Best of our wild blogs: 15 Feb 17

Windy at Cyrene Reef
wonderful creation

Signs of an oil spill
Hantu Blog

Seven ‘most wanted’ elephant poachers arrested in Malaysia Conservation news

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New virtual reality tool brings Sisters' Islands corals to shore

Vanessa Lim Channel NewsAsia 15 Feb 17;

SINGAPORE: Marine biology students and conservation volunteers can look forward to exploring coral reefs at Sisters' Islands Marine Park without actually having to go underwater with a new interactive Virtual Reality (VR) underwater simulation.

Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs is a collaboration between local startup Hiverlab, the Info-comm Media Development Authority (IMDA)’s PIXEL Labs and DHI Water and Environment.

In a joint press release on Wednesday (Feb 15), the developers said the training tool will enhance the training of marine biologists and reef monitoring volunteers as they learn methods in the assessment and monitoring of coral reefs, orientate themselves on monitoring protocols and practice their identification skills in a virtual setting before they embark on actual dives.

Currently, the developers added, instructors have to overcome the limited visibility usually experienced in Singapore waters, as well as the limitation of communication to visual cues and hand signals when training large groups of students or volunteers in habitat monitoring of underwater environments.

During the 30-minutes "dive", users will be virtually guided along the reef to identify various marine organisms and can submit their answers using their Samsung VR headsets.

The development of the product took five months to complete and is now in its prototype stage.

Moving forward, Hiverlab said it was looking at creating a collaborative platform where 3D scans and photogrammetry of corals and reefs can be crowdsourced to recreational divers, marine biologists and non-governmental organisations. This will allow it to cover more coral reefs around the world and create educational programs or workshops based on the data, it explained.

A standalone prototype of Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs will be made available to the public at PIXEL Labs at National Design Centre and Jurong Regional Library in March.

- CNA/mz

Dive into marine world - and stay dry
Audrey Tan Straits Times 16 Feb 17;

Reef lovers will be able to explore the corals of Sisters' Islands Marine Park while staying completely dry, thanks to virtual reality (VR).

A new training tool, Eyes on Habitat: Coral Reefs - which aims to aid in the training of marine biologists and reef-monitoring volunteers - has been created by local start-up Hiverlab, a VR content production company.

Hiverlab worked with environmental consultancy DHI Water and Environment, as well as the Infocomm Media Development Authority's Pixel Labs, to develop the programme, which was unveiled yesterday at the National Design Centre in Bugis.

Still at a prototype stage, it allows users to explore the reefs at Sisters' Islands through VR. During the "dive", participants will be guided in identifying marine organisms along the reef, and respond to quizzes to test their knowledge.

The programme will help students learn scientific methods in the assessment and monitoring of reefs, orientate themselves on monitoring protocols and practise their identification skills in a virtual setting before they go on real dives.

A commonly used method is visual quadrat sampling, which first involves the laying of a line. The researcher or volunteer then places a square, usually made of plastic pipes, at intervals along the line and identifies the biodiversity, or coral cover, within the square.

Dr Siti Maryam Yaakub, a senior marine ecologist at DHI research centre, said: "Some marine biology students may be hesitant the first time they go underwater to conduct scientific surveys of the reef, so with this programme, we can guide the students step-by-step."

Those interested can try out the prototype next month at Pixel Labs, the National Design Centre and at the Jurong Regional Library.

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Malaysian customers urge HSBC to stop funding forest fires in Indonesia

Antara 15 Feb 17;

Kuala Lumpur (ANTARA News) - Dissatisfied Malaysian customers on Tuesday presented HSBC with a mock cheque with 228,434 signatures urging the bank to "Stop Funding Forest Fires in Indonesia."

The HSBC customers were joined by activists from Greenpeace and other Malaysian civil society organizations, including members of Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia (PEKA), who handed out leaflets to other customers and passersby at the banks head office in Kuala Lumpur, Greenpeace said in a press statement on Tuesday.

The activity was part of an escalating global effort to highlight the involvement of Europes largest bank in arranging US$16.3 billion of loans (and nearly $2 billion of bonds) to companies whose Indonesian palm oil operations have destroyed vast areas of rainforest, peatland, and orangutan habitats; seized land from local people; operated without legal permits; and caused forest fires, Greenpeace reported.

"We are asking customers to join this movement to urge HSBC to stop funding deforestation. In the past five years alone, HSBC has been part of banking syndicates that arranged $16.3 billion of loans to six companies whose palm oil operations have destroyed vast areas of rainforest, peatland, and orangutan habitats in Indonesia," said Octyanto Bagus Indra Kusuma, Greenpeace Southeast Asia Forest Campaigner.

Greenpeace Internationals recently published Dirty Bankers report documents loans and financial services from HSBC to palm oil companies responsible for destroying rainforest, including orangutan habitat; seizing land from local people; operating without legal permits; abusing workers and using child labour; forest fires; and draining and developing carbon-rich peatland.

Deforestation and peatland destruction by Indonesias palm oil and pulp sectors are widely acknowledged as root causes of forest fires and haze. A study by Harvard and Columbia universities estimates that over 100 thousand adults across Southeast Asia have died prematurely as a result of the 2015 haze crisis, Greenpeace wrote.

Many of these actions breach the laws and regulations that govern Indonesias plantation sector.

Lending loans to these companies also breaches HSBCs sustainability policies.

The financial support provided by HSBC and other international banks contrasts sharply with public opinion and consumer companies that demand palm oil produced responsibly.

Last year, the IUCN changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan from endangered to critically endangered, citing destruction, degradation, and fragmentation of their habitats, including conversion to plantations, as a main reason for the decline in population.(*)

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Malaysia: Treasure our Rajang mangroves

WWF 14 Feb 17;

Each year World Wetlands Days is celebrated on 2 February to mark the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971. This year’s celebration is themed ‘Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction’. This celebration focuses on the need for healthy wetlands which help us cope with extreme weather events, act as natural safeguard against disasters, and sustain lives. Wetlands are areas where water is the primary factor that controls the environment and its associated plant and animal life. Natural wetlands comprises freshwater swamps, peat swamps, river systems, floodplains, natural lakes, marshes, mangroves, sandy beaches, rocky shores, nipa swamps, coral reefs, seagrass beds and mudflats. Manmade wetlands comprise rice fields, mining pools, ponds, reservoirs, sewage farms, constructed lakes and marshlands. In this article, WWF-Malaysia highlights the importance of conserving the mangroves along the Rajang delta and their importance for the survival of a vulnerable species, Irrawaddy dolphins.

KUCHING: The mighty Rajang River, the longest in Malaysia, supports a significant wetlands area in the country that provides priceless socio-economic value to the people and environment.

The Rajang River provides its surrounding human population with resources such as food and water, to services such as transportation, power generation, recreational activities, and opportunities for income generation through tourism. The river is also an important area for research and educational activities, and is home to the Irrawaddy dolphin Orcaella brevirostris.

The Rajang delta is a busy waterway that includes deep anchorage port operations and various other industries. Rapid developments near the delta over the years have raised concerns on the long term conservation of its resident dolphins, and the need to protect them from being threatened by human activities. In the upstream areas, some of the activities include logging, oil palm plantations and hydropower developments; and at the downstream, the activities include a deep anchorage port construction and operations, and large-scale aquaculture development.

Surprisingly, Irrawaddy dolphins still strive at the delta, particularly near the Rajang mangroves which provides them protection and food.

The mangrove root systems of the Rhizophora and Avicennia protect the riverbanks from erosion. In these parts of the mangroves system, the water is calmer and clearer, making it an ideal habitat for Irrawaddy dolphins.

In a study conducted in 2009 to 2010, entitled Distributions, Densities and Abundance of Irrawaddy Dolphins (Orcacella brevirostris) in Batang Rajang and Batang Saribas of Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo, jointly by Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), Institut Penyelidikan Marin Borneo of Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Institute of National Oceanography and Environmental of Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, it was reported that there is high probability of sighting, density and abundance of this mammal at the lower river segments.

The study, which included a 118.8km long survey from the Rajang delta (the estuary where Rajang Mangrove National Park is located) upstream to Sibu town, observed that the distribution of the dolphins is determined by the combination of pH, conductivity, turbidity, dissolved oxygen and surface temperature of the water. High conservation value areas (HCVA) as well as tourism hot spots were also identified. The study also noted the use of the river for logging and timber-related industries, transportation and berthing place for large deep sea vessels at Tanjung Manis.

The study was presented at the International Conference of Marine Science and Aquaculture 2014 in Sabah by one of the authors, Mr James Bali from SFC.

The area between Surat River and Loba Palai of the Rajang River has been identified as HCVA for Irrawaddy dolphins. This area accounted for 64.20% of the total sightings during the study, which represented an average of one sighting for every half hour period.

The study made recommendations for periodic monitoring to observe population trend and habitat utilisation of the Rajang Mangrove National Park. It also asked for the development of eco-tourism activities such as dolphin watching and for public awareness campaigns to be organised.

It pointed out that more research is needed to fill the knowledge gaps particularly on the association of Irrawaddy dolphin occurrence with food sources availability, distance from river mouth, tidal stages and water depth. Other research identified include the need to study home range - which may be carried out using satellite tracking, photo identification or DNA studies; and population estimation through periodic monitoring programmes.

In a rapid survey conducted by WWF-Malaysia in 2015, it is noted that the dolphins co-exist well with humans, but this also expose them to human-animal conflicts. The communities here are predominantly fishermen. Sometimes, these mammals are accidently caught and suffered the fate of being drowned when they get entangled in fishing nets.

Besides that, human activities upstream will also have detrimental impacts upon dolphins. Floating plastic bags, indiscriminately thrown into the river or sea, are also dangerous to the dolphins as they might mistake them as food. Pollution and contaminant run-off from land can also affect the food chain and result in the depletion of food source such as fishes, crustacean and cephalopods which the dolphins feed on. Permanent physical barriers such as weirs and dams impede dolphin movements upriver, but they may also cause changes to downstream flow. Developmental activities, largely being carried out in the coastal region and the delta area, may have impacts upon long term survival of dolphins, causing them to become even more threatened.

We should not shrug off these threats that may one day wipe off the population of Irrawaddy dolphins from our waters. For instance, this species has been regarded as ‘functionally extinct’ in Laos. Our dolphins could receive the same fate like the ones in Laos if no holistic conservation action is taken.

From the results of the WWF-Malaysia’s rapid survey, the Rajang delta is regarded as one of the key habitats for wildlife, including dolphins, and deserves long term conservation attention. The area provides invaluable ecosystem services for human and wildlife. The delta is also home to protected species under the Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998 such as proboscis monkeys, silvered langurs, lesser adjutant storks, raptors, hornbills and migratory birds. Such a high concentration of wildlife species indicate that the delta is an important habitat that warrant proper management and conservation attention. If developed properly, the variety of species here can be the stars of ecotourism activities at the delta. The local communities can provide boat services and serve as local guides, both serving as sources of additional income.

The benefits that can be derived from conservation of wetlands are abundant. Healthy wetlands also help us cope with extreme weather events, by acting as natural safeguard against disasters. They provide humans with resources to sustain lives. In the advent of development, it is hoped that people and industries present in the delta will come together to help conserve the wetlands, and in any case, develop this important wildlife habitat sustainably.

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Indonesia: Greenpeace Indonesia Launches Air Pollution Monitoring App

Ratri M. Siniwi Jakarta Globe 14 Feb 17;

Jakarta. Environmental activist group Greenpeace Indonesia launched a mobile application on Tuesday (14/02) that can be used to monitor air quality.

The app, known as UdaraKita, which translates to "our air," allows users to determine air pollution levels in the greater Jakarta area and several other cities in Indonesia.

Despite seemingly low air pollution levels, fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns in diameter and less is known as the small killer and considered extremely dangerous, as it can cause serious respiratory diseases and even lung cancer.

"The air quality data obtained from the application is calculated from the daily average of air quality monitors we have placed in 50 points, including the greater Jakarta area and several other cities in Indonesia," Greenpeace Indonesia climate and energy campaigner Bondan Andriyanu said in a statement.

According to the organization, Jakarta has an alarming air pollution level, which is 4.5 times higher than the threshold set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Greenpeace Indonesia also cited a report by World Energy Outlook, which states that air pollution may have caused 70,000 premature deaths in 2015, and that it could increase to 140,000 by 2040 if the issue is not addressed.

The organization says Indonesia's main source of pollution is fossil fuel emissions from various modes of transportation.

It added that the country lacks proper air quality monitoring systems, especially in big cities such as Jakarta and Bandung, West Java.

Antara news agency previously cited the Research Center for Climate Change at the University of Indonesia as saying that there are only 11 air quality monitors in Jakarta.

Research center head Budi Haryanto said Jakarta still lags far behind other big cities, such as Tokyo and Los Angeles, which have 120 and 160 air quality monitors, respectively.

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Coral bleaching threatens Sydney and returns to Great Barrier Reef amid unusually warm waters

Peter Hannam Sydney Morning Herald 15 Feb 17;

Unusually warm sea temperatures and the prospect of more to come have reef scientists worried that the Great Barrier Reef may experience another major coral bleaching event. Sydney's corals may also be at risk.

The reef suffered its worst recorded bleaching event on record last year with some regions losing more than 80 per cent of their coral. Early signs point to a return of bleaching near the Palm Islands, north-west of Townsville.

"Currently we're seeing abnormal, widespread but relatively modest levels of bleaching," said Terry Hughes, the Townsville-based director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies. "We'll know in a week or two if another major event is unfolding."

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said it had been receiving reports from along a huge stretch of the reef that corals were starting to bleach.

"We got reports of bleaching right from down in the south around Mackay where there wasn't really bad bleaching last year, right up into the far north where there was terrible bleaching," David Wachenfeld, the authority's director for reef recovery, said.

"The more recent the report, the more severe the bleaching … so it would seem things are getting worse."

For the second year in a row, the Queensland region is yet to be hit by a tropical cyclone this far into the season. These tempests typically lower sea-surface temperatures by drawing heat from the ocean, mixing in cooler waters, and bringing in more cloud cover and rain.

"The temperatures won't peak until March, so it will come down to whether we have one or more heatwaves, or a cyclone to cool down the [Great Barrier] reef," Professor Hughes said.

Without such storms, the corals face a deadly brew should temperatures exceed certain threshholds. If they do, corals expel the zooxanthellae algae living in their tissues that provide as much as 90 per cent of the energy they need to grow and reproduce, draining them of colour and also increasing mortality.

Greg Torda, an ecologist based at the centre posted early pictures of the bleaching on Twitter, noting that, unlike last year, 2017 is not starting in the midst of an El Nino event that typically raises bleaching risks.

In a follow-up comment, Dr Torda tweeted that the bleaching he witnessed was on the "back reefs of Pelorus and Orpheus, affecting many species. Looks bad".

Reef mortality

Coral bleaching affected much of the Great Barrier Reef last year, particularly north of Cairns. The region north of Cairns has had 11-83 per cent coral mortality.

The bleaching drew international attention to the health of the reef and also stoked opposition to development plans for the state including the potentially massive coal mines of the Galilee Basin.

Burning the coal produced in the mines would not only add to global warming but also trigger a huge increase in shipping activity, opponents say. The mines have the backing of the state and federal governments which claim thousands of jobs will be generated and the coal will help ease poverty in places such as India.

The prospect of more bleaching, though, may reignite those debates. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, eastern Australia waters are unusually warm, adding to the risk of bleaching.

Susceptible corals

Current readings suggest waters are only moderately warmer than average along the Queensland coastline, with temperatures about 1 degree warmer than usual. (See Weatherzone chart below, based on NOAA data.)

Andrew Baird, a reef ecologist also at the James Cook University centre in Townsville, said that, while research on corals' ability to recover from an event like last year's was still to be worked on, it was reasonable to assume some species would be susceptible if temperatures rose again to dangerous thresholds so soon.

"It can take two years for egg quality and fecundity [of corals] to recover," Professor Baird said.

Dr Wachenfeld said "just because a coral survived a bleaching event last year does not mean all is well".

"It may be alive but it could be severely compromised," he said, with corals' immune and reproductive systems particularly vulnerable.

"We're seeing higher than normal reports of coral disease out there which is quite likely a legacy of the heat stress from last year, as well as the accumulated ongoing heat stress," he said.

The past year's weather had been "completely unprecedented", Dr Wachenfeld said, with climate change the underlying threat to the reef.

He urged the public to contribute the Eye on the Reef program to help the authority monitor the reef's health.

Unusual warmth

While cyclones may bring relief in coming months, recent air and sea temperatures have been abnormally warm. Townsville, for instance, was "baking" in 37-degree heat on Tuesday, he said. That reading is about 6 degrees above average for February, according to Bureau of Meteorology data.

The bureau's own forecasts point to a couple of more months of warmer-than-usual waters. (See chart below showing predicted temperature anomalies for coming months, in degrees.)

While the Great Barrier Reef's corals will draw much of the attention if bleaching returns, reefs off the NSW coast or even in Sydney Harbour may face a more immediate threat.

Professor Baird noted that hot spots in terms of water temperature anomalies were greater than Queensland, potentially affecting the harbour's corals - which suffered their first recorded bleaching last year.

Sea temperatures off Sydney have touched 26 degrees in recent days, according to the Beachwatch website. The city is also in the midst of what's increasingly likely to be its hottest summer on record, and NSW broke its record average state-wide maximum temperature two days in a row.

One researcher told Fairfax Media that a recent visit to two harbour reef sites did not yet reveal signs of bleaching but they would be monitored closely.

Weatherzone's chart below, also based on NOAA data, indicates temperatures are more than 3 degrees warmer than average off parts of the NSW South Coast.

Also at risk were corals near Lord Howe Island, where some rare species could face particular threat, said Professor Baird, who has recently been documenting another new species there.

"If the bleaching at Lord Howe Island is bad, we'll see extinctions," he said.

Last year's El Nino helped drive global temperatures to an annual record for the third year in a row. While the conditions in the Pacific had shifted back to more neutral conditions, worldwide temperatures have not eased much.

The Japan Meteorological Agency overnight declared last month to be the second-hottest January in records going back to 1891. Sea and land temperatures were 0.39 degrees above the 1981-2010 baseline it uses, pipped only by January 2016's 0.52-degree anomaly, the agency said.

The big El Nino boosted temperatures by 0.12 degrees in 2016, building on the background warming from climate change to make it the hottest year on record, NASA said last month.

Dr Wachenfeld said the state of the reef was a reminder of the importance of the Paris climate accord, to which Australia and almost 200 nations committed to keep temperatures to within 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming compared with pre-industrial levels.

At 1.5 degrees, "reefs will be stressed but there is some hope for management to retain them as productive, functioning eco-systems", particularly if efforts to limit the impacts of agricultural chemical and soil run-off in the reefs are maintained, he said.

Temperatures have so far risen about 1 degree in the past century.

"Certainly anything above 2 degrees and there's a very, very high probability that we will simply lose coral reefs as we know them today," Dr Wachenfeld said.

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A Race to Document Rare Plants Before These Cliffs Are Ground to Dust

The species native to Cambodia’s limestone karsts exist nowhere else. Now these unique environments are being pulverized for cement.
JULIA WALLACE The New York Times 13 Feb 17;

KAMPONG TRACH MOUNTAIN, Cambodia — Millions of years ago, a cluster of coral reefs stood firm here as the water receded, leaving them surrounded by the marshy, mangrove-studded Mekong Delta.

Today, these reefs have been carved by the wind and rain into spiky limestone cliffs known as karsts that stand stark against the Cambodian landscape, even as the lowland rain forest around them has been denuded by centuries of intensive rice cultivation and logging.

The karsts are full of nooks and crannies that have nurtured highly specialized plants and animals found nowhere else. They are also important to humans, studded with small altars and temples that are thought to be homes to neak ta, landscape spirits in the local animist pantheon.

Soon, they will be gone.

A small group of scientists are now racing to document rare plant life in these limestone karsts before local companies quarry them to dust and grind them up for production of the cement that is fueling this country’s building boom.

Most of the wood in mainland Southeast Asia has already been logged to support the region’s rapid economic growth and its relentless appetite for luxury hardwood. (Nearly all the forest cover in neighboring Thailand is gone and Cambodia is now experiencing the fastest acceleration of forest loss in the world, despite a putative ban on logging.) Cement and concrete are also in high demand, so the karsts are next in line.

“They are the last refuges of what made it to the Mekong Delta, natural harbors for a specialized kind of vegetation that has very little timber value, sanctuaries of rare species,” said J. Andrew McDonald, a botany professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who is spearheading the plant collection project with support from the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The limestone habitats can act as “arks” of biodiversity that replenish surrounding areas after ecological damage. But they are so complex that, once destroyed, they can never themselves be recreated.

They have scant access to water for six months of the year, creating a harsh, alkaline environment that has led to the evolution of desertlike flora in the middle of a hot, wet country. Dr. McDonald calls them “Dr. Seuss-type plants,” ones that look and behave like cactuses and succulent desert flora, but are related to the local tropical foliage.

There are fat, succulent grapevines, fig trees with thick, waxy leaves, and false cactuses — as spiky and segmented as those that grow in the American desert, but actually members of the poinsettia family that evolved independently. Perhaps most unusual are the large, phallic flowers known as Amorphophallus, which look like a cross between an orchid and a Muppet’s nose.

The toughest and most determined plants nestle themselves into the fissures and cracks atop the karsts, or cling to the razor-sharp outcroppings exposed to the wind and sun. More delicate tropical flowers — feathery orchids and little white touch-me-nots — make homes in the grottoes within, sucking up the water that drips through the limestone. At the bottom, the karsts are like Swiss cheese, full of water-carved pockets that open up into large underground lakes where rare bats feed and mushrooms grow.

Over four days in January, armed with rice sacks and pruning shears, Dr. McDonald and several colleagues and students pored over two linked karsts, Phnom Kampong Trach and Phnom Domrei, climbing atop their jagged surfaces and passing all the way through them in a network of caves.

Dr. McDonald, 62, is a plain-spoken Texan with a mystical streak who spends his spare time working on a 1,000-page manuscript on the religious iconography of the lotus. He can clamber up and down the slippery, precipitous karsts like one of the mountain goats that live here (another anomaly in flat Cambodia).

“Fruits! Flowers! Fruits! Flowers! Eyes on the prize!” he chanted, trying to urge the group to collect specimens. Among the group was a pair of technophilic Vietnamese botanists lugging huge cameras who kept falling behind to take close-up shots of the foliage.

At first glance, Dr. McDonald was excited by a novel-looking parasitic Balanaflora with droopy, bulbous male flowers (“they latch onto this tree and have sex there”) and a huge, feathery white blossom at the edge of a grotto. It was an unusual variant of dogbane, a nocturnal plant with a dangling structure that dusts the underside of a visiting moth or bat with pollen. “I’ve never seen an Apocynaceae with an irregular flower like that!” he exclaimed, before gingerly tossing the specimens, one by one, across a huge fissure to the safe hands of a waiting colleague.

Ultimately, over the course of two botanical excursions, the group found more than 130 species of vascular plants native to this patch of limestone, a comparatively rich assortment, including some thought to be new to science: an Amorphophallus and another related flower, a new type of jasmine, and a member of the coffee family.

Along with discovering these rare species, the scientists wanted to document the karsts’s biodiversity and the ways in which different parts of the habitat work together before it is gone. Ultimately, they hope to persuade the government to make these two karsts a protected area and declare them off-limits to future cement quarrying.

The team was accompanied by a representative of the Ministry of Environment who was to report back to his superiors on the merits of the protection proposal. The ministry is bereft of plant experts, so they sent Neang Thy, the country’s leading herpetologist, instead.

“The vegetation you see here, you may not see anywhere else,” he said. “If it is destroyed, that is a problem.”

He said he hoped future trips would allow for a survey of animal life in the karsts. Similar limestone formations in Vietnam and Thailand are home to novel species of fish, lizards, crabs and insects that adapt to life inside caves by becoming pale, blind and wingless, often looking very different from their aboveground brethren.

There are highly biodiverse karsts scattered across Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Borneo, like desert islands surrounded by oceans of tropical rain forest. The destruction of karsts at the hands of cement companies, developers and tourists is a problem throughout the region.

But it is particularly acute here, where government regulation is lax and the state of local scientific knowledge fledgling.

“They are threatened, as they are elsewhere, but the difference is that there is almost nothing known about the biodiversity of the hills” in Cambodia, said Tony Whitten, the international regional director for Fauna and Flora International’s Asia-Pacific division, who coedited a book on the subject — “Biodiversity and Cultural Property in the Management of Limestone Resources: Lessons from East Asia.”

Cambodia has almost no botanists and the study of plants in the country came to a standstill from 1970 to 1992 during an extended period of war and unrest punctuated by the trauma of the Khmer Rouge takeover from 1975 to 1979.

The country’s main herbarium is a single room at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. It houses about 12,000 specimens, many of which have not been inventoried and are simply piling up on shelves. They are meant to be kept cool and dry by two air-conditioners, but one air-conditioner is broken and there is no money to fix it.

“You talk about a herbarium in another country and it should be very big, but this is just one room,” said Ith Saveng, who runs the university’s Center for Biodiversity Conservation. “We hope to expand to another room within the next two years.”

Rare plants found in karsts have to be shipped to Vietnam so better-trained scientists can do the precise work of matching species to species.

In Kampot, the scientists were led through some of the more treacherous cave networks by Ken Sam An, a 61-year-old native of a village just below the Phnom Kampong Trach karst. He knows more about these caves than just about anyone else. As a teenager, he watched as the Viet Cong hid in the caves, resulting in retaliatory bombing campaigns by the United States that drove the population to flee. Soon, ultra-Communist rebels swept into the area and he was conscripted into a Khmer Rouge youth unit.

Whatever scientific research apparatus still existed was totally dismantled by the victorious Khmer Rouge government, which declared higher education anathema and sent city dwellers back to the land to work as rice farmers and dam builders. Although Mr. Ken Sam An possesses vast botanical knowledge, he has not attended school since the sixth grade.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, Mr. Ken Sam An spent years working for a limestone quarrying company, but now he serves on a local committee that tries to preserve the karsts, urging local residents to stop stripping them and chopping off rocks to sell.

“I tell them, ‘If you break the mountain, it’s not good for the environment, and if you work in tourism you can come and sell things to the tourists instead of breaking rocks.’”

A far bigger risk is large-scale limestone quarrying by companies producing cement. Kampot (K) Cement, a joint venture between the well-connected local company Khaou Chuly Group and the Thai cement manufacturer Siam Cement, has claim to large karsts in the area. The site is churning out a million tons of cement a year.

Another local company, Chip Mong, formed a partnership with a different Thai firm and started building a $262 million factory in the area last year, with the goal of producing 1.5 million tons a year. This is still not enough to slake Cambodia’s growing thirst for cement, expected to reach five million tons this year.

The cement firms have also spawned a mini-land boom in Kampot, where prices have risen thirtyfold in the last decade, according to locals. In interviews, the inhabitants complained that rocks being blasted off the mountains were falling on their homes and angering the local neak ta, who had to be propitiated with offerings of roast pigs.

Dr. Whitten said he had tried for years, fruitlessly, to determine whether environmental impact assessments had been carried out before cement companies were given permission to dynamite the karsts. The Ministry of Mines and Energy, which is responsible for granting and regulating concessions for limestone quarrying, declined to comment.

Even when environmental assessments are conducted, they often focus on large mammals, overlooking plants and small species that are highly endemic to certain caves. The slimy, squishy invertebrates and strange plants that live in karsts can be a hard sell to donors, who prefer what are known as “charismatic megafauna”— cute, easy-to-anthropomorphize animals like elephants, tigers and dolphins that appeal to the public.

“It takes a botanist to appreciate the charisma of a plant,” Dr. McDonald said.

The karsts his group wants to protect have the advantage of already being a minor tourist attraction, with a Buddhist pagoda sprawling out at their feet, small shrines nestled into the caves and a set of stone steps leading down to an underground pond where monks bathe.

“They are linked together — people come to pray at the pagoda and then they always go to the cave,” Mr. Ken Sam An said. It is also common for him and his neighbors to make offerings to the spirits believed to inhabit the karsts, going to different caves on different holy days. Each one is believed to be the domain of a different neak ta.

Mr. Ken Sam An can rattle off their names as if they are members of his extended family: “There’s the Red Neck spirit, the Eight Heads spirit, the spirit of the 100 Rice Fields, the spirit of the Monk Who Lives in the Jungle, the White Elephant spirit, the Dragon’s Mouth spirit, the Magic Boy spirit, the Reincarnated Grandmother spirit and the Magic Mushroom spirit.”

Altogether, the caves are thought by locals to be chambers in the stomach of a dragon that beached here when an ancient sea receded thousands of years ago — a tale not entirely different from the stories told by geologists and botanists.

“This is what we lose when they take out a mountain,” Dr. McDonald said.

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