 1 per cent, both outperforming the Straits Times Index (STI), which fell 1.17 per cent.

The underperformers were Golden Agri-Resources, down 3.5 per cent, and First Resources with a 1.1per cent fall.

The accusations started flying on Monday, when Indonesian forestry official Hadi Daryanto claimed that it is not only local farmers who use the slash-and-burn method to clear land, "but also employees of oil-palm producers, including Singaporean and Malaysian companies".

Palm-oil producers make obvious suspects. They own vast plantations in Indonesia - the world's largest producer of palm oil - and are among the biggest companies by market value here. Wilmar and Golden Agri-Resources are also part of the STI.

Palm oil is a very important commodity: It is in many of the goods on our supermarket shelves, including cooking oil, soap and shampoo, and has an annual traded value of US$50billion (S$64billion).

When calls were made in Indonesia to release the names of the haze culprits, the big plantation firms - Wilmar, Golden Agri-Resources, Indofood Agri and First Resources - were quick to stress their "zero-burning" policies in clearing land for planting. They also noted that they worked with the local government to monitor and tackle any fires that occurred on or near their vast estates.

Some also added that they monitor contractors and sub-contractors to ensure that they comply with the no-burn policy as well.

They are also likely to be kept on their toes through vigilance by important customers like food giant Nestle and consumer products maker Unilever, which face strong pressure from environmental groups such as Greenpeace to ensure that their supplies of palm oil come from sustainable sources.

But if the major plantation firms are innocent, who is responsible for the fires causing the haze?

To answer that question, one has to question the whereabouts of Mr Rusli Zainal, the governor of Riau, the province across the Strait of Malacca from Singapore where the worst of the forest fires are raging.

Surely, he should be spearheading the drive to put out fires that are causing so much grief, not just to his own people, but also those in Singapore and Malaysia.

But according to The Jakarta Post, Mr Rusli was detained earlier this month by the Indonesian Corruption Eradication Commission as a suspect in a graft case involving the illegal exploitation of forests by logging companies.

That action alone speaks volumes about the difficulties of fighting the haze in Indonesia.

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Malaysia to make offer to help Indonesia deal with haze

Ben Tan and Azidan Nahar New Straits Times 21 Jun 13;

MUAR: Malaysia is offering to help Indonesia deal with the haze problem including in their cloud-seeding activities, in the effort to extinguish the fires in Sumatera.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri G Palanivel said he would convey the government's offer during a meeting with his Indonesian counterpart in Indonesia next Wednesday.
"I will hold discussions with the the Indonesian Enviroment Minister and see if we can reach an agreement to curb the issue of forest fires can be done jointly," he said after attending a briefing session on the haze situation at the Muar district office here today.
Present at the briefing was Department of Environment (DOE) director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan.

Palanivel said his ministry had received many comments regarding the current haze conditions in the country.

On the views for sterner action against those who were responsible, he said it was not possible for Malaysia to interfere with the laws of another country.

"Indonesia is also the only country that has not rectified the ASEAN Haze Agreement in 2002," he added.

On the issue of taking action against Malaysian estate management companies that were involved in the fires in Indonesia, Palanivel said it was not possible as the country's laws are not applicable in the republic.

"Even we ourselves do not know who is behind or started the forest fires. There are some quarters who claim that it was the companies and others the farmers themselves.

"Because of that, there is a need to discuss the matter with the minister in-charge there," he said, adding that Malaysia would stress on taking stern action against those responsible.
Meanwhile, Palanivel said the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre (ASMC) report on Thursday showed thick haze movement from fires in Riau in Central Sumatera to the the west coast of Peninsula Malaysia.

He said the report also highlighted 64 hotspots registered which has decreased following the peak with 173 hotspots on June 19.

Muar firemen battled for 30 hours to douse bush fire
Chong Chee Seong New Straits Times 21 Jun 13;

MUAR: A team of 57 firemen battled for 30 hours to prevent a bush fire from spreading to 120 homes in 20 nearby villagers at a cultivated land near Bukit Naning here today.
By noon, the fire on the 110ha of land cultivated with a variety of crops such as pineapple, rubber, palm oil and vegetables, was under control.

Muar Fire Department chief Ariff Jili said 10 fire engines with 57 personnel from Tangkak, Bukit Gambir, Labis and Segamat rushed to the scene when fire broke out at 8am on Thursday.

Ariff said initial investigations revealed the fire was started by the farmers to rid branches of trees, weeds and leaves in their estates and smallholdings.

Dreaded haze expected to linger until August
The Star 22 Jun 13;

PETALING JAYA: Based on the pattern in previous years, the haze is expected to last until August, according to the assessment of Indonesia's largest environmental NGO.

Walhi or Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Indonesian Forum for the Environment) noted that the root causes of the haze have remained the same, three decades after it became a trans-boundary problem.

Walhi's national forest and large-scale plantation campaigner Zenzi Suhadi said the annual occurrences showed that monitoring and prevention of open burning in the country was still “very weak”.

He said the Indonesian Government seemed to only take notice of the situation after Singapore reacted strongly to the haze shrouding the island.

“It is clear that the problems are still the same. It is important for the Indonesian Government to take decisive and quick measures to address the crisis,” he said, adding that the haze could affect multilateral relations.

The smog, which first appeared over Malaysian skies in 1982, was worst in 1997 when the Air Pollutant Index reading in Sarawak soared to 839 539 higher that the “Hazardous” level of 300 prompting the Government to issue a 10-day Haze Emergency.

It has been an annual problem ever since, with Port Klang and Kuala Selangor in the peninsula recording the highest readings of over 500 in 2005.

The haze, which is now an acute problem in South-East Asia, is mainly caused by open burning in Indonesia for land clearing, in addition to other factors like hot and dry weather.

Zenzi said forest fires that had occurred in the last decade were not just due to ecological changes but also intentional land clearing by large-scale plantations and the lack of environmental governance by the pulp and paper industry.

Walhi's southern Sumatra acting executive director Hadi Jadmiko said efforts to stop open burning should begin from the Indonesian Government.

He said the haze could have been prevented if the Government had been serious in tackling the issue by coming down hard on open burning over the years.

“We have found that no action has been taken against two companies here which continue to practise open burning,” he said in a press statement.

He said drainage canals in peat soil areas also led to these places being dried out, causing fires to spread more easily.

Rico Kurniawan, Walhi's executive director for Riau, said the number of hotspots showed that the issuance of permits for plantations was not done with proper assessment.

He said the application of environmental rules in the timber and plantation industries was still far from being responsible.

Walhi is the umbrella body uniting more than 450 NGOs throughout Indonesia's vast archipelago.

It has independent offices and grassroots constituencies located in 24 of the country's 31 provinces.

Weatherman: Winds are strong and steady
The Star 22 Jun 13;

PETALING JAYA: The Meteorological Department said the wind patterns are currently “strong and steady” and will likely continue to carry haze particles from Indonesia if the fires there continue to rage.

Its central forecast office director Muhammad Helmi Abdullah said the wind was expected to blow mostly from a southwesterly direction from Indonesia to Peninsular Malaysia.

He added that rain was also not expected to fall over the next few days.

“Now the winds are quite strong and steady due to the presence of tropical storms from the northern part of the South China Sea. This is also the season where tropical storms are quite common,” he told The Star.

He said these tropical storms, moving from the Western Pacific region into the South China Sea, would not just cause strong winds but also bring dry weather.

Meanwhile, Department of Environment director-general Datuk Halimah Hassan said it was difficult to determine how long the haze would persist as it depended on weather conditions and the situation in Indonesia.

She said areas in Johor and Malacca were now experiencing “hazardous” and “very unhealthy” air quality because the southwest monsoon was blowing the haze from peat and forest fires in the Riau district of central Sumatra to Malaysia.

The monsoon season, she said, would continue until September.

“Of course we hope that the haze does not continue till then. It usually does not last that long. It depends on the winds and how fast the authorities in Indonesia act on managing the fires in Riau,” she said.

KL minister denies weak handling of issue
Lester Kong Malaysia Correspondent In Muar (johor) And Teo Cheng Wee Regional Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

MALAYSIA'S natural resources and environment minister has denied that the government has been weak in its handling of the haze situation, saying that it has been in constant communication with its Indonesian counterpart behind the scenes.

Datuk Seri G. Palanivel said the government has voiced its concerns to Indonesia, but added that the situation "is not simple".

"It is not true that Malaysia has not been firm in airing our grievances with Indonesia," he said. "Malaysia and Singapore are the most active in pursuing this with Indonesia."

Speaking to reporters while on a visit to the haze-affected town of Muar yesterday, he said he would visit Indonesian counterpart Balthasar Kambuaya in Jakarta next Wednesday. "We are very worried about the open burning there. We will press to them the seriousness of the haze in Malaysia."

His comments came amid criticism from opposition politicians and the public that the government has not been vocal enough in engaging Jakarta on the issue.

Despite the air quality here worsening rapidly in the past two days, Malaysia has been cautious about pointing fingers at its neighbour over what is a potentially sensitive issue for bilateral ties.

The Prime Minister's Office yesterday issued its first statement on the haze, quoting a spokesman as saying: "It is important that Asean nations work together in a spirit of cooperation to tackle this problem."

It added that Malaysian-owned companies operating in Indonesia should abide by all local laws and regulations, and "ensure they do not contribute to environmental degradation".

Opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang has called on the government to end its "deafening silence" and to convene an emergency meeting of environment ministers from Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia.

He said it should also detail its contingency plans for the worsening air quality, and what common action it proposes to take with Indonesia and Singapore to control the forest fires in Sumatra.

Yesterday, areas in Johor saw the Air Pollutant Index (API) remain at hazardous levels, including Pasir Gudang (323) and Kota Tinggi (314). API readings countrywide eased by evening, but five areas in Johor, Negeri Sembilan and Malacca remained above the "very unhealthy" level of 200.

Tens of thousands more students in Johor were also affected by additional school closures, as 195 schools in Kota Tinggi and Pontian were told to close. This followed closures in Muar, Batu Pahat and Pasir Gudang on Thursday.

On next week's meeting, Mr Palanivel said he would ask Indonesia what laws it can use to clamp down on open burning, although he acknowledged that it is hard to nab the culprits. He said Malaysia will consider lending Indonesia cloud-seeding aircraft.

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Indonesia: Hot spots hard to find, even harder to put out

Bad roads and peat fires that refuse to die mean there's no quick solution
Joyce Lim And Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja Indonesia Correspondent In Dumai (riau Province)
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

ON THE map, the red dots marking the hot spots causing the haze seemed near enough.

On the ground, however, it took The Straits Times team 12 hours to visit just three of them.

Another example of the massive scale involved in the worsening haze crisis: One red dot can turn out to be a 3,000ha plantation - about the size of four Ang Mo Kio estates.

The hot spot closest to Dumai is in Pelintung, about 35km away. But it took us more than an hour to get there because the roads were bad.

Finding the hot spot was a problem because many of them cannot be seen from the main road, and a lack of signs makes the task even harder.

Despite mounting frustration in Singapore and Malaysia, it was clear from our travels in recent days that there could be no quick solution to the haze crisis, given the scale and complexity of the problem.

This was something we found out first-hand, after meeting Mr Jaafar Arit, who heads the Bengkalis disaster management agency.

He took us to one of the worst-hit spots in the island regency of Bengkalis, off Dumai.

On the way, we lost count of the number of times our heads hit the roof of the car during the bumpy 3km ride before we came to a massive expanse of scorched plantation.

Firefighters told The Straits Times team that they faced equal difficulty in finding the hot spots and accessing them, even though fighting fires in these plantations has become very much an annual affair.

Mr Jaafar said that his men had had to camp outside the peatland because of the danger that the peat soil could start burning again after it had been put out.

Peat soil, which is made up of decomposed plant material, burns easily and often smoulders underground, making it tough to put out completely.

At one particular hot spot in Bengkalis regency, we were told that firefighters had put out the fire five times, only to see it begin burning again.

"Every time we think that we have put out the fire, it resurfaces," said Mr Jaafar.

"The firefighters are exhausted. It is never-ending. In fact, we have given up on some hot spots. There is no way we can put out the fire completely. We can only wait for rain."

Firefighters also face problems finding a water source as these areas are often undeveloped, he added. "Water pumps breaking down and water shortage are problems we face every day," he said.

He added that the weather conditions this year have been especially challenging. The winds are stronger and keep changing direction, which fans the flames and helps the fire spread faster, he explained.

There was no more raging fire by the time we got to the Bengkalis hot spot.

The flames had been extinguished, leaving a huge expanse of scorched peatland that was still giving off heat and lots of smoke.

At last, we got to see one of the sources of the smoke that has shrouded Singapore and parts of Malaysia and pushed haze readings to record levels in the past week.

Back in Dumai, the Pollutant Standards Index reading shot up to a record 492.

It was so bad that we could actually see dust particles floating in the air.

Dumai fires started by local farmers, says mayor
Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja Indonesia Correspondent In Dumai (riau Province)
Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

AMID a growing row over whether foreign companies are responsible for the fires causing hazardous levels of pollution, a top local official said there are no Singapore plantation companies operating in Dumai.

The fires in Dumai were started by local farmers, said Mr Khairul Anwar, the mayor of Dumai, which is the closest to many of this year's hot spots in Riau province.

In an interview with The Straits Times, the mayor said it was difficult to get these farmers to abide by the law and not start fires to clear the land because they would do anything to protect their oil palm plantations, which are mostly about 2ha and located deep in the forest interior.

There are also farmers who came from the city centre or other regions in Indonesia. As they have deeper pockets, their oil palm plantations are very much bigger - 100ha.

"They may be investors who tied up with foreigners, maybe Singapore or Malaysian nationals, or from other countries," said Mr Khairul. "Many just come in and occupy the land illegally."

While there are no Singapore companies in Dumai, it is not clear if they are operating in other parts of Riau.

The mayor acknowledged that the vast geography made it difficult to police and act against such illegal plantation activity.

Dumai is 90 per cent forest and much of the ground is peat soil, made up of decomposed plant materials. Peat burns easily and often smoulders underground.

The mayor said he had no plans to evacuate residents even if pollution levels worsen, but would appeal to the people to pray for rain.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the haze problem is finally getting some media attention after it was overshadowed by a roiling debate over the government's move to cut fuel subsidies.

Dailies like the Jakarta Post and Kompas carried reports of the haze on their front pages, while television news began to feature segments on how the worsening air pollution had prompted flight cancellations or delays in areas like Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province.

The Jakarta Globe yesterday also reported the first known death related to the fires in Riau.

According to the daily newspaper, a man living in Rokan Hilir was killed and his wife seriously injured after they were caught in a fire. The man died of burns, and his wife remained in a critical condition, the Globe reported without further elaboration.

Riau in state of emergency due to haze
Rizal Harahap, The Jakarta Post 21 Jun 13;

The government finally declared a state of emergency in Riau starting on Friday following worsening haze from forest fires in three regencies and municipalities in the province.

The haze is from forest fires in the regencies of Bengkalis and Rokan Hilir and Dumai City.

“The President has instructed the National Disaster Mitigation Agency [BNPB] to take over fire extinguishing efforts in Riau, starting on Friday,” the BNPB emergency response director Tri Budiarto said on Friday.

The agency said it had deployed two helicopters on Friday to spray water from the air and one aircraft for cloud seeding efforts in the burning areas, starting on Saturday.

Riau Deputy Governor Mambang Mit added that cloud seeding efforts would be the last solution because the conventional techniques had met difficulties extinguishing the fires.

“The weather conditions, which are very dry and windy, and the locations of fires, which are inaccessible to vehicles, have slowed efforts to put out the fires. The only solution is cloud seeding,” he said.

He said that the Riau administration was currently investigating the involvement of some firms in the forest fires.

He did not deny the fact that in the previous years a number of plantation companies made use of the dry weather to clear their areas for planting.

“The authorities will take strong measures against them if there is enough evidence,” he said, adding that the legal process would be handled by the police.

According the data from the Forestry Ministry, the total areas gutted by the fires have reached 3,709 hectares in 10 out 12 regencies and municipalities in Riau, where Rokan Hilir and Bengkalis have been the most heavily affected. (hrl)

Read more!

Why Indonesia Can Only Wait for Rain as Riau Burns and Singapore Chokes

Jonathan Vit & Harry Jacques Jakarta Globe 22 Jun 13;

Motorcyclists drive through the smog in Dumai, Riau on June 21. (Reuters Photo)
Indonesia has accepted international praise for its deforestation legislation but has failed to invest in its enforcement, two top environmental groups said on Friday as fires continued to burn through protected peatlands in Sumatra.

The Ministry of Forestry lacks the resources to police the million of hectares of forest protected under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s acclaimed deforestation moratorium, Greenpeace Indonesia said. Fires in Riau province have burned for nearly a week, blanketing portions of Sumatra, Malaysia and Singapore in a thick cloud of smog.

More than 140 hotspots have been observed in satellite images across Sumatra and Kalimantan since the start of the week. Environmental activists and the ministry disagree over the number of hotspots burning in protected forests. Environmental groups estimated that number was close to 70. The ministry said fires were reported in only “five or six” protected forests.

“It’s nowhere near 50 percent,” said ministry spokesman Sumarto.

Greenpeace Indonesia said the government has done little to invest in programs to curb slash-and-burn clearing or enforce forest protections. Without national investment in the policing of Indonesia’s protected forests, national regulations on land clearing amount to little more than smoke and mirrors, said Yuyun Indrani, a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner.

“It is a lack of human resources,” Yuyun told the Jakarta Globe. “It would be ridiculous to keep saying it’s a lack of human resources; we’ve had these fires for years. We think that you need one person for every 10 hectares, but it’s not only that. You need helicopters and a plane. I haven’t seen the Ministry of Forestry invest in any of this.”

While the Indonesian government has attempted to curb the use of slash-and-burn clearing, a lack of enforcement and coordination at local levels has left regulations toothless.

“To reduce significant amounts of land burned, we need high political commitment followed by political will from central down to local government,” said Anwar Purwoto, a World Wildlife Fund Indonesia forestry campaigner.

The ministry admitted the manpower shortfall, but denied allegations that it was not investing in protecting Indonesia’s forests. The ministry employs some 12,000 forest rangers, about half of what it would need to adequately police 130 million hectares of land, Sumarto said.

“Every year we’ve asked for more forest rangers,” Sumarto said, adding that the ministry had sought the help of local governments in recruitment efforts. “Community participation is important. We’ll train them, embrace them and organize communal activities involving people living around forests, because these are communal forests.”

The ministry now relies on a large force of local landowners, called the “Manggala Agni” troops, to enforce deforestation regulations, Sumarto said.

“We partner with people living around forests… including Riau and West Kalimantan,” he said. “Now local communities that we’ve trained are working in the field. Every day I receive reports about hotspots. They’ve gone there, extinguishing the fires.”

Riau’s burning

The fires in Riau spread to cover more than 850 hectares of forested land on Friday, defying fire fighters’ efforts to extinguish the flames and prompting calls for the government to attempt to create artificial rain.

The president ordered the National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) to seed the clouds above Riau province — a method used in the past to create artificial rain — and drop water from agency helicopters. Three planes supplied by the Indonesian Military (TNI) and the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) were sent to Pekanbaru Thursday night.

“[The] president has agreed to the strategies and demanded it gets done soon,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman of BNPB, said on Thursday.

Traditional methods to extinguish the flames had failed to make a significant impact, Raffles Panjaitan, director of forestry investigations and observation at the Ministry of Forestry, said. The fires had reached underground peatland, making ground-based efforts ineffective, he said.

Still, the number of hotspots had decreased by Friday afternoon, according to Zulkifli Yusuf, the head of Riau Forestry Agency.

“Some of the fires have been extinguished, from 100-something hotspots to only 23 now,” Zulkifli said. “But smoke is still blowing.”

Hasyim, a local community leader in Pergam village, Bengkalis, said much of the fires were burning in a 500-hectare area communal area managed by local farmers. Hotspots were also reported in a concession managed by Sumatera Riang Lestari, an affiliate of Asia Pacific Resources International Limited, Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper company, he said.

“All the years I’ve been here, this is the worst forest fire we’ve witnessed,” Hasyim said. “I guess it’s because of the high temperature. It hasn’t rained for days now.”

While much of the press has focused on the haze’s impact in Singapore and Malaysia, the local residents of Riau are feeling the greater heat. Residents have fled their homes in Bengkalis, Hasyim reported. Some 30 percent are experiencing respiratory problems. The fires have burned through hectares of local farmland, decimating this season’s crops, he added.

“So please send us rubber and oil palm seeds after this is over,” he said. “I’m also asking the government to prevent this incident from happening again.”

The blame game

Riau Police launched an investigation on Friday into five companies accused of setting fire to plantation lands. The department declined to name the companies, but promised legal action against those responsible.

“We will take strict action against the companies that exercised illegal burning,” Riau Police chief Brig. Gen. Condro Kirono said.

Those found guilty of setting the fires could have their licenses revoked, National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Franky F. Sompie said. There are no criminal charges for setting fires to clear land in Indonesia.

“There will be administration sanctions like license revocation, but not by the National Police,” Franky said. “It doesn’t have to be a legal sanction.”

The Riau Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and the Ministry of Forestry previously denied the involvement of large palm oil and pulp companies, saying the blame instead lied with local small-scale farmers.

But the line between large multinational palm oil companies and small-scale farmers isn’t always clear, said J. Jackson Ewing, a researcher at the Center for Non-Traditional Security at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

“One thing to consider is that the small-scale/large-scale division is not black and white,” he said in an email. “In many cases smallholders are contracted to large companies and receive front-end support (seeds, fertilizers, etc.) for subsequent outputs.”

A Greenomics Indonesia study identified 1,106 hotspots in areas managed by 57 HTI forest concession holders and plantations firms, including concessions run by Sinar Mas Group, the owners of Asia Pacific Pulp and Paper (APP), and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a subsidiary of APRIL, Elfian Effendi, the executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, said in a press statement released on Friday. The NGO also discovered fires in land owned by First Resources, one of Indonesia’s largest palm companies.

Officials from Singapore and Indonesia have traded diplomatic blows over who is responsible for the thick smog covering much of the region this week. The city-state criticized Jakarta for failing to curb the annual fires, prompting Indonesian officials to fire back with allegations that the companies involved are registered in Singapore and Malaysia.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. Most palm oil and pulp companies have a foot in two or more countries. Sinar Mas Group was founded by Indonesian businessman Eka Tjipta Widjaja, but has branches listed on stock exchanges in Indonesia and Singapore.

RGE Pte. Ltd., which owns APRIL and RAPP, has offices in Singapore, Indonesia and China. The company was founded by Sukanto Tanoto, a billionaire with New Order ties who, by all accounts, sprang from humble beginnings in Medan.

The Singapore-listed First Resources is owned by Tjiliandra Fangiono, Indonesia’s 38th richest man — worth of $1.05 billion according to Globe Asia.

Diplomatic Riau

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong promised swift action against any Singaporean companies involved in the blaze.

“If any Singapore companies are involved, or companies which are present in Singapore are involved, we will take it up with them,” Lee said, according to Agence France-Presse.

Singapore’s air quality degraded to “very hazardous” levels by 11 a.m. on Friday, breaking 400 on the Pollutant Standards Index, the National Environment Agency reported. Residents in Singapore have complained of worsening conditions as the fires entered their fifth day.

“The air quality has become worse.. the PSI readings went from 190 to 290 in an hour and everyone thought it was a typo,” said Alex Coulston, an American teacher living in Bukit Timah, Singapore. “The next day I could really feel it. More people are wearing masks, even me, and staying indoors. [People are] overall angry and frustrated.”

As Indonesia and Singapore continued to lock diplomatic horns on Friday night with smog still drifting over the Malacca Strait, Haysim cast doubts that the end was in sight.

“I can’t tell you where the fire began; I don’t know much about that. But the point is the fire has spread everywhere, and it will keep spreading if it isn’t handled quickly,” he said. “Now there is no sign that the fires will be gone soon.”

The Indonesian government appears to agree, pinning its hopes on rain solving the problem while authorities admit there are too few resources to protect its vast rainforests.

“Allow me to convey a message from people here to the government,” Haysim said. “This fire is a catastrophe.”

— Additional reporting by Cameila Pasandaran, Dessy Sagita, Erwida Maulia and Ethan Harfenist

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Air pollution becomes Asia's migraine

Richard Ingham (AFP) Google News 21 Jun 13;

PARIS — Air pollution has become a curse for millions of city-dwellers in Asia, posing a mounting risk to the very young and very old, pregnant women and people with heart and respiratory problems, say experts.

"The levels of pollution in parts of China, India and elsewhere in Asia are just astronomically high and the health impacts are dramatic," said Bob O'Keefe of the Health Effects Institute (HEI), a US not-for-profit research agency.
"This is a threat that was really under-estimated in the past," said O'Keefe.

This week, Singapore grappled with record levels of air pollution, unleashed by land fires in neighbouring Indonesia.

In January, pollution in Beijing went off the scale of an air-quality monitor at the US embassy, and the city's hospital admissions surged by 20 percent.

In August 2012, Hong Kong suffered its highest-recorded pollution, prompting the territory to urge vulnerable population groups to stay indoors.

HEI estimates, derived from an exceptionally detailed analysis called the Global Burden of Disease, say that some 3.2 million people around the world died prematurely from outdoor air pollution in 2010.

China and India together accounted for some 2.5 million of these deaths, sharing the tally roughly equally.
The death toll in China has risen by a third over 20 years, but worse pollution is only part of the reason. As China becomes more prosperous, its citizens are attaining greater ages, reaching 70 or 80 years or beyond -- when people become more vulnerable to heart and respiratory stress from air pollution.

A study published last August in the journal Nature Climate Change estimated that forest and land fires in Southeast Asia kill an additional 15,000 people annually from air pollution during the El Nino weather phenomenon, when drier soil often causes blazes to go out of control. (There is no El Nino at present.)

An investigation by US researchers, published in February, found that among three million births recorded in nine countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia, there was a clear link between worse air pollution and lower birth weight.

Low birth weight -- when a newborn weighs less than 2.5 kilos (5.5 pounds) -- is associated with ill health, premature death and cognitive problems in later life.

Health experts point to two main dangers from air pollution.

One concerns particulate matter (PM) -- the sooty specks emitted from fossil fuels, forest fires and land clearances.
Cathryn Tonne, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, points the finger at so-called PM2.5 -- particles measuring 2.5 micrometres across or less, or 30 times smaller than a human hair.

Mainly generated by the burning of coal and oil for power stations, and diesel and petrol for transport, these are many times more perilous than PM10 particles, which are 10 micrometres across, Tonne and colleagues found in research into heart deaths in England and Wales.

"We found that for every 10 microgrammes per cubic metre in PM2.5, there was a 20-percent increase in the death rate," Tonne said.

By way of comparison, the WHO has a recommended maximum of 10 microgrammes of PM2.5 per cubic metre as an annual exposure -- and a maximum over a 24-hour period of 25 microgrammes per cubic metre.

In the United States, the annual PM2.5 limit is a recommended 12 microgrammes per cubic metre, and in the European Union (EU), it is 25 microgrammes.

In Beijing's smog scare in January, though, levels reached a whopping 993 microgrammes per cubic metre... almost 40 times the WHO's advised safety limit.

The other big danger from air pollution is ozone, a triple molecule of oxygen that in the stratosphere is a vital shield against DNA-damaging sunlight, but at ground level -- where it is typically created by a reaction between nitrogen oxides in traffic fumes and sunlight -- it is an irritant for the airways.

Short-term spikes in ground-level ozone have long been linked to heart attacks and severe asthma.

But research conducted in the US, published in 2009, suggests that cumulative exposure is also a big risk factor. The probability of dying from respiratory disease rose by as much as 50 percent as a result of long-exposure to high concentrations of ozone.

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The Sea Turtle: a Potential Tourism Icon For Sabah's Pulau Mabul

Siti Zubaidah Abdullah Bernama 21 Jun 13;

SEMPORNA, June 21 (Bernama) -- Green turtles and hawksbill turtles that make their landing on Pulau Mabul near here are touted to be the new tourism icons to help drive the tourism industry of Sabah.

Taking advantage of the attractiveness of turtles, relevant authorities have decided to celebrate the World Turtle Day and make it an annual event on the island.

The authorities, comprising the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment and the Sabah Tourism Board, will work closely with Sabah Parks, the Department of Wildlife, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) and Uncle Chang's Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge on the island to achieve the tourism goal.

Census will be carried out by relevant bodies to understand the population of turtles in the waters around Pulau Mabul. The authorities will catch the turtles, tag them and release them into the water.

This way, research will be carried out and the level of awareness among the public on the need to conserve sea turtles will be raised. Pulau Mabul is one of the world's most popular spots for scuba diving.

The island of Pulau Mabul, which is a 45-minute boat ride from the town of Semporna, offers five world class diving sites, including Pulau Sipadan, which is also nearby.

Various efforts are already being undertaken to establish Pulau Mabul as a leading tourist destination in the world.


Senior Lecturer at the Borneo Marine Research Institute of Universiti Malaysia Sabah, Dr P. Pushpa, said although the potential for turtles to become a major tourist attraction is high, especially among nature lovers and for those who are fascinated by marine life, there is a need to enhance the current conservation programmes and provide care for the turtles to prevent them from becoming extinct.

"Through the conservation efforts undertaken by Sabah Parks since 1960s, it has been found that the number of turtles that landed on the island in 2011 was the highest in record," said Pushpa, who has been doing her research on the reptile since 2010.

She said the environment of Pulau Mabul has become increasingly conducive for the growth of the turtle population on the island amid a shift in the mentality of the people, their level of understanding and increased care for the continued existence of marine life.

According to her research, more than 700 green turtles and hawksbill turtles have been tagged on Pulau Mabul and Pulau Sipadan, which are the nesting grounds for the endangered species of turtles.

"As of May, 150 turtles have been tagged on Pulau Mabul and 535 on Pulau Sipadan, with their ages estimated at between eight and 20 years.

"During a pre-celebration event held in conjunction with the World Turtle Day in March, a total of 18 turtles comprising both the green and hawksbill species were tagged," she added.

Based on her research, Puspha said Pulau Mabul and Pulau Sipadan were found to provide a suitable living environment for the turtles due to the vastness of the sea shores that could accommodate their large populations at any given time.

Apart from the uniqueness of the turtle species on the island, another interesting part of the island is the nomadic lifestyle of the sea-faring Bajau Laut people around the waters of the island.

They are known as either 'Pela'uh' or Sea Gypsies, with their homes fringing the shores of Semporna as well as Tawau and Lahad Datu.


Meanwhile, the founder and owner of Sipadan Mabul Dive Lodge on Pulau Mabul, who is fondly known as Uncle Chang, said he had set up the resort to support the government's efforts to establish Semporna, particularly Pulau Mabul, as the leading tourist destination in Sabah.

The cost of accommodation at the lodge, which is clean and well kept, is reasonable, he said, adding that it is well-equipped with other facilities, including boats for transportation.

"My team and I are committed to protecting the environment and promoting sustainable ecotourism. This means running a diving lodge that uses minimal resources and has minimal impact on the environment," Uncle Chang added.

There are also experienced dive masters at the resort who provide various services.

Close to 1,000 to 3,000 visitors, especially scuba divers and nature lovers, visit the resort every month to enjoy the underwater beauty and the marine life around the area and nearby islands.

He is also planning to start a programme around the end of this year, which focuses on cleaning up the area starting from the jetty at Semporna to nearby villages in Pulau Mabul, Kapalai and Sipadan.

"Those who will assist in the programme will get free transport and accommodation," said Uncle Chang, a nature lover himself.


Following the invasion of Sabah by Sulu militants from southern Philippines earlier this year, tourism operators in the state view the initiative to set up the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) as an important element for the success of tourism in the east coast of Sabah.

The ESSCOM, which covers 1,400km of the east coast of Sabah, including the Semporna district, will include the set up of a police station in Pulau Mabul.

There are several security measures that the government has put in place to ensure that tourist spots in the east coast of Sabah continue to be safe destinations for tourists.

In addition, the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment is also actively coming up with programmes to promote products and tourist attractions unique to the Sabah East Coast to increase the number of people visiting the place.

Meanwhile, Assistant Minister Datuk Pang Yuk Ming, who officiated the World Turtle Day 2013 celebration on Pulau Mabul recently, said the turtle conservation programmes help to attract tourists to Semporna, Tawau, Kunak and Lahad Datu.

Pang, who commended the public's efforts to protect turtles, added that scuba divers from all over the world have been choosing the islands of Sabah, particularly Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Mabul, as their favourite recreational destinations.


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Malaysia: Sun bears still facing threats

New Straits Times 22 Jun 13;

SANDAKAN: Hunted for generations in the jungles of Borneo for the bile from its gall bladder and for food, the Malayan Sun Bear continues to be a target for the ever present global demand in traditional medicine and exotic meat, threatening the world's smallest bear which is said to have dwindled in numbers by 30 per cent in the last three decades.

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC) founder and chief executive officer Wong Siew Te said natives, particularly in Borneo, traditionally believe that the sun bear's bile ejects itself out of the gall bladder and spreads inside a bear's body, healing injuries in a fall.

"Sun bears can climb high up on trees and normally climb down slowly from the tree. However, when they encounter human encroachment in the forest when they are on a tree, they tend to slide down quickly or even drop themselves from the tree. They then recover quickly and go about their day.

"This has erroneously made people believe that the phenomenon is due to the power of the sun bear bile that spreads within the body and heals the bears, allowing them to recover instantly. This is why sun bears are traditionally hunted in the wild for their bile, apart from their meat," Wong said.

He said in some parts of the world, Asiatic Black Bears are kept in unimaginably cruel conditions in small metal cages and their bile extracted for up to 20 years, and then killed once they are unable to produce the liquid.
While there are no bear bile farms here, bear bile is consumed locally. Bear gall bladder, bear bile capsules and other bile products are sold illegally in traditional medicine stores.

"With this demand, sun bears continue to be at risk of getting hunted."

While the actual number of sun bears in the wild is unknown, its status as a "totally protected" species under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment and its listing as "vulnerable" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List is not keeping those after its bile away from the risk of prosecution.

Under the enactment, those found in possession of a sun bear or its product could face a fine of up to RM50,000 or a jail term of five years or both.

Other threats that sun bears face include habitat loss and demand for the exotic pet trade.

"Sun bear cubs are cute and there is demand for such a pet. To get a cub, the mother is killed to prevent hunters from getting harmed. Once these cubs grow, they become aggressive and it becomes dangerous to keep them as pets.

"This is when they are surrendered to the authorities. They lose survival skills when kept as pets," he said.
Bears surrendered to or confiscated by the Sabah Wildlife Department are sent to the BSBCC adjacent to the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. It is currently home to 28 sun bears.


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