Best of our wild blogs: 19 Sep 14

Oct 2014: Volunteer guide training for the Sisters Islands Marine Park from Sisters' Island Marine Park

Sisters Islands - A Photojournal of Singapore's First Marine Park
from The Smart Local by Jensen Chua

Bagworm moth caterpillars
from Bird Ecology Study Group

Butterflies Galore! : Darky Plushblue
from Butterflies of Singapore

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Air quality hovers around 'unhealthy' range

Channel NewsAsia 18 Sep 14;

SINGAPORE: The air quality in Singapore hovered in and out of the "unhealthy" range on Thursday (Sep 18), with the three-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reading hitting a high of 106 at 4pm, according to data from the National Environment Agency (NEA).

The 3-hour PSI reading had hit the 100 range thrice on Thursday, registering 102 at 10am and 100 at 2pm, intermittently dipping below the "unhealthy" mark. It then climbed back to 104 at 10pm.

The 24-hour PSI reading has been creeping up as well, with the southern part of Singapore recording the highest reading of 103 as of 10pm on Thursday. The overall 24-hour PSI reading ranged between 93 and 103 at 11pm, the data showed.

Environment and Water Resources Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said that he has written to his Indonesian counterpart to express Singapore's concern over the haze that has affected the Republic.

On his Facebook page, Dr Balakrishnan reiterated Singapore's offer of assistance to deal with the fires and hopes urgent action will be taken on the ground.

NEA said that the hazy conditions may be sustained over the next one or two days, as Kalimantan is expected to experience mostly dry conditions, and winds continue to blow from east or southeast. The overall air quality for the next 24 hours is expected to fluctuate between the high-end of the moderate range and the low-end of the unhealthy range.

In light of the air quality forecast, NEA advised people to reduce prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical activity. It said the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with chronic lung or heart disease should minimise or avoid prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion.

Haze measures: National Taxi Association to distribute masks, eyedrops to drivers
Channel NewsAsia 18 Sep 14;

SINGAPORE: With the haze hitting "unhealthy" levels this week, the National Taxi Association (NTA) announced it will distribute 1,000 bundle packs each consisting one N95 mask, two surgical masks and one small bottle of eyedrops to taxi drivers at Changi Airport on Thursday (Sep 18).

Channel NewsAsia understands that Member of Parliament Ang Hin Kee, who is advisor to the association, will lead the distribution at 2.30pm at Changi Airport Terminal 1. Members of NTA's executive committee will also be present.

The NTA serves all taxi drivers in Singapore. According to its website, it aims to "be the collective voice for taxi drivers in Singapore to further their interests and enhance their social and economic well-being." They currently have 18,000 members, the website states.

Air quality in Singapore has risen into "unhealthy" territory over the past two days, defined as a reading of between 101 and 200 on the Pollutant Standard Index. The National Environment Agency said this was likely due to smoke haze from the surrounding region being blown in by the prevailing winds.

- CNA/dl

Smoky haze hits Singapore race
Patrick Johnston Reuters 18 Sep 14;

(Reuters) - A smoky, 'unhealthy' haze has drifted over Singapore this week clouding the build-up to the city-state's glamour sporting spectacle - the Formula One night race.

Singapore's National Environment Agency (NEA) said air pollution had risen into the unhealthy range on Thursday after a wind change had brought smoke from forest fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island.

The three-hour Pollution Standards Index rose above 100, the level at which the air is deemed unhealthy, at 3pm local time (0800 BST) on Thursday and continued to rise when the next two hourly readings were published.

The NEA advised on their website that "healthy people" should "reduce prolonged or strenuous outdoor physical exertion" when the haze levels reach over 100, which also happened on Monday.

The Williams team said in a preview of Sunday's race that the heat, humidity and length of the Singapore grand prix made it one of the most arduous on the Formula One calendar, with drivers losing over three kilogrammes over the 61 laps.

Rain is forecast over the next four days which should help reduce the pollution levels but race organisers said they would be monitoring the problem.

"In the event that the haze caused visibility, public health or operational issues, Singapore GP would work closely with the relevant agencies before making any collective decisions regarding the event," a Singapore GP spokesperson said.

Last year, smoke smothered Singapore, with pollution index levels reaching a record 401 in June. A mark over 300 is deemed hazardous.

In August, Singapore's parliament passed a bill proposing fines for companies that cause pollution regardless of whether the companies operate on the island, though it remains to be seen how the law can be enforced.

(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)

Air quality hovers around unhealthy level
Today Online 18 Sep 14;

SINGAPORE – Air quality hovered around the unhealthy level for most of today (Sept 18), with the three-hour Pollutant Standard Index (PSI) entering into the unhealthy range once in the morning and for a few hours in the afternoon.

The three-hour PSI reading was above 90 throughout the day, reaching 102 at 10am before dipping out of the unhealthy level. From 2pm, the three-hour PSI climbed steadily from 100 to reach 106 at 4pm, before falling back into the moderate range with a reading of 95 at 6pm.

The 24-hour PSI reading at 6pm was 95-99. An hour before it was 96-102. Air quality is in the moderate range when the PSI value is between 51 and 100, and is considered unhealthy when the PSI value is between 101 and 200.


The National Environment Agency (NEA) said that the hazy conditions today were caused by transboundary haze from Kalimantan, with the prevailing winds blowing from the east or south-east. "Based on NOAA satellite data, there is widespread thick smoke haze in the southern parts of Kalimantan, which is also spreading to the southern parts of the South China Sea," said the NEA in its haze update.

"These hazy conditions in Singapore may be sustained over the next one to two days, as Kalimantan is expected to experience mostly dry conditions, and winds continue to blow from east or south-east," the agency added.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has written to the Indonesia Minister of Environment Balthasar Kambuaya to express Singapore’s "deep concern over the transboundary haze from Indonesia that has affected Singapore", said the NEA. He also reiterated Singapore’s offer of assistance to the Indonesians to help deal with the fires.

Source: Dr Balakrishnan's Facebook page

The NEA said haziness may be experienced during the day tomorrow. The overall air quality for the next 24 hours is expected to fluctuate between the high-end of the Moderate range and the low-end of the Unhealthy range. Prevailing winds are expected to blow from the east or south-east, and thundery showers are forecast in the afternoon for Singapore.

Last night, the three-hour PSI tipped into the unhealthy range at 102 at 8pm after staying in the moderate range for most of the day.

Earlier this week, the NEA said that Singapore is expected to experience haze for the next two weeks due to prevailing wind conditions from the south-southeast or the south-west where Sumatra lies, with periods of consecutive dry days that are typical during this South-west Monsoon season.

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Consortium to build second NEWater plant in Changi

Channel NewsAsia 18 Sep 14;

SINGAPORE: BESIN-UEN Consortium has been selected as the preferred bidder to build the second NEWater Plant at Changi, the PUB announced on Thursday (Sep 18).

Led by BEWG International and UE NEWater, the Consortium will form a concession company to enter into a NEWater Agreement (NWA) with PUB by Oct 2014. The NWA will take full effect when all agreements have been finalised and executed, and the concession company achieves financial close, according to the PUB.

The open tender attracted seven bids from both local and international companies with track records in the water business, the PUB said.

The new NEWater Plant will be built in Changi by 2016 which will add another 50 million gallons of NEWater per day to the nation's water supply, said the PUB.

Similar to the first NEWater Plant in Changi, the second plant will be constructed inder a Design, Build, Own and Operate (DBOO) arrangement and utilise the same NEWater technology and process.

The second NEWater plant at Changi is PUB's fifth DBOO project with the private sector, said the PUB. The first four are the SingSpring desalination plant, the Keppel-Seghers Ulu Pandan NEWater Plant, the SembCorp Changi NEWater Plant and the Tuaspring Desalination Plant, according to the PUB.

NEWater currently meets 30 per cent of Singapore's water demand. The PUB expects this figure to increase to 55 per cent in the longer term.

- CNA/dl

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Malaysia: Penang still blanketed by haze

The Star 19 Sep 14;

GEORGE TOWN: Penang remained shrouded in haze, with Air Pollutant Index (API) readings at the “moderate” level at the three stations in the state.

A check with the Department of Environment website showed that the reading at the Seberang Jaya 2 station improved slightly from 74 at 6am yesterday to 71 at 3pm.

The reading at the Prai station, however, worsened from 63 at 6am yesterday to 71 in the afternoon, with the USM station reading registering 79. .

Statistics provided by the department’s website showed visibility in Bayan Lepas had improved to 8km as of 4pm compared to 4km at 8am.

Visibility in Butterworth declined from 4km at 8am to 3km at 4pm, while visibility in Prai remained steady at 6km throughout the day.

A Penang Meteorological Depart­ment spokesman said visibility on the island had improved considerably but worsened slightly in parts of the mainland.

The three areas in Sarawak that recorded bad API readings earlier improved to a moderate level.

Based on satellite observations, there were still spirals of hazy smoke in mid and central Sumatra, and in mid and western Kalimantan in Indonesia.

The south-west monsoon is expected to end this month, to be followed by the monsoon transition period.

The weather is expected to be dry and hot, and the haze could cross borders during this period.

Meanwhile, Malaysia welcomed Indonesia’s ratification of the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.

Natural Resources and Envi­ronment Minister Datuk Seri G. Palanivel and environmental experts see the ratification as reflecting Indonesia’s seriousness in wanting to tackle cross-border haze caused by forest fires.

They expressed confidence that Indonesia is prepared to address the haze problem effectively.

Indonesia’s Parliament voted on Tuesday to ratify the regional agreement, 12 years after the Government had signed it.

The agreement was drawn up after the worst haze on record occurred in 1997.

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Indonesia: Arson Likely Cause of Smoke Crisis-National Disaster Mitigation Agency

Hotspot Horror: Lax enforcement against those seeking to circumvent forestry laws to blame for international ‘nightmare’, officials say
Farouk Arnaz & Sahat Oloan Saragih Jakarta Globe 18 Sep 14;

Jakarta/Pontianak. Thickening smoke continued to choke parts of Indonesia and its neighbors on Wednesday, a day after the government ratified the Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Treaty, following a 12-year delay.

The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) said it detected 1,276 active fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan on Wednesday.

“The fires in Kalimantan are concentrated in West, Central and South Kalimantan. In Sumatra, active fires were spotted in South Sumatra and Riau provinces,” BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in his Jakarta office on Wednesday.

The BNPB said it detected 599 active fires in Central Kalimantan, 252 in South Kalimantan, 193 in West Kalimantan, 195 in South Sumatra, 20 in Riau and 17 in Jambi.

The air pollution index continued to rise on Wednesday, reducing visibility at Riau’s airport to less than a kilometer, BNPB Riau observed.

“This means the smoke and drought disaster has disrupted our people, both in terms of health and activities, because several flights had to be delayed,” Sutopo said.

He added that 99 percent of the forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan were lit intentionally.

“More fires occurred between February and July than in previous years. This means the fires were also set off during the rainy season,” Soetopo said.

Typically, the number of blazes in Sumatra increase significantly between June and October, and in Kalimantan between August and October. In Riau, the number of fires increases between February and March, releasing a choking haze.

“The biggest natural forest fires in Indonesia occurred in 1997, during which El Ninowas a contributing factor. Today, 99 percent of the fires are intentionally set and 70 percent of them occurred outside forest areas,” the BNPB spokesman said.

Sutopo said the fires incur economic, environmental, political, health and other avoidable costs to society.

Economic losses incurred by the forest fires in Riau exceeded Rp 20 trillion ($1.7 billion), causing thousands of hectares of land to be burnt, 58,000 people to develop respiratory problems and disruption of students’ activities.

“This also does not begin to factor in the political costs in the form of protests by the Singaporean government, whose citizens are affected by the haze. Preventative measures are more effective than containing the fires,” Sutopo said.

“Throughout August 2014, the atmosphere became dryer and the risk of fires escalating out of control became greater. Slash-and-burn land clearing activities have caused fires to rage out of control. This nightmare may still continue through October.”

The number of fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan forests continues to increase, Sutopo said, while Riau saw a drop in the number of isolated blazes — just as likely an indication that the fires have merged as that they have been extinguished. On Saturday, the number of active fires detected throughout Indonesia stood at 351. Two days later, that figure was 1,694.

The BNPB is cooperating with the National Police, military, and local Forestry Agency units.

“We are cooperating to contain the fires by land and air with water bombing,” he said.

The BNPB has deployed dozens of aircraft to fight fires in affected areas. The aerial firefighters can carry up to 4,000 liters of water per sortie.

Sutopo called on the central government and authorities to play a bigger role in taking action against the perpetrators who intentionally ignite the blazes.

“The key is law enforcement. District officials and forestry agents need to conduct intensive patrols, and perpetrators need to be [legally] processed immediately,” he said.

National Police chief Gen. Sutarman said that the police will hunt down the arsonists responsible — both individuals and corporations on whose behalf they are acting.

“Although judges only give one-year sentences for corporations [in Riau], we will continue to work [on that angle]. We will also catch individuals,” Sutarman said.

The House of Representatives ratified the Asean Transboundary Haze Pollution Treaty on Tuesday, which establishes mechanisms for transnational cooperation in combating fires.

The ratification comes as the latest round of smoke haze from Indonesian fires enveloped its neighbors in Singapore and Malaysia.

It’s time for the Indonesian government to show regional leadership, Greenpeace Indonesia said on Wednesday.

“Indonesia must address the root causes of this environmental and health disaster that increasingly plagues Southeast Asia,” the Greenpeace statement said.

Indonesia’s peatlands have been turned into tinderboxes by drainage to establish plantations — and the peatlands will continue to burn and cause a choking haze across the region if nothing is done to adequately protect them, Greenpeace said.

“Unfortunately, President Yudhoyono’s environmental legacy risks being tarnished by a weak peat regulation that fails to approach peatlands at a landscape level and does nothing to resolve the problem of existing concessions on peat.

“This is especially regrettable in view of next week’s UN Climate Summit in New York, at which President Yudhoyono will be one of the world leaders expected to step forward with ambitious engagements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and peat degradation,” it added.

Greenpeace said ratification of the Asean treaty is an important indication that Indonesia is ready to accept responsibility and move forward with solutions.

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Indonesians Must Own Lead Role on Forest Issues: Norway

REDD Alert: Critics say Norway’s diplomats have soft-pedaled President Yudhoyono, who for years has strung along the Nordic nation, as well as UN monitors of its pay-for-promises partnership with Indonesia, in an ongoing hustle to cultivate credibility without results
Adelia Anjani Putri Jakarta Globe 19 Sep 14;

Jakarta. At the start of his second term in 2009, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared ambitious targets for Indonesia to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

It was a bold pledge, coming from the world’s third-largest emitter — an ignominious distinction owing largely to Indonesia’s rate of forest destruction, which has surpassed that of Brazil.

Yudhoyono later parlayed his commitments into an incentive-based partnership with the Kingdom of Norway.

Under the scheme, called REDD+, Indonesia would receive up to $1 billion for following through on its promises of institutional and policy changes and delivering real results.

Progress has been slow. To date, Indonesia has only achieved enough targets to draw down less than 5 percent of the substantial sum on offer.

Norway says it has good reason to be interested in Indonesia’s forests — due partly to its own experience with deforestation (some scientists say Norway was only saved from environmental disaster by emigration in the 19th century), as well as a sense of global stewardship.

“Indonesia has some of the most important and biggest forests in the world. What happens in Indonesia not only affects Indonesia, but also the rest of the world,” Norwegian Ambassador Stig Traavik told the Jakarta Globe.

“Among developing countries, Indonesia has made the biggest commitment to stop the deforestation. So, we said, ‘Yes, we want to help,’ and so far it’s been moving since 2010 — a little bit slower than we had hoped, but in the right direction.”

Four years after Yudhoyono signed the 2010 partnership agreement establishing REDD+ in 2010, Indonesia has only now begun moving on to the second phase of the agreement — transformation.

This phase was originally slated to start in 2011 and end in 2013.

It includes a two-year moratorium on new forest concessions, law enforcement against illegal logging, and establishing a database of degraded lands. The moratorium has been extended until 2015, and Indonesia has created a unified map to address land issues.

“Lately there’s been a lot of progress on some issues like the moratorium — no more licenses [and] the ‘one map’ initiatives to fight out all license issues,” Traavik said.

“I think it’s also important to work against forest fires. Last year Sumatra was covered in smoke; it was horrible for the people there. It’s still a problem, but it’s much less [severe] now.

“In terms of big companies, there is also lots of progress, as now many of the big, serious companies are saying, ‘No, we will not cut any more forest, we will support growth that is more green and friendly to people,’ ” Traavik said.

The ambassador added there had been some progress in defining the roles and rights of Indonesia’s peasants — who, while entitled to clear their land, are starting to put some effort into forest conservation.

In addition to Indonesia, Norway is also assisting Brazil, Guyana and Tanzania through the REDD+ scheme.

While progress with the latter two nations has gone badly “awry,” according to a report by Norway’s international development cooperation agency published in August, the ambassador in Jakarta prefers comparing Indonesia to its middle-income analogue, Brazil.

Still, in comparison to Brazil, Indonesia has shown slower progress.

“Brazil and Indonesia both have had a difficult situation politically, but Brazil came out of this problem a little bit earlier. Twenty years later, they’ve managed to achieve economic growth, and [Brazil is] starting to see it’s possible to protect the forest while continuing [to grow],” Traavik said.

“Indonesia is following exactly the same path. Not slower, I think, but maybe you start a bit later. The process with Brazil started 25 years ago. Although many people have been impatient with … Indonesia, if you compare the situation with 15 years ago, of course Indonesia had made an enormous progress.”

The ambassador did not clarify why he believed a 15- to 25-year baseline for comparison was relevant to Norway’s REDD+ activities, which began in 2007.

Hands-off approach

Norway’s “light touch” approach to its climate partnerships has drawn criticism from scientists, activists, and even Norway’s own auditors. According to the frameworks Oslo has inked, cash is only disbursed once its development partner delivers results — without any intervention or guidance.

Traavik said objections to this arrangement were acceptable, but off-base.

“I think it’s good that they’re impatient, but in a way I think that they’re wrong because we don’t know better than the Indonesians on how to fix things in Indonesia,” he said.

“Sometimes, if you’re an expert, it’s so easy to see what is the right way to do things. But often there’s a reason why it’s not easy to change from something wrong to something that theoretically is the right thing to do.

“There are rules that are already in place, ministries that need to be brought on board, and local people to bring together,” Traavik said, adding that only Indonesians could accomplish this in a way that would last.

If Norway did decide to intervene in implementing change, Indonesians would likely be resistant, Traavik said.

“It think it would be arrogant for us to come and say how to do it, and start spending money. If somebody tries to do it in Norway, we wouldn’t like it.

“We don’t like people coming from outside telling us how to run our country, and I think Indonesians are the same as well. So I think it’s about having respect and patience also.”

Traavik said he was confident about the incoming administration of President-elect Joko Widodo, whom he met hours before speaking with the Globe.

“I’m very confident that with Jokowi and the team he will bring, progress will be even faster. Once you get a more educated population and highly advanced industries, you don’t need to take so much land,” the ambassador said.

“We will try to adjust to the new government’s priorities, because our job is to assist Indonesia.”

Traavik suggested Joko’s impatience might be beneficial for the partnership. “He doesn’t like to spend much time planning; he likes to implement. There has been a lot of planning, so I think if the next government gives the right instructions, it’s ready to move. I’m quite optimistic.”

However, he qualified his enthusiasm with a characteristically Norwegian colloquy on the value of continuity and cautious prudence: “Being on time is important, but arriving at the right place is even more important.

“We should speed up, but not so much that we lose our way. To reach the goal is more important than the timing. Now, the new president, the increasing business, the people are aware so I guess the condition is coming to the right place. So I guess this also displays what we’re working on is about: The process of the people realizing the need for change. The change is never easy and its never comfortable.”

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World population to hit 11bn in 2100 – with 70% chance of continuous rise

New study overturns 20 years of consensus on peak projection of 9bn and gradual decline
Damian Carrington The Guardian 18 Sep 14;

The world’s population is now odds-on to swell ever-higher for the rest of the century, posing grave challenges for food supplies, healthcare and social cohesion. A ground-breaking analysis released on Thursday shows there is a 70% chance that the number of people on the planet will rise continuously from 7bn today to 11bn in 2100.

The work overturns 20 years of consensus that global population, and the stresses it brings, will peak by 2050 at about 9bn people. “The previous projections said this problem was going to go away so it took the focus off the population issue,” said Prof Adrian Raftery, at the University of Washington, who led the international research team. “There is now a strong argument that population should return to the top of the international agenda. Population is the driver of just about everything else and rapid population growth can exacerbate all kinds of challenges.” Lack of healthcare, poverty, pollution and rising unrest and crime are all problems linked to booming populations, he said.

“Population policy has been abandoned in recent decades. It is barely mentioned in discussions on sustainability or development such as the UN-led sustainable development goals,” said Simon Ross, chief executive of Population Matters, a thinktank supported by naturalist Sir David Attenborough and scientist James Lovelock. “The significance of the new work is that it provides greater certainty. Specifically, it is highly likely that, given current policies, the world population will be between 40-75% larger than today in the lifetime of many of today’s children and will still be growing at that point,” Ross said.

Many widely-accepted analyses of global problems, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s assessment of global warming, assume a population peak by 2050.

Sub-saharan Africa is set to be by far the fastest growing region, with population rocketing from 1bn today to between 3.5bn and 5bn in 2100. Previously, the fall in fertility rates that began in the 1980s in many African countries was expected to continue but the most recent data shows this has not happened. In countries like Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, the decline has stalled completely with the average woman bearing six children. Nigeria’s population is expected to soar from 200m today to 900m by 2100.

The cause of the stalled fertility rate is two-fold, said Raftery: a failure to meet the need for contraception and a continued preference for large families. “The unmet need for contraception - at 25% of women - has not changed in for 20 years,” he said. The preference for large families is

Another key factor included for the first time was new data on the HIV/AIDS epidemic showing it is not claiming as many lives as once anticipated. “Twenty years ago the impact on population was absolutely gigantic,” Raftery said. “Now the accessibility of antiretroviral drugs is much greater and the epidemic appeared to have passed its peak and was not quite as bad as was feared.”

The research, conducted by an international team including UN experts, is published in the journal Science and for the first time uses advanced statistics to place convincing upper and lower limits on future population growth. Previous estimates were based on judgments of future trends made by researchers, a “somewhat vague and subjective” approach, said Raftery. This predicted the world’s population would range somewhere between 7bn and 16bn by 2100. “This interval was so huge to be essentially meaningless and therefore it was ignored,” he said.

But the new research narrows the future range to between 9.6bn and 12.3bn by 2100. This greatly increased certainty – 80% – allowed the researchers to be confident that global population would not peak any time during in the 21st century.

Another population concern is the ageing populations currently seen in Europe and Japan, which raises questions about how working populations will support large numbers of elderly people. But the new research shows the same issue will affect countries whose populations are very young today. Brazil, for example, currently has 8.6 people of working age for every person over 65, but that will fall to 1.5 by 2100, well below the current level in Japan. China and India will face the same issue as Brazil, said Raftery: “The problem of ageing societies will be on them, in population terms, before they know it and their governments should be making plans.”

In separate work, published on Monday, Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Vienna Institute of Demography, highlighted education as crucial in not only reducing birth rates but also enabling people to prosper even while populations are growing fast. In Ghana, for example, women without education have an average of 5.7 children, while women with secondary education have 3.2 and women with tertiary education only 1.5. But he said: “It is not primarily the number of people that’s important in population policy, it’s what they are capable of, their level of education, and their health.”

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No place to hide for Africa's pangolins amid China buying spree

Emma Farge and Gerauds Obangome PlanetArk 18 Sep 14;

Alongside dirt roads twisting through the dense tropical forests of Gabon, the scaly bodies of lifeless long-snouted pangolins dangle from sticks stuck in the ground by hunters.

The pangolin, a mammal that looks like an anteater but has the tough scales of a crocodile, has long been prized in central Africa as a bushmeat delicacy.

But growing demand for it from Asia, where pangolin scales are used in Chinese medicine to help women lactate and to cure skin disorders, now threatens to hasten its demise and rob African countries of a precious resource.

Conservationists say the demand boom is due to declining wild populations in Asia as well as high numbers of Chinese workers in Africa's resource and timber sectors, located in remote regions of the continent's interior.

The example of Africa's elephants, whose numbers have been slashed by demand from Asia for their ivory, have prompted conservations to mobilize to protect the pangolins.

"It's always been ivory but the new pressure is on the pangolin," said Lee White, the British-born head of Gabon's national parks agency, which runs the 13 national parks covering just over a tenth of the country's territory.

"We're looking out for workers here putting out orders for pangolin and we've had to train sniffer dogs at the ports."


Shy and near-sighted, pangolins only venture out from the safety of their burrows or tree-top homes at night to scour for insects. When startled, they curl up into a ball - a technique that is futile against the cable snares set by local trackers.

All eight of the world's species of pangolin, which range from 30 to 100 cm (12 to 39 in) length, are threatened with extinction.

Up until recently, African exports were thought to be done opportunistically and on a small scale. One parcel of scales was found nestled inside a tin of dog biscuits.

But so far this year, more than 6 tonnes of African pangolin scales have been seized before export to Asia - more than the combined total of all previous seizures.

Cameroon seized 1.5 tonnes at Yaounde airport in June, according to senior customs department official Etienne Tabi Mbang. Other shipments were intercepted from Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa.

"There is potential for it to become more industrial as people realize they can make money from pangolin scales, and we are starting to see this already with seizures of large volumes of scales," said Dan Challender, who is doing his PhD research at the University of Kent in England on the pangolin trade and co-chairs a pangolin specialist group.

Within Asia, around 10,000 animals are seized annually despite a defacto trade ban, but Challender says this could represent just 10 to 20 percent of the total trade.


Following the arrest of a dozen Chinese workers with pangolin scales last year, Gabon is working with researchers on an investigation into the growing exports.

Francesca Baker, a post-graduate student at Imperial College London who is heading a Gabon research group, says villagers admit to selling carcasses to Asian workers.

One such worker approached a local bushmeat processor and sought to strike a deal to purchase the scales.

Neighboring Cameroon has also organized workshops for customs officials at air and sea ports to identify and seize pangolin shipments.

But while conservationists praise the work of some African governments, they say tougher local legislation is required to protect them. Gabon has three pangolin species but only one, the giant pangolin, is protected from hunters.

Even so, it is still served in local restaurants.

"Despite Gabon being one of the better students in terms of protecting the environment, the penalties for infringements are far from being dissuasive," said Eric Arnhem of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Gabon.

In the seaside capital Libreville, pangolin meat is popular with the local elite. The meat is boiled for hours to remove the scales in restaurants in the chic Montee de Louis district and then dished out with cassava or banana for up to XAF 10,000($19.74) a plate, expensive compared with other dishes.

"The pangolin is in great demand from our clients although it's rare to see it in the market," said Madeleine Sah, owner of one of the restaurants. "But when we have it, it is sold straight away."

(1 US dollar = 506.61 Central African CFA franc BEAC)

(Additional reporting by Tansa Musa in Yaoundel; Editing by Michael Roddy and Tom Heneghan)

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Delayed retreat of Indian monsoon rains to start this weekend

Ratnajyoti Dutta PlanetArk 18 Sep 14;

India's monsoon season is set to enter its withdrawal phase by this weekend after a late surge in rainfall delayed the retreat by a fortnight, a senior weather official said, boosting output prospects for summer crops.

Usually, the monsoon season enters its retreating phase from early September, and withdraws completely from the grain bowl belt of northwest India by the middle of the month.

"We expect the withdrawal of monsoon rains to start from Rajasthan and adjoining north-west India in the next three-to-four days," said the official, who did not wish to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The annual monsoon rains are vital because over half of India's farmlands lack irrigation, and the farm sector accounts for 14 percent of the national economy.

The monsoon is the main determinant of rural spending on consumer goods ranging from lipstick to cars as two-thirds of its 1.2 billion people live in villages. Its failure pushes up food prices.

In the first month of the season this year, the monsoon season registered the weakest rainfall this century, raising the prospect of the first widespread drought in five years after 2009 when the rains were 22 percent below average.

But the monsoon narrowed the shortfall during the key sowing month of July and revived in the second half, helping farmers plant crops late this summer season with the spread of monsoon.

Monsoon rainfall has been 11 percent below average since the start of the four-month season in June.

The late surge in the rains has led to flash floods in many states including Kashmir where hundreds of people were killed and tens of thousands were made homeless.

Experts ruled out a record harvest for the second straight year in the 2014/15 crop year that began from July, but hoped there would be comfortable harvest from the summer season.

"The late monsoon surge boosted prospects of winter sowing," said farm minister Radha Mohan Singh, speaking at an event to review the country's preparedness for the winter sowing season.

Singh's ministry is expected to release its first estimates for summer crops such as rice, corn, sugarcane, soybean and cotton on Friday, discounting damage due to drought and floods during this year's monsoon season.

Experts held the late surge and the delayed retreat of the monsoon would aid the growth process of the crops, minimizing the impact of this year's late sowing due to the poor start of the four-month long rain season.

(Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques)

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