Best of our wild blogs: 10-11 May 15

27 May (Wed): "The Future of Marine Science in Singapore" Workshop
wild shores of singapore

Otters and Low Tide at Chek Jawa!
Adventures with the Naked Hermit Crabs and wild shores of singapore

Pulau Semakau (09052015)
Psychedelic Nature

bird traps at lim chu kang 10May2015

Red-shouldered Macaw eating flowers and seeds of the Rain Tree
Bird Ecology Study Group

Macro Photography Outings – April 2015
Bugs & Insects of Singapore

Moult of Mud Shrimp (Upogebia sp.) @ Pasir Ris
Monday Morgue

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When nature's feathers are ruffled

Exotic species can displace native species and disrupt healthy ecosystems. But what is of greater concern is the need to maximise native biodiversity and protect pristine forests.
NATALIA HUANG for The Straits Times 8 May 15;

Consider this familiar scene. A shopping centre with all the characters we know: shoppers, shop assistants, maintenance men and security guards. Everyone knows his role well and does what he needs to do: buy from this shop, sell to shoppers and keep the place running well and safe.

We've developed this system over many years, shed roles and actions we don't need, and kept those we do, so we can have a functioning shopping centre.

Then one day, a security guard in a pink uniform turns up. He scares off our security guard who's not used to his ways. He still keeps the place safe so nobody notices anything for a while. More pink-clad guards start to appear. Suddenly one of them snatches food from a shopper. He tries to sell shoes. Scared shoppers run outside for safety. Upset maintenance men stop fixing things. Confused sales assistants stop selling.

Some shoppers can handle this strangeness and continue with their day. But the pink guards have changed the characters and roles, and soon the shopping centre becomes unrecognisable. It no longer provides the services it was meant to provide, and may eventually crumble in a state of disrepair.

Some shoppers flee to other shopping centres, but each centre can hold only so many shoppers and some are left outside with nowhere to go.

In this scene, the shopping centre is our ecosystem and the characters our native species. Singapore's native flora and fauna have evolved alongside one another for many years, with each character playing its own important role in the ecosystem upon which others rely.

The shoppers which flee are our more sensitive forest species. The pink security guards are the invasive exotic species. Often more aggressive than native species, they can push native species out of the ecosystem.

Unfortunately these natives are usually species that are more shy, sensitive to disturbance, rare and threatened. With increasing invasive exotic species, the original ecosystem no longer provides the services it was developed to provide, and may become so disrupted it collapses.

A species is native if it occurred in a location naturally, while a species is exotic if it's living outside its natural range.

Exotic species appear as a result of deliberate or accidental human intervention, and are also called non-native, introduced, alien, feral or pest species.

The presence of exotic species is not necessarily bad. Some appear to have little effect on native ecosystems and biodiversity, filling an empty niche in the urban environment and getting along nicely with their new neighbours.

The banded bullfrog is one such species, now a permanent resident in Singapore. Listen carefully at night and you can hear its low moans coming from drains all over the island.

When species invade

BUT exotic species become invasive when their presence causes environmental or economic damage, and we do not know when an apparently harmless exotic species becomes invasive.

This is the case of the Javan mynah. We do not yet know if this exotic species is invasive in Singapore, although its rapid expansion (and the decline of the common mynah) suggests it might be. In our analogy, the Javan mynah could be a pink guard as it has displaced the native common mynah (as recently suggested by the Nature Society of Singapore bird census).

It may be ironic to consider that some native species which we fight to protect are considered invasive exotic species in other countries. Our pretty common mynah is the No. 1 invasive exotic species (that is, the naughtiest pink guard) in Australia, beating the cockroach and rat, while the Javan mynah is becoming rarer in its native habitat.

Invasive exotic species can have devastating effects on native flora and fauna, sometimes leading to species extinction and permanent ecosystem loss. This can happen through competition for food and shelter, predation, introduction of exotic diseases, seed dispersal of exotic plants, modifying the habitat so other species cannot survive as well as affecting ecological processes such as pollination, connectivity and succession, to name a few.

For example, introduced rats are notorious for devastating island ecosystems by preying on native reptiles, birds and mammals, leaving a once diverse island full of "pink guard" rats. Their ability to adapt and the lack of natural predators contribute to exotic species' success in foreign lands.

But what about people? Across the world, invasive exotic species have also affected people. The effects include disease transmission (caused by rats), crop destruction resulting in annual losses of millions of dollars (insects, birds), contaminated food stores (mice), property damage (pigs), native fish stock reduction (fish), and loss of ecosystem services such as clean air and water. So in the long run, controlling invasive species benefits humans as well as wildlife.

What does it mean to our native ecosystems that the Javan mynah has displaced the common mynah? The answer may simply be fewer common mynahs. Or perhaps there are more serious effects which may be direct or indirect, on a scale that is specific to one species or affects the entire ecosystem, and with effects that may be apparent only in the long term - effects which we have not yet understood, but which we should perhaps devote more research to.

Protecting pristine forests

WHAT impact do exotic species have on humans in Singapore? Not much directly, other than a diminished experience of the beauty of nature's diversity.

Like economies, ecosystems are dynamic and ever-changing, albeit at a much slower pace. Species experience boom and bust patterns in their population sizes as the environment and species composition change.

An exotic species may be the most abundant species this year, but may be displaced by another (exotic or native) 50 years later. What matters more is maintaining the diversity of native plants and animals, because diversity in nature, like in our shopping centres, contributes to the overall health of our environment.

By nature of the prevailing human disturbance, cities are almost always going to support a certain number of exotic species. And perhaps these urbanised areas are so modified by human interference already that having more exotic species does not really matter. What's important is to ensure exotic species do not enter our more pristine forests, where our rarer species live. With fewer or no pink guards, the other characters can continue with their roles and interactions, and contribute to a well-functioning, successful native ecosystem.

There is already some resistance from our more pristine forests such that exotic plant species have not been able to take hold there.

But for how much longer?

With forested areas being developed, disturbed and exposed areas become attractive to exotic pink guards, pushing our sensitive shoppers deeper into the forest, which is already low on space.

A robust and healthy ecosystem with high native biodiversity can naturally exclude exotic species, but maintaining that robustness and health is the tricky bit, especially when we live in a state of ceaseless development.

What we do depends on the importance we, as a society, place on our native ecosystems and biodiversity. And it also depends on the type of country we want to live in. A country with some development, native biodiversity and healthy forests, or a country with pervasive development, widespread exotic species and degraded areas?

If we want healthy ecosystems, we can do so by refusing further development of our more pristine forests, and managing exotic species when they become invasive.

The writer is principal ecologist at Ecology Matters, an environmental consultancy providing ecological advice and biodiversity studies for environmental impact assessments.

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Racing against time to salvage old Singapore

Melody Zaccheus The Straits Times AsiaOne 10 May 15;

When archaeology volunteer Margaret Wong pulled large ceramic pieces from the soil at an Empress Place excavation site near the Singapore River, she knew by their weight and smooth texture that they were centuries-old jade green fragments of high quality.

But the enormity of her find sunk in only after Chinese porcelain expert Tai Yew Seng, who had been digging nearby, recognised the fragments as imperial-grade ceramics produced between 1368 and 1398.

The pieces, which formed a 34cm diameter platter, turned out to be one of the most significant artefacts unearthed from the two-month dig that wrapped up last month.

It was carried out by members of the archaeology unit of the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) and volunteers, who shared their experiences with The Sunday Times.

Recalled Ms Wong: "Even though the platter was covered in dirt, I could see that it was valuable and still in relatively good shape. "I felt a thrill digging up an artefact that had lasted 700 years."

Such ceramics were bestowed by China's Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty only on overseas leaders from countries such as Siam (Thailand) and Champa (Vietnam), according to Dr Tai, a professor at the Nanyang Technological University's Confucius Institute.

This led the team to believe that ancient Singapore, or Temasek as it was known, could have had an established government with a head ruler or chieftain as early as the late 14th century.

Another platter of a similar design dating back to 1381 lies in Syria.

The dig unearthed three tonnes of artefacts - the largest archaeological haul in Singapore in 31 years.

Within the first few days, a team of five Iseas staff and 10 volunteers dug up 150kg worth of artefacts from a 5m by 5m plot.

In comparison, just 303kg of artefacts were dug out from a plot six times larger at the National Art Gallery in 2010.

The Empress Place site is significant because it was where the ancient shoreline once ran.

For decades, Iseas had earmarked it as a potential excavation site.

Archaeologists saw the opportunity to excavate there when they learnt of the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) plans to develop the place into an integrated arts, culture and lifestyle precinct for Singapore's 50th birthday.

Their wish was granted with the help of the National Heritage Board (NHB) after a trial dig to prove the site's richness.

But time was not on their side. Excavators loomed across the 1,000 sq m site - the size of about 10 four-room HDB flats.

Head archaeologist Lim Chen Sian said: "We've never worked on such a tight site and tight schedule. Sixty-tonne machines were moving in slowly and blowtorches were close by. We dug desperately."

Working 13-hour days, seven days a week, some of them barely clocked four hours of sleep.

At one point, as the deadline to return three of the 13 excavation zones loomed, a call for more volunteers was issued. Dozens showed up.

Iseas research officer Aaron Kao, 36, said the sense of urgency was palpable as the team rushed to salvage 700 years of history before it got destroyed. "We felt that we owed it to future generations of Singaporeans," he said.

Volunteer Natalie Khoo, 22, an anthropology and history graduate from the School of the Arts Singapore, said that while some of the work got monotonous, it was "extremely meaningful".

Due to the large volume of artefacts and the complexity of the dig, the team was given a month's extension to continue working on the three zones.
Officials gave the go-ahead after an Iseas report stated that the site was a treasure trove of ancient artefacts.

Still, the team rushed up to the 11th hour. On the last day of the dig, they scrambled to retrieve two timber structures, each measuring about 1m by 1m.

The wood had likely been part of an ancient ship, as its workmanship was typical of the South-east Asian style of shipbuilding. It was the first physical evidence of maritime activity in Temasek.

But a thunderstorm interrupted their excavation for three hours and as night fell, construction workers from the URA's upgrading project set up floodlights for them to retrieve the timber planks.

After the site closed, the core team spent the next three weeks cleaning the artefacts with toothbrushes and water.

At a press briefing last month, NHB said that work on seven of the site's excavation zones has been completed.

The board said the team managed to cover about 70 per cent of the remaining six zones.

Next up for the researchers is to clean, sort and analyse their finds in what is expected to be a three-year task.

So far, 120 large storage containers have been filled with more than a million artefacts and fragments.

They will also be producing a map of the ancient site, which was likely to have been a bazaar.

Sending soil samples for tests could also help pinpoint where sanitation lines ran, for instance. Botanical remains such as shells, seeds and bones could provide an idea of the paleoenvironment of ancient Singapore as well.

NHB, which referred to the excavation as "hitting the archaeological jackpot", will decide if the artefacts will be put into the National Collection and displayed in museums, or at exhibitions.

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Plans under way for more ferry services between Johor, Singapore

YVONNE LIM Today Online 11 May 15;

SINGAPORE — It is a route less taken by Singaporeans travelling to Malaysia’s southernmost state.

And there are only two places where passenger boats go from the Republic to Johor and back: From Changi Ferry Terminal and Changi Point Ferry Terminal.

Following the recent bilateral talks between the Singaporean and Malaysian governments, though, more ferry services will be allowed between Changi Ferry Terminal and Tanjung Belungkor, which is a 15-minute drive from the tourist spot of Desaru.

And this little-known mode of travel between the two states may just pick up if supply creates demand.

When TODAY visited Changi Ferry Terminal on Friday, there were hardly any passengers. Ms Julie Lopez, who manages the ticket counter, said there are about five to seven passengers per weekday trip on average, while the weekends usually see about 20 passengers per trip.

There are two scheduled trips from the terminal to Tanjung Belungkor and back on weekdays, and four return trips on weekends, on ferries operated by Limbongan Maju, a Malaysian company.

Most of the passengers are tourists, who sometimes book in groups, or Singapore residents who work on the cruise ships that dock at Tanjung Belungkor, said Ms Lopez.

One passenger who was there on Friday, and heading for a fishing competition in Desaru, did not even know there was a ferry service to Tanjung Belungkor from Changi Ferry Terminal until that very afternoon.

“We usually take the bumboat from Changi Point (Ferry Terminal) to Pengerang, and from there, make our way to Desaru,” said Mr Zul Yusof, 48, who was accompanied by his wife Ms Manisah Ibrahim, 47.

“But by the time we got to Changi Point today, we had missed the last boat. The guy at the ticket counter told us to come here and catch the 6pm ferry.”

Ms Manisah, an electrical technician, said she and her husband travel to Desaru up to thrice a year for short holidays. “Alternatively, we could drive from Singapore via the Woodlands Checkpoint, but we don’t want to get caught in the traffic jam on the Causeway. Taking the ferry is more relaxing, but not many people know that there are ferry services from Singapore to Johor,” she added.

Nor do many know about the bumboats over at Changi Point Ferry Terminal that pick up passengers headed for the small coastal town of Pengerang in south-eastern Johor, about an hour’s drive from Desaru.

When TODAY met Mr Kenneth Choo, 28, who was heading back to his hometown, he had been waiting for over an hour to board a bumboat, as the boat captains usually wait until there are 11 or 12 passengers before leaving. There were five other passengers at the time.

Mr Choo, an administrative clerk at a furniture company in Singapore, said he did not mind the wait, however, as he rarely went home — about two or three times a year. “Sometimes, I drive from Johor Baru, where my sister lives. But to drive from JB to Pengerang takes about two hours; it’s more relaxing to take a ferry,” he said.

The bumboat trips are priced at S$11 per person, and those who bring bicycles on board pay a S$2 surcharge.

Meanwhile, a return ferry ticket to Tanjung Belungkor costs S$38, and a one-way ticket costs S$25, while those who bring along surfboards or bicycles will be charged an extra S$10. Each ferry seats up to 90 passengers.

Plans seem to be under way for more ferry services beyond the current routes, though, such as from Singapore to Puteri Harbour in Nusajaya, one of the key flagship zones of Johor’s Iskandar Malaysia project and a mere 20-minute drive from Johor Baru.

A source in UEMSunrise — the master developer for Nusajaya — told TODAY that talks are ongoing with Singapore’s maritime authorities to fine-tune details of the service.

“We’re hoping to kick-start the service by the next half of this year. The ferry service will most likely depart from HarbourFront in Singapore,” the source said.

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Malaysia: More ‘moderately’ polluted rivers despite drop in high-pollution cases

The Star 11 May 15;

PETALING JAYA: More of Malaysia’s rivers are being recorded as polluted, with 49 rivers having Water Quality Index ratings of 59 and below.

Data from Department of Environment showed that although the numbers of highly polluted rivers were going down, more rivers were being found to be “moderately” polluted.

According to the department’s river water quality report for February, 49 rivers were marked as “polluted” while 131 listed as “moderately polluted”.

During the same month last year, 59 were listed as “polluted” and 106 moderately so.

Moderately polluted rivers have ratings of between 60 to 80.

Many of the country’s worst rivers are in Johor, with Sungai Kempas recording an index reading of 21, making it the only Class V river in the country.

Last year, it marked a reading of 36.

According to national water standards, even Class IV rivers can be used, albeit only for irrigation while Class V rivers cannot be used for anything.

The WQI is an overall reading that shows how clean or dirty a river can be.

The cleanest river in the country was Sungai Ara, in Penang.

The two reports also show that there were 544 rivers recorded in the February 2015 report, compared with 382 last year.

Dirty water major cause of disruption
PATRICK LEE The Star 11 May 15;

PETALING JAYA: River pollution is becoming a major cause of unscheduled water disruptions in the country.

Between 2008 and 2014, pollution shut down water treatment plants in rivers across Malaysia for 1,005.75 days or a total of 24,138 hours.

More than a third of these shutdowns were in Selangor.

Over the past seven years, closure of treatment plants caused by river pollution disrupted supply to hundreds of thousands in the state for at least 8,000 hours or 333 days.

National Water Services Com­mission (SPAN) chief executive Mohd Ridhuan Ismail said various types of river pollution, including wastewater, detergents, oil spills, muddied flow due to floods, deforestation and quarrying, caused treatment plants to be shut down.

He said treatment plants had limits in processing water and might not be able to filter out high levels of pollution.

“More than 90% of the shutdowns in Johor between 2012 and 2015 was at the Skudai plant, caused by high amounts of ammonia in the river,” he said.

In March, The Star highlighted the massive algae bloom pollution in the Sembrong Dam in Johor, a water source for some 120,000 people in the districts of Kluang and parts of Batu Pahat.

Mohd Ridhuan said treatment plant closures in states other than Malacca were due to murkiness, also known as turbidity in the raw water, caused by upstream activities.

He said the Merlimau plant in Malacca was shut down for eight months from June last year because of a sudden rise in the raw water’s acidity and change in colour.

The full extent of these shut downs are not known, as SPAN does not have exact details on how many households were affected but if a plant ceases operating, even for an hour, households might be without water for several hours.

This is because it takes time for the emptied pipes to be refilled to the right amount of pressure to ensure regular water flow.

Mohd Ridhuan said it was vital for catchment areas to be kept safe, as they were water sources for millions of people.

He pointed out Sungai Selangor was one such area, adding that its four plants supplied water to 60% of Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, or more than four million people.

“When pollution in catchment areas cause shutdowns of treatment plants, the impact on consumers is huge,” he said.

He said states needed to control development within water catchment areas and punish polluters harshly to serve as examples to others.

He said shutdowns in Perak were reduced “significantly” since 2011 when plants in the state were upgraded.

States which want to reduce the impacts caused by shutdowns can also relocate the plants in different catchment areas, he said, adding that the Langat 2 plant, which would pipe water from Pahang to Selangor, as an example of this.

The Langat 2 plant is set to be completed by 2017 and is designed to supply 1,130 million litres of water a day.

Local govts not doing enough to clean rivers, says Palanivel

KUALA LUMPUR: Local governments are not doing enough to clean up the rivers, says Datuk Seri G. Palanivel.

The Natural Resources and Environment Minister said it was challenging working with them but declined to elaborate why.

“We can’t deal with them,” he said, adding that he would instead write to the Local Government Minister to sort out the matter.

Palanivel said it was important for the local councils and municipal councils to work with the authorities, especially on cleaning up polluted rivers.

“It’s bad. In Cameron Highlands, the water is polluted. This is the same with Pahang, Penang and even the rivers in Selangor are heavily polluted,” he said after launching World Water Day celebrations at the Drainage and Irrigation Department office here yesterday.

Palanivel said that people’s attitude should change too.

“Everyone throws rubbish into the river,” he said, adding that it was becoming a major issue.

He said river cleaning activities were ongoing throughout the country but the people kept dumping more rubbish there.

On a separate issue, Palanivel said that 6,000 trees had been planted in Cameron Highlands to rebuild the destroyed forest reserve areas there.

“We may start another tree planting project soon.”

Landslides and floods have been a major issue in Cameron Highlands due to excessive clearing of land for illegal farming.

Bernama also quoted Palanivel as saying that the River Of Life project, which is part of the Greater Kuala Lumpur Project, was 56% completed since it started in 2011.

The project aimed to change the image of Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang so that it would send out a positive impact.

World Water Day is marked on March 22 every year. This year’s theme is “Water and Sustainable Development”.

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Malaysia: Sustainable forest plan for interior Sabah

RUBEN SARIO The Star 11 May 15;

KOTA KINABALU: A comprehensive plan is being drawn up for the sustainable use of land in Sabah’s interior that is about 10 times the size of Penang island.

The ambitious plan would place an area of at least 260,000ha, including key conservation areas as well as land being used as forest and oil palm plantations, under a “common and integrated” strategy.

The Forestry Department recently placed advertisements calling for consortiums or companies to provide experts specialising in landscape modelling and environmental economy for the project.

Sabah Forestry Department director Datuk Sam Mannan said the project was crucial as it encompassed a land mass connecting three key protected areas.

These are the 105,443ha Maliau Basin, Danum Valley (42,800ha) and Imbak Canyon (16,750ha).

The project also partly covers the Kalabakan and Gunung Rara forest reserves that are part of the state-owned Yayasan Sabah sustainable forest management licence agreement area.

“Among the things we want to see under this project is the providing of corridors of forests in this area connecting Danum, Imbak Canyon and Maliau Basin for the benefit of wildlife,” said Mannan, whose department is spearheading the project.

Called the Biodiversity Conservation in Multiple-use Forest Landscapes, the plan would address multiple uses of the land to ensure that any activities there were sustainable.

Apart from the three conservation zones, the area would also include parcels of land that had been earmarked for forest rehabilitation, timber production as well as industrial tree plantations including oil palm cultivation.

“We are confident that what we are doing in Sabah can eventually become a model for other areas in South-East Asia,” Mannan said.

He said the project, which kicked off in 2012 and would continue for six years, was being partly funded by the United Nations Development Programme’s Global Environment Facility (UNDP-GEF).

Mannan said the department was working with Malaysian experts in the respective fields as well as the Royal Society of Britain and other groups in drawing up the strategies for the plan.

Considered Sabah’s “Lost World”, Maliau Basin contains an unusual assembly of 12 forest types.

They comprise mainly lower montane forest type that is dominated by majestic Agathis trees and the rare montane heath forest type and lowland type. There is also the seven-tier Maliau Falls.

Danum Valley which is home to animal species like the Borneo pygmy elephants, clouded leopards and five species of deer, is a rainforest dating back 130 million years.

Prince William and his wife had visited both Maliau Basin and Danum Valley when they visited Malaysia in 2012.

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