Best of our wild blogs: 4 Jul 14

12-13 Jul (Sat & Sun): Festival of Biodiversity 2014
from wild shores of singapore

11 Jul (Fri): Seminar on "Learning Outside the Classroom"
from wild shores of singapore

Bats Roosting in my porch: 2. Looking for a solution
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Butterflies Galore! : Mottled Emigrant
from Butterflies of Singapore

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HeritageFest website flooded with bookings for island-hopping trails

Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 4 Jul 14;

SINGAPORE - The Singapore HeritageFest website opened for registration at midnight on Monday - and closed an hour later because it could not handle the overwhelming response from the public.

Frustrated users got error prompts when they tried to sign on for programmes, leading the organiser, the National Heritage Board (NHB), to close the online registration.

It is now asking the public to send e-mail instead to sign up for events.

Festival director Angelita Teo said the response was unexpected, as tours during last year's festival had taken about three days to fill.

The overwhelming response was for the island-hopping trails, and NHB said it will work with its partners, such as the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore, to open up more slots so that those interested will get a chance to go on one trail, Ms Teo told The Straits Times yesterday.

However, NHB might conduct a ballot for the trails if the number of subscribers is "overwhelming".

The change in the registration process was made after people encountered a lag when the portal opened on Monday midnight.

Many disappointed netizens then took to the event's Facebook page to complain that they were unable to sign up.

The lag eventually resulted in the closure of registration at 1.05am. This drew even more flak online, with Facebook users questioning the ability of the site to handle the volume of visitors.

"Surely the organising committee would have expected the high Web traffic upon the opening of registration," said student Sim Yu Ling, 23, who had tried repeatedly to register before giving up at 12.32am.

She said she had encountered difficulty entering the site from as early as 11.30pm on Monday, about half an hour before registration opened.

To accommodate the high demand for the island-hopping trails, she said they may be conducted beyond the 10-day festival from July 18 to 27.

The four trails, which include visits to Pulau Satumu, Kusu island, Sentosa's Tanjong Rimau as well as St John's, Lazarus and Seringat islands, were the most popular of the more than 60 different activities in this year's festival.

It is the first time in the event's 11-year history that these trails are being organised.

"The island-hopping trails were fully subscribed within the first hour of registration, showing the keen interest Singaporeans have in our island heritage," said Ms Teo.

Those interested in taking part in the 10-day event should e-mail from today. Information is available online at

The registration period for the island-hopping trails is from today to Sunday. Sign-ups for the other activities will be on a first-come-first- served basis.

Mr Desmond Lee, 24, tried for more than an hour to sign up for the island-hopping trails - without success.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design student welcomed the new registration method: "It is less stressful since I just have to send an e-mail and wait for the result."

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Lead found in Singapore seas: Scientists trying to solve lead mystery

David Ee The Straits Times AsiaOne 4 Jul 14;

SINGAPORE - Scientists are trying to discover the cause of an unusual type of lead content found in the sea around Singapore.

A team from Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) has been measuring levels of lead in the sea here since 2010, when it began drilling coral - which indicate lead levels over the last 60 years - off local shores.

They expected to find a type of lead pollution matching that found in the air - mainly residual contamination from leaded patrol, which was phased out here in 1998.

Instead, it found a completely different lead isotope, or variety, at levels five to 10 times higher than in an uncontaminated area.

Such levels are still harmless to humans and marine life, though principal investigator Professor Edward Boyle believes the isotope could point to a pollutant originating here or from neighbouring countries.

Possible sources include lead paint used on old ships, lead used in car parts and batteries or in industrial effluent washing into the sea over decades.

Another possibility is a natural source. Tests on mud in MacRitchie Reservoir found naturally occurring lead matching the mystery isotope.

The team of five researchers will spend the next few years trying to identify or rule out pollution sources, by taking water samples from drains, canals and rivers - including the Singapore River.

"We have a real mystery," said Prof Boyle, who is also a professor of geochemical oceanography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

"It's very much an open question what that extra source might be."

Illegal dumping is a possibility, he added.

Since leaded petrol was phased out here, levels of lead in the air have fallen dramatically to well within World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.

Lead is classified as a hazardous waste by the Government, which regulates and monitors its collection, treatment and disposal.

Smart's work is part of a global study led by MIT to trace lead pollution in oceans.

The team drilled coral samples off Pulau Jong as well as Hantu, Kusu and Semakau islands in the south.

Like tree trunks, coral forms ringed layers as it grows.

This allows scientists to measure how lead levels in each layer have changed over decades, leading them to this perplexing finding.

Their work will last until at least 2018 and cost about S$1.6 million - funded by the National Research Foundation.

The research was published in this month's issue of the Earth and Planetary Science Letters journal.

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Indonesia: 'Devil in the Details' for Palm Oil Sustainability

Harry Pearl Jakarta Globe 2 Jul 14;

Ukui, Riau. When Wartono arrived in Ukui, a village in Sumatra’s Riau province, 26 years ago, there was little else beyond a dusty, rutted road that carved through the jungle.

Like many Indonesian families from densely populated Java, Wartono and his parents moved to Riau as part of then-president Suharto’s transmigration policy of the late-1980s. Promised two hectares of land to cultivate under the “plasma scheme,” the family were offered a new start. No one told them, however, that there was nothing waiting for them.

“When I first came here, our area was all jungle,” Wartono said, sitting on a rug in the front room of his tidy, two-story home. “It scared me. There was no decent infrastructure.”

Now the road from Riau’s capital, Pekanbaru, is paved. There is electricity and employment. And the jungle has been cleared and replaced with hundreds of thousands of hectares of oil palms.

Like much of Riau, Ukui has been transformed by the rapid development of oil palm plantations. The province is now the largest producer of palm oil in Indonesia and the industry is a major driver of economic development.

For a farmer like Wartono, 41, palm oil provides an average monthly income of about Rp 3.5 million ($295), a house and the chance to send his two children to university.

But the industry, environmentalists say, is also the biggest single driver of deforestation and wildlife habitat destruction in Indonesia.

Wartono is one of 15,000 smallholders in Riau contracted to supply Inti Indosawit Subur (IIS), a subsidiary of Indonesian palm oil giant Asian Agri. He is also the type of fruit supplier the company likes to present to the media — successful and certified by the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder initiative committed to sustainable palm oil production.

In an industry that has become synonymous with the destruction of rainforests and wildlife habitats, corruption, and fueling haze from forest fires, a story like Wartono’s is a stamp of credibility.

In 2012, Asian Agri, which is part of the Royal Golden Eagle conglomerate, was found guilty of one of Indonesia’s largest cases of tax evasion and, in a report released last year, the company was implicated in sourcing fruit from illegal plantations in Tesso Nilo National Park by the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Faced with a consumer backlash in Western markets, pressure from NGOs and the government, the company has scrambled to clean up its image in the past two years. Committing its agreement with Riau’s plasma smallholders to sustainability is one of its flagship projects.

Pengarapen Gurusinga, head of the smallholders’ association at Asian Agri, said there were 29,000 smallholders throughout Sumatra contracted to supply IIS, and more than 80 percent of them were RSPO certified.

“The most important act in this is to educate the farmers to practice sustainable farming,” he said.

Certified farmers, whose smallholdings, or plasma farms, are worked on primarily by family members, are taught sustainable plantation management, such as protecting the environment and wildlife, and to stop slash and burn farming, Pengarapen said.

Standards are ensured through regular training and monitoring, all of which is paid for and conducted by Asian Agri.

“Changing the mind-set of farmers is not easy,” Pengarapen said. “But now with the recommendations and standards of the RSPO they need to be responsible.”

But responsibility is not yet a hallmark of the palm oil companies themselves.

An opaque supply chain has made it all but impossible to verify if fruit grown on illegal plantations — often on cleared peatland or in forests not designated for palm oil production — was being mixed with fruit grown legally.

“At the moment the transparency is almost none in the supply chain,” said Irwan Gunawan, market transformation strategy leader for agriculture and fisheries at WWF. “Even the RSPO traceability system only tracks down to the mills.”

In addition to receiving fruit from its own smallholders, Asian Agri also takes fruit from independent smallholders, who are self-managed, self-financed and not contractually bound to any one mill.

Only a fraction of those, such as the Amanah Palm Oil Independent Smallholders Association, are RSPO certified.

Asian Agri has said it receives the bulk of its palm fruit from its own plantations or smallholders. But data on how much fruit is purchased from suppliers not owned by the company or contracted to the company is lacking, RSPO documents show.

IIS, the only subsidiary of Asian Agri that is a member of the RSPO, did not declare how many tons it purchased from independent smallholders or third-party suppliers in its 2012-13 progress report, or how much was from certified sources.

Furthermore, IIS does not anticipate achieving 100 percent certification of independently sourced palm fruit until 2053, according to the report.

In May, the company announced efforts to “fortify” its policy of responsible fruit buying. The policy requires Asian Agri’s independent smallholders and third-party palm oil suppliers to provide legal documentation to show the source of their fresh fruit bunches.

Suppliers who present illegal fruit have their agreements suspended. All reports of illegally supplied fruit will be investigated, the company said.

Asian Agri general manager Freddy Widjaya said his company was committed to ensuring the legality of its fruit supply.

“We want to make sure that the fruits from our farmers come from sustainable farming practices,” he said.

But there are still doubts from some quarters. Irwan said because the supply chain between smallholder plantations and mills was complex, oversight was still an issue.

“The critical point is that from the plantation to the mills Asian Agri hasn’t been able to develop a system to prove that this part of the supply chain is clean and without contamination,” he said.

He said that although it was important to support the commitment from companies on sustainability, the “devil is in the detail.”

“That’s why as an organization we’re cautiously welcoming any sustainability commitments from companies, because that is easy on paper, but not in implementation,” Irwan said.

The Jakarta Globe was invited to Riau by Asian Agri

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