Best of our wild blogs: 16 Feb 17

Intertidal Walk at Big Sisters Island
The Hantu Bloggers

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Culling of chickens: Base animal management policies on science

The outcry over the Sin Ming chicken culling shows the need for a more humane, scientific approach to solving human-wildlife conflicts
Audrey Tan The Straits Times 16 Feb 17;

When the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) last month culled 24 free-ranging chickens in Sin Ming after receiving 20 complaints about noise, some people were up in arms.

They questioned the need to kill the birds. Indeed, The Straits Times received eight letters to its Forum page on the topic, with all not in favour of the culling.

It did not help that AVA had offered different explanations for its actions.

The AVA last month told the media that it culled the birds to address concerns from residents who had complained about noise, and that the chickens were euthanised due to the lack of relocation options in land-scarce Singapore.

It also claimed that "the free-ranging chickens sometimes seen on mainland Singapore are not red junglefowl".

Then, on Monday, AVA director-general Yap Him Hoo wrote in a Forum page letter that the chickens were culled because of "public health and safety" due to the bird flu risk. He added that "various media reports may have given the impression that AVA is taking action solely because of complaints of noise".

This did not help assuage public criticism of the AVA, especially in social media.

The ensuing outcry over the culling of the Sin Ming chickens is just the latest incident in the saga of wildlife conflicting with humans.

In this case, the AVA was viewed as being too quick to cull, and then confused matters by offering different justifications - first, noise nuisance, and then, bird flu risks.

In response, AVA said its priority in its approach to managing wild animal populations is to ensure that public health and safety are not compromised.

But as Associate Professor Donald Low from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said, the AVA should have quantified the extent of the bird flu risk.

"It cannot be the case that even the remotest possibility of a bird flu outbreak justifies mass culling," he added. "After all, chickens are not the only species that can be infected with bird flu." A cost-benefit analysis should have been done before the authorities decide to cull the chickens, he said.

With culling now in the spotlight, some have argued there is a need for a new model of animal management in Singapore that does not make it the easy option.


What would make a good animal management model? Firstly, it needs to be backed by science.

Singapore needs more scientific studies of its animal and wildlife populations. In this case, it was not clear if AVA or any other animal experts really know if the chickens roaming around Singapore are domesticated ones, or whether some are actually the endangered red junglefowl. There is also no census of the birds.

Singapore's human-wildlife conflict has centred on a few species in recent years, including monkeys and wild boars. Once species are identified, there can be more focused efforts to study these animals and their habitats and patterns of behaviour so as to minimise conflict with humans.

This was the case for long-tailed macaques. In an ongoing study, the National Parks Board (NParks) is tracking the range and movement of the long-tailed macaques by tagging them with GPS collars.

A finding was that monkeys often became a nuisance when they were fed by the public.

AVA, too, has embarked on studies and trials to better understand and manage wildlife issues. For instance, it has conducted trials on the effectiveness of bird contraceptives in managing the pigeon population.

This is encouraging. But scientific studies take time, and the authorities may not have the luxury of doing so when faced with problems that threaten public health, such as when rats running around Bukit Batok hit the headlines. But unlike the Bukit Batok case, the possibility of the Sin Ming birds posing a public health risk was not immediately obvious.

Culling ethics aside, AVA should have quantified the risk of bird flu and made it public, so people are not unduly worried about catching the virus from the free-ranging poultry or other birds.

Science-backed alternatives are also practised overseas, such as in Australia where culling of sharks has drawn public outcry. But after a seven-year monitoring programme, the authorities have rolled out an app that allows beach-goers to track tagged sharks in real time, and move out of their way.


Second, a good animal management model requires dialogue with stakeholders.

Dialogue can offer solutions that are kinder to animals than culling and which get to the root of the problem.

Mr Louis Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC and chief executive of wildlife group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), noted that, most of the time, animals move to areas where food is available.

This was the case for the wild boars at Pasir Ris, where at least one resident was feeding them.

The rats at Bukit Batok ate food for stray dogs left by feeders.

The long-tailed macaques ventured into condominiums bordering the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to rummage for food in the bins. It may be the case for the free-ranging "chickens" too, said Mr N. Sivasothi, a senior lecturer with the biological sciences department at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

"When we visited some of the areas where the birds were seen, we noticed some residents feeding them," he added.

Perhaps by simply encouraging residents to stop feeding the birds, this could keep the numbers of chickens down - obliterating the need to cull.

AVA said it works with the community to understand concerns, before assessing the situation and available information to determine the best approach.

But going by the social media backlash, if it did so, it did not take into account, or realise, the possible impact on sections of the wider community.

Indeed, culling is an established method of controlling animal populations, not just in Singapore. In the Yellowstone National Park in the United States, for example, bison are culled to keep their numbers under control. But it was not done without protest. Last year, close to 135,000 people signed an online petition to stop the cull.


While culling remains an option, there are other methods that can reduce conflict with humans.

Monkey researcher Sabrina Jabbar in 2014 came up with a way to keep macaques away from condominiums bordering the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, through a novel "herding" method carried out by the estate's security guards.

The guard taps a stick, an umbrella or net on the ground assertively to deter the monkeys from entering the premises. And because of the principle of negative reinforcement, the monkeys avoid entering these areas.

Since this started in Springdale Condominium in 2014, the number of monkeys entering the estate has dropped. In the past, they used to come in every day, said a condo management spokesman. Now, they are seen only twice or thrice a month. The spokesman added: "In 2014, the number of monkeys in a group entering Springdale was about 20 to 40. To date, the group has been reduced to less than 10."

As for stray dogs, one scheme to sterilise them to prevent them from breeding has proven successful.

In 2014, state industrial landlord JTC worked with animal welfare groups, including SOSD, Acres, Action for Singapore Dogs, and Noah's Ark Cares to roll out a trap-neuter-release scheme on Jurong Island.

The place was selected for the pilot as it is a controlled environment where other stray dogs cannot get in or out. The scheme has helped in the sense that the population is now stable, with fewer litters of puppies now, said SOSD president Siew Tuck Wah.

Another option is the relocation and rehoming of strays, which the Government has helped promote with its adoption of a scheme allowing Housing Board flat owners to take in stray dogs.

Under Project Adore, dogs up to 15kg in weight and 50cm in height - about the size of a cocker spaniel - can now be kept in HDB flats. Previously, only purebred toy breeds like shih tzus and miniature schnauzers were allowed.


Ultimately, key to managing human-wildlife conflict is tolerance and a more rigorous scientific basis to form decisions on what actions to take.

Nature groups and some government agencies are trying to nurture an appreciation for nature through various initiatives, with NParks, for example, conducting free guided tours to Singapore's nature areas.

The authorities should also take a measured approach to complaints about animals, and base animal management policies on science.

As ecology consultant Ong Say Lin, who studied the conflict between wild boars and humans in 2008, noted: "If the authorities continue to cull animals based on complaints without a robust scientific approach, what kind of a society would we be encouraging? Is there no space for tolerance, even when appreciation is missing?"

After all, animal nuisance complaints will always arise. The Asian koel's loud calls, for example, irk some residents. Wild boar incursions into parks, roads and residential areas pose safety concerns. Another issue is monkeys that enter homes to forage for food. Some animals could also pose public health threats: bird flu from fowl, rabies from dogs.

But reasonable citizens will not expect or want the authorities to cull all animals that pose a nuisance. Tolerance is important.

At the same time, AVA and other government authorities need to make it clear that they have a sound basis for deciding on their response to such complaints.

These should also be explained to the public, so all parties involved understand and can come to accept the need for action - even if it includes culling.

Experts don’t recommend culling of wild birds

The letter “Free-roaming chickens culled for public health reasons, not noise” (Feb 14) stated that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority took action owing to public health concerns, specifically over the spread of avian influenza to humans.

It cited a 2004 report by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health to justify its action.

I read the report, and contrary to the AVA’s assertion, the report does not claim that wild or “free-roaming” fowl should be culled as part of biosecurity measures and instead recommends culling for poultry kept under farmed conditions.

A more recent update on the FAO website states that culling of wild bird populations is not recommended, as it may disperse infected birds and does little to reduce the risk of transmission to commercial poultry.

Humans are more likely to come into direct contact with chickens and their faeces under farmed conditions than they are with free-roaming birds.

By not making this important distinction, the AVA runs the risk of misinforming the public about the risks of bird flu.

The fowl in Sin Ming remain relatively wild and are unlikely to come into direct contact with humans despite their proximity.

The FAO report cited by the AVA also recommends vaccination as a control measure. Was this considered?

Bird shops are more likely to be fertile grounds for the transmission of bird flu, owing to the risk of direct human contact with birds and their faeces.

Yet, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society recently found that about half of the licensed shops it surveyed had not housed birds in good conditions (“14 out of 27 pet bird shops flouted licensing conditions: AVA”; Nov 4, online).

This increases the risk of viruses being transmitted to humans.

In the light of the AVA’s lax approach towards bird shops and the relatively low risk posed by free-roaming, wild fowl, why then were the Sin Ming chickens targeted for culling?

I hope that future decisions will be based on scientific evidence, instead of knee-jerk reactions.

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Malaysia: Hotter days and thunderstorms predicted

The Star 16 Feb 17;

PETALING JAYA: Malaysians must brace for weather extremes in the next few months – it’s going to be hotter than usual and there will be thunderstorms in the afternoons.

The Malaysian Meteorological Department (MetMalaysia) said the downpours should help cool things down a bit.

However, that’s not good news for many commuters who know that the rain always means traffic snarls and travel delays, especially if it comes down during rush hour.

A MetMalaysia spokesman said Malaysians needn’t fear a heatwave like that in some parts of Australia now.

The extremely hot summer in that country has seen forest fires and power outages as a result.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Climatology and Oceanography specialist Prof Fredolin Tangang explained that the weather systems in Australia and Malaysia were different.

“No need to worry,” he added.

According to MetMalaysia, the sun will move from south to north next month, passing over the equator, and will bring more heat to this region.

Malaysia will be closer to the sun in that period but the inter-monsoon period arrives in April bringing thunderstorms and downpours, said the spokesman.

Prof Fredolin said there would be increased solar radiation when the sun is directly above the equator in mid-March, but how hot the days will be depends on weather conditions.

“Cloudy skies or overcast conditions will keep much of the solar radiation from the ground,” he said.

Meanwhile, vegetable farmers will start planting several types of seasonal crops to take advantage of the warmer weather.

Cameron Highlands Vegetable Growers Association secretary-general Chay Ee Mong said production was slow during the wet season and farmers had to opt for rooftop farming to meet demand.

With warm weather expected, they will take the opportunity to boost supplies of cabbage, tomato and green beans.

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Indonesia: WWF Indonesia Calls for Conservation of Birds-of-Paradise

Ratri M. Siniwi Jakarta Globe 15 Feb 17;

Jakarta. The World Wildlife Fund Indonesia has called for the conservation of birds-of-paradise, especially in Papua.

Locally known as cendrawasih, the bird species is synonymous with the island but it has fallen prey to illegal trade, poaching and taxidermy.

The environmental organization believes this is mainly due to a lack of awareness.

"Since 2013, the WWF has conducted a survey of habitat and species population in Papua, and we found that there are more than 40 types of birds in the paradise species," WWF Indonesia Northern New Guinea leader Piter Roki Aloisius said in a statement.

"This means that conservation efforts are necessary, and one of the ways could be with ecotourism and educational activities," he added.

Piter included activities such as watching the birds in their natural habitat, but this can only be done if the forests are well preserved.

The birds are part of the cultural heritage of indigenous communities in Papua, who preserve the forests and the birds' natural habitat.

However, WWF Indonesia believes that it is the greater responsibility of all Indonesians, especially in the eastern part of the archipelago.

"We need to provide an understanding through a local context in Papua about [bird] conservation, and one of the ways is with an educational approach," Piter said.

He added that this would be more effective, as future generations will be able to see the avian paradise of Papua, compared to just having pictures or stories.

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Scientists have just detected a major change to the Earth’s oceans linked to a warming climate

Chris Mooney The Washington Post 15 Feb 17;

A large research synthesis, published in one of the world’s most influential scientific journals, has detected a decline in the amount of dissolved oxygen in oceans around the world — a long-predicted result of climate change that could have severe consequences for marine organisms if it continues.

The paper, published Wednesday in the journal Nature by oceanographer Sunke Schmidtko and two colleagues from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, found a decline of more than 2 percent in ocean oxygen content worldwide between 1960 and 2010. The loss, however, showed up in some ocean basins more than others. The largest overall volume of oxygen was lost in the largest ocean — the Pacific — but as a percentage, the decline was sharpest in the Arctic Ocean, a region facing Earth’s most stark climate change.

The loss of ocean oxygen “has been assumed from models, and there have been lots of regional analysis that have shown local decline, but it has never been shown on the global scale, and never for the deep ocean,” said Schmidtko, who conducted the research with Lothar Stramma and Martin Visbeck, also of GEOMAR.

Ocean oxygen is vital to marine organisms, but also very delicate — unlike in the atmosphere, where gases mix together thoroughly, in the ocean that is far harder to accomplish, Schmidtko explained. Moreover, he added, just 1 percent of all the Earth’s available oxygen mixes into the ocean; the vast majority remains in the air.

Climate change models predict the oceans will lose oxygen because of several factors. Most obvious is simply that warmer water holds less dissolved gases, including oxygen. “It’s the same reason we keep our sparkling drinks pretty cold,” Schmidtko said.

But another factor is the growing stratification of ocean waters. Oxygen enters the ocean at its surface, from the atmosphere and from the photosynthetic activity of marine microorganisms. But as that upper layer warms up, the oxygen-rich waters are less likely to mix down into cooler layers of the ocean because the warm waters are less dense and do not sink as readily.

“When the upper ocean warms, less water gets down deep, and so therefore, the oxygen supply to the deep ocean is shut down or significantly reduced,” Schmidtko said.

The new study represents a synthesis of literally “millions” of separate ocean measurements over time, according to GEOMAR. The authors then used interpolation techniques for areas of the ocean where they lacked measurements.

The resulting study attributes less than 15 percent of the total oxygen loss to sheer warmer temperatures, which create less solubility. The rest was attributed to other factors, such as a lack of mixing.

Matthew Long, an oceanographer from the National Center for Atmospheric Research who has published on ocean oxygen loss, said he considers the new results “robust” and a “major advance in synthesizing observations to examine oxygen trends on a global scale.”

Long was not involved in the current work, but his research had previously demonstrated that ocean oxygen loss was expected to occur and that it should soon be possible to demonstrate that in the real world through measurements, despite the complexities involved in studying the global ocean and deducing trends about it.

That’s just what the new study has done.

“Natural variations have obscured our ability to definitively detect this signal in observations,” Long said in an email. “In this study, however, Schmidtko et al. synthesize all available observations to show a global-scale decline in oxygen that conforms to the patterns we expect from human-driven climate warming. They do not make a definitive attribution statement, but the data are consistent with and strongly suggestive of human-driven warming as a root cause of the oxygen decline.

“It is alarming to see this signal begin to emerge clearly in the observational data,” he added.

“Schmidtko and colleagues’ findings should ring yet more alarm bells about the consequences of global warming,” added Denis Gilbert, a researcher with the Maurice Lamontagne Institute at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Quebec, in an accompanying commentary on the study also published in Nature.

Because oxygen in the global ocean is not evenly distributed, the 2 percent overall decline means there is a much larger decline in some areas of the ocean than others.

Moreover, the ocean already contains so-called oxygen minimum zones, generally found in the middle depths. The great fear is that their expansion upward, into habitats where fish and other organism thrive, will reduce the available habitat for marine organisms.

In shallower waters, meanwhile, the development of ocean “hypoxic” areas, or so-called “dead zones,” may also be influenced in part by declining oxygen content overall.

On top of all of that, declining ocean oxygen can also worsen global warming in a feedback loop. In or near low oxygen areas of the oceans, microorganisms tend to produce nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, Gilbert writes. Thus the new study “implies that production rates and efflux to the atmosphere of nitrous oxide … will probably have increased.”

The new study underscores once again that some of the most profound consequences of climate change are occurring in the oceans, rather than on land. In recent years, incursions of warm ocean water have caused large die-offs of coral reefs, and in some cases, kelp forests as well. Meanwhile, warmer oceans have also begun to destabilize glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica, and as they melt, these glaciers freshen the ocean waters and potentially change the nature of their circulation.

When it comes to ocean deoxygenation, as climate change continues, this trend should also increase — studies suggest a loss of up to 7 percent of the ocean’s oxygen by 2100. At the end of the current paper, the researchers are blunt about the consequences of a continuing loss of oceanic oxygen.

“Far-reaching implications for marine ecosystems and fisheries can be expected,” they write.

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