Best of our wild blogs: 30 May 15

Life History of the Philippine Swift
Butterflies of Singapore

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A Singapore legacy comes full circle

The gripping tale of South-east Asia's first natural history museum and its new lease of life.
Peter Ng Kee Lin for The Straits Times 30 May 15;

OUROBOROS is the name of a mythological Greek snake - a snake that consumes its own tail. It is one of the oldest mystical concepts known to man, first observed in Egypt 1,600 years before Christ. A powerful symbol of the cyclical nature of time. About coming full circle, and then starting again.

Such are the strange and interesting life and times of Singapore's museum of natural history.

From roots that trace back to 1823, when Stamford Raffles himself mooted the idea of a Singapore Institution for natural history; then 1849, when two coins donated by the Temenggong of Johor were acquired by the colonial government and the idea of a museum was seeded; to the establishment of a legal body, the Raffles Museum, in 1878.

This entity is South-east Asia's first natural history museum. But the world is an unpredictable place - many dramatic events occurred. Between 1942 and 1945, Singapore experienced a war of unprecedented cruelty and violence when the Japanese occupied the territory. Through fortune, the museum survived.

Then in 1965, Singapore was suddenly no longer part of the Federation of Malaysia but an independent country. And in these traumatic times, as a young nation grappled for survival, the Raffles Museum became the National Museum of Singapore.

And the powers to be were confronted with a decision. Two "needs" collided - the need for economic survival and the need for heritage. Both causes were important - just that one was more immediate.

Decisions have consequences. In the ensuing tragedy, there was no place in the "new" museum for the century-old collection of animals. Specimens which once awed a mesmerised public and were the legacies of hundreds of research scientists from around the world were deemed expendable.

Out of sheer necessity and providence, the homeless treasures found an unlikely temporary residence in the then University of Singapore.

It was left to the stubborn and seemingly illogical persistence of a few good men and women left in the museum and nascent university to hold the fort.

Backdropped against the fading light of the Raffles Museum, this generation of scientists ensured the collection survived. Not by design but through fortitude. Failure was never an option. And failure would have been terrible.

A 'pariah' collection

AT THAT juncture in time, giving the country's heritage and treasure away to another land was an option. Even throwing it away in the rubbish heap was an option. The collection did not survive unscathed. In those times of tribulation, we gave Malaysia the whale skeleton that had adorned the original Raffles Museum building since 1907. And in the process, we gave away the memories of three generations of Singaporeans. This is one hair shirt we will have to wear for generations to come.

Nothing ever stays the same. As the world changed, and a young Singapore grew stronger, wealthier and confident, it also became more sentient. Desperation was replaced by a new appreciation of our past.

The "pariah" Raffles collection became the Zoological Reference Collection of the Department of Zoology in the university in 1972. It had no permanent home and only a skeleton crew. It was a nomad, homeless, even when the University of Singapore fused with Nanyang University to form the National University of Singapore.

Only in 1988, after 16 years of wandering, was a purpose-built abode created in the new university campus of Kent Ridge. Opened by the nation's Education Minister at that time, Dr Tony Tan, this landmark event was witnessed by arguably the most famous director the museum ever had, the late Michael Tweedie. He was with the museum for 24 years between 1932 and 1956, and discovered hundreds of new species of reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans and molluscs.

Past and present met to witness what was then widely believed to be the ultimate salvation of the Raffles collection. Not exactly the old museum in its heyday, but at least it had a permanent home - or so we thought then!

In 1998, the powers at the university decided that the collection should become a research facility. It morphed into the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in the Faculty of Science. And a new Education Minister, Mr Teo Chee Hean, heralded its revival in 2001.

Acts of madness

IN THOSE halcyon times, some "nationalists" questioned why the university should retain the name of "Raffles" for the facility. Was this name but a vestige of a colonial memory that was best excised in the name of national pride? The heart says yes but the head says no. The Raffles name is not merely to honour an Englishman who founded modern Singapore. The name is a link to the museum's history. It is its bloodline. Good or bad, right or wrong - it is part of the museum's bloodline.

The bloodline echoes its own wants. It surpasses human intent. It brings out visionaries and heroes. It compels "acts of madness" - it encourages "impossible dreams". But "madness" and "impossible" are relative terms.

I like the definitions of these two powerful words by acclaimed US journalist Ambrose Bierce, author of the classic lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary: madness - one who is affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; and impossible - something "lacking in patience and money". Like Singapore - "mad" to be a separate island-state and "impossible" for it to survive. Really?

The bloodline ensured that the Raffles Museum was revived as the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Resurrected with the unwavering support of former president S R Nathan, and the financial might and philanthropic largesse of the Lee Foundation. As well as an army of donors and fellow believers.

A "ground-up" exercise that fulfilled the "impossible dream", to the tune of $56 million - enough to build a new museum of substantial substance, and add three dinosaurs to boot. In the words of our second prime minister Goh Chok Tong, NUS has, to all intents and purposes, built a "People's Museum". Or as the museum's own staff quip - it is a "museum of the impossible".

It has taken NUS a long time to achieve the "impossible dream" - 45 years since it left Stamford Road in the then National Museum, and over 10 years since it was tasked by Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh to try nevertheless.

NUS apologises to Singapore for this tardiness in delivery. The difficult, NUS will normally do immediately. The impossible, that takes a little longer. But it has now been done.

As much as money is the lifeblood of a project - however noble - the building of a true natural history museum is not just about concrete and hardware. It needs one element money cannot buy. Heart. People with heart. And the staff of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, some who have been with the institution under one name or another for over 40 years, stepped up to the plate when it mattered.

The money enabled. The people ensured. The passion, energy and work ethos of the old museum staff - over and far above what is expected of normal employees - helped make the "impossible dream" a reality. Dreamers and doers. Heroes and heroines. They believed in the cause - even when it caused them no end of grief. As the French artist Renoir once remarked, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains". And that beauty is a state-of-the-art natural history museum for Singapore that opened in time for its 50th birthday.

Natural history lives on

THE new museum is more than just a guardian of our memories. The nostalgia I see in the older generation of Singaporeans when they glimpse "old friends" in the gallery is palpable. It is an emotional roller coaster for them. The museum is a time capsule for the old. It is a wellspring of memories for the young.

It is also a symbol - a symbol of our need to appreciate fellow life forms we share the earth with. To catalogue, to document our fellow denizens. To know so we can understand, so we can protect. It is a tool of science, an engine for education, and a means to empower the next generation, so they do not repeat the environmental sins of their forefathers.

The museum is a symbol of our humanity and our responsibility as good planetary guardians. To give young people "impossible dreams" so our very real nightmares do not recur.

The year 2015 is Singapore's 50th year of independence, the nation's golden jubilee. It is also NUS' 110th year of founding. Today, the Education Minister of 1988 is the seventh President of Singapore. Today, our Education Minister of 2001 is the nation's Deputy Prime Minister.

Today, we mourn our whale, even as we cheer our three dinosaurs. Today, the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research is the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Today, the original vision of Stamford Raffles for a "Singapore Institution" is revived - as a museum for Singapore and South-east Asia's biodiversity.

Ouroboros is about the cyclical nature of time and endurance.

There is a belief that the origins of the famous mathematical symbol for infinity - the famous "lazy eight" or lemniscate - was derived from an Ouroboros overlapping in the middle. It makes sense. After all, the Ouroboros also represents an entity that persists from the beginning with such force and quality, it cannot be extinguished. That entity is Singapore's original and first natural history museum.

The writer, a systematic biologist who is an expert on crabs, is head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore.

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Nature Area in Singapore Botanic Gardens extended

National Parks Board says 14 hectares of the Learning Forest has been designated a Nature Area, which will enhance the forest habitat in the Gardens.
Channel NewsAsia 30 May 15;

SINGAPORE: Another 14 hectares has been designated as a Nature Area at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, announced the National Parks Board (NParks) on Saturday (May 30).

The 14 hectares of the Learning Forest comprises a 10-hectare fragment of secondary forest adjacent to the Gardens. The new area brings the entire Nature Area within the Gardens to 20 hectares, NParks added.

"The additional 14 hectares will enhance the forest habitat in the Gardens as it forms a contiguous swathe of forest through the heart of the Gardens. This will create more opportunities for the pollination and seed dispersal of native forest trees.

"It will help in the re-generation of the Rain Forest, strengthen ex situ conservation of plants native to the region and create additional habitats for native wildlife," the agency said.

The new Nature Area is situated within the Buffer Zone of the proposed World Heritage Site boundary. This area will be managed for conservation and education, activities that are complementary to the proposed World Heritage Site.

Measures to conserve and enhance the Rain Forest and its surroundings fall under the Biodiversity Conservation Plan, and include planting native tree saplings, maintenance of leaf litter to improve moisture levels and regular monitoring activities.

Grassroots leaders from the Holland-Bukit Timah area, along with Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, worked with residents and community gardeners to plant 100 forest trees within the new Nature Area on Saturday.

Among other things, these trees create additional habitats for native wildlife. Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee said: "These trees will grow up with us, will grow up with our grandchildren, and will be the pride and joy of our green legacy.

"And as these saplings that we have just planted grow and mature, they will support a habitat to support the rich biodiversity that we want to keep, and enhance in the Singapore Botanic Gardens."

There are currently 24 Nature Areas in Singapore, including the four Nature Reserves and 20 other areas which are retained for as long as development is not needed.

The last Nature Areas were designated in 2013 were Beting Bronok and Pulau Unum in Pulau Tekong, as well as Jalan Gemala located near the Kranji Reservoir. Many of the other Nature Areas are situated within parks, such as Bukit Batok Nature Park and Admiralty Park, the agency said.

- CNA/kk

New Nature Area designated at the Singapore Botanic Gardens
AsiaOne 30 May 15;

SINGAPORE - An additional 14 hectares of forest area have been designated as a Nature Area in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, the National Parks Board (NParks) announced in a statement on Saturday.

The 14 hectares comprise a 10-hectare fragment of secondary forest adjacent to the Botanic Gardens in the Tyersall area, which is known as the Learning Forest, as well as surrounding forest areas.

A green space is designated as a Nature Area if it is one with ecological significance, and there are currently 24 such Nature Areas in Singapore, including Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve, Labrador Nature Reserve and the Pulau Ubin Nature Area.

Including the existing 6 hectare Rain Forest, this brings the entire Nature Area within the Botanic Gardens to 20 hectares.

NParks said that the additional 14 hectares will enhance the forst habitat in the Gardens as it forms a contiguous swathe of forest through the heart of the Gardens.

"It will help in the regeneration of the Rain Forest, strengthen ex situ conservation of plants native to the region and create additional habitats for native wildlife."

Many of the species found in the new Nature Area are also native and part of Singapore's natural heritage, and are an important reference for ongoing research work.

The new Nature Area is situated within the Buffer Zone that was demarcated in the Site Management Plan submitted by the Gardens to UNESCO for its nomination as a World Heritage Site.

The expansion of the Nature Area is also part of the Gardens' Biodiversity Conservation Plan, which outlines measures to conserve and enhance the Rain Forest and its surroundings.

Botanic Gardens nature area to expand
Feng Zengkun The Straits Times AsiaOne 31 May 15;

The Singapore Botanic Gardens is about to get greener, even as it awaits the results of its Unesco World Heritage Site bid.

The National Parks Board (NParks) yesterday announced that a nature area within the Gardens will be more than tripled in size to 20ha, about the size of 30 football fields.

Nature areas are green spaces with ecological significance and will be preserved as long as development is not needed. There are 24 such areas across Singapore, including the nature reserves.

The Gardens' existing 6ha nature area is one of Singapore's few remaining patches of primary rainforest and has been preserved since 1859. The expansion includes a 10ha fragment of secondary forest next to the Gardens known as the Learning Forest, and surrounding forest areas.

NParks said the ecology in these areas complements the primary rainforest. More trees, including exceptionally tall and rare ones, will be planted in them, and an existing freshwater swamp will be restored and enhanced as part of the nature area expansion.

"The additional 14ha will enhance the forest habitat in the Gardens as it forms a contiguous swathe of forest through the heart of the Gardens," NParks said.

It added that this will create more opportunities for pollination and seed dispersal of native forest trees, help the rainforest regenerate, aid in the conservation of plants native to the region and create additional habitats for native wildlife such as the Red-legged Crake bird.

The new nature area could also take some pressure off the rainforest, by spreading visitors more evenly across the larger space. The expansion is in line with the Gardens' site management plan for its Unesco bid.

The new trees to be planted include the Tualang and Kempas species, which have some of the tallest trees in South-east Asia.

These forest giants can grow up to 60m or even taller. Many rare species like the Damar Hitam Gajar and the Giam will also be planted to safeguard them from extinction here, and for research.

The freshwater swamp, which will be completed next year, will have boardwalks and viewing decks to bring visitors closer to the flora and fauna.

Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee launched the new nature area yesterday at the Gardens.

He helped to plant 100 trees, together with MPs for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Ms Sim Ann, Minister of State for Education, and Communications and Information, and Mr Christopher De Souza, as well as about 130 residents and community gardeners.

Mr Lee said: "The rainforest has been largely untouched for hundreds of years... and holds some rare and unique species that can only be found here and nowhere else.

"All these upcoming developments will truly enhance our Botanic Gardens."

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Upper Peirce Reservoir Park: Tranquil haven of nature and wildlife

Look Woon Wei The Straits Time AsiaOne 30 May 15;

Stepping into Upper Peirce Reservoir Park feels very much like entering a secret garden.

Even just getting to it is like a journey into the unknown.

The park is a 10-minute drive or 40-minute walk from Old Upper Thomson Road, and the rewards are great once you get there: Lush greenery, a glistening body of water and a gentle breeze. It is a treat for the mind, body and soul.

Aside from the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves, the park is serene.

At one end is the Singapore International Country Club, with its manicured golf course.

Even the nearby Lower Peirce Reservoir Park sees far more activity. Taiji and yoga groups meet there at 5.30am every day.

It is this very isolation that draws local residents and other visitors to the lesser known of the two Peirce Reservoir parks.

"It is a very serene environment, away from pollution. It is also not very crowded," said Ms Veronica Ong, 56, a real estate agent who lives nearby.

Retiree David Tan, 64, added: "The morning air is very fresh. Going there makes me feel more alive."

When The Straits Times visited on Wednesday and yesterday, there were fewer than five people there each day.

The park's isolation could be because the distinction between Upper and Lower Peirce Reservoir did not exist initially.

Originally known as the Kallang River Reservoir, it was renamed Peirce Reservoir in 1922 after Robert Peirce, the Municipal Engineer of Singapore from 1901 to 1916.

It was only in the late 1960s that increasing demand for water led the then Public Utilities Board (PUB) to examine the feasibility of increasing Peirce Reservoir's capacity.

A higher dam was built upstream of the existing dam in 1970, leading to the implementation of the Upper Peirce Scheme in 1971.

Officially opened by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Feb 27, 1977, the Upper Peirce Reservoir has a storage capacity of up to 27.8 million cubic m of water.

It is the largest impounding reservoir in Singapore and the second-largest reservoir after Marina Reservoir in terms of storage capacity.

It also acts as a storage area for the excess water that Marina Reservoir is unable to store.

The reservoir, together with those at MacRitchie, Lower Peirce and Upper Seletar, form the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

The huge body of water and surrounding foliage provides an optimum environment for wildlife to thrive.

Just last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared a picture that he took of a rare black-headed collar snake on his Facebook page after a visit to the park.

Monkeys and wild dogs are also a common sight and wild boars have also been spotted.

Prominent signs put up by the National Parks Board (NParks) caution visitors against feeding the animals or approaching them.

However, residents nearby have complained of unwelcome visitors in their houses.

One, who wished to be known only as Mrs Koh, 44, said: "We moved here in February and have had two incidents of monkeys entering our home.

"One of them took a box of noodles and opened it, and we had to clean up the mess."

Fellow resident Ms Ong said: "Although we haven't had any incidents this year, when we first moved in, we had no way to stop them from coming.

"Sometimes, we would wake up and find them sitting on the ledge."

On the whole, residents there love being surrounded by nature.

Engineer Moses Ng, 53, said: "My family moved here precisely because we want to feel close to nature. We love the fresh air that blows in.

"I like it here a lot. You don't have to go overseas to catch a beautiful sunset when there is one right on your doorstep."

For Mrs Koh, the surrounding greenery is a treat.

"These days, instead of monkeys, we often wake up to birds chirping while resting on our plants," she said.

"It is quite amazing. I have never seen so many different types of birds, and of so many different colours, before.

" I am very happy to be able to live here."

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Explore heritage? Just tap the app

Ong Kai Xuan The Straits Times AsiaOne 30 May 15;

Singapore's heritage has gone digital with a new mobile application that gives users information about heritage landmarks here on the go.

The Culture Explorer app was developed by Samsung Electronics Singapore in collaboration with the National Heritage Board and National Parks Board, and will make use of augmented reality technology to allow users to experience heritage sites here virtually.

Users just need to point the camera phone at features on landmarks and information about the feature will appear. Among the things the app can do is to show a timeline with old pictures of the landmark. Users will also be able to superimpose their own photos on the old pictures, as if they were there when the picture was taken.

Currently, the app has information about the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Botanic Gardens, Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall. The Arts House and Raffles Hotel will be part of the app by July.

Samsung also aims to play a part in the education of communities about Singapore's heritage through its school outreach programme.

It will provide worksheets and prizes to students in school programmes, and will even train teachers to guide the students as well as loan Android devices.

This will all be free. A pilot run was conducted in Gan Eng Seng Primary School and another will be conducted in Yangzheng Primary School in July.

"Technology is the perfect medium to link the past with the present, to connect communities and generate greater appreciation of Singapore's culture and heritage," said Ms Esther Low, acting head of corporate marketing at Samsung Electronics Singapore.

But the application has some kinks to iron out. "The information is good, but the application is not very user-friendly or intuitive," said Ms Clarice Ch'ng, 18, a project assistant who tried the app. Culture Explorer is available on Android for free.

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China agrees to phase out its ivory industry to combat elephant poaching

Conservationists hail China’s first ever commitment to phase out legal, domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products as a victory in the fight to save Africa’s elephants
Karl Mathiesen The Guardian 29 May 15;

China has committed to phasing out the domestic manufacture and sale of ivory products for the first time. Conservation groups said the announcement was “the single greatest measure” in the fight to save the last African elephants from poaching.

At an event in Beijing where foreign diplomats witnessed 662kg of confiscated ivory being symbolically destroyed, Zhao Shucong, head of China’s State Forestry Administration, said: “We will strictly control ivory processing and trade until the commercial processing and sale of ivory and its products are eventually halted.”

This is the first time China has committed to phase out its legal, domestic ivory industry. Lo Sze Ping, CEO of WWF’s China division applauded the Chinese government’s strengthening resolve to reduce demand in the world’s biggest market for trafficked ivory.

“This decision will have a profound impact on wild elephant conservation and ivory trafficking” he said.

Peter Knights, the executive director of anti-trafficking group WildAid, said the announcement was significant but he would be waiting to see whether the pledge was delivered. China did not set a timescale for the phase-out.

“In our recent survey, 95% of Chinese supported a total ban on ivory sales. This would be the next logical step for China, as well as the greatest single measure to reduce poaching in Africa,” said Knights.

Cutting consumer demand in China is seen as essential to stopping the loss of Africa’s last elephants to poaching, but progress has been slow. Since a ban on the international ivory trade in 1989, it is estimated China has seized more than 40 tonnes of ivory.

The stockpile is released to licensed carving factories and then sold legally in markets across the country. But conservation groups say this supports demand for black market tusks from freshly killed elephants.

This week, it was announced that Mozambique had lost half its population of 20,000 elephants in just five years. In Africa more than 22,000 elephants are killed for their tusks each year.

Zhou Fei, head of wildlife trade monitoring group Traffic’s China branch, said: “The decision to phase out China’s ivory market as well as today’s destruction of the seized ivory are powerful indications of the government’s commitment to support international action against elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade.”

John Scanlon, secretary-general of Cites, the body that regulates all international trade in listed species, said in a message read at the event that he was “most encouraged” by developments in China. But that “the poaching of African elephants and the illegal trade in their ivory continues to be driven by transnational organised criminals and, in some cases, rebel militia at an industrial scale and it is one of the most destructive forms of wildlife crime”.

The phase-out of domestic ivory was part of a 10-point plan announced by Zhao. It also included stricter policing of the illegal wildlife trade both on and offline, renewed efforts to deflate demand through public campaigns and a commitments to international cooperation.

The announcement comes less than two months before bilateral trade talks between the US and China - the world’s two largest markets for illegal ivory. There is an ongoing dialogue between China and the US on combatting the illegal ivory trade. Conservation groups are hopeful talks will eventually produce a coordinated international response to the crisis.

On Thursday customs police in Hangzhou unveiled 270kg of ivory artworks and 9kg of rhino horn captured by an anti-smuggling operation that has been running in the city since June 2014.

The crush follows a larger one in January 2014, when the government destroyed 6.1 tonnes of elephant tusks. The government of Hong Kong has also committed to burning 28 tonnes of its ivory stockpile in monthly burns of one tonne each – the first tonne was destroyed a year ago.

In January, ahead of a visit to a Chinese elephant sanctuary by Prince William, China banned the import of carved ivory for 12 months.

The symbolic destruction of ivory has been practiced in many countries for more than 25 years. In recognition of the global trade ban on ivory in 1989 Kenya burned a 12 tonne pile of seized tusks. In April, the UAE crushed 10 tonnes of contraband. Some critics believe the actions do more harm than good as they create an impression of scarcity, driving the price higher.

Zhou said the destruction of ivory stockpiles was only useful if it was backed by concrete measures to combat the smuggling networks and reduce demand among the Chinese public.

“Ivory destructions should not be an end in themselves - any such events should be followed by actions to ensure countries continue to comply with their international commitments under Cites to shut down the illegal ivory trade,” he said.

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Great Barrier Reef spared 'in danger' listing - for now

BBC News 29 May 15;

The Great Barrier Reef should not go on a World Heritage danger list, according to a United Nations draft report.

However, it says Australia must carry out commitments to protect the reef, including restoring water quality and restricting new port developments.

The final decision on its status will be made at the World Heritage Committee meeting in Germany next month.

Conservationists have warned that the outlook for the reef is "poor".

A report published in 2014 concluded that the condition "is expected to further deteriorate in the future". Climate change, extreme weather, and pollution from industry were listed a key concerns.

However, in 2015 Australia submitted a plan to the UN heritage body, Unesco, outlining how it would address these threats.

This included a proposed objective of reducing pollution by 80% before 2025, as well as reversing a decision to allow dredged material to be dumped near the reef.

Precious place

The Unesco draft report says that Australia must implement this 35-year action plan, and Unesco will continue to check on its progress.

The matter - along with the future of other World Heritage sites - will be debated at a Unesco meeting taking place in Bonn from 28 June to 8 July.

* The Great Barrier Reef includes 3,000 coral reefs and 600 islands
* It is the world's largest marine park, covering 348,000 sq km
* It contains 400 types of coral, 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 kinds of mollusc
* It receives about two million tourists each year.
* The region contributes A$6bn ($4.6bn; £3bn) a year to the Australian economy

The Great Barrier Reef was given World Heritage status in 1981.

It is a vast collection of thousands of smaller coral reefs spans, stretching from the northern tip of Queensland to the state's southern city of Bundaberg.

The UN says this is the "most biodiverse" of its World Heritage sites, and that is of "enormous scientific and intrinsic importance".

Setting targets

Greenpeace issued a statement saying the draft report was "not a reprieve - it is a big, red flag from Unesco". The group's reef campaigner Shani Tager highlighted the fact that the Australian government had been asked to prepare a report within 18 months.

"Unesco now joins a long line of scientists, banks, organisations and individuals who are deeply worried about the reef's health," Ms Tager said.

Prof Callum Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at the University of York in the UK, said he thought Unesco had made the right decision, based on "major progress" that has recently been made in the Australian authorities' approach to the reef.

But he noted that the announcement was more of a postponement than a final judgement.

"They're setting targets and they're obviously going to watch this very closely," Prof Roberts told BBC News.

"I think Unesco is right to put on hold its decision, in view of this long-term sustainability plan. But it's also very right to set some target dates for Australia to produce evidence that it's actually sticking to the plan - that it's investing enough money to make that plan happen."

Prof Roberts also pointed to efforts by the Queensland state government.

"The situation a couple of years ago was that the Queensland government was fast-tracking major industrial developments along the Great Barrier Reef coast - particularly a number of very large port developments which would service coal exports.

"That has all been scaled back significantly. [The government] has also responded to the major impact of nutrient runoff from agricultural lands.

"The outlook for the reef is a lot better today than it was two years ago."

Should the Great Barrier Reef be listed as 'in danger' by Unesco?
The draft decision against listing the natural wonder as ‘in danger’ is good news for Australia but is it the best outcome for the reef’s conservation?
Karl Mathiesen and James Parsons The Guardian 29 May 15;

The draft decision not to place the Great Barrier Reef on Unesco’s ‘in danger’ list is a coup for Australia.

The government has lobbied intensely to avoid the ignominy of a ‘world heritage in danger’ listing that would undermine tourism at a site that attracts two million visitors each year. Having its ability to protect the natural wonder questioned by the UN would have been a further stain on the environmental credibility of a country now viewed in some quarters as a global vandal.

It is likely that Unesco’s world heritage committee will adopt the draft – submitted by Unesco adviser, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – when it meets in Bonn in June. The reprieve for Australia comes with strict conditions about the implementation of measures to protect the reef system.

But experts have told the Guardian that even though the reef was not officially listed as in danger the threat to its survival remains severe and the measures Unesco required of Australia would be inadequate to save it.

In recent years the Unesco committee has notified Australia of its alarm at the continuing impacts on the reef of climate change, water pollution, dredging for port facilities (including the massive expansion at Abbot Point coal port) and fishing. In response to their concerns the Australian government submitted its Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (LTSP) in March.

On Friday the IUCN issued a cautious approval of the plan, noting its “effective implementation ... supported by clear oversight and accountability, research, monitoring and adequate and sustained financing, is essential to respond to the current and potential threats to the property”.

The plan rules out the dumping of dredging spoil – which will be dragged from the seabed to create channels for coal transport ships – within the reef’s marine park.

But Dr Nick Graham, a reef expert at James Cook University, said there was evidence that dredging alone would damage the reef by stirring up sediment which would settle widely on the reef, causing disease. As the impacts of the planned expansion of the Abbot Point coal port begin to manifest on the coral, he said Unesco may again consider listing the reef as in danger.

“Dredging at that sort of scale is not compatible with a healthy reef and it’s not just the dredging, it’s the increased numbers of ships that are going to be moving through the Great Barrier Reef as a result,” Graham said.

The primary long-term threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and coral reefs worldwide, is climate change. A major coral bleaching event, associated with increased ocean temperatures, has been underway since the middle of last year and is predicted to continue into next year. In the face of these existential threats to the ecosystem, it is essential that Australia does everything it can to reduce local pressures, including sediment from dredging, said Graham.

Mark Eakin, coordinator of the US government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) Coral Reef Watch programme, said conservation measures in the Australian plan were a step forward. But any plan that enshrined and expedited the extraction and burning of coal would only fuel the greatest threat to the reef.

“The Abbot Point expansion with a major increase in coal exports is antithetical to the need to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere,” he said.

Hundreds of miles inland from where the reef fringes the Queensland coastline, 27bn tonnes of coal lies beneath the ground in the Galilee Basin. Australia’s right-wing government has pushed hard to open the region up to vast new mines. The expansion of Abbot Point to become the world’s biggest coal port is a key part of leveraging the mineral wealth and revitalising Australia’s flagging mining boom.

“I think that the pressure that the original proposal to list it at risk has brought on the Australian government has resulted in some very important changes. The one thing that’s unfortunate that it hasn’t done is to influence their current major push to extract and export as much coal as possible,” said Eakin.

Despite the shortcomings of the plan, campaigners and experts expressed relief that the Unesco committee had not formally listed the site as ‘in danger’. Graham said he didn’t think such a move would have helped the conservation of the reef. Campaigners were similarly cautious about calling for a listing.

“We never called for an ‘in danger’ listing as we want it protected and if it had been on the danger list it might have led to complacency,” said Felicity Wishart, reef campaign director for the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

WWF-Australia chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said: “Unesco has made the right decision. The future world heritage status of the reef should rightly be determined based on the actual condition of its precious corals and marine life – as assessed by scientists.”

Greenpeace campaigner Shani Tager said, however, that the organisation had hoped the reef would be listed as in danger because it would send an even stronger message to the government.

Experts and campaigners agreed that the key detail of the Unesco draft decision was the acknowledgement of serious ongoing decline to the reef system and the strict continued monitoring demanded by the committee.

Tager said: “I think we’re seeing that Unesco is very concerned about the future of the reef. The Long Term Sustainability Plan is not enough as we don’t think you can have a safe expansion of coal ports in particular. Unesco has recognised the difficulties of the reef and the continued monitoring of it is good news.”

Threats to the reef

Run-off from agricultural fertilisers and manure have raised nutrient levels in the southern two-thirds of the marine park to dangerous concentrations that disrupt the ecosystem’s ability to take up nutrients. The Australian government’s plan aims for an 80% reduction in run-off pollution by 2025. Experts have said the lag between improved practices and environmental benefits is likely to mean that the nutrient cycle will continue to be affected for some decades.

Climate Change
Warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions is heating up the seas around Australia. 15 of the 20 warmest years on record have been recorded in the past 20 years. In the summer of 2012/13 the hottest sea surface temperatures for the Australian region were recorded. By 2100, average sea temperatures off north-eastern Australia could be 2.5% warmer than at present. Corals subjected to sharp increases in temperature are at risk of bleaching and death.

Coal and shipping
The reef’s region is already highly industrialised. Between 2011 and 2013 ports within or adjacent to the region accounted for 76% of the total through output for all Queensland ports – most of this traffic was related to the coal industry. High concentrations of coal dust have been detected in the park.

Between 2001 and 2013, 28m cubic metres of dredge material were dumped in the Great Barrier Reef world heritage site. The expansion of the Abbot Point port will require large-scale dredging that will now be dumped onshore.

Fishing has been well controlled by the Park Authority, with an outstanding 30% of the site protected by a no-take zone. However the IUCN noted continuing concern over some residual impacts. These include the accidental capture through entanglement of turtles, dolphins and dugongs in commercial fishing nets.

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