Best of our wild blogs: 9 Aug 16

Celebrating National Day with dolphin sightings!
wild shores of singapore

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National Day Special 2016: Native fauna in an urban jungle

Otters, leopard cats and some 500-plus species of local birds, mammals 
and reptiles are starting to be discovered, appreciated and protected

TOH EE MING Today Online 9 Aug 16;

SINGAPORE — On a routine survey dive in 2011, marine biologist Karenne Tun swam past a whitish marine sponge with a thick stem. Immediately, she knew something was different, and clipped off a small sample to show Singapore’s sponge expert, Mr Lim Swee Cheng.

For two years, Mr Lim had been in search of an elusive giant sponge species so large they had been used as bathtubs for children, and the last record of the sponge was in the early 1900s in Singapore. The next day, after examining the sample from Dr Tun, he sent her a message that “this was the one” — a species of sponge known as Cliona patera, or Neptune’s Cup.

Dr Tun then returned to the spot where she discovered another Neptune’s Cup, less than 50m away from the original one. Since then, the research team has been monitoring the second sponge twice yearly.

Beyond the sheer thrill of discovery, scientists view Neptune’s Cup as a symbol of Singapore’s natural heritage, and a way of putting the country on the “biological map”, not to mention its contribution to cancer research.

On the hunt for such “biological treasure”, Dr Tun, who is director (coastal and marine) at National Parks Board’s National Biodiversity Centre, said animatedly: “You spend a lot of time going out collecting samples, and a lot of it is routine. But if you’re observant, once in a while, you get gems. And when you see biologists find a new species, they’re like kids — they get so excited and jump around … you’d think they had found a pot of gold.”


Singaporeans are only recently starting to appreciate the animals native to the island-state — such as the otters at Bishan and Marina Bay — and taking a keen interest in preserving their existence. Living in an urbanised city, it is not surprising that some Singaporeans might be less aware of their country’s wilder side. Thankfully, there are experts and passionate nature lovers who dedicate themselves to studying and documenting such wildlife, to protect the biodiversity in the natural landscape here.

Singapore is home to a total of 384 species of birds, 65 species of mammals, 109 species of reptiles.

In a study by mammal researcher Marcus Chua, 32, he found about 21 adult leopard cats thriving on the 23.5sqkm Pulau Tekong off Singapore. Mr Chua and his team worked through nights to locate them, collect scat (faeces) samples, and track their diet, movements and behavourial patterns.

They found that Pulau Tekong has one of the world’s highest population density of leopard cats — 89 wild cats per 100sqkm, compared with about nine to 16 per 100sqkm in countries such as Malaysia and in Borneo.

On the mainland, the spotlight has been on the “celebrity” otter families. While there are at least 50 otters in Singapore, the packs in Bishan and Marina Bay are the most well known for their sociable and playful nature.

Mr Jeffrey Teo, 45, who works in the financial sector and is an otter-watcher of four years, said that tracking otters is a venture that takes “a bit of science, luck and collaboration”, sometimes working with other otter-watchers, who supply photos and information on sightings and observations through a WhatsApp chat group.

In an example of how Singapore’s native animals help to bring people together, look no further than the incident of the lost otter pup, Toby, from the Marina Bay pack.

Dr Adrian Loo, 44, director (terrestrial) at the National Biodiversity Centre, said that the first “otter working group” was formed after Toby was separated from its family during their own relocation to a new home in May. It took the combined actions of a member of the public, an otter-watch group on social media, and a few public agencies to reunite the pup with its family.

“It made us realise we need a group that is responsive and communicates with other agencies,” he said of enlisting the help of “citizen scientists”.

So far, this working group, headed by Dr Loo, consists of multiple entities such as national water agency PUB, National Parks Board, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, National University of Singapore, and the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, Animal Concerns Research & Education Society, and members of the public.

Dr Loo added that the fauna here have also thrilled visitors. At the International Otter Congress held here last month, otter experts from India and the United States were overjoyed to catch a glimpse of the otters so easily, because in the experts’ home countries, it might have taken days because of their countries’ vast landscapes, Dr Loo said. “But here, it is just a taxi ride away to an urban park, or (the animals) appear right at your doorstep.”

Apart from their role in regulating the ecosystem, some of the animals native to Singapore have shown how resilient they are despite rapid urbanisation.

Take the leopard cats, which have adapted to living on modified habitats of Pulau Tekong. Mr Chua said “it’s a good feeling to know that they can still co-exist with us”. He even named one leopard cat Beyonce, for managing to survive more than six years.

For Dr Tun, the fast-growing characteristics of Neptune’s Cup sponge and its ability to heal quickly after huge bite marks by turtles could hold the secret to medical treatments. “The next thing to do is to talk to molecular biologists ... The best cancer drugs have come from marine animals, so bioprospecting might help us understand how tissues heal,” she said.

More significantly, these animals represent a pivotal part of Singapore’s natural heritage, Mr Chua said.

It is for this that scientists are coming up with ways to increase the species numbers and distribution. For those known to be on the brink of extinction, such as the Singapore freshwater crab found only in certain streams at Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Dr Loo said that efforts are being made to boost the “resilience of these species”, to try to translocate them to other streams and ensure that they can still survive in various habitats.


Taxonomy — the science of identifying, naming and classifying organisms — is becoming a dying discipline, so there is an urgent need for experts with such specialist knowledge, Dr Tun said.

Mr Chua said that while long-term studies are vital in understanding certain species, it is often too time-consuming and costly to conduct. He hopes for more collaboration among agencies to provide support and funding. “We’re out to answer questions that might hopefully help Singapore sustain its biodiversity in future,” he said.

Likewise, the otter working group has plans to study otters’ distribution across Singapore and conduct more genetic studies, among other things, Dr Loo said. There is also much to be done in reforming public etiquette, to get Singaporeans to care for and respect the wildlife and their habitats, and to take pride in them.

Ms Ng Bee Choo, 50, chairperson of the vertebrate study group at Nature Society, said that she still sees ugly behaviour such as cyclists thrashing around forested areas, photographers baiting birds, or people feeding wild boars.

“People love their dogs and cats, but when it comes to wildlife, they don’t know how to appreciate them... These are things you don’t want to see happening to your own native wildlife,” she said.

The next big frontier is “science communication”, how to make science more “palatable to the public”, Dr Tun said. This could involve producing apps or games for the public to learn about marine species, or using underwater cameras to project scenes of marine life onto digital billboard screens on Orchard Road, to show “what’s happening in our waters” in real-time.

Dr Tun challenged the notion that Singapore’s waters lack biodiversity, saying that in a small dive area, one can see more species compared to 10 dives elsewhere.

“Yes, you can go for clear waters (overseas to dive), but brown water (here) does not mean it is bad … It just means you have to put in a bit more effort to see and hunt down these treasures ... There’s so much life in our own backyard.”

National Day Special 2016: A flourishing garden state
Among tropical countries, Singapore stands as the ‘most richly diverse and botanically explored’, with 5,700 plant specimens per 100sqkm and over 33,000 specimens in the Botanic Gardens herbarium collected from its forests.

TOH EE MING Today Online 9 Aug 16;

SINGAPORE — Many Singaporeans probably cannot tell apart one green plant from another, but the Garden City is actually home to many unique species of flora, such as the kerinting palm, Singapore ginger and Singapore kopsia.

And for experts such as taxonomist Dr Jana Leong-Skornickova, from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, keeping such living natural heritage alive and well requires not just expertise, but also plenty of passion.

The 41-year-old ginger plant specialist considers herself as one of those “crazy people who love plants to bits”.

“It’s like when I go into the forest, and point out this (plant) is different, that is different, and you look at me and say ‘siao ah’, you crazy woman,” said the Singapore permanent resident from the Czech Republic, who sometimes refers to young plants as “babies”.

On the hunt for new ginger species since 2002, it was a “dream come true” in 2012 when the National Parks Board (NParks) staff sent Dr Leong-Skornickova a ginger leaf sample taken from the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (CCNR).

Her interest piqued by how different the leaf looked from the ginger species she knew, the taxonomist — a biologist who groups organisms into categories — combed the swathes of forest in the CCNR to track down the plant where the leaf came from.

After Dr Leong-Skornickova and her team discovered the plant in 2013 — a new species of Singapore ginger that is endemic to the island — a laborious two-year process of describing and classifying the plant ensued.

The plant bore its first flowers only in May 2014, and much to Dr Leong-Skornickova’s delight, on her very birthday.

It is “incredible” that even in this day and age, scientists are still able to uncover new surprises in the forest, she added.

Among tropical countries, Singapore stands as the “most richly diverse, and botanically explored” — with 5,700 specimens per 100sqkm, and over 33,000 specimens in the Botanic Gardens herbarium collected from its forests, Dr Leong-Skornickova noted.

In contrast, countries such as Laos and Cambodia typically have about four specimens per 100sqkm.

Such widespread exploration could be due to Singapore’s history as a trading port, which led many botanists to stop by, as well as the fact that the Botanic Gardens here was established early on, she said.

In the course of her research, Dr Leong-Skornickova also discovered two new endemic plant species, the Hanguana rubinea and Hanguana triangulata. Both of them had been wrongly labelled as Hanguana malayana, because the Hanguana species was a “terribly under-studied plant group”.

She added that the verification process is often laborious and manpower-intensive, drawing on specialists who can go down to the ground to do cross-checks on the plant species.

Such work needs to be done jointly by two groups of botanists — the generalists with a wide knowledge of flora and the “nitgrits” who specialise in a few plant families and question if plants are correctly classified.

“If you asked me to do a checklist of the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, it would take me 10 lifetimes to do it, because I would be doubting each and every plant,” she joked.

Technological advances, though, have helped to make their task easier, with botanists using trap cameras and even flying drones over forest canopies to analyse different tree species from the tree crowns.

Classification of species aside, another big challenge for botanists such as Dr Leong-Skornickova is getting Singaporeans to be more familiar with local plants.

“If you ask the children, they will think heliconias and raintrees are native to Singapore because they are planted everywhere. So, they grow up with these images of foreign plants in their heads,” she said.

As such, apart from efforts to educate the public, Dr Leong-Skornickova suggested that schools can offer more early outdoor education, such as having native plant community gardens in the school compound, to expose their students to more local flora.

Among the lesser-known native species are the Singapore kopsia, which has been classified as a “critically endangered” tree, and the kerinting palm, said Dr Adrian Loo of the National Biodiversity Centre.

Locally, the Singapore kopsia can be found growing naturally only in the Nee Soon Freshwater Swamp Forest. The kerinting only grows in the understorey of pristine forests.

Experts believe that there is a need for Singaporeans to develop a greater interest in not only knowing more about the island’s living natural heritage, but also the importance of protecting it.

After all, as the biophilia hypothesis suggested, there is an instinctive bond between humans and nature, noted Dr Loo, an expert on palm trees.

“Having natural history like ours is a privilege… Initially, (Singapore) in its natural state was not industrialised ... We have an innate love for it (nature),” he said.

Dr Leong-Skornickova added that Singapore needs to think twice before letting development plans encroach further into the island’s remaining primary forests.

“If we want to retain our biodiversity heritage, the only biological wealth we have, we must preserve the forest ... People should treasure what little we have left, and start to look at native plants with different eyes.”

Noting that the renewed interest by various groups in surveying local flora and fauna could lead to exciting new developments, the taxonomist added: “For nearly 40 to 50 years, there was a long hiatus where no new species was described in Singapore. But it’s picking up again, and we must not lose this momentum.

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Indonesia: High Risk of Forest Fires With 173 Hotspots Reported in Sumatra

Ratri M. Siniwi & Almira Shae Jakarta Globe 8 Aug 16;

Jakarta. The Pekanbaru Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency, or BMKG, has detected 173 hotspots with a high potential, or 50 percent chance, for forest and land fires on the Sumatran mainland on Monday (08/08).

The agency reported that that the hotspots were scattered over nine of the 10 provinces on the island. The number of hotspots increases by 12 since Sunday.

"On Sunday, there were 161 spots, but at 7:00 a.m. this morning, 173 spots were seen spread over the same area in the nine provinces," Pekanbaru BMKG head of data and information Slamet Riyadi told state news agency Antara.

Slamet said the province with the most number of hotspots reported was South Sumatra, with 51, followed by Bangka Belitung with 40, North Sumatra with 30, and Riau accounted with 22.

However, the number for Lampung has remained unchanged at Sunday's record of 13 hotspots, while West Sumatra reported 10 and Bengkulu four.

"For Jambi and Riau, the hotspots are still the same as yesterday. Satellites detected two spots in Jambi and one in Riau," he added.

According to Slamet, seven hotspots are now indicating a 70 percent potential for forest fires, with three in Pelalawan, two in Kampar, and one each in Rokan Hulu and Rokan Hilir.

Last week, the South Sumatra provincial government reported that it would continue monitoring areas prone to forest fires in five districts in Ogan Komering Ilir, as they tend to see an outbreak every year.

South Sumatra Provincial Forestry Agency head Sigit Wibowo said the five districts are East Pedamaran, Cengal, Menang River, Tulung Selapan, and Air Sugihan.

"Due to the high of vigilance during June and July, we found that number of hotspots has reduced compared to last year," he said.

Sigit said the team is strongly focused on preventing the fires at three critical spots, such as the east coast area in Ogan Komering Ilir, the border between Banyuasin and Ogan Komering Ilir, and the north of Musi Banyuasin province, covering an area of 1.4 million hectares.

The tendency for fire spreading into deep layers of peat makes it hard to extinguish.

"Based on the analysis conducted since 2007, these three locations have become the prime starting locations for fires to break out, so this year we want to stop that," Sigit said.

In response, the Riau Provincial Forest Fire Response and Task Force Team deployed two helicopters and water bombers to put out the fires in the five districts.

According to Air Cdr. Henri Alfiandi of the Roesmin Nurjadin Pekanbaru Airbase, water bombing operations are still ongoing in Tasik Serai in Bengkalis district, despite the fact that the fires broke out there four days ago.

Forest fires in Riau have continued to increase along with the hot weather in the province.

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Cambodia: Illegal logging still threatens its forests despite ban on timber exports

Pichayada Promchertchoo Channel NewsAsia 8 Aug 16;

Thousands of tonnes of natural forest wood still crossed the border into Vietnam, even after a Cambodian ban early this year. Indochina correspondent Pichayada Promchertchoo follows the timber trail with a 'wanted man'.

SEN MONOROM, Cambodia: The road was pitch black but far from empty. Every minute or so, a muddy motorcycle would emerge from the dark and disappear within seconds, laden down with logs tied to the back seat.

“They come through all the time,” Ouch Leng told me as we watched them fly past the Pech Chreada Forestry Administration office. Dark mud stains hinted at an arduous journey through the nearby forest, a protected area of nearly 430,000 hectares in eastern Mondulkiri, wet with monsoon rain.

“They only pay the authorities when they come back from the Vietnam border with money,” the 42-year-old added.

Hours before, I had met Leng in Phnom Penh for the first time. He said he was being watched, but still offered to take me into the forest, where rare trees are believed to be illegally felled as part of a black-market international trade.

Our short discussion had quickly turned into a seven-hour drive to Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri. The border province is home to one of the largest protected forests in the country, and forms part of the timber trail that leads to Vietnam.

I was driving with one of Cambodia’s “most wanted men”.

Death threats are part of life for environmental activist Ouch Leng, 42, who investigates illegal logging.

But Leng is not a criminal. He is an environmental activist, human rights lawyer and the winner of this year’s prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for Asia. He has spent more than 20 years fighting to save Cambodia’s forests, and travels the country, often undercover, to investigate logging.

Death threats have become part of his life; so has living in a safe house. The forest defender says that danger lurks everywhere, and he is constantly on the run.

“They haven’t pressed any legal charge against me yet because what they want is my life,” he said with a smile. “I’ve never been afraid. I’m just trying to work.”

“They” are people with influence, who want Leng to shut up. “They” are among the powerful few who defy the law and profit from one of the most lucrative markets in the country: The timber trade.


The multi-billion dollar business has been thriving, fuelled by illegal logging and corruption as well as legitimate efforts.

Last year, Cambodia became Vietnam’s largest source of timber imports. At least 435,600 cubic metres of natural forest logs and sawn wood, worth more than US$380 million, left its borders for Vietnam, according to the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics obtained by US environmental group Forest Trends.

“The rate of growth has been astonishing,” the group said in its most recent report, which showed the volume of imported logs skyrocket – from 383 cubic metres in 2014 to 57,700 cubic metres in 2015. That's a near 15,000 per cent increase.

The volume of sawn timber imports from Cambodia also expanded in the same period, the report showed, from 153,500 cubic metres to 377,900 cubic metres.

Of those sawn timber imports, 82 per cent was classified as either high-value species or luxury species, and was mainly for re-export to China, Hong Kong and India or as semi-finished products for global markets.

A key driver of this surge in timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam was the deregulation of import licensing by Hanoi. Import procedures were simplified and timber imports were allowed at all border gates between the two countries.

The increase also coincided with a lack of timber supply from Laos and Myanmar, which banned log exports in response to overharvesting.

Adding to the booming business were alleged links between all sorts of people – from loggers to smugglers, community leaders, police officers, soldiers, government officials and business tycoons – accused of depleting Cambodia’s forests at breakneck speed as they chased easy money.

A task force was set up to stop forest crime and a string of raids took place, in an apparent crackdown early this year.

The situation had become so alarming that in January, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen intervened. He imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam.

He ordered the closure of Cambodia-Vietnam border crossings for timber trade and set up a special task force to stop forest crime – a 10-member committee comprising district police, military police and forestry officials led by the National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.

The order triggered probes into high-profile businessmen. A string of raids took place at warehouses and economic land concessions suspected of illegal activities.

Arrests were made. Tens of thousands of cubic metres of wood were confiscated. For a few months, Cambodia witnessed what seemed like a serious crackdown on the timber trade.


But for some observers, the nationwide campaign was nothing more than a turf war between Cambodia’s biggest logging cartels and, after an initial sharp slowdown, business is starting to pick up again.

Most of the apparently confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border, according to Forest Trends.

“According to our sources, the crackdown was triggered by a business dispute between competing logging cartels, rather than an earnest attempt to stamp out the illegal exploitation of Cambodia’s forests,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.

“There is little sign of legal follow-up by the authorities. Field research suggests that most of the purportedly confiscated timber has found its way across the Vietnam border already.”

Data from Vietnamese customs obtained by the group shows the timber exports have continued despite the ban. In January, 34,000 cubic metres of wood still found its way into Vietnam. The number plummeted to 5,000 cubic metres in February before growing to 10,000 cubic metres in March.

The reports are politically motivated, and no more wood is flowing out, says Environment Minister Say Samal.

But according to Cambodian Environment Minister Say Samal, these figures are “groundless” and “falsified”.

“I doubt it’s true. How can you move 10,000 cubic metres of wood across the border without anyone noticing?” he told Channel NewsAsia.

“I'm not denying there are cases where people are still conducting illegal activities with regard to the forest. But I'd like to point this out: It is a problem. But is it at the scale that was reported? No, I don't think so.”

The Environment Ministry has been studying various reports about forest crimes and cross checking with people on the ground to understand the real situation, Mr Samal said.

“But the majority of our findings show the reports are just politically motivated. No more wood is flowing out.”


While the trade may not have been eliminated, the crackdown has disrupted the organised, large-scale smuggling by the well-connected operators who were crossing the borders before.

In Mondulkiri, the impact has been noticeable, according to residents. The streets are seeing fewer timber trucks, and traffic along its border crossings is much lighter.

“Only soldiers and police officers come here now,” said a shop owner near the La Pakhe bilateral border gate, once teeming with people and cars. It is almost deserted.

But the illegal timber trade seems to be adapting.

“We don’t see so many timber trucks nowadays. But there are still a lot of timber motorcycles and cars. They transport wood from the protected forest to buyers elsewhere,” a local resident told me.

“They are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” Ms Canby added.

From the dark, an old minivan whizzed past. Strips of sawn wood could be seen protruding from the boot.

The vehicle was stopped at one of the checkpoints between Mondulkiri and Vietnam, but its driver seemed to know the drill. Casually, he approached a local officer and in one swift moment, placed some money on his table.

Without much delay, the minivan zoomed off with timber still sticking out like a big, long tail.

“You see that? No arrest! They just let him go,” Leng said bitterly.

“Forest Administration officials, rangers and soldiers just wait to take money from loggers. They even make it easy for them to cross the border.”


The journey to the protected forest of Mondulkiri was rough and muddy. We set out early on motorcycles and bumped along a winding dirt road for three hours. The sight was alarming.

There was hardly any trace of protected forest left.

Trees had been chopped down and uprooted. Unwanted trunks and huge stumps lay sprawled across the forest. Almost everywhere, plantations spread far out of sight.

Thousands of hectares of what was once a pristine forest are cleared for Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) – a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture.

Those awarded Economic Land Concessions are allowed to clear the land for agriculture.

“Most ELCs are in forested areas with big trees,” said Sok Ratha, Provincial Coordinator of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) in Mondulkiri.

“The government granted land to private companies to grow rubber, pepper and other crops. Now, the forest is almost completely destroyed. Areas outside ELCs are also threatened.”

The Cambodian Government introduced Economic Land Concessions to stimulate the economy and create jobs for local people. It has granted more than 270 concessions, which, according to the environment minister, span an area of 1.2 million hectares nationwide.

The land is meant for industrial agriculture, which involves cultivating crops, raising animals and constructing facilities to process agricultural products.

Successful applicants are awarded the right to clear the land for agriculture. They are therefore allowed to cut all the trees in the premises, install sawmills to process the legally cut wood and export the products.

But that is not always the case. The scheme soon found itself at the heart of Cambodia’s timber trade, with many ELCs apparently used to cover up illegal logging operations.

Many ELCs are possibly being used to cover up illegal logging operations.

“Once they’ve depleted their land, they’ll cut more trees outside the ELC.

"The wood is then brought to their sawmills, where illegal logs are turned into legal timber. The timber is then transported to other countries through the Vietnam border and the international port at Sihanoukville,” Leng explained.

“This is the strategy of Cambodia’s timber business,” he said.

Nonetheless, Mr Samal is clear: “Let me put it this way: Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. Period. It's done.”


Despite Mr Samal’s certainty, evidence suggests there is some way to go before the illegal timber trade is eradicated in Cambodia, with a well-established, sophisticated system still in place that needs to be dismantled.

In Tbong Khmum, busy roads were full of big trucks. Most of them carried something heavy under huge tarpaulins covering the storage compartment. Tears in the plastic revealed stacks of timber inside.

“Sometimes, what you see is just a hollow frame, with luxury-grade wood hidden in the middle. Nobody checks,” Leng told me as we tailed a small train of timber trucks.

A road sign indicated they were headed towards Trapang Plong International Border Checkpoint. It is one of the main gateways on the timber trail between Cambodia and Vietnam. The area is also home to timber depots, casinos, hotels and inland ports owned by wealthy businessmen.

One of the trucks pulled over at an export customs clearance office. Its driver carried a document in his hands and disappeared through a small entrance.

“He needs an export permit to cross the border,” Leng said.

It did not take long. The driver reemerged, climbed back on his truck and drove off. We followed on a dusty road.

His truck soon joined others that had gone ahead. They were scattered near the border crossing. Some were parked in front of a depot, others a few hundred metres from the international border gate, purportedly ready to enter Vietnam.

Trucks carrying timber usually cross the border late at night, according to Ouch Leng.

“They have to wait for other trucks from the same company because the export permit can only be used once.

"It also indicates the total volume of goods that will cross the border. One truck can carry about 20-30 cubic metres of wood. They usually cross the border late at night,” Leng explained.

“I support the government’s ban. But it’s just a promise that only lasts a short time.”

The sun had already disappeared. There was not much light on the road leading into Vietnam, save for the headlights of transport trucks crossing the border. Their storage compartment was left open. No timber.

But a short walk away, several trucks stood in the dark. Something was covered under big tarpaulins. Leng was sitting by the road with his camera.

“The timber business still operates," he said.

This is the first in a series of reports on forestry issues in Cambodia. Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA

- CNA/pp

Cambodian villagers fear for future amid forest burning dispute: Special report
Jack Board Channel NewsAsia 10 Aug 16;

In the second part of a special series on deforestation in Cambodia, Jack Board travels to an area where locals are upset that forest trees are being cleared - to make way for a timber plantation.

KRATIE, Cambodia: A lone wooden hut, standing on metre-high stilts, cuts a lonely shape in the middle of a wasteland. It is an alien structure, surrounded by scarred earth and disfigured, charred remnants of forest

Next to it, a sickly pool of tepid, scum-veiled water barely ripples in the searing heat. In the air hangs the high-pitched buzzing of busy chainsaws. More forest is being cleared - today and every day.

This is Som No’s property in the heart of one of Cambodia’s largest concessions, a “reforestation” project controlled by South Korean firm Think Biotech.

“This land concession causes hardships. It affects everything,” said the 56-year-old former soldier. He is part of the Prey Lang Community Network, guardians of the forest who monitor the area to protect against illegal activity.

“Our lives now are so miserable.”

A densely forested swathe of land in the now largely protected Prey Lang, meaning “our forest”, was handed over to the company in 2010, for development as a designated plantation area.

While Cambodia has exported vast amounts of timber, much of it illegal, over recent decades, there is also growing appetite for wood domestically. Think Biotech’s project is designed to answer the call.

“There are so many huge construction building projects and housing projects in Phnom Penh at the moment. It will be extended to the whole of country in the near future,” Think Biotech director Peter Hwanki Chung told Channel NewsAsia.

“If people just want to keep the forests, how can we supply this timber to people?”

The premise is straightforward: Develop a sustainable forestry industry, which can also help mitigate climate change and put an end to illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture, which has left permanent scars on Cambodia’s landscape. Put more simply, plant trees to cut down, instead of clearing existing forest.

Chung predicts the project will eventually supply one-third of Cambodia’s timber needs annually.

But the reality is far more complex. From Som’s perspective, tens of thousands of hectares of valuable, generational forest will be arbitrarily destroyed in order to develop such a project - threatening not only the way of life for hundreds of families, but also their health.

“We know some people don't like our company working in our area and some people want to take issue with our company for their various purposes,” Chung argued. “But, you also understand why this kind of project is needed in Cambodia.”


Think Biotech’s plantation is the first of its kind in Cambodia, where deforestation levels have been among the world’s highest since 2000. And answering the government’s call was how Chung described the investment made by his company, which is a subsidiary of leading explosives and weapons manufacturer Hanwha Corporation.

Chung argues that the wood being harvested by his company is minimal and not valuable, and that this land had been widely logged already by the government and a Chinese company decades ago.

“Also, villagers had cut and extracted valuable timber in an illegal way,” he said. “It's secondary forest instead of a virgin area,” he added, explaining that this was one of the reasons the government opened the specific area up for foreign investment and development.

Locals say they have observed timber being trucked out of the concession, initially in daylight before shifting to discrete operations under the cover of darkness. The destination for the timber was unknown, although Cambodia has banned timber exports in what the government says is an attempt to stop black market smuggling to Vietnam.

“Now the activity is less intensive and is secret,” said Thai Bunlieng, a Prey Lang Forest patroller who works closely with Som No.

“This month, we saw that the company secretly transported timbers out of their concession on two different occasions in a total of 11 trucks – five trucks at night and six trucks in the day time,” he said.

“Since we started this project in 2012, we have never done any illegal things,” Chung countered. “We do not like to spoil the good name of our country and our company through this kind of project.”

He accused locals of having ulterior motives to “get their hands on more land and timber illegally”.

“But we cannot allow it. We have a duty to protect this government estate land.”

He also added that the project would result in “increased forest density and “improve environment conditions”, which would eventually lead to carbon credits from the United Nations.

However, a 2016 study by the International Institute of Social Studies described the project as “industrial slash-and-burn” and the “frontier of deforestation”.

The authors argued that converting diverse primary forest into an industrial forest does not serve to combat climate change; rather, it worsens the issue by reducing carbon stocks and increasing local temperatures.

It is a calculated cost, according to Cambodia’s environment minister Say Samal who, while conceding a loss of biodiversity, asserts that the country needs projects like this to develop.

“We have to be realistic, we want to build our economy, we want to create jobs for our people so we have to balance that out,” he said.

Meantime, the company and government have plans for a reforestation expansion into neighbouring Stung Treng province, which has prompted concern from the commune likely to be impacted.

Channel NewsAsia understands that the size of that area could be as much as double that of the existing project in Kratie, likely to lead to more huge losses in the Prey Lang Forest.

A working group is currently comparing project proposal maps with aerial maps to see if there is an overlap with Prey Lang land protected by a government sub-decree since April. Nan Ony from NGO Forum says he is confident the project will be suspended if that proves to be the case.

He is leading an investigative report into the various disputes surrounding both the Kratie and Stung Treng projects. It is an arbitration role involving affected communities, various levels of government and Think Biotech that can be frustrating and slow.

“We are an NGO, we are just a middle man. We try to bring the community and authority to the table to find a common solution. We are not solving the problem,” he said.

Until then, the sides remain at loggerheads, fighting over a forest that is changing by the day.


Som has lived in the area, in Kratie province and on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, for three decades. He is principally a rice farmer but has adopted a more confrontational role against Think Biotech and the developments around his home turf, one of the largest, most diverse tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia.

He is outspoken and bold, sometimes a risky combination when it comes to contending with the larger forces at play in Cambodia’s forest industry. His phone rings constantly and he speaks with a cheeky grin: something is always stirring. Yet his message is serious.

“We are farmers. We count on the land,” he said. “If we don’t go to protest, the company would take all of our land and we cannot live without land.

“If we go and they kill us, let us be killed. If we stay here, we have no land to farm… we are going to die.”

Som and his son Vanda, a former employee of Think Biotech – he claims he was fired because of his father’s activism – still venture into concession land often to tend to their rice field, which are planted haphazardly around the smouldering ruin of former forest. The elder explains why the land looks like it does.

“First they clear it of the valuable wood. Then they burn it. Then they clear it all out,” Som said.

Both of them wander through the landscape identifying certain types of trees and picking at vegetables growing at their feet. They stop and look as two peacocks cry out as they fly past towards a still-standing tree in the distance. “They have no home now,” Som says, almost angrily.

Vanda speaks of his childhood when he would come to “the farm” and spend time by the stream.

“It was a thick forest with tall trees. We used to play here and swim. We just brought salt and mango then we placed a net in the stream, it was very clear, and we caught fish,” he said.

"It was completely, totally different," he laments.

Cambodian rangers take on villagers in forest war: Special report
Jack Board Channel NewsAsia 12 Aug 16;

In part 3 of a special series on deforestation in Cambodia, Jack Board goes on patrol with the armed rangers tasked with protecting the forests from those cutting down protected trees for a fast buck.

SRE AMBEL, Cambodia: Under a thick tree canopy and steady drizzle, a squadron of motorcycles traverse a trail made muddy and sticky by the ongoing wet season. A road becomes a track that becomes wilderness.

As small creeks form below their wheels, suddenly the four rangers come to a halt, kill their engines and listen intently in silence

“We hear chainsaws,” their leader, Volodomyr Mokh, says, his eyes lit up with intensity. “Now we try to find them.”

In one of Cambodia’s most precious forests, a war is going on.

The quartet follows the high-pitched buzzing as best they can through the dense forest. Evidence of the possible wielders of the chainsaws proves not too difficult to find – a burnt-out campfire, clothes hastily left behind in hidden enclaves in the foliage, and freshly cut piles of wood.

“They were probably here this morning. This amount they can’t take so they leave it,” says Mokh, a serious Ukrainian with a broad chest and a searching gaze. He is a man who has seen and committed violence in his life, formerly serving in his country’s military and the special team of Ukraine’s police force.

Now, he is deeply embroiled in a complex game of hide and seek pitting villager against ranger, as part of the Southern Cardamoms Forest Protection Program - a joint cooperation between the Cambodian government and non-government organisation Wildlife Alliance.

The rangers undertake long missions into the forest that last five to six days.

Life is tough out here and the stakes are high – jail time and heavy fines await perpetrators. For the Southern Cardamoms, the cost could be the irretrievable loss of ancient forest and extinction of its precious wildlife.

Mokh and a handful of local police officers are about all that stands between the forest and the type of environmental destruction that has scarred much of this country.

“Everyone in the village comes to the forest. Everyone. To take something,” Mokh says after discovering three motorcycles abandoned by their owners deep into the hunt.

That ‘something’ refers to the highly-valuable wood taken from felled trees and endangered animals, including civets, pangolins and turtles, which are ripe for the black market in Vietnam and China.

With no evidence of wrongdoing but only strong suspicions, the rangers disable the vehicles. “There’s no reason to come here but for wood or wildlife,” he explains. “So we have to track them.”

Despite the lead, the forensic-like examination of tyre tracks and footprints and a vault of military thinking, that task proves tough in the conditions.

“It’s difficult, it’s been raining all day,” Mokh says. “Normally we can see the oxcart trail where they go to cut and where they keep the chainsaws and wood. Today, we can only see the fresh tracks and the deep ones.”

Bereft of a path further into the misty mountains, the group backtracks as the rain becomes tropically torrential. They pass villagers huddled and protected in basic wooden houses but press on.

Crime does not stop for the elements, clearly.

However, not all missions end up with the rangers left empty handed.

Freshly cut trees can easily be found throughout the forest.


When Mokh pulls open the large storage shed door at his ranger station, he reveals an astonishing sight.

Hundreds of chainsaws lay stacked on the floor, against the wall and on wooden shelving. He says there are about 860 chainsaws that have been confiscated from the forest; it is illegal in Cambodia to have one without a government permit, which is very difficult to obtain.

This collection has been gathered over the past four years, at an average of about 20 each month lately. The rangers have plans to destroy them at some point, but for now the giant stack remains an impressive visual show of progress.

More than 800 chainsaws have been confiscated in the past four years.

As well, their bounty includes tonnes of luxury wood worth tens of thousands of dollars, hundreds of animal snares, chemical barrels to be used for drug production, dozens of motorcycles and literally a stack of boats that have been deliberately sunk and stored under water in the river in front of the station.

The vehicles can be collected by their owner if they pay a transactional fee, but Mokh says they rarely are.

This ranger station, just outside the town of Sre Ambel, is one of six under the Wildlife Alliance banner dotted throughout the Southern Cardamoms - part of one of the region’s most precious rainforests, still unexplored in many parts.

It is home to dozens of threatened species of animals and trees. But much of its landscape has been routed by economic land concessions, granted by the Cambodian government to big companies that normally deforest their territory and convert it to sugar cane or rubber plantations.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. According to satellite data from Global Forest Watch, the country experienced a 14 per cent average increase in forest loss each year between 2001 and 2014.

Much of the country’s sanctuaries and national parks have been ripe targets. In the Southern Cardamoms, a transnational highway ripped through the forest in 2002 and opened the gates to more land grabbers and poachers.

Since then, the rangers have held their battle on grounds where they can make tangible progress - against small local operators who feed the insatiable illegal timber trade. Rare rosewood is in high demand from Vietnam and operators go to drastic lengths to deliver it.

As a result, the rangers’ clandestine night operations have become a necessary weapon against their increasingly sophisticated adversaries.

The rangers are armed but say conflict is rare, as most offenders flee the scene.


On a clear night, with stars overhead, the rangers plot their next move.

Always, the tactics need to be unpredictable – different times, different routes and different targets.

Mohk and his assistant Sowath Rethy, a thin, bright, fresh-faced 28-year-old from Battambang, explain how many locals conspire to foil their missions. Spies are everywhere, smugglers are in constant communication and the rangers are often fed deceptive information to lead them off the trail.

Mokh and Rethy, the only English speakers on the team, do not even trust many of their own team members. It means cell phones are often banned from missions and the MPs – as the police uniformed rangers are known – are not given any details of the nature of the operation, even when it is underway.

All of the individuals have their own network of informants, relationships that Mokh understands can quickly become crooked when serious money is involved. Yet, without tip-offs the rangers are working blind.

Rethy says they normally pay sources up to US$50 for solid information but the amount fluctuates depending on what is uncovered. He admits how difficult it is going up against a well oiled, generationally engrained system of people with intimate local knowledge - and how often it is infighting that delivers result.

“Sometimes loggers fight among each other and give each other in. That helps a lot,” he says. “We need a lot of people to help us.”

Tonight, they are acting on information received from an informant – a large amount of wood is ready to be moved. The response is triple-pronged: An initial decoy vehicle, speedboat interceptor and a night ambush using motorcycles.

The previous night they had some success, seizing a tractor carrying a bundle of construction wood, worth a few hundred dollars. As usual, the perpetrators fled when they were intercepted to avoid arrest.

Buoyed by that breakthrough, Mokh begins proceedings at 9pm with a slow survey of the same road he targeted in the rain the previous day. His muscular utility truck is nothing but obvious, with high beam lights blasting holes in the darkness and Russian hip-hop reverberating in the cabin.

This is all about sending a message - notice us.

He slows and sees buffaloes standing idle, tied to a stake by the roadside. “Probably waiting for work,” he exclaims with anticipation. The powerful animals are the vehicles of choice to move large quantities of wood from the forest.

“They don’t go every day but three times a week for sure. I hope we will be lucky.”

Regular night ambushes are essential to trying to stop the secretive movement of timber.

It is after midnight by the time that Rethy and two other rangers are plying that same stretch, only now on motorcycles and dressed in civilian clothing. The hope is that an earlier patrol will embolden villagers to act, only to be ensnared by this subtler rearguard patrol.

The trio hitches hammocks 20 metres from the roadside and settles in. A lack of sleep is a familiar pattern for them. “Normally I get about four hours a night,” Rethy says.

On longer patrols, the rangers can be away from base walking for five or six days deep into the mountains. If they make a large seizure it can be even longer, meaning days without proper rest, food or even water in the dry season.

“It’s tough but we have to do it,” he adds, while speaking about how much he misses his newly born son, back home with his wife hundreds of kilometres away.

These men are sacrificing more than their time to save this forest.

Throughout the night the group is watching the light, and the road, more than their watches. And as the dark filters into dawn it becomes clear that their trap has failed.

Fresh oxcart tracks, just up the road, veering suddenly into the undergrowth tells them they were close. Perhaps the full moonlight gave them away this time.

How long will they have to keep this up? “Things aren’t going to change. Most Cambodians are poor and don’t have good jobs. The forest is right there for them,” Rethy laments.

Still, the men continue to stand proud in their uniforms here. This program is unique in the country, and most other forest areas in Cambodia suffer from lack of real protection.

“You feel like you’re doing something right. Humanity should change but it’s better to do something than nothing,” Mokh says.

“I can’t change the world but I can protect this area.”

Cambodia’s large-scale illegal logging is ‘done’
Pichayada Promchertchoo Channel NewsAsia 14 Aug 16;

In the final part of a special series on Cambodia's endangered forests, Environment Minister Say Samal tells Channel News Asia that large-scale illegal logging in Cambodia has been stopped. This is despite a report that said the timber flow continues between Cambodia and Vietnam even though a ban has been put in place.

PHNOM PENH: The Government of Cambodia is serious about tackling deforestation and “no more wood” has travelled to Vietnam since Prime Minister Hun Sen introduced a timber export ban earlier this year, Environment Minister Say Samal said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia.

“The ban is effective. No more wood is flowing out. Large-scale illegal logging has been stopped. It’s done,” he said.

In January, the Cambodian prime minister imposed a ban on all timber exports to Vietnam and ordered the closure of border crossings to prevent timber smuggling. The move is part of the government’s nationwide crackdown on illegal deforestation.

“Processed wood, for example, which you turn into furniture or finished products, you can take it out. But for semi-finished products, you aren’t allowed to take them out anymore,” Samal explained.

His comment came after US environmental group Forest Trends reported the timber flow still continues despite the ban. The group said 15,000 cubic metres worth about US$12 million still made it through border crossings in February and March, citing the General Department of Vietnam Customs’ statistics.

“Timber still finds its way across the border into Vietnam months after the ban was announced. These are mostly small-scale operators avoiding official channels altogether,” said Kerstin Canby, Forest Policy, Trade and Finance Program Director at Forest Trends.

But the environment minister brushed off the report, claiming it was driven by politics.

“I doubt that it’s true. Some of these reports are politically motivated. It’s groundless. They never come and talk to us or ask us to verify. The majority of these reports are just false,” he said.

The nationwide crackdown on illegal timber trade has been “quite successful”, according to the Cambodian minister, although illegal logging still continues among small-scale operators.

“This is very hard for us to crack down. We admit that this still occurs. But on a large-scale that we used to see, we’ve been able to put a stop to that.”


In 1990, Cambodia’s forest covered 12.94 million hectares, or about 73 per cent of its total land, according to the World Bank. In a steady downward trend, it shrank to 9.46 million hectares, or 53.6 per cent in 2015.

Deforestation in the country is influenced by several factors. But among the main ones is economic land concessions (ELC), a long-term lease that allows investors to use private state land for large-scale agriculture. The government introduced the scheme to boost the economy and create jobs for local people, resulting in more than 270 ELCs covering at least 1.2 million hectares nationwide.

Concessionaires are allowed to clear forest land for industrial agriculture. They can harvest trees in the premises, process the wood and export it legally. However, many have simply left after depleting the trees. Others allegedly continue using the land to launder timber from outside the permitted area.

“We had problems,” Samal admitted while maintaining the government’s commitment to preserve the country’s biodiversity. “We’re going step by step in protecting our forests.”

And that, he claims, includes conducting land registration, reducing the maximum lease duration from 90 years to 50 years, cracking down on illegal logging, banning timber exports and reviewing all the ELCs to ensure everyone follows the rules.

“For those that didn’t abide by the rules and regulations, we cancelled the investments altogether. We’ve been very strict but fair,” Samal said.

“No more ELCs are to be given out. The timber export ban is going to be effective forever from now on. We don’t allow any timber to flow out of the country.”

Thousands of tonnes of wood confiscated during the nationwide crackdown will be sold in public auctions, he added, with the income generated to be used to improve Cambodia’s education sector.


Besides ELCs, the environment minister argued ordinary citizens themselves have also contributed to deforestation due to the rich rewards on offer.

“With one hectare of rice, they probably won’t earn US$1,000 per year. But if they go into the forest and cut down a few trees, they might earn that much in a very short time. So that’s the economic incentive that makes things very difficult,” Samal explained, adding a severe lack of forest rangers also means many illegal activities continue unchecked.

"I'm not denying that there are problems. We're on it," he said.

In its battle against deforestation, the environment ministry is planning to turn more land into national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and combine the existing protected forests into one biological unit.

It is also gearing up for co-management of protected forests, which covers about 6 million hectares nationwide. More civil societies and local communities will be invited to safeguard their local forest through the Community Forestry (CF) programme.

There are more than 400 CF communities in Cambodia, formed voluntarily by local residents. Members can use forest resources in a sustainable manner while participating in decentralised management as well as protection of forest resources. But according to Samal, the ministry is also pushing for some of them to become tourist attractions.

“We’ve seen people who used to hunt become tour guides, taking tourists out for bush walking around national parks. That’s the result we want to see and spread to other parts of Cambodia,” he said.

“It is a strategy to move them away, step by step, from the forest in a sustainable manner.”

Read more!

'Alarming' bleaching of Maldives corals: conservationists

AFP Yahoo News 8 Aug 16;

Coral reefs in the Maldives are under severe stress after suffering mass bleaching this year as sea temperatures soared, a top conservationist body warned Monday.

Around 60 percent of Maldives' coral colonies have been bleached, with the figure reaching 90 percent in some areas, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a statement.

It cited data from a survey it carried out with the Maldives Marine Research Center (MRC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"Preliminary findings of the extent of the bleaching are alarming, with initial coral mortality already observed," said Ameer Abdulla, the research team leader and senior advisor to IUCN on marine biodiversity and conservation science.

"We are expecting this mortality to increase if bleached corals are unable to recover."

Bleaching occurs when abnormal conditions, such as warmer sea temperatures, cause corals to expel tiny photosynthetic algae and thus become drained of colour.

Bleached corals risk dying if conditions do not return to normal.

Land and ocean surface temperatures rose to record highs in 2015 and at the beginning of this year, according to scientists.

The surge has coincided with an exceptionally strong El Nino -- a cyclical phenomenon that disrupts weather around the Pacific and is driven by sea temperature.

- 'More frequent, more severe' -

Warmer seas are a main culprit for the decline of coral reefs -- considered among the most diverse and delicate ecosystems on the planet.

"Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and more severe due to global climate change," Abdulla said.

Coral reef and bleaching experts from 11 countries and international institutions and universities helped conduct the survey at the height of the 2016 El Nino event, the statement said.

The Maldives, a nation of 1,192 tiny coral islands, contain around three percent of global coral reefs.

It is one of the most vulnerable countries to the impact of climate change since its average land height is only 1.5 metres (4.9 feet) above sea level.

The Maldives is not the only place where coral reefs are threatened.

Reefs worldwide have been facing widespread bleaching since mid-2014, according to the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

And this year, Australia's 2,300-kilometre (1,429-mile) long Great Barrier Reef the world's biggest coral ecosystem -- is suffering from its worst bleaching in recorded history.

In a bid to rein in the problem at home, the Maldives government has created a national task force and a monitoring programme, in cooperation with the EPA and IUCN.

The programme aims to help marine biologists, divers and others to contribute data that could help understand the national effects of the global bleaching event.

Activities such as dredging, sand replenishment, and fishing or purchasing of herbivorous fish like parrotfish and surgeonfish, which are essential for reef recovery, are also discouraged, according to the programme.

More than 60% of Maldives' coral reefs hit by bleaching
Scientific survey found all reefs had been affected by high sea surface temperatures, with up to 90% of coral colonies bleached in some areas
Press Association The Guardian 8 Aug 16;

More than 60% of coral in reefs in the Maldives has been hit by “bleaching” as the world is gripped by record temperatures in 2016, a scientific survey suggests.

Bleaching happens when algae that lives in the coral is expelled due to stress caused by extreme and sustained changes in temperatures, turning the coral white and putting it at risk of dying if conditions do not return to normal.

Unusually warm ocean temperatures due to climate change and a strong “El Nino” phenomenon that pushes up temperatures further have led to coral reefs worldwide being affected in a global bleaching event over the past two years.

Preliminary results of a survey in May this year found all the reefs looked at in the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, were affected by high sea surface temperatures. Around 60% of all assessed coral colonies, and up to 90% in some areas, were bleached.

The study was conducted by the Maldives Marine Research Centre and the Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It took place on Alifu Alifu Atholhu - North Ari Atoll - chosen as a representative atoll of the Maldives.

Coral bleaching spreads to Maldives, devastating spectacular reefs
Read more
Dr Ameer Abdulla, research team leader and senior adviser to the IUCN on marine biodiversity and conservation science, said: “Bleaching events are becoming more frequent and more severe due to global climate change.

“Our survey was undertaken at the height of the 2016 event and preliminary findings of the extent of the bleaching are alarming, with initial coral mortality already observed.

“We are expecting this mortality to increase if bleached corals are unable to recover.”

The Maldives contains around 3% of the world’s coral reefs and the islands are considered particularly at risk of climate change because they are low-lying and threatened by sea level rises.

In Australia, more than a fifth of the Great Barrier Reef is estimated to have died as a result of the worst mass bleaching event in history. In Kiribati in the Pacific, as much as 80% of the coral is dead.

Read more!

World’s longest lake is being depleted of life as waters warm

Maina Waruru New Scientist 8 Aug 16;

Loss of biodiversity in Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s oldest and deepest lake, has been driven by 500 years of sustained climate warming, a study of core sediments has found.

This has led to a decline in the abundance of the lake’s fish that pre-dates commercial fisheries.

We have known that the warming climate is transforming lakes worldwide, but a lack of consistent climate and fishery data from the tropics has meant that little was known about how lakes in the region were affected.

So Andy Cohen at the University of Arizona in Tucson and colleagues analysed sediment cores from Lake Tanganyika in East Africa to study proxies of temperature, algal production and abundance of fish fossils over the past 1500 years.

Lake Tanganyika’s surface waters are fertilised by an upwelling of nutrient-rich water during the windy season. The team found that rising temperatures have been preventing water layers from mixing.

This has reduced oxygenation in the lower water layers and cut populations of the algae, molluscs and crustaceans that the fish depend on by as much as 38 per cent.

Lake layers

This stratification kills productivity and narrows the oxygen-rich coastal habitat where most endemic species are found.

“As the climate warms it makes the surface of the lake warm,” says Cohen. “And Tanganyika being a deep tropical lake doesn’t mix every year as lakes in cooler climates do, instead the surface warmer waters mostly just sit on top of the cooler water below.”

Climate warming and intensifying stratification have almost certainly reduced potential fishery production, says the team.

They found a correlation between rising temperatures and declining biodiversity, which suggests that declines in the abundance of fish pre-date the establishment of commercial fisheries in the mid-20th century.

This means that while overfishing contributes to loss of biodiversity in Lake Tanganyika, which is renowned for the number of species that live in it, the temperature rise seems to be the main driver.

The ecological consequences of climate changefor other lakes in Africa will depend on their shape and depth.

Other Great Lakes in the region, such as Lake Kivu and Lake Malawi, are likely to see a similar loss of diversity, says Cohen.

On the other hand,

Lake Victoria has a shallow basin and hardly experiences stratification, so should be spared the same fate as Lake Tanganyika, says Melckzedeck Osore at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute.

But it is hard to predict if and how lake life will survive in a warmer future, he says. Much will depend on genetics and how well different species adapt.

Osore calls for local people to be involved in mitigation measures, as those living alongside the lake may have a better understanding of the changes.

Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1603237113

Decline of fishing in Lake Tanganyika 'due to warming'
Matt McGrath BBC 8 Aug 16;

New research blames rising temperatures over the last century as the key cause of decline in one of the world's most important fisheries.

Lake Tanganyika is Africa's oldest lake and its fish are a critical part of the diet of neighbouring countries.

But catches have declined markedly in recent decades as commercial fleets have expanded.

However this new study says that climate warming and not overfishing is the real cause of the problem.

Diversity hotspot

Estimated to be the world's second-largest freshwater lake, Tanganyika is an important resource for the countries that border it: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Zambia.

As well fish from the lake providing up to 60% of the animal protein consumed in the region, it is also an important biodiversity hotspot.

But there have been growing concerns about the impact of overfishing, land use change and changes in climate on this key ecosystem.

In an attempt to understand what's happening, researchers have examined samples of sediment from the bottom of the lake.
The chemical analysis of the cores and the fossils found there indicate that fish numbers have been dropping in parallel with a rise in global temperatures.

The scientists say that in tropical lakes a warming of the waters reduce the mixing between the oxygenated top layer and the nutrient-rich layer at the bottom.

This increasing stratification of the waters means fewer nutrients get to top, meaning less algae which means less food for fish.

The authors conclude that sustained warming is associated with reduction in mixing in the lake, stagnation of algal production, and significant shrinking of the habitat of the lake's key bottom dwellers, such as molluscs and crustaceans.

"Our idea was to look at the fish fossil record and to see when that decline actually started," said Prof Andrew Cohen from the University of Arizona,"If it happened before the start of the industrial fishing in the 1950s, you'd have strong evidence that the decline is not simply driven by this fishing activity and that's exactly what we found."

The scientists don't discount the impact of fishing over the past six decades. They recognise that there has been a significant increase in the 1990s as refugees from numerous regional conflicts poured into the areas around the lake.

"Fishing in the lake is a Wild West activity, there are nominal controls but no teeth," said Prof Cohen.

"Given the current trends of warming, the lake stratification will get stronger and the productivity will continue to be affected by that. The people in charge of these decisions need to be thinking about alternative livelihoods for people in the region."

Other researchers are alarmed about the future of the lake. One said: "We are sleepwalking into a disaster."
Others point to the fact that the in Europe and North America, a warming climate is increasing production in lakes. But the tropics are very different.

"In tropical regions, the increased stratification is doing the reverse, at least in some lakes," said Prof John Smol from Queen's University in Kingston, Canada.

"Decreasing algal production means that the base of the food chain is being affected - and this can cascade though the food chain up to fish and organisms - like humans - who depend on these resources."

Besides the threat to food supplies and jobs, the impact of warming on the biodiversity of Lake Tanganyika is of great scientific concern as well. Prof Cohen argues that we should think of the lake as being as significant as some of the world's key hotspots.

"Think about the Galapagos, and how iconic they are, Lake Tanganyika has probably 50 times more endemic species and nobody knows about it," he said.

"It's coming to bite us in terms of really impacting livelihoods for people around the lake, and the fact they have so many unsettled people in the region.

"These social and environmental trends are converging and I would say it's a really urgent issue to be aware of and start doing something about."

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Read more!

New Zealand farm company to stop using palm oil products

NICK PERRY Associated Press Yahoo News 8 Aug 16;

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — New Zealand's state-owned farming company said Monday it will stop using palm kernel products to feed its animals as it seeks to take better care of the environment.

Landcorp announced it will stop using the products by the middle of next year. Environmentalists have linked growth in the palm oil industry to rainforest destruction in Indonesia, which in turn is contributing to the decline in species like the Sumatran tiger.

Landcorp Chief Executive Steven Carden told The Associated Press that consumers worldwide are willing to pay a premium for natural products, including grass-fed meat and dairy.

"We are really concerned with producing food in a responsible and environmentally friendly way," Carden said.

He said making the change also made sense from a strategic and commercial viewpoint.

Farmers typically use imported palm kernel cake, also known as expeller, as part of a diet for dairy cows, especially during the winter or when natural feed is low.

The cake is a byproduct of palm oil production. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many household products, from margarine to lipstick.

Carden said the company will replace palm products with locally grown alternatives like maize silage and chicory.

Landcorp is one of the largest farming companies in New Zealand, with 140 farms and 850,000 animals. It uses about 15,000 metric tons of palm cake each year.

But thousands of dairy farmers who provide milk to the country's biggest company Fonterra will continue to use the product, after Fonterra said Monday it had no immediate plans to stop using it.

In a statement, Fonterra said it issued guidelines last year to farmers advising them to limit their use of palm products, but that it believes they still play a role in supporting animal health, particularly when grass quality declines or during a drought.

Fonterra said the palm products its farmers use are responsibly sourced from a provider with a "no-deforestation, no-exploitation" policy.

Environmental advocacy group Greenpeace said Monday it welcomed Landcorp's move and hopes that Fonterra will soon follow suit.

Read more!