Best of our wild blogs: 21 Jul 13

Living with Macaques in Urbanised Singapore – interview with Amanda Tan from Otterman speaks

Night Walk On The Wilder Side Of Jalan Kayu
from Beetles@SG BLOG

Butterfly of the Month - July 2013
from Butterflies of Singapore

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Haze may return in coming days: NEA

Channel NewsAsia 21 Jul 13;

SINGAPORE: The National Environment Agency (NEA) said hazy conditions may return to Singapore in the coming days.

That may happen if dry weather persists in most parts of Sumatra and wind direction changes to blow from the west in the next two days

In a statement issued on Sunday morning, NEA said the number of hotspots in Sumatra, as tracked by the NOAA 18 satellite, has gone up sharply in the last two days to reach 159 on Saturday.

Of these hotspots, 63 are found to be in Riau province in central Sumatra, which is about 280 kilometres from Singapore.

Some localised smoke plumes are observed rising from the hotspots.

The other hotspots on the island are mainly further north in Aceh and North Sumatra.

NEA said as the winds are currently from the southeast or south, the smoke haze is not being blown towards Singapore at this time.

However, some states in Peninsular Malaysia have been experiencing a worsening in their air quality since late Saturday morning.

The highest Air Pollutant Index reading at 5am on Sunday was 98 in Bukit Rambai, Malacca.

NEA said over the next two days, dry weather conditions are expected to persist in most parts of Sumatra.

The agency says it will provide further haze alerts to the public if the dry weather persists and the wind direction changes.

- CNA/fa

Return of haze, hotspots detected in Indonesia
The Star 21 Jul 13;

MALACCA: Bukit Rambai here recorded an unhealthy Air Pollution Index (API) reading of 105 at noon Sunday signalling a possible return to hazy conditions.

According to the Department of Environment (DoE) website, the API reading at 8am was 102.

However, the API reading were 103 and 105 at 10am and 11am respectively.

Melaka City registered moderate API readings of 77 at 8am, 78 (9am), 79 (10am), 79 (11am) and 80 at 12 noon.

API readings between 0 to 50 is considered good, 51 to 100 (moderate), 101 to 200 (unhealthy), 201 to 300 (very unhealthy) and above 300 hazardous.

The number of hotspots in Sumatra has spiked sharply from zero to 159 in a mere four days, causing the haze to return to Peninsular Malaysia.

After weeks of clear skies, unhealthy air quality has been recorded in Bukit Rambai, Malacca, where residents and tourists have already taken to donning masks on their faces.

In Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) says Singapore may experience hazy conditions in the coming days.

Over the next two days, dry weather conditions were expected to persist in most parts of Sumatra.

"Should there be a change in the wind direction from the west, Singapore may experience hazy conditions," the agency said.

The NEA will provide further haze alerts to the public if these events become more likely.

It said the number of hotspots in Sumatra as tracked by the NOAA 18 satellite had gone up sharply in the last two days to reach 159 on Saturday.

"Of these hotspots, 63 are detected in the Riau province in central Sumatra, which is about 280 km from Singapore.

"Some localised smoke plumes are observed to emanate from the hotspots.

"The other hotspots on the island are primarily further north, in Acheh and North Sumatra.

"As the winds are currently from the southeast or south, the smoke haze is not being blown towards Singapore at this time," the NEA said.

It also noted that some states in Peninsular Malaysia have been experiencing a deterioration in their air quality since Saturday afternoon, with the highest Air Pollutant Index reading at 5am Sunday being 98 in Bukit Rambai, Malacca.

As at noon in Singapore, the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) was at 20, while the 24-hour PSI was between 19 and 33. - Bernama

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Corals are nature's own archives

Reefs serve as records of environmental change, aiding climate and ocean research
Feng Zengkun Straits Times 21 Jul 13;

Dr Intan Nurhati (left) and Ms Jani Tanzil, of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology, with a coral sample and the drill they use to collect specimens from reefs. “We actually spend about 10 per cent of our time in the water, and our work calls for scuba diving qualifications,” says Dr Nurhati. -- ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Q: Most scientists spend much of their time in the laboratory. Do you?

Dr Intan Nurhati: We actually spend about 10 per cent of our time in the water, and our work calls for scuba diving qualifications. We dive to coral reefs and take coral samples to study past environmental changes, like how the climate and ocean chemistry have changed.Ms Jani Tanzil: We also look into how these changes have affected the corals and coral reefs.

Q: Ever had any close shaves?

Ms Tanzil: We haven't had any close shaves, but there have been a few times when we reached the shore after a diving trip just before a huge storm hit.

Q: Why study corals?

Dr Nurhati: Most climate research requires data from a long period of time, say hundreds of years, if you want to understand what nature is doing versus what people did.

Current measurement instruments may not have existed back then. Some sites may also be too remote for sensors. To study (the climate phenomenon) El Nino, for instance, we need long temperature records from the Central Pacific ocean, but who on earth would have put sensors there 100 years ago?

So we need to be creative and look at nature's own archives. Just like trees have rings that are annual markings, some corals also have growth rings, which can be seen with X-rays and under ultraviolet light.

This means we can study corals to learn more about past events.

Corals can grow for 10, 20, even hundreds of years, and some can grow relatively fast, so you can even get monthly data, like what happened in September 1984.

Q: What are some of the things that you can learn from corals?

Dr Nurhati: The coral bands vary in their thickness and composition due to changes in factors such as water temperature, clarity and nutrient availability.

You can study many things from the coral skeleton's chemistry. It can tell us about changes in temperature, which are important if you want to know the rate of ocean warming and global warming.

We also study how ocean chemistry has changed by measuring heavy metals such as lead in our corals, and rainfall changes by measuring the chemistry proxy for salinity in corals.

If you have more rain, the ocean becomes more diluted, so the salinity falls.

Q: How are the rings or bands formed?

Ms Tanzil: For corals around Singapore, the luminescent bands are related to salinity changes.

Trees shed leaves, which decompose and create humic acids. When you have many trees near rivers, the higher river flow during the wet season washes the humic acids into the reefs and corals absorb them. In dry seasons, there is less river flow and therefore less humic acids flowing into the reefs.

The exact cause of the bandings and rings in corals is still being investigated, but my research has found that bright bands usually correspond to the south-west monsoon and the dull bands correspond to the north-east monsoon.

We also verify this by staining the coral in the reef with a harmless calcium dye. You stain it multiple times, and then collect a specimen later. The stain bands, which show up as pink lines in the coral skeleton, will allow you to infer the growth rate and pattern. I have stained corals over a two-year period just to make sure the natural bands are somewhat annual.

Q: How do you get the coral specimens?

Dr Nurhati: We core the corals using a long barrel with diamond-dusted teeth at one end, and we use pressurised air to power the drill, which rotates the coring barrel into the coral. This gives us long columns of coral.

Q: Doesn't this harm the corals?

Dr Nurhati: We don't kill or collect the whole coral, but sample only a small portion. If you look at a coral, the living part is only the outer layer, which is about 0.5cm thick, covering the coral like a blanket. Beneath this is dead skeleton.

Our samples are just 5cm in diameter, so we take only a small, thin slice of living material. Everything else is skeleton.

Ms Tanzil: To the living coral, it's like a fish taking a bite out of it. We fill the hole with epoxy, which is like plasticine but hardens like cement. With time, the living tissue will grow over the epoxy and cover it up. We also monitor the holes we patch up, and we do need a permit from the National Parks Board to core corals in Singapore waters.

Q: What do you do with the coral specimens?

Dr Nurhati: We "slab" it into two to three slices. Most of the time, we use the middle slice for analysis, and the rest we keep for our records and in case someone wants to collaborate and study other things with it.

Ms Tanzil: Then I take the slices and date the various bands. Different corals grow differently, so it's important to understand what causes the banding.

Dr Nurhati: Once the dates are assigned, I put a tracking mark in each section and drill a small portion into powder. We collect this very fine powder, weigh it, and then dilute it in acid so we have a solution, which we put into machines for different analyses.

Q: What's the experience of studying corals like to you?

Dr Nurhati: It's like having a history book of the environment, and you even get chapters.


Ms Jani Tanzil and Dr Intan Nurhati, who are both in their early 30s, have been researching corals around Singapore as part of their work at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart).

By examining the corals, which can grow for hundreds of years, they can detect how the climate here has changed over time.

A marine ecologist by training, Ms Tanzil is currently completing her University of Amsterdam doctorate, which is focused on corals around the Thai-Malay peninsula.

Like trees, corals add layers or bands over time.

Ms Tanzil uses luminescent and density banding patterns in corals to date and reconstruct the corals' past growth rates, in a method known as sclerochronology.

Dr Nurhati is an Indonesian climate scientist with a doctorate from the Georgia Institute of Technology in the United States. A postdoctoral associate at Smart, she studies corals around Singapore to answer questions such as whether the monsoon seasons are changing, and how industrial activities have altered marine chemistry.

Coral reefs occupy less than 0.1 per cent of the world's oceans, but scientists believe that the reefs account for and support more than a quarter of the oceans' biodiversity.

Singapore's reef area covers less than 10 sq km, but it is home to over 250 hard coral species, almost one-third of the global total.

Beautiful science
Straits Times 21 Jul 13;


Ultraviolet light revealing annual luminescent growth rings in sliced coral heads collected from around the Thai-Malay Peninsula.

Corals grow by forming layers, similar to trees that form growth rings each year.

Because these coral layers "lock in" certain chemicals under different environmental conditions, they can serve as archives of past environmental changes, according to researchers from the Singapore MIT-Alliance for Research and Technology.

Studying these coral bands can provide information on environmental changes such as regional climate change and heavy metal pollution over the years.

"Coral reefs are essential spawning, nursery, breeding and feeding grounds for numerous organisms. In terms of biodiversity, the variety of species living on a coral reef is one of the most diverse on the planet, yet coral reefs cover less than one-tenth of 1 per cent of the ocean floor. By one estimate, biodiversity value accounts for US$5.5 billion (S$7 billion) of the total estimated annual global net benefit of coral reefs."


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Pangolins in Malaysia: They're hunted for their scales and meat

New Straits Times 21 Jul 13;

ACCORDING to Dr Chris Shepherd, deputy regional director of Traffic Southeast Asia, the illegal trafficking of pangolins has gone down over the years, not because conservation efforts are paying off, but because it is getting harder to source the animals.

Pangolins are hunted for their scales and meat. The scales are used in traditional medicines and the meat is eaten as a luxury dish.

"When you see a doctor, you don't ask what medicine to be given to you. Instead, the doctor gives you what works well. That's why Traffic is encouraging traditional medicine practitioners to stop prescribing pangolin," says Shepherd.

"There are approximately 30 legal herbal alternatives available.

"As for the meat, unfortunately, it is the consumers who choose what they want to eat, and to show off their wealth in a restaurant."

As society becomes affluent, the demand for pangolin has overtaken enforcement efforts. Shepherd says the enforcement of wildlife laws needs to be proactive rather than reactive, to a point where people become aware that the penalties outweigh the illicit rewards.

Although tens of thousands of pangolins have been seized in Southeast Asia, including a 17-tonne haul in Indonesia, the quantity of the seizures do not indicate how severe the illicit trade has grown.

Instead, Shepherd says the best sign is the falling population in places where pangolins once roamed abundantly. This has been reported by researchers, government authorities and the illegal hunters themselves.

The shift in sourcing locations is another indication of how much people are willing to pay to consume this endangered species. With the numbers dwindling in Asia, traders are turning to Africa for supplies.

China, the biggest market for pangolins, and Indochina countries, which are emerging markets, have lost most of their animal populations. Malaysia, Indonesia and Palawan Island in the Philippines are still sourcing locations.

These countries are the final frontiers for Asian pangolins and, therefore, the need to step up conservation efforts is urgent. In Malaysia, the demand for exotic meat is growing but pangolins are hard to find because most have been exported.

In a study conducted by Traffic in 2009, the flow of pangolins from Southeast Asian countries seem to concentrate in Peninsular Malaysia and Sabah.

The animals captured from Palawan Island are exported to Kudat and Sandakan in Sabah, whereas those from Java and Sumatra will be taken to the peninsula. It has also been reported that pangolins from Sabah have been sent to the peninsula and mixed with the local supply chain. There are also networks believed to exist in Sarawak.

Malaysia has the best laws in the region to fight illegal wildlife trade, especially with the introduction of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.

Despite that, Shepherd says conviction rates are still low and were mostly against the small fish -- runners and lorry drivers who can be easily replaced.

Pangolins are smuggled using existing transport facilities, such as lorries and air freight. Syndicates hide their contraband by using false documents and packaging deception.

Shepherd says the kingpins must be removed and in doing so, more resources are needed to beef up patrols, investigate cases and prosecute suspects.

He says Malaysia has stepped up its efforts to fight illegal wildlife trade, but resources are still inadequate, especially for the conservation of unpopular species like pangolins.

Most of the available resources are used to support high-profile endangered species such as tigers, elephants and turtles.

Despite the obstacles, Shepherd says things are moving in the right direction. In fact, he says Malaysia has a good opportunity to tackle the illegal trade of pangolins and be a leader in its conservation.

He finds fulfilment in his work when there is an increase of awareness in the plight of endangered species among the public.

Seventeen years ago, when he first took up his position with Traffic, the media only contacted him once every six months for resources.

Today, he frequently gets calls to generate publicity for endangered animals. He says media focus, especially when it comes to highlighting the plight of specific species, is the best ally to raise awareness on its conservation.

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Malaysia: Development pushes hornbills further inland

New Straits Times 21 Jul 13;

KUCHING: Sarawak's hornbills are not extinct, they have just moved deeper inland.

This is because their habitats, which are close to town, have been destroyed as development projects move in, forcing the state's iconic bird to find new homes in the jungle.

Sarawak Forestry Corporation protected areas and biodiversity conservation division deputy general manager Oswald Braken Tisen said the perception that the bird was extinct in Sarawak was because of a lack of sightings of the birds in town.

"People wonder why they can't see hornbills flying around in their neighbourhood any more. The answer is, they are moving to a new habitat."

Hornbills can still be sighted all over the national parks in the state, including Gunung Mulu National Park, Lanjak and Entinau Wildlife Sanctuary as well those in the suburbs, such as Tanjung Datu in Sematan, Kubah, Matang, Gunung Gading in Bau and even Santubong.

Although they were not extinct, he said like all wildlife, the existence of the birds was still under threat.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Hornbills, they fall into the categories of vulnerable and endangered.

In Sarawak, all its species are totally protected. They are the white crowned, bushy-crested, wrinkled, wreathed, Asian black, oriental pied, rhinoceros and the helmeted hornbills.

The bird is also fully protected under the state's Wildlife Ordinance, which provides for appropriate action to be taken against those found guilty of killing or keeping the bird.

The state Forestry Department is also stepping up its efforts to ensure the survival of the bird by creating awareness and getting public participation in its endeavours.

"That is the only way we can protect our hornbills, by getting the community's participation and through education.

"Besides, Sarawak is known as the Land of the Hornbills and all of us must preserve that heritage," said Braken, who attended a hornbill conservation talk by Kasetsart University Thailand forest biology department Assistant Professor Vijak Chimchome.

Vijak agreed that artificial nesting could be used to help the oriental pied hornbill at Piasau Camp, Miri, to nest as the riverine area is inundated with casuarina trees which often do not have any old nests.

"The species is very adaptable. As long as there is plenty of food, this species will survive," said Vijak.

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