Best of our wild blogs: 27 Jan 15

Sharksavers Volunteer Recruitment & Orientation
from Green Drinks Singapore

Green-horned and Green-footed
from Saving MacRitchie

Bats and the two banana plants that were flowering: Part 2
from Bird Ecology Study Group

dark-sided flycatcher @ pulau ubin - Jan2015
from sgbeachbum

Read more!

Corralling support for reef conservation

Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 27 Jan 15;

Coral reefs are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world, and a third of reef-building corals face a high risk of extinction.

For decades, they have been besieged by people's actions - from pollution to overfishing and coastal development - and there is no sign that the onslaught will let up.

With an ever-growing list of endangered species, and as the authorities and conservation groups grapple with limited resources, one Singaporean marine biologist believes it may be time to ask whether some species are worth saving over others.

The National University of Singapore's Dr Huang Danwei, 33, has come up with a new way of classifying corals that he believes could help eco-warriors better allocate their time and money.

Unlike existing classification systems that simply look at the coral species' numbers in the wild to determine their conservation status, his method takes into account their origins, contributions to the surrounding ecology, and whether they are genetically rare.

Take, for example, Diploastrea heliopora, a dome-shaped coral found in large colonies in Singapore's southern waters.

Although it is listed as being only "near-threatened" in the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, Dr Huang feels it should be moved further up the conservation priority list.

"The Diploastrea group originated about 100 million years ago, and other than Diploastrea heliopora, there are no longer any more close living relatives in the group worldwide," he says.

It is an important builder of Singapore's reefs, and its loss could lead to coral cover in local waters shrinking further.

The Republic has already lost 65 per cent of its original coral reefs to extensive reclamation work, and has about 9.5 sq km left.

Coral reefs are major marine habitats, providing food and shelter for many organisms. Since fish gather there in large numbers, reefs are also a rich source of food for people.

Dr Huang, who got his doctorate in marine biology in 2012 from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in the United States, believes his classification system is more holistic.

Another important factor, he says, is a coral species' biological significance - which refers to its history and genetic rarity. The further back a species' origins, the longer it has contributed to and evolved with an ecosystem, making it more valuable, he believes.

Species with few or no living relatives should be given more attention, as it means genetic information from their entire families could disappear if they become extinct.

Using his new metric, which combines risk of extinction with biological significance, Dr Huang had in 2012 come up with a conservation priority scheme for the 842 reef-building hard coral species found around the world.

His work is being used by the London-based conservation programme EDGE of Existence to develop conservation strategies.
Singapore's National Parks Board is also working with him, although it has said it aims to conserve all coral species that occur in local waters based on its own priority list.

Responding to queries, Dr Lena Chan, director of its National Biodiversity Centre, said: "Though much remains to be understood about Singapore's coral species diversity, we will continue working with key collaborators, including Dr Huang, to expand our knowledge which would form the basis for sustainable management of Singapore's coastal and marine habitats."

In research funded by Wildlife Reserves Singapore and published earlier this month, Dr Huang built on his earlier work by applying his metric to each of the 141 coral regions of the world, ranking them to highlight areas which could lose the most biodiversity.

A surprising find was that even though coral-rich areas have higher proportions of threatened species, it is the less vibrant reef regions that stand to lose more biologically important species.

Areas such as the Caribbean, East Hawaii and Pacific Costa Rica, for instance, have fewer hard coral species than say, the Great Barrier Reef or the Coral Triangle - widely considered the world's richest underwater wilderness.

But these more sparse reef regions stand to lose much more historically significant species.

As for Singapore, one piece of good news is that even though about a fifth of hard coral species here and in surrounding waters are at risk of extinction, the Republic is actually "quite safe in terms of loss of history", similar to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Triangle, according to the research by Dr Huang and Professor Kaustuv Roy of the University of California, San Diego.

Some conservation groups, while acknowledging the merit of his work, say management strategies also need to consider the entire ecosystem as a whole, instead of homing in on certain species.

The World Wide Fund for Nature Singapore says: "We address the threats the coral reefs face and work to get a larger part of the ocean protected, so the coral reef ecosystem in those protected places can thrive in the future when the threats are mitigated."

Dr Michael Webster, executive director of US-based Coral Reef Alliance, agrees, noting that threats faced by individual species are the same as those which affect the entire ecosystem.

"By taking steps to reduce the overarching threats to reefs, we can provide a healthy environment for all coral species, and the organisms that depend on them, so that they can be more resilient and adaptable to larger global changes, such as warming ocean temperatures and increasingly acidic oceans."

But he adds that there are situations where single species coral conservation efforts might be appropriate. "For example, conservation efforts sometimes prioritise endangered species for targeted management actions like establishing protected areas, growing and outplanting corals, or reducing pollution."

Dr Huang says that "without understanding individual species, one would never get to understand entire ecosystems".

Pointing to the recent transplantation of corals from a lagoon in Singapore's offshore landfill to its marine park, he says: "Transplantation and restoration of corals to regenerate reefs require the prioritisation of individual species.

"Singapore cannot afford to lose any more of our biologically important species, and our study provides a scientific basis to target them for conservation."

There's hope yet for lost coral species
Audrey Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 27 Jan 15;

Singapore's waters have been home to some 255 species of reef-building hard coral, but researchers have seen fewer of them in recent years.

National University of Singapore marine biologist Huang Danwei, in a study led by recently retired coral expert Chou Loke Ming, said he has recorded only 170 species since 2005.

Species such as the Seriatopora hystrix (thin bird's nest coral) and the Echinopora horrida (hedgehog coral), for instance, can no longer be seen in local waters.

This is not surprising, given the loss of habitat areas that Singapore has experienced, said Dr Huang.

"I think we're lucky that we have lost only at most 85 of our historically recorded 255 species."

Over the past 30 years, Singapore has also lost about 65 per cent of its original coral reefs due to reclamation work.

Unlike projects today, those in charge of earlier works did not take precautions, such as having barriers around the site to contain the sediment spread.

When the seabed is stirred up by reclamation, particles become suspended in the water and are abrasive against the soft tissue of the corals.

Reclamation also affects visibility, meaning less sunlight passes through the water and less algae grow on the corals.

Since corals depend largely on algae for food, many slowly died.

As a result of the sedimentation, Singapore's remaining reefs cannot grow at depths beyond 8m. Up until the mid-1960s, corals and other reef life used to thrive at depths of more than 10m.

Still, Dr Huang believes the local extinction is reversible.

"Our coral populations are genetically well connected to others in the region, such as those in Malaysia and Indonesia," he said.

"If we can find a way to reduce sedimentation levels and impacts from shipping and recreation, there is a high chance that these 85 species can find their way back and thrive in our waters."

Read more!

Farms, nurseries take extra steps to reduce effects of dry spell

Channel NewsAsia 26 Jan 15;

SINGAPORE: With the early onset of the dry phase of the Northeast Monsoon, workers at farms and nurseries are taking steps to ensure the quality of their products is not affected.

Chinese New Year is less than a month away and workers at some nurseries have been installing sun shades to ensure imported festive plants and flowers do not dry up.

Some nurseries told Channel NewsAsia the prices of such plants will not change as they have been negotiated with suppliers prior to the onset of the dry season.

At vegetable farms, leaves of products such as butterhead lettuce have started turning yellow because of the weather change.

One hydroponic farm is sending nutrient-enriched water to the roots of vegetables, every 20 minutes instead of 30. In addition, the farm has had to lower the temperature of the nutrient-enriched water as even moderately warm solutions can affect the growth of plants.

- CNA/ek

Read more!

Malaysia: Malayan Tigers on The Brink -- Time to Take a Cue from India

WWF-Malaysia 26 Jan 15;

24 Jan 2015, Petaling Jaya: World Wide Fund for Nature – Malaysia (WWF-Malaysia) is heartened by the Government of India’s recent announcement declaring their success in increasing the number of wild tigers in India from an estimated 1,706 in 2010, to the current 2,226 individuals. At a time when tigers are on the brink of extinction in most other tiger range countries, India has made remarkable progress by increasing their tiger population by 30% in just four short years. Significantly, this means that India likely contains more than two thirds of the world’s remaining wild tigers.

Closer to home, the situation is much different. Less than six months ago, the number of Malayan tigers was discovered to have declined to an estimated 250-340, down from our previous best guess of 500 tigers back in 2003. Unfortunately, this scenario is prevalent in other South East Asian countries as well, where they are heavily persecuted by poaching and deforestation. This is despite the international commitment of tiger range country governments to double their tiger populations by the next Year of the Tiger, in 2022.

However, hope remains. Drawing parallels with Malaysia, at one point even the Bengal tiger was in a precarious situation. The main driving force behind reversing this trend was that the Government of India had the political will to rectify the situation. The government started by launching ‘Project Tiger’, an ambitious plan to maintain a viable population of tigers within the country. A National Tiger Task Force was also formed to stem the decline, substantial policy and management changes were subsequently made. This farsighted conservation initiative has culminated in it being recognised as one of the most high profile international conservation success stories.

India’s success should serve as a platform to spur and inspire the leaders of other tiger range countries, including Malaysia, to take concrete steps towards recovering their dwindling tiger populations. To do this, the government needs to take a strong proactive approach towards tiger conservation efforts in Malaysia by learning from the experience of other countries, working closely with tiger conservation organisations, and adapting relevant management interventions. India’s success has thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak; hence it is Malaysia’s turn to follow up with its own success story. It’s a highly-challenging, but achievable goal!

It is not just up to the government however; it needs a concerted effort from state governments, enforcement authorities, NGOs, as well as members of the public. WWF-Malaysia reiterates the previous call by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and the Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) to:

Establish dedicated Tiger Patrol Units on the ground to protect and monitor individual tigers that have been identified through surveys at the three priority areas (Belum-Temengor, Taman Negara, and Endau-Rompin).

Undertake a comprehensive National Tiger Survey that will also increase the number of boots on the ground, and therefore increase tiger protection, throughout the Central Forest Spine (the remaining major forested landscapes in Peninsular Malaysia).

Strengthen the existing mechanism to review, better coordinate and monitor the implementation of the National Tiger Conservation Action Plan and Central Forest Spine Master Plan.

As an umbrella species, by protecting tigers we also protect large forested habitats which we rely on for countless ecosystem services such as oxygen, water, medicinal plants, and flood mitigation. As well as a symbolising the health of our forests, the tiger features prominently on our very own Jata Negara. With about 38% of intact forest remaining, Peninsular Malaysia still stands a fair chance to recover its tiger population if sufficient conservation measures are carried out. Despite being a favourite target of poachers, tigers have been shown to have a remarkable recovery rate as long as there is sufficient protection, habitat and prey. However, in order to do this we need to make tiger conservation a national priority.

Dato’ Dr Dionysius Sharma
Executive Director/CEO

Read more!

At last some good news for the high seas: Progress towards a legally-binding treaty to safeguard the ocean beyond national boundaries

IUCN 26 Jan 15;

In the early hours of a snowy Saturday morning in New York, United Nations delegates took a historic step towards safeguarding the global ocean commons. Government representatives at a UN meeting agreed to launch a formal preparatory process for a global and legally-binding instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction.

Witnessed by IUCN as an official observer, the decision followed four tense days - and nine years of deliberation - at the United Nations on how to better conserve and manage the vast ocean area beyond national boundaries –the high seas and international seabed area.

A formal preparatory committee will start work in early 2016 to craft the elements of a draft treaty under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Though no end date to the negotiations could be agreed, the General Assembly is to take a decision by September 2018 on the convening of an intergovernmental conference, under the auspices of the United Nations, to finalise and adopt the text.

“Though the final results remain uncertain, many have high hopes for the new treaty,” says Kristina M. Gjerde, IUCN Senior High Seas Advisor. “It could help secure the designation of a truly global system of marine protected areas, mainstream biodiversity conservation into the governance of high seas fisheries, shipping and seabed mining, and provide for more effective access to marine genetic resources. The treaty could also also foster important new scientific and commercial discoveries while ensuring the benefits are shared by all.”

As important assurance to high seas fishing states, it was agreed that any new treaty would not undermine existing agreements or the work of relevant international bodies.

“A legally-binding treaty for our global ocean commons is essential to build a healthy, resilient and productive ocean for the benefit of us all, future generations included. Indeed, for the two thirds of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction, international cooperation is the only way forward,” says Aurélie Spadone, Programme Officer with IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme.

For over a decade, IUCN has been fostering the scientific knowledge and legal analysis to understand how we can better manage the vast marine realm beyond national boundaries. It has organised seminars for government representatives and growing networks of experts, and, together with its many partners, will continue to contribute towards an effective and equitable international agreement.

Read more!

Collaboration needed on nature and wellbeing links

BBC 27 Jan 15;

Scientists need to capitalise on a growing body of evidence showing a link between biodiversity and human wellbeing, a US review has suggested.

It said rapid progress could be made if there was better communication and collaboration between researchers and public health and land-use officials.

A global research project was recently launched to examine the impact of urban policies on human health and wellbeing.

The findings have been published in the journal Ecosystem Services.

"This is something that had held my interest for some time, that is the condition of the general environment and human wellbeing in the broadest sense," explained co-author Paul Sandifer, former chief science advisor for the National Ocean Service at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).

Helping hand

"I have long had a feeling of that there were connections between exposure to the natural environment and improved physiological and psychological health."

Dr Sandifer said he and his fellow co-authors decided if it was possible to "tease out" peer-reviewed examples of "biodiversity providing advantages for human health".

"If there was, how we might usefully categorise those relationships - what were the characteristics and mechanisms that brought about that change," he told BBC News.

One of the main challenges the team faced was attempting to identify key literature from a vast quantity of different sources.

"A little bit comes out in landscape literature, a little bit comes out in psychology literature, a little bit comes out in ecological or city planning publications but rarely are these things put together and assesses what one could do with the knowledge from around the scientific sphere," explained Dr Sandifer, who has recently retired from his Noaa post.

"One of the main findings of the review for me and for my colleagues was the huge amount of information indicating mostly positive health responses of some kind - mainly psychological," he observed.

"Among the vast array of research, there are a number of carefully crafted studies that truly demonstrate cause and effect.

"These carefully define the characteristics of biodiversity or nature that might be of interest and what the effect might be on mental or physiological wellbeing or health. Finally, they looked at what the process was in which that possible effect might be mediated.

Patchy landscape

"The one area we identified where there was a fair amount of new evidence was the study of microbiota and its influence on inflammatory diseases.

For example, a study in 2012 suggested a lack of exposure to a "natural environment" could be resulting in more urban dwellers developing allergies and asthma.

Finnish scientists said certain bacteria, shown to be beneficial for human health, were found in greater abundance in non-urban surroundings.

But Dr Sandifer said his team's review found that there was still "a lot left to be done" even in this field of research.

He added that there was a considerable amount of research looking at the difference between good and bad green spaces in urban areas but almost no data at all when it came to marine or coastal environments.

"Probably the one area where rapid progress could be made is improving communication and collaboration between land-use and city planners, people involved in public health - both research and application, and their connection to ecological science.

"Ecologists are within their field and rarely reach outside it. Biomedical researchers, it seems, rarely have the time to reach out. There is a gap between the two where we really need to do a much better job of communicating.

But there were signs of progress in the right direction, he suggested: "The American Public Health Association has a new policy recognising the value of nature."

But he added: "This needs to be international - the UK, such as the University of Exeter's European Centre for Environment and Human Health, has done a vast amount of research on the value of green spaces."

At the end of 2014, a global scientific research programme was launched in China to examine the unintended consequences of urban policies on human health and wellbeing.

The Urban Health & Wellbeing Programme aimed to better understand what made a "healthy urban environment".

Dr Sandifer concluded: "The communication links is the first step to getting well-rounded policies and getting the value of nature out to wider communities, such as policymakers, than it does at the moment.

"I think that would then drive the availability of resources to do more studies."

Read more!

Australia temperatures rising faster than rest of the world: official report

Jane Wardell PlanetArk 27 Jan 15;

Australia faced a rise in temperature of potentially more than 5 degrees celsius (41 degrees fahrenheit) by the end of the century, an increase that would outpace global warming worldwide, the country's national science agency said on Tuesday.

In its most comprehensive analysis yet of the impacts of climate change, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) painted a worst-case scenario of a rise of up to 5.1 degrees celsius by 2090 if there are no actions taken to cut greenhouse emissions.

"There is a very high confidence that hot days will become more frequent and hotter," CSIRO principal research scientist Kevin Hennessy said. "We also have very high confidence that sea levels will rise, oceans will become more acidic, and snow depths will decline."

The dire warning from the government-funded agency is at odds with the official line from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who in 2009 declared the science of climate change was "crap".

Abbott last year scrapped a tax on carbon pricing and abolished the independent Climate Commission, saying recent severe droughts that have crippled cattle farmers were "not a new thing in Australia."

As the host of the Group of 20 last year, he attempted to keep climate change off the agenda, resulting in an embarrassing backdown at the Leaders Summit in Brisbane after U.S. President Barack Obama used a high-profile speech to warn Australia that its own Great Barrier Reef was in danger.

One of the world's biggest carbon emitters, Australia has declined to join the United States, Japan, France and others in contributing to the United Nations' Green Climate Fund.

Abbott has instead committed A$2.55 billion ($2.21 billion) to a domestic initiative to reduce the country's emissions by 5 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

The new research by CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology, using some 40 global climate models, has Australia warming at a greater rate than the rest of the world.

The 5.1 degree celsius projection for 2090 is at the top end of a range starting at 2.8 degrees celsius and is dependent on how deeply, if at all, greenhouse gas emissions are cut. The world average is for an increase of between 2.6 degrees celsius and 4.8 degrees celsius.

The report said the annual average temperature in Australia would likely be up to 1.3 degrees celsius warmer in 2030 than the average experienced between 1986 and 2005.

(Editing by Diane Craft)

Read more!

Severe La Nina weather events in Pacific may double due to warming

Alister Doyle Reuters 27 Jan 15;

Extreme "La Nina" weather events that cool the Pacific Ocean and can disrupt weather worldwide will paradoxically happen almost twice as often in a warming world, an international team of scientists said on Monday.

Severe La Ninas, linked to both floods and droughts as well as more landfalls by Atlantic hurricanes, would happen on average every 13 years in the 21st century if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, compared with once every 23 years last century, the researchers said.

"We show that greenhouse warming leads to a significant increase in the frequency of extreme La Niña events," said the report led by experts at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

La Nina is the opposite of the better-known El Nino weather event characterized by warmer waters in the tropical Pacific with knock-on effects that can cause billions of dollars of damage to food and water supplies around the globe.

La Ninas happen unpredictably every two to seven years, with the last extreme event, judged by a sharp cooling of Pacific surface waters, in 1998-99.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, followed another study by lead author Wenju Cai last year that identified a link between El Nino and global warming.

"We found that extreme El Nino will double in frequency. We don't find evidence that the intensity will increase. The extreme events just occur more frequently," he told Reuters.

The study also indicated that La Ninas were likely to follow El Ninos more often, in a damaging double dose.

Writing in a comment in Nature Climate Change, Antonietta Capotondi, of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Earth System Research Laboratory, said the findings were "plausible", but urged more study.

Capotondi said it seemed counter-intuitive that La Ninas, linked to cool waters, might happen more often in a warmer world.

Under La Nina conditions, however, heat over land in the Western Pacific including Australia and Indonesia would suck winds westwards off the ocean, in turn drawing waters from the depths and cooling the ocean surface.

Among other extremes coinciding with the 1998-99 La Nina, river floods and storms killed thousands of people in China and Bangladesh. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed 11,000 people in Honduras and Nicaragua.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Read more!