Winged wonders of the forest on the wane

Seeds of dipterocarp trees not germinating, likely due to fragmented forests: NUS study
Carolyn Khew Straits Times 7 Apr 17;

Those old enough will remember the fruit of the kapur tree spinning as it falls gently to the ground.

The tree is from the dipterocarp family and four of its members are in danger of disappearing here. The Shorea macroptera and Dipterocarpus kunstleri are listed as internationally critically endangered, while Shorea pauciflora and Dipterocarpus sublamellatus are internationally endangered.

In the first conducted study of dipterocarp fruit production in Singapore, researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that one-third of the seeds produced by four species of dipterocarp trees in Singapore's nature reserves did not germinate.

Wings on the fruit of the dipterocarp, or "two-winged fruit" in Greek, cause it to spin. This helps it to stay in the air longer so it can be carried farther away from its parent.

With a great diversity of leaf forms and some 600 species in the region, dipterocarps can grow up to 80m tall. But many of these forests have diminished over the years.

Dipterocarps, once abundant in Singapore, have also disappeared because of deforestation. Less than 2 per cent of Singapore's original forests remain today.

This has led to fragmented forests and the NUS research suggests that it could be because of this that many of the dipterocarp seeds are not actually viable.

The research was featured together with other dipterocarp studies last month in a special issue in science journal Plant Ecology And Diversity.

"They showed no signs of damage - not eaten by rodents or insects. But they were found not to germinate at all despite repeated visits over three to five months," said Dr Chong Kwek Yan, a senior tutor at NUS' Department of Biological Sciences.

"They may not have been able to initiate germination because of inbreeding."

Conducted from July to August in 2014 following a dry spell a few months before, the study aimed to find out what would happen to seeds following a mass masting event, or mass fruiting.

Researchers set up seed traps, collecting more than 3,000 seeds around the MacRitchie forest and observed if they grew and what kind of predators ate them.

In pre-1800 Singapore, the main primary forest cover, aside from mangrove and freshwater swamp forests, was the lowland dipterocarp forest, said Dr Lena Chan, group director of the National Biodiversity Centre at the National Parks Board (NParks).

However, the primary lowland dipterocarp forest diminished over the years due to timber extraction and clearing of forest for gambier and pepper plantations.

"As dipterocarp trees have a slow natural reproduction and regeneration rate, they require a long period of time before they can become established in any adjacent secondary forest," said Dr Chan.

"Almost all remaining naturally grown dipterocarp trees are restricted to patches of primary forests in the nature reserves."

According to research centre Biodiversity International's website, systematic logging of the largest and most fruitful trees reduces the rate of seed production and increases the risk of inbreeding and diversity loss.

According to NParks, dipterocarps, also known as forest giants, are iconic trees that constitute the backbone of Indo-Malayan rainforests. A long-term plan is needed to conserve Singapore's natural heritage, said Dr Chong. This would involve nurturing seedlings in nurseries, for instance, before replanting them in the forest.

He added: "These forest giants remind me of our place, geographically, in the natural world. If they go extinct in Singapore, then we would have lost an important link with the rest of South-east Asia."

NParks' move to help native dipterocarp trees bloom again
Carolyn Khew Straits Times 7 Apr 17;

The National Parks Board (NParks) has made dipterocarp trees one of its priorities in its species recovery programme, said Dr Lena Chan, group director of NParks' National Biodiversity Centre.

Today, there are more than 24,000 dipterocarp trees across over 170 species (out of 386 species native to the region) planted along Singapore's streetscapes, parks, the Singapore Botanic Gardens and nature reserves.

Of these, nearly 7,000 can be found in the primary forests of Bukit Timah and Central Catchment Nature Reserves, said Dr Chan.

Seeds of various species are collected and propagated in NParks' Native Plant Centre in the Pasir Panjang Nursery.

More than 500 dipterocarp seedlings across 20 species have been propagated at the nursery. Some of these are critically endangered locally, such as Hopea sangal, said Dr Chan.

As part of conservation and education efforts, NParks also established Singapore's first Dipterocarp Arboretum in Yishun Park in 2008, which showcases more than 800 trees across some 70 species.

"Over the years, various species of dipterocarp trees have been introduced to our streetscapes and parks, such as the Southern Ridges' Sembcorp Forest of Giants, Fort Canning Park, Punggol Waterway Park and Woodlands Waterfront Park," said Dr Chan.

"Dipterocarp saplings such as Dipterocarpus caudatus and Dipterocarpus sublamellatus have also been collected from the forest, grown and planted back in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve as part of reforestation efforts."

Next year, visitors can look forward to the Gallop Arboretum in the Learning Forest at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. It will feature some 2,000 dipterocarp trees comprising about 200 species.

Carolyn Khew

Read more!

Enhanced support for farmers welcomed, but concerns linger

Wendy Wong Channel NewsAsia 9 Apr 17;

SINGAPORE: Fish farmer Eric Ng spent more than S$1 million to build an automatic water filtration and recycling system for his marine fish farm two years ago.

Since then, Apollo Aquaworld Group has seen an annual yield of 24 tonnes of fish per pond - six times more than a traditional farm.

It is one of the 200 farms in Singapore which will benefit from the newly enhanced Agriculture Productivity Fund (APF) meant to raise farming productivity.

Previously, the S$63 million APF co-funded investments in technology on a reimbursement basis. But the fund was restructured with effect from Apr 1 so that up to 30 per cent of the approved funding quantum can be disbursed up front to farmers.

"Previously we had to use our own money or cash flow first to pay off everything we built," said Mr Ng. "Then we could get the reimbursement back from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA)."

"But now with the 30 per cent up front, I think it can help a lot of farmers on their cash flow ... I think that will be a great help to the industry."

Under the fund's productivity enhancement grant, the farm received a S$700,000 reimbursement - a move which helped the farm offset the hefty costs associated with shifting to more productive methods of farming.

According to AVA, more than S$6 million has been awarded to 46 farms under the APF.

The enhanced fund was part of a slew of measures unveiled in Parliament last month to help guide the local farming industry raise its productivity and overcome industry challenges.

This included the formation of an industry consultation panel to discuss strategies to enhance resource efficiency and productivity of food farms and the assignment of account managers to the farms, to provide business advice and liaise between agencies on farming-related matters.


While farmers Channel NewsAsia spoke to said they welcomed the enhancements, some of them said they had no plans yet to utilise the enhanced fund due to uncertainty surrounding the Lim Chu Kang farming area.

The Government announced last year that 62 farms in the area would have to move out by end-2019 to make way for the Defence Ministry's new training grounds.

Details of the location and new plot sizes have yet to be announced.

"At this stage, we are really heartened that the Government is looking into the agricultural industry and really want to transform it and propel us to another level," said Jurong Frog Farm director Chelsea Wan.

"But really on the ground, what the farms still need to know is still whether are we here to stay; will we be relevant three years from now and by at the end of 2019, where are we going," she said.

"So to take on the grant, to improve certain aspects of the business, we’re all in conundrum whether we should do that, because of the short lease term we have now," said Ms Wan.

Mr Ng agreed: "I think the main problem now is that we’re not able to utilise these funds currently to build an entire facility on this old plot because we’re moving out in 2019."

In response, an AVA spokesperson said that the Government was in the midst of "extensive land preparation works" for the upcoming sale of agriculture land, which is expected to be announced later this year.

"We will inform all interested parties once the land is ready for tender," she added.

Meanwhile, Ms Wan said she looked forward to when she can utilise the enhanced fund to help offset the costs of building a water treatment recycling system for her farm.

"The Government can take their own time to devise these transformation plans, but for farmers on the ground time is not on our side," she said.

"So the sooner we have got affirmation and more clarity on the industry I think the more and better the farmers will do."

Currently, around 1 per cent of Singapore's land is taken up by farmland, with food farms located in areas such as Lim Chu Kang, Sungei Tengah and Murai, according to AVA.

- CNA/mz

Read more!

Malaysia: Hardy Tioman reefs showing resilience

MENG YEW CHOONG The Star 10 Apr 17;

TIOMAN: Coral reefs at the Tioman island archipelago are showing incredible resilience in the face of warming seas and other threats, a survey by scuba divers found.

Tioman still displayed a total average of 58% live coral cover, with 50% of them hard corals and the rest, soft corals.

This was revealed in this month’s report from Biosphere Expeditions called “Paradise in Peril: Studying & Protecting Reefs within the Tioman Archipelago Marine Protected Area”.

The report, written by Alvin Chelliah of Reef Check Malaysia and Matthias Hammer, editor at Bio­sphere, was based on a survey by scuba divers in August last year.

Also called reef-building corals, hard corals produce a rock-like skele­ton made of the same material as chalk (calcium carbonate), while soft corals produce smaller amounts of calcium carbonate (hence, not as “hard”).

“This is higher than the national average of 46% recorded in 2015 and an improvement on the 52% recorded during the last Biosphere Expeditions survey in 2013.

“Furthermore, coral reefs around Tioman also appeared to be resi­lient to the 2015-16 global bleaching event, with only 4% of the population showing signs of bleaching”, the report said.

The surveys were part of a continuous study that began in 2012.

“Corals which did bleach also showed positive signs of recovery as only 13% of the surface area of colonies were still bleached by August last year and less than 1% of recently killed coral was recorded,” said the authors.

Coral bleaching refers to the loss of symbiotic algae which contri­butes nearly 90% of energy to sustain the coral. These algae live on the coral. The loss of such algae may be triggered by warming seas, among other factors.

Corals that no longer enjoy the support of symbiotic algae will slowly starve, lose their colour pigmentation and die.

While coral bleaching at Tioman does not look too severe, the bad news is that other forms of marine life typically collected for food and the aquarium trade “continue to be either absent, or were recorded in very low numbers throughout all survey sites”, said the report, which also recorded signs of substantial untreated wastewater discharged from land.

“Along with high nutrient content in the water, illegal harvesting of marine life along with increased development on land continue to be the main threats to reefs around Tioman,” said Alvin and Hammer, adding that the “no fishing” ruling there needs to be strictly enforced.

The Tioman archipelago was gazetted as a marine park in 1994. It comes under the Pahang Marine Parks Department.

The report called for better coastal development planning, re­­duc­tion of tourism impacts, as well as better waste and wastewater management systems to ensure the sustainability of the Tioman reefs, which sits within the Coral Triangle – a reef network spanning Indone­sia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste.

This triangle supports the world’s highest diversity of coral species, with over 600 types of reef-building corals, more than 3,000 species of fish, and 75% of all known coral species.

More information is available at and

Organised jointly by Reef Check Malaysia and Biosphere Expedi­tions, the week-long survey in August last year was aimed at collecting data so that the authorities can make informed decisions on the management of the marine park located 40km off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

Read more!

Malaysia: Padi farmers still fearing the worst after bad season

ALLISON LAI The Star 10 Apr 17;

SABAK BERNAM: Four months after padi fields in Sabak Bernam were ravaged by a bacterial disease, farmers here remain unsure about the resilience of the seedlings for the new planting season.

The spectre of the bacterial leaf blight (BLB) disease, which destroyed more than half of the crops during the last padi season in Sekinchan and Sungai Besar, is still hanging over their heads.

Farmer Baharum Muhammad, 55, said he was unsure about the type of padi to grow after losing tens of thousands of ringgit planting the MR284 and CL2 seedlings in the last two seasons.

“It was disastrous both times. The disease attacked the seedlings of the varieties that I planted in most of my 10 lots of field (each lot is about 1.2ha).

“My padi yield went down by 50% even after I managed to stop the infection from spreading to other lots by using pesticide,” he said in an interview.

For now, he admitted to having no faith in the seedlings.

“I need time to make a good decision this time. I can go bankrupt if the same situation happens again,” he said.

Baharum, however, noted that many far­mers have started preparing for the current padi planting season, so he might consider MR297 – a relatively new variety by Mardi that his friends had tried and found it to be resistant against diseases.

Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Azmin Ali visited the place on Friday and handed out RM8.5mil in aid to 8,935 farmers who suffered losses due to the disease last season.

It was reported in December last year that some 4,440ha of padi fields in Sabak Bernam were infected with BLB, which dried up the leaves and killed the plants.

The BLB infection, which recurred after the last one that happened during the second harvest season in 2013, was said to be the worst in 30 years in Sekinchan.

The crops were slashed by almost 50% to 70% following the infection, with more than 90% of the 1,296ha of padi fields affected.

Losses were estimated to be more than RM5mil as most of the affected farmers had planted the MR284 seedlings then.

They also cultivated other strains such as MR220, MR219 and MR263. But all of them, including MR284, were not resilient varieties especially against BLB.

Zulkifli Mohd Ramli, 45, who has been farming for 14 years on 10 leased lots in Parit 3, said that even seedlings that were certified by the Agricultural Department could still face similar problems.

“The authorities must ensure that their research and development of new seedlings are comprehensive with actual trials because large scale padi planting is exposed to many exterior threats that could affect the yield.

“More should be done to ensure the seedlings are not prone to diseases before they are made available to farmers,” he said.

Zulkifli, whose yield reduced by 60% and suffered losses of over RM40,000 in the last season, said that seedling suppliers were also responsible in checking the product’s shelf life and storage conditions.

“Old or expired seedlings are prone to have problems, while proper storage of seedlings ensures they are not spoiled easily,” he added.

Romli Parmin, 59, from Parit 1 Timur, shared the same view, saying that more checks and tests were needed because far­mers could not face losses anymore.

“I planted MR284 on half of my lots back then. It was terrible. I only managed to save 50% of the plants with an organic pesticide.

“Luckily I also have other varieties planted, such as MR220 and MR297,” he said, adding that he was going for MR297 in the current season.

Read more!

Rare one-horned rhino killed by poachers in Nepal

Channel NewsAsia 9 Apr 17;

KATHMANDU: Poachers have shot dead a one-horned rhinoceros at a national wildlife park in Nepal, officials said Sunday (Apr 9), spotlighting the threat faced by the rare animals.

Officials on Saturday found the male rhino with its horn gouged out in Chitwan National Park, the country's biggest rhino conservation area.

"We performed a post-mortem and found that it had been hit by a bullet on its head," the park's spokesman Nurendra Aryal told AFP.

Aryal said a team had been set up to investigate the incident and security had been tightened at the district borders.

In September last year a rhino died weeks after poachers shot it in the same park, the first of the rare animals to be killed in the country in over two years.

Thousands of one-horned rhinos once roamed the plains of Nepal, but their numbers have plunged over the past century due to poaching and human encroachment on their habitat.

The population decline was particularly dramatic during Nepal's 1996-2006 civil war, when soldiers on anti-poaching duties were redeployed to fight the Maoist guerrilla insurgency.

But the country has since made rapid progress in combating the poachers who kill the animals for their prized horns, drawing praise from conservation groups and activists.

The horns fetch huge prices in some Asian countries where they are used for medicines and jewellery.

Nepal is home to about 645 rhinos, out of which about 600 live in Chitwan National Park.

The park is in the process of relocating five rhinos to another conservation area in far-west Nepal to boost their population.

Shant Raj Jnawali, a rhino expert at WWF, said the latest death highlighted the vulnerability of the animals despite anti-poaching efforts from the community, park wardens and army.

"We hope that the investigation will help us devise new strategies to strengthen protection for these animals," Jnawali said.

Rhino poaching carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail and a 100,000-rupee (US$1,000) fine.

- AFP/mz

Read more!

Great Barrier Reef at 'terminal stage': scientists despair at latest coral bleaching data

‘Last year was bad enough, this is a disaster,’ says one expert as Australia Research Council finds fresh damage across 8,000km
Christopher Knaus and Nick Evershed The Guardian 10 Apr 17;

Back-to-back severe bleaching events have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found.

The findings have caused alarm among scientists, who say the proximity of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events is unprecedented for the reef, and will give damaged coral little chance to recover.

Scientists with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies last week completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure, scoring bleaching at 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km.

The results show the two consecutive mass bleaching events have affected a 1,500km stretch, leaving only the reef’s southern third unscathed.

Where last year’s bleaching was concentrated in the reef’s northern third, the 2017 event spread further south, and was most intense in the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef. This year’s mass bleaching, second in severity only to 2016, has occurred even in the absence of an El Niño event.

Mass bleaching – a phenomenon caused by global warming-induced rises to sea surface temperatures – has occurred on the reef four times in recorded history.

Prof Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, said the length of time coral needed to recover – about 10 years for fast-growing types – raised serious concerns about the increasing frequency of mass bleaching events.

“The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery,” Hughes told the Guardian. “It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.”

Last year, in the worst-affected areas to the reef’s north, roughly two-thirds of shallow-water corals were lost.

Hughes has warned Australia now faces a closing window to save the reef by taking decisive action on climate change.

The 2017 bleaching is likely to be compounded by other stresses on the reef, including the destructive crown-of-thorns starfish and poor water quality. The category-four tropical cyclone Debbie came too late and too far south for its cooling effect to alleviate bleaching.

But Hughes said its slow movement across the reef was likely to have caused destruction to coral along a path up to 100km wide. “It added to the woes of the bleaching. It came too late to stop the bleaching, and it came to the wrong place,” he said.

The University of Technology Sydney’s lead reef researcher, marine biologist David Suggett, said that to properly recover, affected reefs needed to be connected to those left untouched by bleaching.

He said Hughes’ survey results showed such connectivity was in jeopardy. “It’s that connection ultimately that will drive the rate and extent of recovery,” Suggett said. “So if bleaching events are moving around the [Great Barrier Reef] system on an annual basis, it does really undermine any potential resilience through connectivity between neighbouring reefs.”

Some reef scientists are now becoming despondent. Water quality expert, Jon Brodie, told the Guardian the reef was now in a “terminal stage”. Brodie has devoted much of his life to improving water quality on the reef, one of a suite of measures used to stop bleaching.

He said measures to improve water quality, which were a central tenet of the Australian government’s rescue effort, were failing.

“We’ve given up. It’s been my life managing water quality, we’ve failed,” Brodie said. “Even though we’ve spent a lot of money, we’ve had no success.”

Brodie used strong language to describe the threats to the reef in 2017. He said the compounding effect of back-to-back bleaching, Cyclone Debbie, and run-off from nearby catchments should not be understated.

“Last year was bad enough, this year is a disaster year,” Brodie said. “The federal government is doing nothing really, and the current programs, the water quality management is having very limited success. It’s unsuccessful.”

Others remain optimistic, out of necessity. Jon Day was a director of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority for 16 years until retiring in 2014.

Day, whose expertise lies in protected area planning and management, said the federal government’s approach to protecting the reef was sorely lacking. He said it was taking too relaxed an approach to fishing, run-off and pollution from farming, and the dumping of maintenance dredge spoil.

The government was far short of the $8.2bn investment needed to meet water quality targets, he said, and Australia was on track to fail its short-term 2018 water quality targets, let alone achieve more ambitious long-term goals.

“You’ve got to be optimistic, I think we have to be,” Day said. “But every moment we waste, and every dollar we waste, isn’t helping the issue. We’ve been denying it for so long, and now we’re starting to accept it. But we’re spending insufficient amounts addressing the problem.”

The Queensland tourism industry raised questions about the reliability of the survey, saying scientists had previously made exaggerated claims about mortality rates and bleaching.

“There is no doubt that we have had a significant bleaching event off Cairns this time around,” said Col McKenzie, of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators.

“The far north probably did a little bit better, Port Douglas to Townsille has seen some significant bleaching,” he said. “Fortunately we haven’t seen much mortality at this time, and fortunately the temperatures have fallen.”

McKenzie said more money needed to be invested in water quality measures, and criticised what he saw as a piecemeal and uncoordinated approach to water quality projects up and down the coast.

Great Barrier Reef: Two-thirds damaged in 'unprecedented' bleaching
BBC News 10 Apr 17;

Unprecedented coral bleaching in consecutive years has damaged two-thirds of Australia's Great Barrier Reef, aerial surveys have shown.
The bleaching - or loss of algae - affects a 1,500km (932 miles) area of the reef, according to scientists.

The latest damage is concentrated in the middle section, whereas last year's bleaching hit mainly the north.

Experts fear the proximity of the two events will give damaged coral little chance to recover.

Prof Terry Hughes, from James Cook University, said governments must urgently address climate change.

"Since 1998, we have seen four of these events and the gap between them has varied substantially, but this is the shortest gap we have seen," Prof Hughes told the BBC.

"The sooner we take action on global greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from fossil fuels to renewables, the better."

Almost 800 coral reefs over an 8,000km area were assessed in the surveys by the Australian Research Council's Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies.

The findings showed only the southern section was relatively unscathed.

Researcher Dr James Kerry said the damage was unprecedented.

"The central third this year, I would say, was as severe in terms of bleaching as what we saw as the northern third last year," he told the BBC.
"For those reefs that were hit two years in a row, it's effectively a double whammy. They have had no chance to recover from last year's events."

What causes coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is caused by rising water temperatures resulting from two natural warm currents.

It is exacerbated by man-made climate change, as the oceans are absorbing about 93% of the increase in the Earth's heat.

Bleaching happens when corals under stress drive out the algae known as zooxanthellae that give them colour.

If normal conditions return, the corals can recover, but it can take decades, and if the stress continues the corals can die.

The latest damage happened without the assistance of El Niño, a weather pattern previously associated with bleaching events.

The reef - a vast collection of thousands of smaller coral reefs stretching from the northern tip of Queensland to the state's southern city of Bundaberg - was given World Heritage status in 1981.

The UN says it is the "most biodiverse" of all the World Heritage sites, and of "enormous scientific and intrinsic importance".

Read more!