Best of our wild blogs: 27 Mar 14

Love MacRitchie Walk – kampung games and ethical wildlife photography from Toddycats!

Flowering of Pigeon Orchids (Dendrobium crumenatum)
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Butterflies Galore! : Arhopala amphimuta
from Butterflies of Singapore

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Strengthening civil society in Singapore

Jose Raymond Today Online 27 Mar 14;

There is sufficient circumstantial evidence to suggest that the Singapore Government is now more prepared to engage and work with civil society than it previously was.

In the environment, the Government has worked with non-government organisations (NGOs) such as the Singapore Environment Council to reach out to the community.

In animal welfare, Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) has benefited as new committees to tackle animal welfare issues have been formed with the help of government agencies.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) sought input and held multiple dialogue sessions with green groups after it announced the proposed construction of the Cross Island Line across parts of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

The LTA has since called for a tender for an environmental impact assessment study to be done with the input from green groups.

These are but just a few examples, but there is still room for further partnerships between the Government and civil society.

Engaging and working with NGOs is a growing trend around the world.


Academics have stressed the need for tripartite and creative collaborations to seek solutions for many of today’s pressing challenges. More than ever, the work of public agencies, NGOs and the corporate sector has become closely connected.

While the Government and the corporate sectors will continue to attract the bulk of top talent, the leadership of civil society must not lag behind in potential, ideas and passion.

This is because NGO leaders must be able to think strategically as never before to translate their insights into effective strategies to cope with changing global circumstances. Building strong partnerships with government agencies and companies will also be crucial in coping with global megatrends. Singapore’s civil society groups must constantly build their internal capabilities to implement strategic changes.

In Singapore and the region, the formation of creative coalitions in public-private partnerships could well be the way forward as we seek solutions to issues such as the haze as well as energy and food security.


In trying to build the leadership capabilities of civil society, I would like to offer three simple strategies as follows:

1. Corporate mentorship

Without casting a broad stroke across the sector, I believe many NGO leaders will agree that they have to fend for themselves in figuring out strategies for effective management, talent retention, fund-raising and in developing brand equity for their organisations or programmes.

In many instances, NGO leaders may not even be aware of how important building brand equity is and how to go about doing it.

Corporate C-suite leaders should adopt an NGO leader as part of their corporate social responsibility to share some of their best commercial practices.

2. Education

If it is critical for civil society leaders to raise their capabilities because of the increasing need for tri-sector collaborations and strategic foresight, then it is only right they be given the opportunities to do so through professional courses.

Two programmes that would be useful for NGO leaders are the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Master in Public Administration and the Singapore Management University’s Master in Tri-Sector Collaboration.

Such courses could well be worthwhile investment to help our civil society leaders learn how to tackle increasingly complex issues that involve regional and global policies and projects.

If funding is an issue, NGOs should source for scholarships or corporate sponsorships to cover the course fees.

3. Sustainable leadership

While I may not be privy to the leadership strategies of all NGOs in Singapore, it is a concern that there are far too few recognised leaders in civil society. When National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre Chief Executive Officer Laurence Lien announced he was stepping down, he also made an appeal on his Facebook page asking friends to “let me know if you know of anyone who can take over!”. Mr Lien leaves behind very huge shoes to fill.

Sustainable leadership is a serious issue that all organisations grapple with. If companies and public agencies face difficulties in recruiting and retaining top talent, imagine how difficult it can be for civil society to groom and keep talent.

One way to promote sustainable leadership is to publicly recognise the efforts of outstanding civil society leaders.

Currently, there are several such outstanding leaders who have done meaningful work for their respective organisations. Mr Louis Lim (ACRES), Ms Corinna Lim (Association of Women for Action and Research) and Dr William Wan (Singapore Kindness Movement) are just a few.

The impact of the work that they do, unfortunately, is hardly recognised at the national level.

This could well be plugged by the Centre for Non-Profit Leadership. Doing so will not only inspire many others to come forward to serve in the sector, it will also underpin the critical role that the non-profit sector plays today and in the foreseeable future.

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Civil service must pay attention to areas of governance: Tharman

Channel NewsAsia 26 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE: Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the civil service must pay special attention to three areas of governance if it is to retain public trust and govern well in Singapore's new environment.

Speaking at the Administrative Service dinner and promotion ceremony on Wednesday evening, Mr Tharman said the first is implementing policies well and making sure they work on the ground.

The second is to include the public more in working out solutions.

The third is investing in community life and the intangibles that matter to people's sense of well-being.

Mr Tharman said: “We cannot read too much into perception surveys, or take too much comfort from them. But the broad conclusions are clear enough. We operate today from a position of broad public confidence in the government, and we have to work hard to keep this trust in the government, that has been built up over the years.”

Mr Tharman also announced the setting up a taskforce to implement the Pioneer Generation Package.

It will be co-led by Senior Minister of State for Finance Josephine Teo, and Senior Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor.

Some of the areas the taskforce will focus on include training volunteers for face-to-face outreach to the pioneers.

A total of 66 administrative officers were promoted this year.

There were over 300 officers in the administrative service last year, an increase of 4.5 per cent compared to 2012.

- CNA/xq

Civil Service needs to understand Singaporeans' moods, sentiments
Sharon See Channel NewsAsia 27 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE: The Civil Service needs to keep its ears close to the ground to understand the moods and sentiments of Singaporeans in order to craft the right policies that benefit citizens.

Mr Peter Ong, head of the Civil Service, said this at a dinner and promotion ceremony for the administrative service on Wednesday.

He said a key focus for the public service is the need for smooth implementation and policies as the operating environment evolves at a more rapid pace than before.

There is also greater diversity of aspirations among citizens, greater plurality of voices on issues and greater uncertainty of policy impact.

Mr Ong said to tackle this new environment, civil servants not only have to have a wide range of skills, they also need to keep their ears close to the ground.

He said how details and feedback by citizens on policies are handled can either allow the successful rollout of policies, or stymie their progress.

This culture of "mastery over details" in the service was well known, as he cited the example of the late Mr Sim Kee Boon, who used to walk the ground and even slept at Changi Airport before its opening, to ensure that everything was in place.

Mr Ong emphasised it was important for civil servants to understand Singaporeans' moods and sentiments and see the impact of policies on their lives.

He said this would allow them to craft the right features into policies to benefit all Singaporeans.

- CNA/de

Greater need for public servants to respond quickly to public feedback
Eileen Poh Channel NewsAsia 27 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE: There is now greater pressure on public servants to respond quickly to public feedback.

But engaging the public means more ideas coming forward to help solve complex problems, according to three top public servants who were promoted this year.

One in every 24 seconds -- that's how much feedback the Land Transport Authority received in 2012.

To 32-year-old Muhammad Ramzi, who works as Deputy Director (Land) at the Ministry of Transport, the numbers show greater public interest, but they also mean time is of the essence where response is concerned.

Mr Ramzi said: "Probably a long time ago when public expectations weren't so high, you could take a bit more time to look at things more thoroughly. But now there's the pressure, demand and there's social media. If you don't come out with a quick response to some of the issues that are going on out there, people will see you as weak. Where's the government, why are they not saying anything?"

Ramzi is one of over 60 administrative officers who were promoted this year.

Another officer who moved up the career ladder is 29-year-old Lydia Loh, who was with the Ministry of Finance from 2009 to 2012.

She said dealing with public feedback was already a challenge then.

Ms Loh, Associate Director (Strategy, Group Enterprise) of SingTel, said: "Taxi drivers have a view, your hawker centre uncle has a view, your bosses have a view, everybody has a view. But what is the representative view? What is it that is good?"

For 31-year-old Tan Chee Hau, more public opinion is a sign that the public cares.

And that is better than having one which does not.

Mr Tan Chee Hau, General Manager of Central Singapore Community Development Council, said: "It is challenging because we have to find out what is the best way to incorporate and listen to these opinions. But at the same time, I see it as a great opportunity because it shows that the public cares.

"It is an opportunity for us to establish partnerships. Problems today that we are facing are very complex, and I think it is only through partnerships that we can come together and make things better. I think it is an exciting time."

The three have been in the public service for some seven years. They are among some 300 officers in the Administrative Service.

- CNA/de

Policy, implementation both vital: Civil Service chief
Robin Chan The Straits Times AsiaOne 29 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE - The Head of the Civil Service wants elite members of the service to be close to the ground so they will not only craft but also execute policies well.

Mr Peter Ong used the occasion of this year's Administrative Service dinner to highlight the importance of policy implementation, as the Government prepares to roll out new policies in the second half of its five-year term.

He said good implementation is needed especially as the environment is changing rapidly in Singapore, with more diverse needs and many different voices.

Policies have also become more complex, with a "constant surge" in transactions and feedback volumes. The time to roll them out has also shortened.

The annual dinner is also a promotion ceremony and this year, 66 administrative service officers (AOs) were promoted.

At the end of last year, there were 324 AOs, an increase of 4.5 per cent, the Public Service Division said. Last year, 24 officers joined the service while 10 either retired, resigned or transferred out.

Mr Ong said that to execute policy well, three things are needed.

The first is to pay attention to details by being close to the ground. The second is to work with non-government partners such as voluntary welfare organisations, restructured hospitals and vendors.

The third is to tap the wisdom of public sector specialists with deep knowledge.

Elaborating on the first, he said keeping one's ear to the ground is important to understand the moods and sentiments of Singaporeans and how policies impact them. Being closer to where public services are delivered also allows officers to put the right features in policies more credibly.

Mr Ong praised the implementation of the Enhancement for Active Seniors (Ease) programme, which aims to improve the safety and comfort of seniors living in HDB flats.

Officers from the Ministry of National Development, HDB and Ministry of Health worked with occupational therapists to pilot the project and found that the height that grab bars are installed at is key.

So HDB trained the contractors to ensure each installation of a grab bar is customised to each senior living there.

"About 24,000 residents have signed up for the programme since its 2012 launch, demonstrating how attention to detail leads to practical benefits for our seniors," he said.

Mr Ong also highlighted the importance of exposing the AOs to operational jobs, such as putting more buses on the road.

There are now 27 AOs working in such jobs, and the aim is to have all AOs have at least one such posting in their careers.

Another initiative - the six- month Community Attachment Programme - has seen its participants quadruple from 10 in the 1980s to 40 this year, he said.

By year's end, 70 per cent of AOs are expected to have undergone this in their first 15 years.

Despite the more challenging environment, Mr Ong said that Singapore's civil service is starting from a strong base in policy implementation and is internationally recognised for this strength.

"We are a public service that can get things done. This can-do spirit must spur us on as we tackle new problems that confront us," he said.

'Vital to listen to silent majority's views...'
Maryam Mokhtar The Straits Times AsiaOne 29 Mar 14;

SINGAPORE -Weeks after Dr Beh Swan Gin became the Law Ministry's permanent secretary, he was tasked to oversee the reform of a law on Singapore's mandatory death sentence.

The experience in 2012 left an indelible mark on the 47-year-old.

He learnt how vital it was "to find ways to understand what the silent majority is talking about".

"Otherwise, your policies and laws may well be shaped by a very loud and noisy minority," he told The Straits Times earlier this week.

The change in the death penalty law since January last year gives judges discretion to impose a life sentence, instead of death, in certain instances of murder and drug trafficking.

But feedback showed a silent conservative part of society felt it "signalled a reduced commitment to law and order", he said.

Mr Beh and PUB chief executive Chew Men Leong were among 66 public sector officers whose promotions were celebrated on Wednesday at the Administrative Service annual dinner and promotion ceremony.

Mr Chew, 46, said understanding the needs and views of the public has been a "very big lesson" for him. Since taking up his present post in 2011, the former navy chief has had to tackle a series of severe flash floods in Singapore as well as the recent, worst-ever dry spell.

Underlying the important role of engaging the public, he highlighted two crucial measures.

One, having a central point of collecting information - where the public can also send details about what is happening where they are - is key in helping PUB decide how "to prioritise our response".

Two, the need to be transparent when engaging the public. "We need to lay out whatever information we have. And if the public is telling us (something), we better recognise it as something we don't know and pick up on it."

Dr Beh said there is a need to seek views in an in-depth manner as people get more involved and social media gets more popular. "You have to engage in deep conversations... you have to invest effort in doing that.

"Is it about having more presence on social media, more presence on the Web? To a certain extent yes but that's just superficial," he added.

A medical doctor by training, Dr Beh held various posts while working in the public sector.

These include being managing director of the Economic Development Board and executive director of the Biomedical Research Council in the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

At the dinner, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam paid tribute to two recently retired permanent secretaries.

They are Mr Chiang Chie Foo and Mr Bilahari Kausikan.

Mr Chiang, who is now chairman of the CPF Board, was in the Administrative Service for 32 years.

Mr Tharman, in noting his "outstanding" career, listed several key positions he has held and his achievements while leading them.

These include being director of the Internal Security Department, where he strengthened its capabilities and operational effectiveness.

Mr Kausikan had a "distinguished" career at the Foreign Affairs Ministry for 31 years, said Mr Tharman, as he described his achievements.

Among them is the groundwork he laid for Singapore's historic election as a non-permanent member of the Security Council of the United Nations.

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Indonesia: Haze back with a vengeance in N. Sumatra; worst likely still to come

Apriadi Gunawan The Jakarta Post 27 Mar 14;

The scourge of Sumatra returned on Wednesday, as haze blanketed the city of Medan and surrounding areas, disrupting flights at the Kuala Namu International Airport in Deli Serdang regency and Ferdinand Lumban Tobing Airport in Pinangsori, Central Tapanuli regency, North Sumatra.

The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) information and data section head, Mega Sirait, said visibility at Kuala Namu and Pinangsori airports only reached 400 meters at 7 a.m. local time.

“By 11:30 a.m., visibility at Kuala Namu airport improved to 4 kilometers, but not at the Pinangsori airport,” Mega said on Wednesday.

She added that this latest wave of haze originated from forest fires in a number of regions in the province.

She said that based on images from the Terra Aqua satellite taken at 5 a.m. local time, the number of forest fires in the province had reached 29.

Mega explained that seven hotspots were detected in Mandailing Natal regency, eight in Labuhanbatu, four in Central Tapanuli, three in South Tapanuli, three in Langkat, three in Karo and one in Padang Sidempuan.

She said the number of fires in North Sumatra had been fluctuating since February.

“The fires are driven mainly by people clearing forests by burning. This has become routine every year during the dry season. Perpetrators often take advantage of the drought to clear forest by burning,” said Mega.

Meanwhile, Pinangsori airport manager Ambar Suryoko said flights at the airport were delayed until noon on Wednesday due to the dense haze.

“Visibility is only 400 meters, thus unsafe for flights,” Ambar said on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, unseasonably dry weather in Riau is being cited by climatology experts as an important factor in the proliferation of hotspots in various parts of the province in February and March.

“Precipitation in the eastern part of Sumatra hit a low in February,” said Heru Widodo, a member of the technical management unit for artificial rain run by the Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT) in Jakarta, on Wednesday.

According to Heru, precipitation was around one-third of the average rainfall for the same month last year, creating conducive fire conditions. Technically, it is still rainy season in northern Sumatra.

Assistant deputy of science and technology at the Research and Technology Ministry, Prakoso, revealed that the dry conditions could worsen, as forecasters were predicting an El Nino weather pattern for 2014, which would likely trigger drought conditions in Southeast Asia and Australia.

“The impacts of climate change cannot be fully eliminated, only reduced,” said Prakoso.

Meanwhile, researcher from the National Aeronautics and Space Institute (Lapan) Didi Satiadi said data from the Satellite Disaster Early Warning System (Sadewa) had revealed a shift in the dry season, which was predicted to start after April’s transitional season.

“The dry season will start in May, and last till October,” he said, adding that he recommended nine fire-prone areas be preemptively put on alert status to anticipate hotspots.

The areas included Riau, Jambi, North Sumatra, South Sumatra, Aceh, Central Kalimantan, East Kalimantan, South Kalimantan and West Kalimantan. (tjs)

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Indonesia: Oil output rebounds post haze but production remains below target

Raras Cahyafitri The Jakarta Post 16 Mar 14;

Although the country’s oil production has picked up following the end of haze-triggered disruption in several working areas, total output remains far below the target in the state budget.

Operations deputy at the Upstream Oil and Gas Regulatory Special Task Force (SKKMigas) deputy, Muliawan, said on Tuesday that oil production had reached 800,000 barrels per day (bpd).

“There were disruptions — well-drilling stopped, electricity outages occurred and rig operations halted. However, the effects of the haze have ended and we hope to accelerate production to return to the [output] schedule,” Muliawan said.

Earlier this month, SKKMigas blamed thick haze from forest fires in Riau, Sumatra, for the shutdown of hundreds of oil wells. It was estimated that as many as 12,000 bpd of oil were lost due to the disruption.

Among the sites affected were the Rokan working area, which is operated by PT Chevron Pacific Indonesia. For its emergency maintenance due to the haze, Chevron shut down 573 wells and halted the operation of 15 water injection pumps. Rokan’s losses during the cessation was estimated at 8,800 bpd of oil, but production at the site has now resumed.

Operations were also disrupted at the Coastal Plains Pekanbaru (CPP) working area, which is operated by PT BOB-Bumi Siak Pusako, and the Malacca Strait working area, which is operated by EMP Malacca Strait.

The CPP is estimated to have lost 4,000 bpd of oil and the Malacca Strait a cumulative 7,000 barrel. Both have now resumed production.

The haze was the second natural disturbance to affect oil working areas this year, following inclement weather in early January.

Despite the recovery from the latest disruption, national oil output remains below the average daily production level of 870,000 bpd.

Indonesia, which was once a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has seen its oil production drop due to a natural decline in production in old fields. At the same time, energy consumption keeps growing in line with economic growth.

Due to growing demand, the country has to import oil and oil-based products.

The government has been trying to encourage oil companies to accelerate exploration to boost the country resources and reserves. However, various problems, not least of which is a lengthy permit process, have hampered companies.

This year, oil companies are planning to spend US$25.64 billion in capital expenditure to support exploration and development; higher than the $22.1 billion in expenditure spent in 2013.

According to the work plan, drilling this year will cover 206 exploration and 1,300 development wells. There will also be 989 work-over drillings, according to figures from SKKMigas.

“All the programs that have been approved must be carried out. It is also important to monitor procurement,” said SKKMigas’ acting chief, Johannes Widjonarko.

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Palau's plans to ban commercial fishing could set precedent for tuna industry

The Pacific nation wants to conserve fish for its economy and marine reserves. How will this impact the fishing industry?
Shannon Service 26 Mar 14;

The Pacific island-nation of Palau is close to kicking all commercial fishing vessels out of its tropical waters. The move will single-handedly section off more than 230,000 sq miles of ocean, an area slightly smaller than France, to create one of the world's largest marine reserves. The sanctuary, which Palauan President Thomas Remengesau Jr announced at the United Nations last month, would also sit inside the world's last healthy stand of lucrative, tasty tuna.

Giving fishing vessels the boot is bold for any nation, but perhaps more so for Palau, a smattering of 300 islands east of the Philippines. Tuna, America's favorite finned fish, is a regional boon worth an estimated $5.5bn. Commercial fishing, largely by boats from Japan and Taiwan, represents $5m annually – or 3.3% of GDP – to Palau. But still, the island state says it will allow existing fishing licenses to expire.

The move, hailed by ocean conservationists, sets a worrying precedent for the tuna industry. While the commercial catch inside Palau is minimal, captains covet the freedom to chase warm-blooded, migratory tuna across jurisdictions. If Palau goes through with the plan, it will mark the first time a nation has completely banned fishing vessels from its entire Exclusive Economic Zone.

"Our concern is not so much a practical one as it is a concern with the precedent of closing areas with no scientific basis for it," says Brian Hallman, executive director of the American Tunaboat Association.

"The migratory range of tunas is vast, covering the waters of many countries and the high seas. So the only way to conserve stocks is by international treaty arrangements and this is already being done."

Palau's decision to act alone could be seen as a warning to the fishing industry to take the sustainability concerns of smaller, fish-rich nations more seriously and to work with these countries on more nimble and responsive solutions.
A domino effect?

Palau currently works with seven of its island neighbors to co-operatively manage a large swath of ocean. Jointly, these eight nations set fishing quotas and sustainability standards to manage nearly a third of the world's tuna stock. Balancing both conservation and business, the alliance became the first group of countries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council for managing its tuna grounds sustainably.

But this arrangement hinges on allowing more-sustainable fishing inside member waters. If Palau bans commercial fishing, it's unclear how this will impact the broader regional effort.

"There's nothing in these agreements that require we allow fishing in our waters," Remengesau says in a telephone interview. "It's all about the regional area. Our conservation efforts would ensure that the stocks are healthy and that they gain in economic value as they move out of our territorial waters into other waters."

When it comes down to it though, banning commercial boats simply appears to be in Palau's interests.

Even though the bulk of commercial fishing in the region focuses on tuna, sharks are frequently hauled in as bycatch. Yanking sharks out of the sea directly hits Palau's biggest moneymaker: the $85m dive tourism industry.

"We feel that a live tuna or shark is worth a thousand times more than a dead fish," Remengesau says.
A visionary move?

A 2010 Australian study backs him up. The researchers calculated that shark divers bring Palau $18m per year, with each swimming shark worth $1.9m in diving and tourism. Through this lens, sharks contribute 8% of Palau's GDP.

Matt Rand, director of the global oceans legacy at Pew Charitable Trust, says taking full stock of the value of living marine resources makes both economic and conservation sense.

"I think it's visionary," he says. "[Remengesau] looked at the global picture for the oceans and decided to preserve the marine ecosystem, not only for the seas, but for his economy and for his people. I think there's tremendous conservation value in what Palau is trying to do."

But there's still a long way to go. While several studies show marine protected areas enhance fisheries and biodiversity, a study published in the scientific journal, Nature, last month shows that not all are created equal. Scientists examined 87 such areas and found that a marine preserve needs at least three of five criteria to be successful. The study found that many failed to do so, leaving 59% "not ecologically distinguishable from fished sites".

Palau's sanctuary would be large and legally protected – two key attributes for success – but its viability will likely hinge on the nation's ability to stop pirate fishing, which is no easy feat. Palau currently battles hundreds of pirate fishing vessels with a single patrol boat.
Pressure from the outside

Then there's the risk of international financial pressure.

Palau could stand to lose a lot more than the $5m in direct fishing revenue. The nation is slated to receive $215m from the US in economic assistance and grants through 2024. But Michael Tosatto, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that if Palau bans American boats it may risk losing some of those funds.

"I wouldn't say everything is about tuna," he says, "but it's a large part. If it weren't for the tuna treaty, there likely wouldn't be a multilateral assistance agreement. I'm not with the State Department, so I can't say for sure, but if they fully extract themselves, they could lose access."

Will Palau remain committed to this plan even if it means losing US aid?

"We're very committed to it," Remengesau says. "But also, I don't believe the US would retaliate against a small island nation that is its best ally in the United Nations simply because they want to force something down our throats as far as our conservation efforts."

This story was produced by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent non-profit news organization focusing on food, agriculture and environmental health

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Asia's abalone fever feared wiping out the gourmet mollusc in South Africa

Wendell Roelf PlanetArk 27 Mar 14;

In broad daylight, groups of poachers hidden among the rocks of a South African marine conservation area wade slowly into the icy, shark-infested waters of the Atlantic Ocean in search of 'white gold'.

Foot soldiers of a global criminal network stretching from the southernmost tip of Africa to the other side of the globe, they are scouring the rocks for abalone to meet insatiable demand from Asia for the gourmet mollusc.

The hunt is driving the species to the edge of extinction, but fears of being caught - either by coastguards or great white sharks - are relegated to the back of poachers' minds by the glittering prizes on offer.

"We didn't get much now but we will go out again tonight with the boat," said veteran poacher Stephan, emerging warily from the water as fisheries' inspectors in speed boats could be seen whizzing about looking for boats further out to sea.

Destined for trendy restaurants in Hong Kong and China, abalone - dubbed "white gold" after its pearly flesh - can fetch up to 4,500 rand ($420) a kg on the South African black market, and nearly three times that in Asia, experts say.

Also found in abundance in cold waters off New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the west coast of the United States, abalone from South Africa is considered to be among the best.

The divers may only get 300 rand per kg but in impoverished coastal villages such as Hout Bay, blighted by sky-high unemployment, that is still good money.

Caught on both sides of South Africa's coastline, abalone, or "perlemoen" as it is called locally, is sold for cash or exchanged for methamphetamines, helping fuel South Africa's already serious drug problem.

"Tonight we expect a good haul of between 50 and 60 kg, maybe 100 if we're lucky," Stephan said, shivering after two hours underwater in a battered wetsuit. Like others interviewed for this story, he asked to be identified only by his first name.

Moving from their iron and wood shacks on the steep slopes of Hout Bay's Hangberg, 20 km (13 miles) east of Cape Town, the poachers trek over a snake-infested ridge, carrying heavy scuba-diving gear before reaching their destination at Seal Island.

With mobile phones sealed in condoms to keep out the water, they scan the ocean for patrol vessels and sharks before sliding into the deep.

Only a limited number of fisheries are licensed to harvest a highly circumscribed amount of abalone in South Africa, and the penalties for breaking the law are harsh.

Under no illusion about the dangers of jail or how depleted stocks could hurt fishing villages, another poacher, Leon, echoes the line from almost all the fishermen: it is simply a question of survival.

"We are just ordinary fishermen struggling to survive, to put food in the pot, to pay school fees, to make a living," he said, sitting among piles of empty abalone shells strewn across the beach.


On land the silky abalone are "shucked" from their shells before being dried in sheds or suburban garages. They can also be frozen prior to being smuggled out of the country in shipping containers.

Customs officers have intercepted consignments concealed as duvet covers, plastic pellets or sardines. Some shipments are organized by notorious Chinese 'Triad' gangsters.

"Triads do play a role, but in our experience it is mainly wealthy Asian businessmen who hide illegal activities behind legitimate businesses," said Lise Potgieter, a member of the South African police's elite Hawks detective unit.

One of the alleged kingpins, a Chinese national named Ran Wei, had a successful South African crayfish-exporting business before skipping the country in 2010 when associates - including a lawyer and police officers - were nabbed.

An Interpol arrest warrant is out for Wei, the principal suspect in a case being described as the biggest of its kind in South Africa's history.

Better crime intelligence and a dollop of luck, such as finding a discarded pie receipt in a Porsche Cayenne, has helped authorities close in on previously untouchable syndicate bosses.

In the case of the pie receipt, officers were able to identify a bakery in Hermanus - a poaching hot-spot - whose video footage helped identify a top get-away driver, nicknamed "Fast and Furious" because of his ability to evade capture.

Police estimate that one syndicate will have up to 30 members, from divers to carriers and buyers. More than 100 suspects have been arrested over the past three years.

Those held face charges of racketeering, money laundering and poaching, offences that carry jail terms of up to 25 years. For the first time, foreign assets such as companies are also being targeted, investigators say.

"We are cutting off the head of the snake, but there are many snakes in this dirty business," Potgieter told Reuters.

The scale of the plunder is mind-boggling.

In one case, a syndicate poached 55 tons in five months, storing the abalone at a disused chicken battery along South Africa's west coast. The premises were raided after a tip-off to police who caught three suspects.

Another group slipped through 10 shipping containers of contraband before authorities intercepted two more en route to Hong Kong. The contents of one of the seized containers were estimated at $3.5 million, police said.


Abalone is mainly fished commercially in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Oman and South Africa, where 300 commercial license holders can take no more than 150 tons a year between them.

However, wildlife trade monitoring group TRAFFIC estimates the illegal 2012 harvest at 1,700 tons - way more than the local population of the mollusc, which takes nearly a decade to reach maturity, can support.

Government officials say the situation is so desperate they may have to impose a blanket ban on all abalone fishing - both recreational and commercial - to stave off looming extinction.

"We have reached commercial collapse already and if we continue on this path the abalone could become extinct in the wild soon," said Bernard Liedemann, a senior fisheries official involved in the fight against poaching since the 1990s.

($1 = 10.7042 South African rand)

(Editing by Ed Cropley and Sonya Hepinstall)

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Extracting carbon from nature can aid climate but will be costly: U.N.

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 27 Mar 14;

A little-known technology that may be able to take the equivalent of China's greenhouse gas emissions out of the carbon cycle could be the radical policy shift needed to slow climate change this century, a draft U.N. report shows.

Using the technology, power plants would burn biomass - wood, wood pellets, or plant waste like from sugar cane - to generate electricity while the carbon dioxide in the biomass is extracted, piped away and buried deep underground.

Among techniques, a chemical process can strip carbon dioxide from the flue gases from combustion.

The process - called bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) - would make the power plants not only carbon-neutral but actively a part of extracting carbon dioxide from a natural cycle of plant growth and decay.

The technology could be twinned in coming decades with planting forests that absorb carbon as they grow, according to the study obtained by Reuters.

It would be a big shift from efforts to fight global warming mainly by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases from mankind's use of fossil fuels in factories, power plants and cars, but may be necessary given the failure so far to cut rising emissions.

"BECCS forms an essential component of the response strategy for climate change in the majority of scenarios in the literature" to keep temperatures low, according to a report by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC, grouping leading scientists, is the main guide for almost 200 governments that have promised to work out a deal by the end of 2015 to slow warming to avert more floods, heatwaves, more powerful storms, droughts and rising seas.

The leaked report is Chapter 6 in a mammoth study due in mid-April in Berlin about solving climate change. It has details of BECCS not included in a draft summary.


In theory, BECCS could extract between 3.0 and above 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air a year, it says, and seems more promising than technologies such as blocking sunlight or building machines to extract carbon from the air.

China, the top carbon producer ahead of the United States, emitted 9.86 billion tonnes in 2012, according to the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency.

BECCS, also known as bio-CCS, would cost from $60 to $250 a tonne of carbon dioxide eliminated, the IPCC says.

"BECCS faces large challenges in financing and currently no such plants have been built and tested at scale," it says.

Archer Daniels Midland Co has a facility in Illinois, partly funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to inject 333,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year into the ground from a plant producing ethanol from corn.

"Bio-CCS technology is becoming increasingly recognised as a credible option," said Brad Page, head of the Australia-based Global CCS Institute, but added it was only a partial fix. Like all other experts interviewed, he had not seen the draft.

The IPCC is meeting this week in Japan to approve another report about the risks of climate change, from food and water shortages to a slowdown in economic growth.

Most carbon capture and storage focuses on fossil fuels. Saskatchewan Power's Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in Canada, due to start this year as the first commercial project of its type, will capture a million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Apart from the high costs of BECCS, "the area you need is vast," said Joris Koornneef, an expert at sustainable energy consultancy Ecofys in the Netherlands.

He estimated that it would require 350 million hectares (864 million acres) - bigger than India - to be producing biomass for BECCS to make enough to suck 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the air, which would risk taking land from food crops.

Erwin Jackson, deputy head of The Climate Institute, an independent research group in Australia, said governments and companies should do more to research BECCS technologies. "At the moment we're ignoring them and that's risky," he said.

The IPCC says it is at least 95 percent probable that climate change is mainly man-made, rather than caused by natural swings, but opinion polls show voters in many nations are unconvinced.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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