Best of our wild blogs: 27 Feb 15

Dead fish update: Pasir Ris, Seletar Dam, Sembawang
from wild shores of singapore

BiodiverCITY: Why hello, I didn’t see you!
from BES Drongos

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Such quantities of sand

Asia’s mania for “reclaiming” land from the sea spawns mounting problems
The Economist 28 Feb 15;

EVEN on a quiet Sunday morning, a steady stream of lorries trundles along the broad, pristine and otherwise deserted streets of Punggol Timur, an island of reclaimed land in the north-east of Singapore. They empty their loads into neat rows of white, yellow and grey mounds where the country stockpiles a vital raw material: sand. Building industries around the world depend on sand. But Singapore’s need is especially acute, as it builds not just upward but outward, adding territory by filling in the sea—with sand. And in Asia it is far from alone. The whole region has a passion for land reclamation that has long delighted property developers. But it has worried environmentalists. And it brings cross-border political and legal complications.

For Singapore, territorial expansion has been an essential part of economic growth. Since independence in 1965 the country has expanded by 22%, from 58,000 hectares (224.5 square miles) to 71,000 hectares. The government expects to need another 5,600 hectares by 2030. The sand stockpiles are to safeguard supplies. Singapore long ago ran out of its own and became, according to a report published last year by the United Nations Environment Programme, by far the largest importer of sand worldwide and, per person, the world’s biggest user. But, one by one, regional suppliers have imposed export bans: Malaysia in 1997, Indonesia ten years later, Cambodia in 2009 and then Vietnam. Myanmar also faces pressure to call a halt. Exporting countries are alarmed at the environmental consequences of massive dredging. And nationalists resent the sale of even a grain of territory.

The area of land Singapore has taken from the sea is dwarfed by reclamation elsewhere—in Japan and China, for example. Since the 19th century, Japan has reclaimed 25,000 hectares in Tokyo Bay alone. For a planned new city near Shanghai, Nanhui, more than 13,000 hectares have been reclaimed. In Hong Kong, as Victoria harbour has been filled, the island has moved closer to mainland China geographically if not politically.

Singapore is unusual both in being so small that such a large proportion of its territory is man-made, and in being so close to its maritime neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. Not only has it faced criticism from environmental groups because of the impact its sand purchases have had in the exporting countries, in 2003 it also faced a legal challenge under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from Malaysia over land-reclamation projects at either end of the Johor Strait that separates the two countries. Malaysia alleged the work was impinging on its sovereignty, harming the environment and threatening the livelihoods of some of its fishermen.

After arbitration, the dispute was settled amicably enough. But now roles are reversed: Singapore is concerned about two big Malaysian reclamation projects in the Johor Strait. One, Forest City, would reclaim land to create four linked islands in the strait. It sounds like a fantasy—virtually an entire new city of gleaming skyscrapers and verdant lawns. But since its shareholders are a big Chinese concern and the Sultan of Johor, the head of the royal family in the Malaysian state of Johor, it is taken seriously. After Singaporean protests, reclamation work stopped last year. But in January it was reported that the project had been approved by the Malaysian government, albeit scaled down considerably. Singapore’s government says it is still waiting to hear this officially.

International law is likely to be invoked again over island-expansion elsewhere in Asia. Japan argues that its remote southern outcrop of Okinotorishima is an island, which, under UNCLOS, would entitle it to “territorial waters” within a 12-nautical-mile (22km) radius, and a 200-mile “Exclusive Economic Zone” (EEZ). China argues it is not an island at all but a rock, incapable of sustaining human habitation, and so, under UNCLOS, commands only territorial waters, not an EEZ. The argument is complicated by Japan’s efforts to make the island grow by using star sand, the shells of a tiny single-celled organism found near coral reefs in Japan’s south. Scientists have learned how to grow this artificially, and the government hopes thereby to strengthen Okinotorishima’s claim to island status. Even if they managed this scientific feat, it might not pass legal muster with UNCLOS. Rocks and islands must be “naturally formed”. So can rocks be transformed into islands through man-made sand?

The law is explicit that ground that is submerged at high tide—known as “low-tide elevations”—commands neither territorial waters nor EEZs, and cannot be built up into “rocks”. This is an important issue in the complex overlapping territorial disputes in the South China Sea, where China is reclaiming land in contested areas. In a submission to an UNCLOS tribunal, the Philippines has asked that three features China is developing be categorised as “low-tide elevations” and three as “rocks”.

You are a rock, I am an island
China may hope that by filling in the sea around rocks of all sorts it can upgrade their legal status. After all, once the work is done, it would be hard to prove where the original feature began and ended. More likely, however, China simply sees merit in the old saw that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Building on these features offers practical benefits for Chinese coastguards, fishermen and the navy and air force—and it bolsters China’s territorial claim with an enhanced physical presence.

China is vague about what its claim is. Is it based on land features and the waters that accrue to them under UNCLOS? Or does it, following historic maps that show a “nine-dash line” round the edge of the sea (see map), also assert sovereignty over the water itself? In this sea of vagueness, China’s reclamation work offers practical and symbolic benefits. It also points to a rarely cited reason why the South China Sea matters. Oil experts now often cast doubt on the sea’s purported wealth of hydrocarbons. It does, however, contain substantial quantities of sand.

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Work on Tuas mega port starting soon

Christopher Tan The Straits Times AsiaOne 27 Feb 15;

Work will start in the middle of this year on Singapore's Tuas mega port, with the first reclamation project of the area awarded to South Korean conglomerate Daelim Industrial.

Daelim will also undertake dredging and wharf construction in the first phase of a facility that could eventually handle 65 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) of cargo annually - nearly double the amount Singapore handled last year.

The Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) of Singapore awarded the project to Daelim - South Korea's fourth largest builder - for about $875 million.

Daelim partnered Dredging International to bid for the project. Yonhap news agency reported that the Belgian firm will be paid close to $1.6 billion for its share of the works.

The MPA told The Straits Times that works will include building an 8.6km quay wall, reclaiming about 300ha of land from the sea, and dredging the navigational channels to deepen the harbour so it can accommodate larger vessels.

The project is expected to be completed by 2021.

Singapore plans to move all its port activities to Tuas South by 2027, freeing up prime land in Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang for future residential and mixed-use developments.

Even as works are under way to build Tuas Port, capacity is expanding at Pasir Panjang to cope with rising demand.

At a media lunch yesterday, MPA chairman Lucien Wong said: "We can also look forward to the commissioning of Pasir Panjang Terminals 3 and 4 by the middle of this year."

The authority said the contract commences this Saturday, but dredging works will begin only in the middle of the year, after plans have been approved.

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Malaysia: It’s not as hot as last year - weatherman

The Star 27 Feb 15;

PETALING JAYA: Although Malay­sians are feeling it, this year’s hot spell is still not as bad as 2014, nor will it achieve the record high of 40.1°C seen in 1998.

Malaysian Meteorological Depart­ment (weather and climate) deputy director-general Alui Bahari said Malaysians could expect temperatures of 36°C to 38°C from March until the first week of April.

“The north-east monsoon period will last until early April. Then, we will have more rain, particularly over the west coast states,” said Alui.

The hot weather is also leading Malaysians to take various measures to cool off.

Loo Wen Khai, a manager at Herbs N Food Sdn Bhd, a chain store that sells Chinese traditional medicine, said that purchases of herbs meant to cool the body had increased by 20% recently.

“Many of our customers have been complaining that the heat is making them feel lethargic,” he said

Chang Pei Uiu, a dietician at Eu Yan Sang, said the number of customers had been the same, but warned that herbal teas should only be taken when significant symptoms are noticed.

1Utama advertising and promotions general manager Patrick So said the mall was expecting an influx of people, whether to shop, dine, or just to chill out, in the coming months due to the hot weather.

“During this period, we will lower the temperature of our air conditioning to accommodate the large number of patrons,” he said.

I-Bhd information manager Tang Soke Cheng said that i-City had also experienced an increase in visitors by about 10%.

“Many visitors are attracted to the SnoWalk area as it is an ideal place to chill in hot weather,” she said.

Tropical heat wave on the way
New Straits Times 26 Feb 15;

Some areas in the country are now experiencing hot and dry weather, a phenomenon of the final phase of the monsoon, known as the Equinox phenomenon. The situation is expected to occur until the end of March.

Malaysian Meteorological Department director-general Datuk Che Gayah Ismail said the current weather situation has yet to reach the 'heat wave' stage and is categorised as normal.

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Malaysia: Erratic weather could be the new norm

The Star 27 Feb 15;

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has been experiencing erratic weather patterns of late, some of which have never been witnessed before.

As a country located close to the Equator, Malaysia is accustomed to the consistency of a tropical climate, with temperatures generally averaging 27°C and a humidity level of between 70% and 90%.

However, over the past year, it has experienced scorching heat reaching 41°C, an unusual amount of rainfall during the monsoon season that resulted in severe flooding in several states, a typical cold like the one Kelantan experienced recently, as well as increasing occurrences of mini tornadoes.

Numerous studies have been conducted to determine the impact of climate change throughout the world.

However, it is still difficult to ascertain the reasons for Malaysia’s highly erratic weather patterns.

A UKM research revealed that Malaysia has been growing warmer over the past 40 years and predicted that the level of rainfall would also increase.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states that the earth’s surface temperature has increased from 1.1 to 6.4 °C, with a significant rise in the 1990s.

A warmer globe has also contributed to melting at the polar caps, especially in the Arctic zone. This in turn has had a domino effect on global weather patterns, including in Malaysia.

Monsoon cycles are expected to change in the future, with the El Nino phenomenon causing more droughts, flooding and heat waves.

However, Universiti Malaya’s National Antarctic Research Centre director Prof Datuk Dr Azizan Abu Samah believed that there was nothing peculiar about the weather changes experienced by Malaysia.

Dr Azizan, who is a meteorologist, said it was the nature of the weather to constantly change and not remain static.

He also believed that the massive flooding in Kelantan was not a phenomenon but an annual occurrence.

“It was unprecedented because the storm and heavy rain came simultaneously with the king tide. It is not surprising for a flood to occur after for four or five days of rain exceeding 1,000mm.

“The question though is, why was the rainwater unable to flow into the sea?” he asked.

It has long been acknowledged that industrialisation, fossil fuel combustion and rampant deforestation have heavily contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and, ultimately, global climate change.

Although climate change affects the entire world, those who live in tropical regions are more likely to be susceptible to the greenhouse effect.

“Tropical countries like Malaysia are like entryways for greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere. The thinning ozone layer and ozone holes will expose humans to harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays that can cause skin cancer,” said UKM’s Tropical Climate Change System Research Centre director Dr Mohd Shahrul Mohd Nadzir. — Bernama

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Malaysia: Urgent action needed to prevent the loss of Sambar in Peninsular Malaysia

Conservationists are calling for the Sambar to become a Totally Protected species in Peninsular Malaysia
TRAFFIC 26 Feb 15;

Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 26th February 2015—An alliance of conservation organizations in Malaysia is calling upon the government to uplist the Sambar to a Totally Protected species in Peninsular Malaysia, following a study carried out by leading conservationists into the species’s status.

Sambar, the largest deer species in South-East Asia, is severely threatened due to constant poaching pressure, and loss of critical habitat due to development and deforestation. According to the study the “the process of extinction will be exacerbated for this species in Peninsular Malaysia.”

“Relentless poaching of Sambar has knock on effects for other species too, they are an integral part of the ecosystem,” said TRAFFIC’s Dr Chris R Shepherd, one of the study’s authors.

“Sambar are the most important prey species for the highly threatened Malayan Tiger—saving Sambar is critical to saving Tigers.”

The study’s other authors were Malaysian Conservation Alliance for Tigers (MYCAT) general manager Dr Kae Kawanishi, WWF-Malaysia’s Tiger Conservation Programme lead research scientist Dr Mark Rayan and Wildlife Conservation Society-Malaysia Programme Director Dr Melvin Gumal.

Together they analysed images captured by infrared camera traps during 23 studies carried out between 1997 and 2008. Sambar were rarely detected outside protected areas, which accounted for a mere 16% of the total available habitat for the deer in the Peninsula. Of 414 Sambar photos, 346 came from protected areas. No Sambar were recorded in 15 forest reserves studied.

“Every effort should be taken to ensure the Sambar is not lost,” said Shepherd.

“More effective actions to curb poaching and shut down the illegal meat trade in Peninsular Malaysia are absolutely crucial to this and other species’ survival.”

Based upon the findings, the experts also called for the Sambar to be uplisted to “Endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

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Indonesia: Bengkulu's conservation agency captures Sumatran tiger

Antara 26 Feb 15;

Bengkulu (ANTARA News) - The Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) of Bengkulu has captured the Sumatran tiger (Phantera tigris sumatrae) that had earlier attacked a local farmer.

The attack had taken place in Talang Beringin village in North Seluma sub-district, Seluma district, Bengkulu province.

"The officers managed to catch the tiger using traps placed around the local plantation area," Head of Area II of the Bengkulu BKSDA, Darwis Saragih, said here Thursday.

To curb the tiger-locals issue, the authority will transport the wild animal to Bengkulu district.

It took three days for the officers to track and catch the tiger.

It was reported earlier that 53-year-old Lisman, a local farmer, was attacked by a tiger at a rubber plantation located near Kumayan hamlet on Sunday (February 22).

The plantation where the attack took place is located at the border of Taman Buru Semindang Bukit Kabu, which is the natural habitat of Sumatran tigers.

Dozens of families of Kumayan hamlet fled their homes to Talang Beringin village in Seluma district of Bengkulu in fear of the wandering Sumatran tiger in their neighborhood.(*)

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Trade in Shark Fins Takes a Plunge

An analysis of trade statistics suggests that efforts to educate shark-fin soup consumers is working
David Shiffman Scientific American 26 Feb 15;

In 2013, the environmental group WildAid reported that demand for shark-fin soup in China had dropped by 50 to 70 percent, offering some hope for the estimated 25% of species of sharks and their relatives, that are threatened with extinction. Many experts thought those numbers sounded too good to be true.

A new analysis of worldwide customs and trade data published in the journal Biological Conservation confirms that shark-fin trade has dropped by approximately 25 percent over the last decade “Although we can’t say that we fully understand the scale or the cause of the shark fin trade decline in China, it seems safe to conclude that demand for fins is waning, and that sounds like good news for sharks,” says global shark fin trade expert Shelley Clarke, a co-author on this study.

This new analysis has been welcomed by other global shark conservation experts, including Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International. “Once again, Dr. Clarke has provided us with objective, expert analyses that are vital for evaluating the progress in shark conservation and guiding our next steps,” Fordham said. “The paper provides an important reminder that effectively safeguarding sharks is a complex and long-term endeavor, requiring perseverance and regular re-evaluation of priorities.”

Many possible explanations have been proposed for the decline in shark fin demand. Clarke believes that conservation advocacy and public education efforts have contributed. Since the global recession of 2009 the Chinese government has waged a campaign against shark fin and other conspicuous consumption products. “Also, some researchers and Beijing have suggested that there is a declining preference for shark fin because it is considered unhealthy or passé, or that the product is not real,” Clarke says. “People believe that the real fins must be in short supply because of the publicized decline of shark populations.”

This study shows that one major threat to sharks is declining, but Clarke warns that many other threats remain. “Most conservation campaigns target shark fins rather than meat, and shark meat consumption is growing at a fast pace.” She says. “There is really no such thing as a ‘shark fin fishery,” sharks are caught for a variety of reasons including for their meat, or inadvertently when trying to catch other species.”

Although the total volume of shark fin traded is declining, more than 70 countries now participate in the trade, with more joining every year. Based on analysis of African countries,” Clarke says, “the supply network for shark fin is expanding to include more and more countries over time. This may be because source supplies are become scarcer, or because management is curtailing supplies in some countries, or it could simply be that logistics for shipping to Hong Kong are improving.” This complicates both monitoring and enforcement efforts, as different countries have different customs import and export codes, and many countries in the developing world don’t have enforcement infrastructure.

This study compared the global trade in shark fins to trade in sea cucumbers, and found that the news isn’t universally good for conspicuous consumption products based on threatened sea life.. Around 70 cucumber species are traded internationally to be used in traditional luxury cuisines, and many are endangered. Although sea cucumber overexploitation doesn’t get the same attention as shark finning, these invertebrates are the second most valuable seafood export in the Pacific after tuna, according to lead author Hampus Eriksson of the scientific advisory and conservation organization WorldFish,. “While a range of factors may have contributed to a decline in traded and consumed shark fins, the same factors do not appear to have constrained the trade with sea cucumbers,” Eriksson says. Significant progress has been made, but marine conservation advocates still have plenty to do.

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Cooler Pacific has slowed global warming, briefly: study

Alister Doyle PlanetArk 27 Feb 15;

Cooler Pacific has slowed global warming, briefly: study Photo: Lucy Nicholson
A man and a girl paddle in the Pacific Ocean at sunset in Santa Monica, California February 5, 2015.
Photo: Lucy Nicholson

A natural cooling of the Pacific Ocean has contributed to slow global warming in the past decade but the pause is unlikely to last much longer, U.S. scientists said on Thursday.

The slowdown in the rate of rising temperatures, from faster gains in the 1980s and 1990s, has puzzled scientists because heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions from factories, power plants and cars have hit record highs.

Understanding the slowdown is vital to project future warming and to agree curbs on emissions, linked by scientists to heatwaves, floods and rising seas. Almost 200 nations are due to agree a U.N. deal to slow climate change in Paris in December.

Examining temperatures of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans back to 1850, which have natural swings in winds and currents that can last decades, the scientists said a cooler phase in the Pacific in recent years helped explain the warming hiatus.

Combined trends from the two oceans were seen to "produce a slowdown or 'false pause' in warming in the past decade", the three scientists wrote in the journal Science.

"It appears to be the Pacific that is the main driver" of the two oceans in masking warming, Michael Mann, a co-author and professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, told Reuters. "The Atlantic is a minor player right now."The study said the warming pause was unlikely to last. "Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse" and add to man-made warming "in the coming decades", it said.

Even though the pace of rising temperatures has slowed, last year was the warmest since records began in the 19th century, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization.

In 2013, the U.N. panel of climate scientists said the pause in warming was due to factors including natural swings such as shifts in ocean heat, sun-dimming volcanic eruptions and a decline in solar output in an 11-year cycle.

"The slowdown in warming is probably a combination of several different factors," Mann said.

The U.N. panel says it is at least 95 percent probable that most warming since 1950 is man-made. But opinion polls show many voters suspect natural variations are to blame, making it hard to agree on solutions.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

Global warming slowdown probably due to natural cycles, study finds
Manmade warming in past decade has likely been offset by cooling from natural cycles in the Pacific and Atlantic - but effect will reverse in coming decades
Adam Vaughan The Guardian 26 Feb 15;

Manmade global warming over the past decade has probably been partly offset by the cooling effect of natural variability in the Earth’s climate system, a team of climate researchers have concluded.

The finding could help explain the slowdown in temperature rises this century that climate sceptics have seized on as evidence climate change has stopped, even though 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have happened since 2000.

The authors of the new paper describe the slowdown, sometimes called a global warming hiatus or pause, as a “false pause”. They warn that the natural cycles in the Pacific and Atlantic that they found are currently having an overall cooling effect on temperatures will reverse in the coming decades – at which point warming will accelerate again.

“It [the new paper] has important implications for understanding the slowdown,” said Byron A Steinman, the lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Science on Thursday.

“I think probably the biggest thing that people should understand is there is randomness in the climate system. The recent slowdown in no way invalidates the idea that continued burning of fossil fuels will increase Earth’s surface temperature and pose a substantial burdens on human society,” Steinman told the Guardian.

The research looked at two long-term climate phenomenon that play a key role in global temperatures, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The authors worked to strip out ‘external forces’ on those oscillations, such as volcanoes and the burning of fossil fuels, to work out how much they varied naturally, or internally.

Such natural variability is likely to have had a substantial influence over the span of several decades on temperatures in the northern hemisphere, they concluded, of up to 0.15C in a warming or cooling effect – and in recent years it has been a cooling one.

“We find that internal multidecadal variability in northern hemisphere temperatures, rather than having contributed to recent warming, likely offset anthropogenic warming over the past decade,” the authors write.

Michael E Mann, one of the co-authors, blogged that: “Our conclusion that natural cooling in the Pacific is a principal contributor to the recent slowdown in large-scale warming is consistent with some other recent studies, including a study I commented on previously showing that stronger-than-normal winds in the tropical Pacific during the past decade have lead to increased upwelling of cold deep water in the eastern equatorial Pacific”.

Steinman said the new work was a substantial step forward and employed state-of-the-art climate models that previous studies on the subject had not used.

But the paper warned that the natural cycles are likely to reverse in coming years, adding to manmade warming in the coming decades. “When that trend reverses, that will then add to warming, so warming will accelerate,” said Steinman. He added that it was difficult to say exactly when in the next few decades that would happen.

Mann wrote on the RealClimate blog that such an acceleration “is perhaps the most worrying implication of our study, for it implies that the ‘false pause’ may simply have been a cause for false complacency, when it comes to averting dangerous climate change”.

Ben Booth, a scientist at the Met Office who was not involved in the study, said that the new work provided a more nuanced picture of the role natural cycles play in the climate. “What this result shows is that on a decadal time scale, the variability in the oceans can have an important role to play in dampening warming,” he told the Guardian.

“The results support the conclusion that cool Pacific temperatures have played a key role in modulating atmospheric temperature increases in the past 10 years, only partially offset by modest warming in the Atlantic,” he wrote in a commentary also published in Science.

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