Best of our wild blogs: 5 Feb 16

With haze threatening return, Indonesian forestry giant pushes peatlands restoration model
Mongabay Environmental News

Fires burned 26% of forestry giant’s South Sumatra plantations in 2015
Mongabay Environmental News

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Measures taken to clean up Punggol Marina litter

JUDITH TAN The New Paper 4 Feb 16;

A permanent drain to channel rainwater runoff from the Marina Country Club (MCC) in Punggol into the sea will be built.

A vertical grating will also be installed at its mouth to prevent litter from the sea from entering the drain.

These changes came a week after The New Paper published an report on Jan 28 on how the waters near and in the marina were contaminated with litter.

MCC is located in Northshore Drive near Punggol Way and near the mouth of Sungei Punggol in the north-east of Singapore.

Announcing the changes in a joint statement yesterday, the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), Public Utilities Board (PUB) and Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) said the existing temporary drain bordering the club will be backfilled.

MPA is currently deploying craft to retrieve garbage and flotsam daily to ensure that the port waters are clean and safe for vessels to navigate through.

The agency will also more frequently clean the flotsam that is brought in by the tide, as well as ensure that the owners of waterfront properties rid their own areas of flotsam and debris.

MCC's general manager Derrick Ong had told TNP in the Jan 28 report that the litter problem started when Punggol Dam, located near the club, was built in 2011.

The dam was constructed to turn the estuary of Sungei Punggol into a reservoir and allow excess water from it to be discharged into the sea to prevent flooding.

SLA, PUB and MPA said they are working closely together to address the issue of litter at the area where MCC is located and "will continue to work together to closely monitor the condition of the temporary drain and ensure its cleanliness".

Mr Ong told TNP yesterday that he is glad the authorities are doing something to help clean the waters.

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Pedestrian Nights on Orchard Road have had no real impact, retailers say

VALERIE KOH Today Online 4 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE — As the second run of Pedestrian Night on Orchard Road comes to an end on Saturday (Feb 6) — with no immediate plans for another round — hospitality and marketing experts, noting the lacklustre impact so far, said more will have to be done by all stakeholders, if the event is to become more than just a novelty and deliver a real boost to businesses.

Most retailers interviewed by TODAY saw no real impact to their earnings following two six-month runs of the event, which sees the stretch between Scotts Road and Bideford Road closed to cars for one Saturday night a month and play host to themed events.

Experts said the novelty wore off quickly after its launch. “There was initially quite a bit of buzz over it. Subsequently, there wasn’t a lot of promotional materials to remind people, and consumers tend to be forgetful,” said Mr Amos Tan, a marketing lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic (SP).

With different themes — including mass tennis and yoga — for each night, visitors could not keep up with the changes, added Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s (NP) senior tourism lecturer Michael Chiam. “Every month the theme changes, it’s difficult for people to know what the event is for. If you’re going to have a concert to showcase local talent every month, everybody will know it’s a venue for concert,” said Dr Chiam. “I think that’s where the gap is.”

The initiative, organised by the Orchard Road Business Association (ORBA) and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board, started in October 2014, and returned for another six nights in July last year. Last year, the October and November editions were cancelled due to the haze.

Despite the event drawing in over 50,000 visitors on average — twice the regular Saturday night footfall — in the first installment, this did not appear to translate to more sales for retailers TODAY interviewed. Visitors tend to be attracted to the fanfare on the road, away from the malls flanking the streets. “People are here for the event; they’re not here to buy,” said the assistant branch manager of accessories store Sinma at Lucky Plaza, who only wanted to be known as Mdm Chua.

Some shopping malls such as Tangs extended their opening hours from 9.30pm to 11pm on Pedestrian Night, but House of Condom general manager Yee Chun Fei shunned the move. “With the economy like this, most businesses have been affected. If we extend, we have to pay our workers extra. There’s no point,” he said.

ORBA executive director Steven Goh said that feedback from stakeholders and shoppers will be reviewed, as organisers mull over the next steps to take. “As of now, there will not be another Pedestrian Night after the February run until we decide on the future of the initiative,” said Mr Goh.

The feedback accumulated so far and the experience of organising Pedestrian Night in different formats will help OBRA and the authorities evaluate whether the initiative should be continued, he said.

Following the first run, the organisers had introduced improvements, like ramps added at access points and in-mall activities and promotions “so that the street level buzz extends to the rest of the precinct”.

SP’s Mr Tan suggested bringing street performances into malls to create the impetus for visitors to wander in, and decorating malls in tandem with the theme of the night.

Success hinged on the collective efforts of mall tenants, he added. “If you only have a few shops that are opening, it’s going to create the image that not a lot of people are interesting in participating. And you cannot blame the customers for not patronising you.”

Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon, who teaches marketing at the National University of Singapore (NUS), hoped to see entrepreneurs plying their wares along the pedestrianised street. This would inevitably lead to competition with mall tenants, but it could also incentivise the shopkeepers to be more enterprising, she said.

NP’s Dr Chiam pointed out that there was also the misconception that the area is closed off, and some shun it completely.

Moving forward, the organisers would have to think very hard about ensuring their ideas remain “fresh”, said NUS real estate Associate Professor Yu Shi-Ming. He expressed scepticism over the viability of Pedestrian Night as a permanent feature. “Closing the road brings a lot of inconvenience. Do you have enough activities to ensure the whole street is buzzing? The space is huge, and honestly, we don’t have the people to fill it up,” he said.

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Singapore beefing up measures against Zika

KENNETH CHENG Today Online 4 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE — The authorities today (Feb 3) announced more measures to beef up the Republic’s preparation against the Zika virus, in the wake of the World Health Organization (WHO) declaring clusters of birth defects with suspected links to the virus an international public health emergency earlier this week.

The testing of suspected cases of the mosquito-borne Zika virus will be expanded to public hospital laboratories. Currently, blood samples of suspected cases are only tested at the National Public Health Laboratory.

The Ministry of Health will also form a Clinical Advisory Group that will provide expert advice on the management of pregnant women who contract the virus, given the strong suspected causal link between the contraction of the Zika infection during pregnancy and microcephaly.

Sharing these steps in a joint press release today, the MOH and the National Environment Agency (NEA) said the enhanced measures are in line with recommendations by the WHO.

They noted that the WHO’s Emergency Committee has found “no public health justification for restrictions on travel or trade to prevent the spread of Zika virus”. Precautionary measures recommended by the WHO include improving Zika infection surveillance, prioritising the development of new diagnostic tests, and stepping up vector control and appropriate personal protective measures. It also recommended that pregnant women who have been exposed to the Zika virus be counselled and followed for birth outcomes.

The MOH and NEA said today that the NEA has ramped up vector-control efforts, to keep the mosquito population low. Scientists from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research and Tan Tock Seng Hospital are also reported to be working on equipping an existing diagnostic test kit with the capability to detect the Zika virus.

The measures announced today follow an announcement last week on steps the authorities are taking to enhance the detection and control of potential infections. These include the addition of the Zika virus to the List of Notifiable Infectious Diseases under the Infectious Diseases Act on Jan 26. The MOH had also issued a circular to doctors on Jan 27 to heighten awareness of the virus, so that doctors “stay vigilant against possible suspect cases and are familiar with the protocols for testing and dealing with confirmed cases”.

All patients confirmed to have contracted Zika will be admitted to a public hospital until they recover and test negative for the virus. The ministry will also screen those in close proximity to the patient — such as colleagues and those in the household — for the virus.

Health advisories have also been put out to notify travellers heading to and coming from Zika-affected countries on how to protect themselves against mosquito bites.

Travellers who have returned to Singapore from affected countries have also been reminded to monitor their health and see a doctor should they experience symptoms of Zika, which include fever, rashes and headache.

The authorities had also advised pregnant women to reconsider any travel plans to countries with ongoing outbreaks and local transmission.

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Hawkers awarded for recycling efforts

More than 10 tonnes of leftover food has been recycled at Tiong Bahru Market since a food waste recycling pilot was launched two weeks ago, Channel NewsAsia understands.
Liyana Othman Channel NewsAsia 4 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE: More than 10 tonnes of leftover food has been recycled at Tiong Bahru Market since a food waste recycling pilot was launched two weeks ago, Channel NewsAsia understands.

Previously, 2.2 to 2.5 tonnes of food waste was generated at the market daily.

For their recycling efforts, hawkers got a present on Thursday (Feb 4). A bio-fertiliser made from the food waste, which was ground and mixed with micro-organisms, was handed out by VRM Operations, which runs the food recycling machine at the Market.

Meanwhile, banners have also been put up to encourage patrons to return their plates to the tray-return points. Cleaners currently separate organic waste from other materials at these points.

For plates that are left on the table, the cleaners end up throwing everything into the hand-trolley bins. This waste will then go into the mix-waste stream, and will not be recycled.

A cleaner Channel NewsAsia spoke to said it means more work, but he sees the point of the recycling initiative.

"There is purpose in this," he said. “It’s just that it's more troublesome because when we throw the rubbish, we still have to separate. So work is a little more cumbersome."

- CNA/ek

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Malaysia says Indonesian govt has revoked concessions for 20 plantations to stop haze

Indonesian govt has revoked concessions for 20 plantations to stop haze: Wan Junaidi

CHUAH BEE KIM New Straits Times 4 Feb 16;

JOHOR BARU: The Indonesian government has revoked concessions for 20 plantations in the republic to reduce slash and burn activities that could cause haze in the future.

Malaysia's Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said this was among three efforts conducted by the Indonesian government to tackle burning activities that has led to transboundary haze in the past.

The other two efforts were Indonesia's bid to buy three Bombardier helicopters for cloud seeding, and to improve drainage systems at plantations where there were fires that caused the haze.

"I had a meeting with two senior high ranking Indonesian officials there recently.

"They told me the government has taken back 20 concessions for plantations," he said in a working visit to Johor today.

He said his Indonesian counterparts had given the assurance that Indonesia had taken pro-active initiatives to curb open burning, which will prevent the haze from returning.

On another matter, Wan Junaidi said he was impressed with the upcoming Forest City project which consists of man-made islands off Johor's coast as it was a benchmark development that would put Malaysia on the international map.

Indonesia pledges no repeat of haze crisis
ZAZALI MUSA The Star 4 Feb 16;

JOHOR BARU: The Indonesian authorities have given their assurance to their Malaysian counterparts that they will take proactive measures to prevent the haze from recurring this year.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said if the haze happens again this year, the effects would be less severe than last year.

This was because measures taken by the relevant authorities in Indonesia included improving the irrigation system in oil palm plantations and cancelling the concession of 20 oil palm companies.

He said this in a press conference after paying a courtesy call on Mentri Besar Datuk Mohamed Khaled Nordin here on Thursday.

"The Indonesian government will also acquire three Bombardier planes to be used to fight forest fires," said Dr Wan Junaidi.

He said the decision to buy the planes was made after Indonesia found that it was more effective in putting out forest fires.

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Malaysia: Terengganu records 59 Green turtle deaths in 2015

New Straits Times 4 Feb 16;

DUNGUN: The Terengganu Fisheries Department recorded the deaths of 59 Green turtles in the state last year, up from 47 in the previous year, said director Abdul Khalil Abdul Karim.

He said the death rate was high and most worrying as the turtle population was dwindling.

Abdul Khalil said 54 of the turtles were females or juveniles and five were males.

The last recorded death of the year occurred at the end of December, he said, adding that it was a female turtle that was found dead on the Teluk Ketapang beach in Kuala Terengganu.

Abdul Khalil said most of the deaths occurred between January and April in Kerteh, Kemaman, Paka, Kuala Terengganu and Dungun.

He also said that a Green turtle tagged ‘MY TGG’ that had come to nest in Paka, Kerteh, was found dead last year at the Pulau Banyan Tree Resort in the Riau Islands of Indonesia.

Pulau Redang continued to be the main landing place of the Green turtle last year, followed by the Geliga beach in Kemaman and Pulau Perhentian, he said.

He also said that there were no reported landings of the Leatherback turtle in Terengganu last year. -- Bernama

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Malaysia: SOS as rivers dry up in Sarawak

STEPHEN THEN The Star 5 Feb 16;

MIRI: The worsening El Nino phenomenon is causing havoc on water supplies in some regions of Sarawak.

Rivers that were once raging are drying up and this is causing serious water shortage in settlements and schools that are totally dependent on rainwater and riverwater for cooking, drinking and other daily use.

In the Bakelalan highlands of northernmost Sarawak, it has not rained for the past two months.

Yesterday, an SOS was sent out on behalf of some 2,000-odd villagers who were now without clean water, said Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP) deputy president Datuk Nelson Balang Rining.

Balang, who is SPDP chairman for the Bakelalan division, said he sent out the SOS to the Public Works Department, appealing for immediate assistance.

“My SPDP Bakelalan divisional office has received appeals from people living in the middle and upper reaches of the Bakelalan highlands who are facing water shortage due to the current dry spell.

“I visited Long Sukang and the surrounding areas over the weekend and found several rivers drying up.

“Among the people affected are children of three schools, namely SK Long Sukang, SK Long Semadoh and SK Bakelalan.

“At least 2,000 villagers from numerous settlements are facing critical water problems daily.

“Very soon, there will be no water for drinking. I have already spoken to state JKR director Zuraimi Saki and he has promised to look into the issue.

“He said he will inform JKR in Limbang and Lawas on how to coordinate immediate assistance to the affected population,” he said.

Balang added that his office will assist JKR and the other relevant authorities to help the affected people by providing manpower and logistic support to deploy emergency water supply from the JKR treatment plant in Lawas.

The Star contacted Zuraimi at the JKR headquarters in Kuching and he said they would treat the situation with utmost urgency.

“I am alerting my DE (divisional engineer) in Limbang to look into this right away.

“We will look into how to deploy emergency supply of water to the affected population,” he said.

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Indonesia: Sentences for North Sumatra poachers ‘too lenient’

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post 4 Feb 16;

The North Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) expressed pessimism on Wednesday that two-year prison sentences given by a court to three tiger pelt sellers would help to decrease similar crimes.

The agency’s protection, preservation and mapping section head Joko Iswanto said the sentences were too lenient. He expected the panel of judges to sentence the three defendants to the maximum penalty of five years to have a deterrent effect on others.

“With the two-year sentences I am pessimistic that it will affect the government’s efforts to control the illegal trade of Sumatran tiger skins,” Joko told The Jakarta Post.

He said that, based on the cases his office had handled, no perpetrators had been sentenced to the maximum. In a previous case in Medan in 2012, the perpetrator was sentenced to only a year in prison.

Joko said the government needed to revise the punishment for perpetrators cited in Law No. 5/1990 on natural resources and ecosystem conservation so it carried a minimum penalty of five years in prison.

“I am sure that if the minimum penalty for the illegal trade of rare animals was five years, the activity [...] would decrease because the perpetrators would be afraid [of the possible penalties],” Joko said.

He added that the trade of Sumatran tiger pelts remained strong in North Sumatra. Joko said perpetrators operated in subdistricts close to Mount Leuser National Park (TNGL), while buyers were based in Medan.

The Medan District Court on Tuesday sentenced Gunawan Kacaribu, 24, M. Said Ali Raden Gusnoh, 39, and Suroyo, 30, to two years in prison each and fined them Rp 10 million (US$714) for trading Sumatran tiger skins. All three hail from Langkat regency, North Sumatra.

The sentences were more lenient than those demanded by prosecutors, who sought two-and-a-half years’ imprisonment and Rp 10 million fines for each of the defendants.

Judge Marsudin Nainggolan said the panel of judges did not find anything to mitigate the criminal elements in the case.

The defendants obtained a tiger skin from Eka Sembiring for Rp 1.5 million. Each contributed Rp 500,000 to buy the product from Eka, who trapped the animal in the border area of TNGL.

After buying the pelt, Marsudin said, the three planned to sell it to buyer Rian, who had ordered it by phone, for Rp 7 million. The three were arrested by forest rangers at a hotel in Binjai on Sept. 14, 2015. The rangers also seized a tiger skin as evidence.

Responding to the verdicts, the three defendants said they accepted their punishment. The prosecutors also accepted the sentences.

Meanwhile in Bengkalis regency, Riau, a female wild Sumatran elephant was found dead by locals not far from a housing complex in Balai Raja subdistrict, Pinggir district, on Wednesday at about 6 a.m.

Nature Lovers Association (Hipam) Duri-Riau chairman Zulhusni Syukri said that after checking the animal, Hipam workers found no indication of violence on the body of the adult elephant.

“All parts of its body were intact,” Zulhusni said.

Separately, BKSDA Duri’s Region III section head Haluanto Ginting said veterinarians and investigators had been sent to investigate the elephant’s cause of death.

“A necropsy has to be done. We will have its internal organs examined at the laboratory,” said Haluanto, indicating the possibility that the elephant may have been poisoned.

He expressed hope that locals would act wisely when dealing with wild elephants to prevent deaths.

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Massive Bird Die-Off Puzzles Alaskan Scientists

Elizabeth Newbern, Yahoo News 3 Feb 16;

Thousands of dead seabirds have washed up on Alaskan shores over the past nine months. And while a dead bird washing ashore is a fairly common occurrence, these large numbers are leaving scientists concerned and confused.

Nearly 8,000 common murres (Uria aalge) were found along the shores of Whittier, Alaska, in early January. Over the New Year's holiday, Alaska experienced four days of gale-force winds from the southeast that resulted in dead birds washing ashore, said Robb Kaler, a wildlife biologist for the Alaska branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Scientists have known for some time that the key to surviving strong storm winds is having an energy reserve, according to an expert at Tufts University, and Kaler and his colleagues think that the common murres were not finding enough food this season, which may be why so many didn't make it through the storm.

In cases like these, experts typically measure the number of dead birds per kilometer, said Julia Parrish, a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle and executive director of the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST), which is one of the organizations studying areas where these birds are washing ashore, alongside the USFWS and the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC). For the Whittier survey, the final measurements came to approximately 4,600 birds per kilometer, Parrish told Live Science. [5 Mysterious Animal Die-Offs]

The common murre is "one of the most abundant and widespread seabirds in Alaska," Kaler told Live Science in an email. While other dead seabirds are being reported on Pacific shorelines, current reports indicate that about 99 percent of the animals are common murres, Kaler said.

Seeing a dead seabird on the beach is not altogether unusual, especially during September and October, when the birds are leaving their breeding colonies, Parrish said. However, dead common murres started showing up in Alaska in March.

"This is really weird, because that is the beginning of the breeding season," Parrish said. "That's when [seabirds] are [usually] fat and sassy."

What's going on?

So far, the NWHC has examined 100 bird carcasses, and most of the birds seem to have died due to starvation, Kaler told Live Science.

"While we know murres are starving," Kaler said, "we do not understand the mechanism."

There is a chance that saxitoxin, a toxin related to paralytic shellfish poisoning, or domoic acid, a toxin that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, could be responsible for some of these deaths, he said. But both of these toxins are difficult to detect in birds that have nothing in their stomachs or gastrointestinal tracts, which was the case with most of these animals, Kaler said.

In the past, seabird die-off events — in which thousands of birds die in a short period of time — have been associated with strong El Niño events, Kaler said. In 1993, there was another die-off of common murres recorded in the northern Gulf of Alaska, where scientists found about 3,500 dead or dying common murres along the shoreline over a period of six months. Scientists calculated that over that period, about 10,900 bird carcasses actually made it to shore, according to a 1997 study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Because researchers were able to monitor only a small fraction of the beaches in Alaska, that study's scientists projected that the actual final death count in 1993 was at least 120,000 birds.

With this most recent event, "[w]e assume the die-off is connected to one of the largest oceanographic-atmospheric events, known as 'The Blob,'" Kaler said. This event is the presence of a large area of water that falls well above the average temperature usually observed in the North Pacific, he said. "We do not know how [that] this relates to El Niño or climate warming, but we believe they are factors," Kaler said.

The USFWS also noted in a recent bulletin that common murres have turned up at locations as far inland as Fairbanks, Alaska, where the birds have been seen swimming in rivers and lakes. Wildlife biologists consider this to be unusual behavior, since common murres are seabirds and so don't usually show up so far inland, Parrish told Live Science.

Additionally, while the die-off has been most visible in Alaska, similar events affected seabird populations in Washington, Oregon and California during the months of September and October, Parrish said.

What does this mean?

The behaviors of seabirds are often indicators of what is happening in the marine system, said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Current estimates of the common murre death toll in the recent die-off have suggested that more than 100,000 birds have probably died over the past nine months, and dead birds are likely to continue showing up through the spring, Kaler said.

It is important to note that this high death count doesn't mean that common murres are in danger as a species. There are an estimated 2.8 million common murres in Alaska, Parrish said. This means that current estimates of the die-off account for only approximately 3 percent of the total common murre population in the state.

That's not to say that the appearance of large numbers of dead birds on beaches isn't of concern, Parrish said. Scientists are speculating that this event indicates a species struggling to deal with altered circumstances, he said.

"When there are heat waves during the summertime, you always hear about mortalities in the inner city [from people who don't have air conditioning] and [so] they just have to deal with" the heat, Parrish said. "None of these birds have air conditioning."

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