Best of our wild blogs: 23 Dec 16

As accusations fly, paper giant appears to stand by its replanting of burned peat in Sumatra
Conservation news by Mongabay

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'Christmas' wish for Pulau Ubin takes root

Plan to turn former aquaculture ponds into mangrove habitats
Audrey Tan Straits Times 23 Dec 16;

Christmas is just around the corner and boughs of imported holly are already decking many halls and building facades.

But Singapore has its own version of the Christmas holly - and it can be found growing in the wild, in places such as Pulau Ubin and the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.

The country has three species of the sea holly - or jeruju, as it is known in Malay - all of which grow in mangrove habitats.

They have spiny leaves similar to the temperate plant used in Christmas decorations, although the local versions are not closely related to the Christmas holly.

The latter can be found in western Europe, the British Isles and parts of the Mediterranean.

"The 'holly' appellation of the sea holly is purely based on the leaf shape," said botanist Shawn Lum, a senior lecturer at the Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) Asian School of the Environment.

"The most consistently 'holly-like' of the three local species is Acanthus ilicifolius. In Latin, ilicifolius means leaves like a holly," added Dr Lum, who is also president of the Nature Society (Singapore).

The other two species of sea holly are Acanthus volubilis and Acanthus ebracteatus.

Singapore's sea hollies do not always have lobed leaves with spiny edges. They sometimes have leaves which are spineless.

"Spininess appears to be a feature of younger leaves and may be affected by water stress, seasonality and light intensity," said Ms Ria Tan, 55, a naturalist who runs the nature blog.

She is among a group of people - including National University of Singapore (NUS) scientists, fish farmers, fishermen and naturalists - who are hoping that the sea holly, as well as other mangrove plants, will naturally regenerate in the abandoned aquaculture ponds on Pulau Ubin, an island north-east of the mainland.

The 150ha of mangroves on the island make up about 20 per cent of Singapore's mangrove forests.

The Restore Ubin Mangroves (RUM) initiative aims to make use of an ecological approach to rehabilitate the habitats.

This is done by first recreating conditions suitable for mangrove growth in the abandoned ponds.

"We collect data on the rehabilitation sites, such as their elevation and tidal flooding, and compare this with a nearby natural mangrove forest," said NUS Assistant Professor Daniel Friess, who is leading the scientific study.

"For example, if the data shows that the rehabilitation site is too low, then we can use these maps to guide where to bring in dredge material to raise the elevation so that mangroves will grow more successfully."

Scientists are now working on the first phase of the RUM initiative, which involves mapping out existing mangrove and abandoned aquaculture sites using equipment similar to a digital theodolite - which uses laser beams to map out elevation changes.

The next phase of the project will involve changing the elevation of the abandoned aquaculture sites by adding soil or digging channels to mimic areas of natural mangrove growth, said Mr Wong Tuan Wah, group director for conservation at the National Parks Board (NParks).

The latter is working with the RUM team on mangrove rehabilitation.

This will be the first time that this method is being used to transform aquaculture ponds to mangroves in Singapore.

Prof Friess said it has been successfully applied in many projects in Florida in the United States, Thailand and Indonesia.

Said Mr Wong: "Mangrove forests are vital to the coastal zone in Pulau Ubin as they protect the shoreline from erosion.

"Restoring mangrove ecosystems would also conserve the habitats for native biodiversity like fiddler crabs and mudskippers."

The RUM team is also conducting activities to raise awareness about Singapore's rich and diverse mangrove habitats, through free guided walks along Pulau Ubin's sensory trail, for example.

Said Ms Tan who leads the walks: "Mangroves are amazing. They are plants that can live in the sea, they are full of animals, they are fascinating and part of our coastal ecosystem."

•To sign up for the mangrove walks, visit

VIDEO: Spot some holly at Pulau Ubin's mangroves

Singapore's sea hollies with healing qualities
Audrey Tan Straits Times 23 Dec 16;

Like the Christmas holly, Singapore's sea holly plants sometimes have spiny leaves.

Research by plant expert Jean Yong has shown that sea holly plants have variable leaf shapes in response to environmental factors, such as exposure to sunlight and salinity.

"In the harshest localities of any mangroves, where plants receive full sunlight and are often fully immersed in seawater, two species of sea hollies - the Acanthus ilicifolius and Acanthus ebracteatus - will develop very spiny leaves," said Dr Yong, an eco-physiologist at the Australian Research Centre for Mine Site Restoration.

He added that, in general, sea holly plants which receive greater shade, and/or freshwater, have rounder, less spiny leaves.

"We hope to find out which the predominant factor is - whether it is sunlight exposure or salinity - in determining the ultimate leaf shape and spine development."

Another unique trait about sea holly plants is their ability to deal with salt. While some mangrove plants keep salt from entering in the first place, sea hollies take salt in and discharge it through salt glands on their leaves, said botanist Shawn Lum, from Nanyang Technological University's (NTU's) Asian School of the Environment.

Here is more information about Singapore's sea holly plants.


This is a common mangrove plant that grows up to 3m in height. Its leaves are used to treat rheumatism and wounds and can be used to make a softening cream. In addition, a concoction of the leaves can be taken with the stems to promote longevity, or with the roots to improve hair conditions, and treat sores and snake bites, according to the National Parks Board (NParks).


This species is considered vulnerable. It can grow up to 2m in height. Its seeds are sometimes boiled to be used as ingredients in cough mixtures.


This species can grow up to 8m in height. This is considered the rarest among the three Acanthus species, said Dr Yong, and can be found only on Pulau Ubin and Pulau Tekong and in Sungei Buloh and the Western Catchment areas. This species also produces the least spines on its leaves.

Audrey Tan

•Source: NParks, Dr Jean Yong, Dr Shawn Lum



Mangrove plants from the genus Rhizophora have iconic prop roots that extend over a large area. These help the plant to hold on to the soft and unstable mud and improve stability of the tree. Wood from such trees is used to make charcoal.


This plant is critically endangered; the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates there are 200 mature individuals left in Singapore, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. In Singapore, there are 13 trees, says the National Parks Board. They can grow up to 33m tall, and are found in the back mangroves or elevated areas less frequently inundated by seawater.


This common plant can grow up to 20m in height. It has roots that help it absorb oxygen in the mud. It can also selectively absorb water by excluding salt from the seawater it takes in. Its bark can be used as medicine for diarrhoea and occasionally malaria. An extract of the bark is also used as a source of tannin and dye.


This colourful bird, native to Singapore, is rare. It has been sighted at the mangroves in Pasir Ris Park, Pulau Ubin, Pulau Tekong and Sungei Buloh. It builds dome-shaped nests on or close to the ground. This species is suspected to be in moderately rapid decline as a result of habitat loss and degradation.


This venomous snake calls the mangroves of Singapore its home but is endangered here. It feeds on lizards, frogs and other small animals, possibly small birds.

Audrey Tan

•Sources: NParks, IUCN, Dr Jean Yong, David Tan,

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Higher demand for eco-tourism as environmental awareness increases

RUMI HARDASMALANI Today Online 23 Dec 16;

SINGAPORE — Tapping a new breed of travellers’ increasing environmental awareness and penchant for off-the-beaten-track experiences, travel agencies and tour companies are cashing in on a small but growing business segment as they adapt and evolve in a fast-changing industry.

The digital revolution has severely disrupted the industry not just in Singapore but around the world, where more and more people plan, manage and book their travels online on their own.

To survive, companies have turned to “experiential tourism” that focuses on creating immersive and meaningful experiences for travellers — and sustainable tourism, or eco-tourism, is quickly becoming a hot-seller.

The UN World Tourism Organisation, which has designated 2017 as the “international year of sustainability tourism for development”, defines sustainable tourism as taking “full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

Dynasty Travel, one of the biggest agencies here, said it is seeing a 5 per cent year-on-year growth in this segment. Its director of marketing and communications Alicia Seah said, “Travellers these days are more affluent and largely looking for never before experiences.

“They are well educated and conscious about not leaving carbon foot-prints behind as they travel. Sustainable tourism is, hence, getting more popular as it comes with this feel-good factor of giving back.”

Popular eco-tourism destinations include the Maldives, Australia, Thailand, Bali, as well as Guilin and Lijiang in China, Ms Seah said.

A spokesperson for Chan Brothers noted that the segment is “still rather niche”, although the demand for sustainability tours has been “gradually increasing due to a higher level of awareness”.

“The cause is more than worthwhile as these projects are not simply about bringing in sales revenue, but also about meeting the environmental aspect of our triple bottom line — namely profit, people and planet,” the spokesperson added.

Over at luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, places such as the Amazon, Antarctica, Bhutan and Mongolia are high on customers’ itineraries. Mr Nico Heath, the firm’s Singapore director, said, “We do push this element to our clients, and find that often, it does affect the decision-making process.

“Our younger clients (20 and 30somethings) tend to be more interested in it, and sometimes they specifically request eco-friendly hotels or ones that focus on sustainability.”

The demand for eco-tourism is also partly fuelled by well-heeled travellers looking for more extraordinary experiences.

“Whether seeking something to impact them or even transform them in some way, these people are the ones who have the money to access the world’s little black book of amazing experiences,” Mr Heath added.

Globally, some places have successfully marketed themselves as eco-tourism destinations, including Bhutan, the Dominican Republic, parts of Thailand, Denmark’s capital Copenhagen as well as Swedish cities Stockholm and Malmo.

In these places, the local communities benefit from tourism dollars. Bhutan, for instance, has strict entry requirements for visitors, or what its government terms as “high-value, low-impact tourism”. Among other requirements, visitors have to pay a US$65 (S$94.20) per day tariff that goes towards alleviating the country’s education, healthcare and poverty issues.

Ms Cindy Chng, 27, who founded Eco Travel eight years ago, said her company is developing a website that enables users to search for sustainable travel options in the region. “After remaining subdued for some time, the demand for this segment is now picking up,” Ms Chng said.

“We are, accordingly, tailoring more packages that create meaningful interactions between people and places while forging memorable travel experiences. We educate the locals as well as our customers to respect the environment and cultures while being true to sustainable and responsible tourism.”

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How Indonesia is stepping up fight against climate change

SIMON TAY and NIRARTA “KONI” SAMADHI Today Online 23 Dec 16;

United States President-elect Donald Trump may have labelled climate change a hoax, but that has not stalled the momentum behind last month’s United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco.

Less than one year after its adoption, the Paris climate agreement has entered into force, with some 175 countries already on board. The next step will be to begin implementing the commitments each country has made. In South-east Asia in particular, regional cooperation will be critical to address certain issues that transcend national boundaries.

One of the largest obstacles to climate change efforts in South-east Asia remains Indonesia’s forest and peatland fires. Though these fires are perhaps most notorious as the source of the annual haze that blankets our region, they should rightly be framed as a global concern about carbon emissions.

To put things into perspective, Indonesia’s 2015 fires produced the equivalent of 1,750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e), which is almost the same amount emitted by Indonesia’s entire economy in an average year (1,800 MtCO2e).

Hence, it is heartening that Indonesia has shown resolve in addressing the issue. The reduction in fires this year must be credited to not only wetter weather, but also the political will and concerted efforts of the government of President Joko Widodo.

At the peak of the haze crisis last year, Mr Widodo visited South Sumatra to understand the fires first-hand and subsequently established the Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) in January 2016. The BRG has been charged with coordinating the restoration of 2.1 million hectares of degraded peatland across Indonesia by 2020.

Following orders by Mr Widodo to “get very tough” on errant companies, Indonesian police have arrested more than double the number of individuals in forest fire cases this year compared with last year.

The Indonesian government is also responding faster to fires, enabled by the early declaration of a state of emergency in six provinces. These efforts have been commended by regional leaders, including Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Mr Masagos Zulkifli.

Such measures were crucial in the immediate aftermath of the fires. But the true challenge comes in figuring out how to tackle this complex problem in the long term.

One pressing issue is the ongoing debate over the most appropriate way to restore degraded peatland. Comprised of partially decayed organic matter, peatland is often drained to grow oil palm, acacia trees for pulp and paper, and other agricultural crops. But drained peat is highly flammable during the dry season, resulting in fires that can take months to extinguish.

Some parties contend that the only sustainable way to restore degraded peatland is to rewet, reforest and protect the entire landscape. Otherwise, fires that start on agricultural lands may easily spread into protected areas, destroying intact forests.

Worse still, protected forest will continue to be affected by drainage from surrounding agricultural areas. Drainage causes peatland to subside, causing the land to become flooded and unusable in the long term.

Other parties argue that it is unrealistic to reforest large peatland areas that already contain thousands of villages and extensive industrial plantations, which generate a great deal of employment and economic benefit.

They also point to the fact that there is still a limited market for native peatland crops that do not require drainage — such as jelutong, sago and illipe nut — compared with more commonly grown crops such as oil palm and areca nut.

It appears that the Indonesian government’s approach is to strike a balance between these competing concerns. On Dec 1, Mr Widodo signed a regulation that banned new clearing of peatland for crop cultivation.

Plantations will also be required to set a minimum ratio between cultivation and conservation areas, and lay down guidelines for the proper management of peatland plantations. BRG has plans to rewet areas set aside for conservation and improve their fire readiness by installing wells and monitoring systems.

Now, Indonesia faces the challenge of harmonising these standards across its 12.9 million hectares of peatland, which is likely to be a complex and time-consuming process. In the meantime, the scale and urgency of peatland restoration will require the support of parties from outside Indonesia.

Firstly, collaboration is required to improve and disseminate knowledge about peatland, which remains an under-researched subject. The UN meeting in Marrakech saw the launch of the Global Peatlands Initiative (GPI), the largest international collaboration on peatland to date, which aims to share scientific knowledge to develop local capacity for peatland management. Indonesia is one of the founding members of the GPI.

Closer to home, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, the World Resources Institute Indonesia and other leading non-governmental organisations in Asean recently organised the Regional Peat Restoration Workshop in Jakarta, which showcased ongoing restoration efforts in order to share learning points with others conducting similar projects.

Secondly, peatland restoration is expensive and will require financial support from other countries. Funding is especially needed to scale up current projects, many of which are still small-scale and experimental, so that they cover entire peat landscapes. This will maximise impact and minimise the conflicts that often result between multiple, smaller projects.

One recently-launched initiative to provide such funding is the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility. A joint effort between BNP Paribas, ADM Capital and the United Nations Environment Programme, the facility has mobilised over US$1.1 billion (S$1.59 billion) of investments to reverse land degradation, prevent unwise land conversion and improve revenues for small farmers.

Western donors, most notably Norway, have also pledged about US$135 million to support the BRG. Others in the international and regional community can and should add their support.

In the longer term, Indonesia’s strategy involves changing the legal rights for industrial plantations to turn them into ecosystem restoration concessions that finance the restoration of forests and peatlands through the sale of carbon credits, among other methods.

The international community plays a crucial role in developing the market and providing the demand for such credits.

Climate change is rightly seen as an issue that affects all countries. Now that Indonesia has taken several important steps to prevent the return of fires, it is vital that other countries begin supporting its efforts.

Though approaches may differ, there is a need to recognise that we are working towards the same goal and that there are significant areas of overlap to work on. The need is urgent and we must not lose the valuable momentum that has been built up so far behind forest and peatland restoration.


Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Nirarta “Koni” Samadhi is country director for the World Resources Institute Indonesia.

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Malaysia: Terengganu spared from major floods


KUALA TERENGGANU: No major floods are expected in Terengganu for the remainder of the monsoon season, said state Meteorological Department director Jenuwa Husin.

The weather forecast, he said, indicated isolated and relatively light rainfall until the end of the monsoon in March.

“We believe the state will get normal, average rainfall from now on,” he told The Star.

He said there were small-scale floods in Kemaman, parts of Kuala Terengganu, Hulu Terengganu and other low-lying places last month.

This followed a heavy downpour for about eight hours on Nov 29.

Some 317 people had to be evacuated to five flood relief centres in Kemaman and Kuala Terengganu.

Jenuwa said Terengganu had been on high alert between Dec 13 and 22 following an earlier forecast of heavy rains and high tides of up to 3.5m in Kemaman.

Despite the good news, the state government and rescue agencies were not taking any chances.

State Civil Defence Force director Lt Col Che Adam A. Rahman said 3,000 personnel from various agencies were on standby.

He said flood simulation exercises had been carried out with the Fire and Rescue Department.

Rivers, irrigation canals and drainage systems had also been deepened and cleaned to mitigate the possibility of floods.

The first wave of floods in several states in the peninsula had receded, but wet weather due to the North-East Monsoon will persist for those living in the east coast.

Science, Technology and Inno­vation Minister Datuk Seri Madius Tangau said Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and eastern Johor were expected to get more than 500mm of rainfall this month.

At noon yesterday, the Malaysian Meteorological Department warned of widespread thunderstorms over waters off Terengganu and the Straits of Malacca.

It predicted strong winds reaching up to 50kph and waves as high as 3.5m.

At 3pm yesterday, the Department of Irrigation and Drainage issued a warning for those living in Kelantan.

Its official website, reported that Sungai Golok had exceeded its normal water level by almost a metre.

Earlier this month, more than 100 people in Perak and Kelantan were forced to evacuate their homes due to floods.

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