Best of our wild blogs: 29 Apr 17

Seagrassy East Coast Park is alive
wild shores of singapore

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This Singapore crab is not for eating

Just a few hundred J. singaporensis remain, so species has its own national protection plan
Lin Yangchen The Straits Times 28 Apr 17;

A drab brown crab looking as monotonous as the sand around it - apart from its faintly striped legs - is not something you would suspect to be of national importance.

But Johora singaporensis, the Singapore freshwater crab, has been given its very own national action plan of protection, for it is truly, uniquely Singaporean and is not found anywhere else in the world.

Its abodes in rocky, crystal-clear freshwater streams in the forested hills of Singapore are so critical that the National Parks Board (NParks) safeguards information on the locations as if it were a state secret.

Scientists estimate that only a few hundred mature individuals remain in the wild. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers it critically endangered and among the 100 most threatened species worldwide.

No bigger than a USB flash drive, it feeds on plants and animals dead or alive, and helps recycle nutrients in the aquatic ecosystem.

Despite its small size, Singapore is teeming with a large variety of animal and plant species. But conserving them is an ongoing challenge. In this five-part weekly series done in conjunction with Biodiversity Week that starts on May 20, The Straits Times highlights several of the species which have been saved from the brink of extinction. Today, in the first of this series, we look at the Singapore freshwater crab.

Assistant Professor Darren Yeo, from the National University of Singapore's (NUS') department of biological sciences, said the species originated about five million years ago when a population of crabs was geographically isolated from similar populations elsewhere and evolved into J. singaporensis.

The species was officially described and named in 1986 by NUS' Professor Peter Ng, who later taught Prof Yeo when he was an undergrad.

Three freshwater crab species are found only in Singapore, but the other two have less stringent habitat requirements or are found in better-protected areas like the Nee Soon Swamp Forest, said Prof Yeo.

He remembers the first time he saw the crab in the wild, while he was an undergraduate helping NParks with a survey of freshwater streams in the mid-1990s.

Turning over rocks and leaves in the water, he spotted the elusive creature. "I said to myself: 'Oh, this is cool; this is the thing that my professor described.' And then it went back into the water," he said.

In 2008, researchers discovered that J. singaporensis had disappeared from Jungle Fall Valley in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (BTNR), where it was originally found by Prof Ng.

NUS biological sciences lecturer N. Sivasothi, one of the researchers who made the discovery, said: "It was the start of a realisation that the environment had changed."

He and his colleagues then uncovered a report that had previous measurements of the water at the stream, and found that the water had increased in acidity. The reason for this remains a mystery, as other streams in the reserve appear to be unaffected.

Meanwhile, the crab clings to a tenuous existence in a handful of other freshwater streams in BTNR, Bukit Batok and Bukit Gombak.

The episode motivated Mr Sivasothi to enrol some of his undergraduate students in project work to better understand the characteristics of freshwater streams here.

"I tell the students that we have a national responsibility," he said.

In 2014, researchers and officers from NParks, NUS, Wildlife Reserves Singapore, IUCN, other government agencies and non-governmental organisations met to form a conservation strategy for the crab.

A year or two later, some of the crabs were translocated to a stream with suitable conditions where they had not been found before.

Today, the crabs seem to be thriving there. The researchers found that some had shed and renewed their exoskeletons - a sign that they had grown bigger.

NParks is working with its partners on a population enhancement and monitoring programme, including captive breeding.

Conservationists say the crab can be a national icon. For a start, it was pure luck that the most vulnerable of the three crabs found only in Singapore was named after the country. This has helped elevate its status, said Prof Yeo.

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Conservationist Lena Chan: Singapore’s very own ‘mother nature’ at work

Conservationist Lena Chan leads fight to preserve natural heritage
Lin Yangchen The Straits Times 28 Apr 17;

Over the past decade, Singapore has progressed by leaps and bounds in preserving its natural heritage despite the ever-present pressure of urban development.

And one woman especially has been toiling behind the scenes, whipping up the collective resolve to make sure that the birds and trees live to see tomorrow.

With her luxuriant grey hair, Dr Lena Chan could well be Singapore's very own "mother nature".

"It didn't happen overnight," said the group director of the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC), a branch of the National Parks Board (NParks). She met The Straits Times under her favourite tree at the Botanic Gardens, a Jelawai Jaha that soars 50m into the sky, supported by enormous buttresses.

Biodiversity conservation efforts went into high gear here back in 2009, when NBC formulated Singapore's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) to fulfil the country's obligation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

With Dr Chan at the helm, NBC has become the nerve centre for coordinating nationwide conservation efforts, such as the planting of trees that provide a multi-layered canopy of leaves similar to that found in a pristine tropical rainforest.

These efforts complement the agency's species recovery programme, which has identified 46 plant and animal species that are rare or unique to Singapore, such as the secretive, tree-dwelling Raffles' Banded Langur, which relies on high-quality forest habitat.

Dr Chan - who formulated nature conservation strategies for various Malaysian state governments during the 1980s as part of her work for the World Wide Fund for Nature - also underscores the importance of extending conservation efforts beyond NParks-controlled areas, since nature knows no administrative boundaries.

NParks has worked with agencies, from the Singapore Tourism Board to the Ministry of Defence to national water agency PUB, among many others.

As an example, Dr Chan cited the Sisters' Islands Marine Park, a project announced in 2014 to protect marine biodiversity here.

"When we commit to something like that, it's a whole-of-government commitment," she said.

NParks is expanding efforts to get the public psyched up about conservation too. For example, almost 100 schools have signed up for its Greening Schools for Biodiversity programme, which helps students conduct wildlife surveys and grow biodiversity-enhancing plants.

Many of these initiatives are part of NParks' Nature Conservation Masterplan (NCMP) of 2015, which lays out the conservation road map until 2020, as the NBSAP is put into action.

Dr Chan's legacy will live on too, in a little spider that makes its home on Bukit Timah Hill. Scientists named it after her - Singaporemma lenachanae.

The brown critter is tiny, only about 1mm in size. Hardly anything is known about it.

But it could be a crucial link in the web of nature, and Dr Chan believes that people must continue to protect these essential components of a healthy environment.

In her words, "there will always be more to do".

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Bukit Timah’s secret kampung, hidden in a forest

In this upscale district, where landed houses outnumber HDB flats, lies the little-known remnants of its kampung past, hidden by time and nature. On The Red Dot uncovers its secrets.
Desmond Ng and Trinh Hoang Ly Channel NewsAsia 28 Apr 17;

SINGAPORE: The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve abounds with dense vegetation, a variety of forest animals, noisy insects - and the ruins of an old Chinese kampung so well-hidden that few know it exists.

Flanked by thick foliage, this piece of land just behind Hindhede Drive contains the remaining structures of several Chinese kampung houses, with remnants of a well, a bathroom stall, a kitchen and a storage area still standing.

It has so far eluded many of the joggers, nature lovers and families who frequent this nature reserve.

Mr Sani Abdul Rahim, whose maternal grandparents used to live in the area, said: “Maybe (the authorities) can put a sign to indicate that there was a village here. Many people who trek in this area may see the structure, but they don’t know the history of it.”

Mr Sani, 54, spent much of his childhood in the 1960s and 1970s roaming the Bukit Timah area.

Bukit is Malay for "hill" while the name ‘"Timah" is believed to have originated from a corruption of the name of the Temak tree which grows in the area. The nature reserve, which is the largest primary rainforest in Singapore, was also believed to be infested with tigers in the early 1800s.

Mr Sani remembers that the hidden settlement area used to be the site of a Malay and a Chinese kampung, but only remnants of the latter remain today.

The area is just a five-minute walk from the visitor centre off Hindhede Drive. It can be accessed via some crumbling granite steps.

A sign at the start of a trail states “Kampung trail”, but there are no markings on the map at the visitor centre as to where these remnants are.

Mr Sani, who is with the Temasek Rural Exploring Enthusiasts, told the programme On The Red Dot that the group discovered the ruins a few years ago. They occasionally conduct free walking tours to the site.

This freelance photographer pointed to some of the remaining structures, and described how back then, the lower part of the house walls was made of concrete to prevent snakes and other animals from sneaking in.

The rest of the walls would be made of wood as it was abundant and cheaper to obtain.

A cooking stove belonging to a family can still be found half-covered in creepers. The wood used for cooking was usually stored in the crevices under the stove, said Mr Sani.


Also surviving are the brick structures of a common toilet, where human waste was collected in a galvanised metal bucket. Because of the smell, these toilets were usually located a distance from the main house.

Mr Sani recalled how he and his friends would run away whenever they saw the night-soil collectors coming. These men had the unenviable task of taking the away the human waste to plantations on the city’s outskirts, balancing the stinking buckets on bamboo poles slung over their backs.

“We would run because of the smell. And the way those people carried the buckets was very funny - we would laugh and cover our mouths,” he said.

More fond memories were created playing along a stream by the kampung. It was where the villagers showered, did their laundry and collected water.

“For us, this was our favourite location to play with our boats,” Mr Sani said.

Watch the full episode on Bukit Timah here. Catch That’s My Backyard - On The Red Dot, on Fridays, 9.30pm on Mediacorp Channel 5.

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Singapore showcases response capabilities at multi-agency chemical spill exercise

MPA News Release 28 Apr 17;

To test and demonstrate Singapore’s readiness to tackle oil and chemical spills, a multi-agency joint chemical spill exercise was conducted today. Organised by the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) the exercise took place at the conclusion of the 10th International Chemical and Oil Pollution Conference & Exhibition (ICOPCE), held in conjunction with the Singapore Maritime Week 2017.

2 ChemSpill 2017 comprised a tabletop management exercise at MPA's Port Operations Control Centre Vista and a full scale chemical and oil spill response equipment deployment. A total of 150 personnel from 25 agencies participated in the table top exercise and seaward exercise, located along Raffles Reserved Anchorage. (See Annex A for list of participating agencies)

3 ChemSpill 2017 simulated a collision between a fully laden chemical tanker and a bunker barge off Raffles Reserved Anchorage. The former sustained severe damage, resulting in the spillage of 600 tonnes of Cyclohexane, a type of chemical used as industrial solvent and paint or varnish remover. Two crew members on-board the tanker were found unconscious and required immediate evacuation for medical treatment.

4 The exercise included responses to combat chemical pollution and test multi-agency responsiveness and co-operation.

5 Spill response teams deployed chemical protective gears, gas detectors, chemical containment booms, damage control equipment to seal leaks, and diving equipment for underwater damage assessments.

6 Mr Andrew Tan, Chief Executive of MPA, said, "As one of the busiest ports in the world and leading bunkering port, the ability to respond to any maritime incident swiftly, including chemical and oil spill is critical. Good coordination across various agencies is essential. Today’s multi-agency exercise is a good opportunity for us to hone our response strategies as well as share best practices. We are pleased to have ExxonMobil Asia Pacific Pte Ltd and Chembulk Tankers supporting today’s exercise. We look forward to working with others to raise the overall level of safety in our waters.”

7 Some 40 ICOPCE delegates from the international shipping, oil and gas sectors were present to observe the exercise.

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Temperature-boosting El Niño set for early return this year

The climate event that helped supercharge global warming to record levels in 2015 and 2016 is 50-60% likely in 2017, says World Meteorological Organization
Damian Carrington The Guardian 28 Apr 17;

The El Niño climate event that helped supercharge global warming to record levels in 2015 and 2016 is set for an early return, according to a forecast from the World Meteorological Organization.

El Niño events are prompted by natural fluctuation in ocean temperatures in the Pacific but have a global impact, leading to flooding, droughts and heatwaves. They also exacerbate the increased extreme weather events occurring due to the continued heating of the world as a result of human-caused climate change.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said on Friday that a new El Niño was 50-60% likely before the end of 2017. “Memories are still fresh of the powerful 2015-2016 El Niño which was associated with droughts, flooding and coral bleaching in different parts of the world and which, combined with long-term climate change, led to the increase of global temperatures to new record highs in both 2015 and 2016,” said Maxx Dilley, director of WMO’s climate prediction and adaptation division.

It is unusual for El Niño conditions to return so swiftly, said Tim Stockdale, principal scientist at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), one of the leading prediction centres around the world and which contributed to the WMO forecast. “Normally we would expect a longer interval before another warming. But, having said that, El Niño variability is really rather irregular.”

Friday’s forecast is a early one, based on observations, climate models and historical trends. At present the likelihood is that any El Niño event will be a moderate one. “It will become clearer in the next couple of months,” said Stockdale.

However, regional warming associated with El Niño has already caused very heavy rains and floods in Peru and Ecuador, after the sea surface temperatures in the far eastern tropical Pacific ocean rose to 2C or more above average during February and March. This phenomenon has in the past sometimes been followed by a global El Niño.

Another concern is that the variation in El Niño over decades may be switching to a new, hotter phase. “For the last decade, the tropical Pacific has tended to be on the cold side, and that has helped keep global temperatures down. With this warming coming back so soon, it makes you wonder if the decadal trend is a bit more on to the positive side,” said Stockdale. “Obviously if that were sustained over the next five to 10 years, it would make the global warming signal stand out more strongly than it has done over the past decade.”

The impacts of El Niño events vary but often lead to hot, dry conditions in south and eastern Australia, as well as in Indonesia, the Philippines and south-eastern Africa. The Indian monsoon rainfall, upon which millions depend, also tends to be lower than normal. Wetter than usual conditions are typically seen along the Gulf coast of the US, and the west coast of tropical South America.

It remains unclear whether climate change is affecting the frequency or severity of El Niño events, partly because with complex phenomena many years of data are needed to distinguish the human-caused and natural influences.

The ability to forecast El Niño events has improved in recent years, enabling authorities to make preparations. “Accurate predictions of the most recent El Niño saved untold lives. These [are] essential for the agricultural and food security sectors, for management of water resources and public health, as well as for disaster risk reduction,” said Dilley.

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Greenpeace halts campaign against palm oil trader that has 'come a long way'

Malaysia-based IOI Group announces further moves to address deforestation and exploitation in its supply chain
Elle Hunt The Guardian 28 Apr 17;

Greenpeace has suspended its campaign against one of the world’s largest palm oil traders in recognition of its “significant commitment” to address deforestation and exploitation in its supply chain.

One year after its sustainability certificate was suspended, IOI Group announced further commitments to improve its environmental practice in a nine-month progress report released on Friday.

Greenpeace simultaneously confirmed it was suspending its active campaign against IOI to give the Malaysia-based conglomerate time for its changes to take effect.

Kiki Taufik, the global head of Greenpeace’s Indonesian forests campaign, said IOI’s “meaningful steps” could make significant inroads towards eliminating deforestation and exploitation in the palm oil industry.

“IOI has come a long way in the past 12 months … There is still a lot of work to be done to clean up the palm oil industry and we expect other traders to respond with action plans of their own.”

IOI Group is one of the largest plantation owners in the industry, with an operation spanning more than 230,000 hectares in Malaysia and Indonesia, and exports products to more than 85 countries.

It has been on track to improve its environmental performance since its certification with the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil was stripped in March 2016, prompting several major multinationals to drop the company as an approved supplier. IOI Group’s certificate was reinstated five months later in August 2016, coinciding with the company’s launch of a sustainability implementation plan.

The RSPO said at the time that IOI Group had made “good progress” towards improving its sustainability credentials but warned that implementation of its action plan would continue to be independently monitored.

IOI Group said on Friday work had begun on many of its policy commitments, including the implementation of a monitoring system to eliminate labour rights violations and programs to protect peat areas. It said it had addressed labour issues identified at its Peninsular Malaysia plantations, and commissioned external consultants to verify its progress.

It was also working to ensure compliance with its sustainability plan from its third-party partners, which Taufik said was crucial to addressing issues within the industry when major traders’ “no deforestation” policies were often not observed by their suppliers.

“The only way to clean up the industry is for other palm oil traders to follow IOI’s lead and start cutting off suppliers that destroy rainforests or abuse workers,” Taufik said.

The first of IOI Group’s plantations will undergo the RSPO’s Next audit – which verifies member companies that have voluntarily exceeded its requirements for certification – later this year, with the rest due to follow between 2018 and 2020.

The conglomerate announced on Friday that it would undergo a separate independent audit of its operations early next year.

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Indonesia: Environmental destruction is 'haram' -- Women clerics

Nurul Fitri Ramadhani The Jakarta Post 28 Apr 17;

Muslim clerics have issued a fatwa, declaring the destruction of nature for the sake of economic development as haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, because it can trigger social and economic imbalances.

A result of Indonesia’s first National Congress of Women Ulema in Cirebon, West Java, on Thursday, the fatwa is based on the Quran, Al Hadist (words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad) and the 1945 Constitution.

“Commercial development is still possible as long as the use of natural resources doesn't cross the limit of what the [project] needs. Any development is not allowed to cause natural destruction,” said a female cleric from Batam while reading out the fatwa.

The fatwa urged the state to remove any laws or regulations that use natural resources as a source of development, and called on the government to tighten its regulations on natural protection.

The fatwa also called for an “Ibu Bumi” (Mother Nature) movement in which women play central roles in preserving nature.

“Nature is closer to women than men. So, it's important to put women as central actors in the protection of natures,” said female cleric and congress organizer Neng Dara Affiah. (ebf)

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Malaysia: Puntung gains 4kg with better appetite

The Star 29 Apr 17;

KOTA KINABALU: Puntung, the Sumatran rhino that successfully underwent a life-saving operation two weeks ago, has regained her appetite and put on 4kg.

However, veterinarians are continuing to give her full-time care and all the necessary medication she needs, in the hope of a full recovery.

Sabah Wildlife Department director Augustine Tuuga said Puntung, one of the last three Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia, was doing well and consuming up to 30kg of food a day now – the typical intake for rhinos of her age and size.

Puntung is 20 years old and weighs 520kg, according to the Borneo Rhino Alliance website.

Tuuga said Puntung had started chewing food – mainly leaves – on the right side of her mouth after surgery on her upper left jaw.

“Puntung is also vocalising a lot, which is a good sign,” he said in a statement here.

Tuuga said three of Puntung’s teeth had to be removed on April 19 because of a large, life-threatening abscess.

He said the keepers also give Puntung a mud pack daily because she missed her wallow.

When Puntung is not out and about, she sleeps on a 20cm-thick mattress.

Dr Zainal Zainuddin, the veterinarian in charge of Puntung’s care, said the swelling and open wound on her left cheek were healing slowly with twice-daily antiseptic washes.

“This is a difficult task as we can’t get the rinse deep enough – she won’t allow it.

“Also, she tends to rub her face against the metal posts and wooden walls of her night stall,” he said.

“We have varied the type of antibiotics given to try to kill off all potential sources of infection,” he said.

“It will be several months before she is 100% recovered,” he added.

Brighter days ahead for Puntung
BRANDON JOHN New Straits Times 28 Apr 17;

KOTA KINABALU: It will take several more months for Sumatran rhino Puntung to fully recover following surgery to remove a severe abscess in her left jaw.

The adult female, one the last three remaining Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia, was reported to have shown good progress under full-time intensive care by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD).

Although there were concerns that the swelling on her left cheek would hinder her ability to eat, Puntung had apparently adapted by chewing leaves on the right side of her mouth.

“She is doing well, vocalising a lot, and eating between 25 and 30 kilogrammes of leaves daily,” said SWD Director Augustine Tuuga, who added that the rhino had gained four kilogrammes since the surgery.

The team in charge of Puntung’s care did however meet with some challenges in her treatment, such as the rhino’s tendency to rub her open wound on the metal posts and wooden walls of her enclosure.

This necessitated the use of various antibiotics to prevent potential infection, said the department’s veterinarian Dr Zainal Z. Zainuddin.

“Furthermore, the wound is flushed with antiseptic twice daily but this is a difficult task as we can’t get the rinse deep enough – she won’t allow it.”

“Still, prognosis is good. However, it will still require several more months before she is 100 per cent recovered,” he said in a press statement.

Puntung had been suffering from an abscess on the upper left side of her jaw before it was removed on April 19.

The two-and-a-half hour operation by a global team of veterinary experts ended with a sigh of relief as Puntung, one of the remaining survivors of a critically-endangered species, continues on her road to recovery.

How Social Media Saved One of the World’s Last Sumatran Rhinos
The female rhino Puntung was treated for an injury in a daring mission.
Austa Somvichian-Clausen National Geographic 25 Apr 17;

Millions of people around the world rely on social media platforms like Twitter to receive minute-to-minute updates on news breaking globally. It isn’t every day though that a single tweet can cause a domino effect that led to the rescue of a severely endangered Sumatran Rhino named Puntung.

A few weeks ago, South Africa-based environmental journalist Adam Welz clicked on a link to an article about one of the last two female Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia, and the facial abscess that threatened to take her life.

The tweet that started it all, which was sent out by Adam Welz shortly after reading about Puntung.

Despite not describing himself as a “bunny hugger,” Welz knew that saving this animal’s life had real conservational significance. “When you’re dealing with a species right on the edge of extinction, every last individual matters,” he says.

There are less than 100 Sumatran rhinos left in the world, and only three in Malaysia. Welz immediately sprang into action upon reading the article by contacting Johan Marais, CEO of Saving the Survivors, a South African non-profit organization that treats and cares for endangered wildlife that falls victim to poaching or traumatic incidents. Welz connected STS with the Borneo Rhino Alliance, where Puntung resides.

At this point, the Borneo Rhino Alliance had unsuccessfully been treating Puntung for her abscess and had determined that an infected tooth was the cause.

With the help and coordination of Zoe Glyphis of Saving the Survivors, veterinary dentist Tum Chinkangsadam from Thailand flew in to help, along with the Singapore Zoo’s senior veterinarian, Abraham Mathew, who had the skill and knowledge to perform an extremely tricky Sumatran Rhino anesthetization without killing Puntung in the process.

The group of doctors used the messaging application WhatsApp to coordinate their travel logistics.

“This all happened in less than 10 days. The first correspondence was on the 7th of April and we boarded our flight on the morning of the 17th,” says Glyphis. “Puntung is one of three remaining Sumatran rhinos in Malaysia. This species is critically endangered and it is our responsibility to ensure they get the care they need and deserve.”


The band of multinational veterinarians trekked to the remote sanctuary in Sabah, Malaysia. First, Mathew put Puntung under general anesthesia. Next the team took radiographs of the teeth. Chinkangsadam removed three of her teeth.

Three of Puntung's teeth ended up having to be removed as a result of her life-threatening facial abscess.

Within two hours of the procedure, Puntung was starting to feed again and slowly became more vocal, “just like a Sumatran rhino should,” says Glyphis.

It is Welz’s hope that the success of Puntung’s surgery will help draw attention to the Borneo Rhino Alliance and their efforts to save the Sumatran rhino. He explained that the NGO is critically underfunded because attention has been focused on more well-known charismatic megafauna, such as the elephant. “I think the Sumatran rhino has not had good PR,” says Welz.

Despite the amount of international travel that occurred this week to save Puntung, Welz orchestrated these efforts all from the comfort of his home in Cape Town, South Africa.

“I can sit here halfway around the world and broker veterinary care for a rhino,” says Welz. “I like the fact that I can be sitting at my desk half a world away and just go ‘hmmm…here’s a problem. I think I can help to solve it.’” If you would like to donate to the Borneo Rhino Alliance you can do so by clicking here, and to donate to Saving the Survivors click here.

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Philippines says completes scientific survey in disputed sea

The Philippines has completed an 18-day scientific survey in the South China Sea to assess the condition of coral reefs and draw a nautical map of disputed area, a top security official said on Thursday.
Channel NewsAsia 28 Apr 17;

MANILA: The Philippines has completed an 18-day scientific survey in the South China Sea to assess the condition of coral reefs and draw a nautical map of disputed area, a top security official said on Thursday.

Two survey ships, including an advanced research vessel acquired from the United States, conducted surveys around Scarborough Shoal and on three islands, including Thitu, in the Spratly group, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said.

"This purely scientific and environmental undertaking was pursued in line with Philippine responsibilities under the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea to protect the marine biodiversity and ensure the safety of navigation within the Philippines' EEZ," Esperon said in a statement.

He gave no details of the findings from the reef assessments and nautical mapping of the area done from April 7-25.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, but it appeared to have allowed the survey. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the strategic waterway.

Other countries in the region were regularly making scientific surveys in the area, said a navy official who declined to be named.

The navy official told Reuters the Philippines also conducts marine survey from time to time, but this was its first major undertaking since 2011, when a Chinese patrol boat harassed a survey ship hired by an Anglo-Filipino company to explore for oil and gas in the Reed Bank.

Esperon said researchers from the environment ministry, the country's premier university and the navy took part in the expedition.

"This is the first leg of the expedition," he said, adding the government also plans to conduct research in Benham Rise, part of the Philippines' continental shelf, in the Pacific Ocean.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Larry King)

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Thailand may close tourist spot Maya Bay due to coral bleaching

Deutsche Presse Agentur The Australian 28 Apr 17;

The Thai government is considering a temporary closure of Maya Bay, a popular tourist destination in the south of the country, following the recent discovery of coral bleaching.

The planned closure - the first for Maya Bay - is expected to last three to four months in the second half of the year, according to Sarayuth Tanthien, head of Nopparat Thara - Phi Phi Island National Park.

The pristine beach of Maya Bay - part of the popular tourist destination of Phi Phi island in the southern city of Krabi - was the main filming location of The Beach, a Hollywood blockbuster released in 2000.

The plan to shut down Maya Bay temporarily may be necessary to rehabilitate marine life, Sarayuth said, after national park officials discovered bleached coral reefs, a result of sea anchor deployment.

A number of academics have campaigned for a temporary closure of Phi Phi island over the years, citing an urgent need to allow the natural environment to recover.

More than one million people visited Phi Phi island last year, with as many as 5000 visitors each day during the high season, according to the national park.

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Can the Maldives save its coral reefs?

Nicki Shields, CNN 28 Apr 17;

Malé (Maldives) (CNN)Alongside the famed Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives is also home to some of the most enchanting and diverse coral reefs in the world, its crystal clear waters bursting with color and life.

However, since 2014 this tropical paradise has been struck by severe coral bleaching, affecting between 60 percent and 90 percent of its coral, depending on the area.

Rising temperatures

Corals become bleached when under stress because of changing conditions, such as rising sea water temperature. This causes the coral to expel the algae living in its tissues, turning white.

The coral is not dead, but it is starving, as the algae provide up to 80 percent of its nutrients. Prolonged higher temperatures can kill the corals completely, with a cascade of negative effects on the many species that depend on them, including the human communities that they support.

Bleaching episodes typically last one year, but the most recent has been going since 2014. Australia's Great Barrier Reef has also been affected, with more than two thirds of it experiencing "shocking" amounts of bleaching.

"In 2014 reefs around the world were hit with one of the worst coral bleaching events on record", said Thomas le Berre, a French coastal oceanographer who is responsible for some of the top environmental projects in the Maldives.

The previously vibrant corals, which help attract over one million tourists a year to the archipelago, have turned into a ghostly shadow of their former self.

Le Berre says part of the blame goes to El Niño, a cyclical weather event that takes place every few years resulting in warmer waters passing through the Pacific and Indian Ocean. Combined with global warming, it has seen water temperature reach new highs of 34 degrees in some area, causing the corals to go beyond their thermal limit, which results in bleaching and sometimes death.

A study conducted by the University of Exeter confirms that, as a result of a strong El Niño in 2016, an increase in surface ocean temperatures has led to a major coral die-off in the Maldives. It has also found that some species of fish, particularly parrotfish, are eroding the reefs more intensely following the bleaching event.

According to Le Berre, although bleaching is "quite low on the government's list of priorities" he is working closely with them with them to ensure it is on their agenda. His project, the Reefscapers Coral Reef Restoration programme, aims to make the Maldivian reefs resilient to these changes in temperature and increase their rate of regeneration.

Using metal frames, small branches of coral can be attached and spread out to create 'coral nurseries'.

Corals compete for the nutrients in the immediate environment around them, so by spreading them out they can recover faster. Using this method, researchers here have seen a four-fold increase in growth rates, over an array of about 560 frames.

Lost habitat

Recovery can take a long time. The last severe bleaching event was in 1998 and it took almost 12 years for the reefs to recover.

Worryingly, the bleaching affects not just corals: "Habitat for small fish is also lost," said Shiham Adam, the Maldives' Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture.

"Long nose hawk fish feed exclusively on live corals, and they are now almost gone. Butterfly fish abundance also gone."

The Four Seasons and The Banyan Tree in the Maldives are both leading the charge, with their own team of researchers leading coral recovery programs: "it's very difficult for us to monitor the coral bleaching so it's important for us to work very closely with some of the resorts," sad Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of the Environment.

But some relief most come from a more global perspective: "The Paris Agreement was a huge milestone for us in progress to minimizing global warming," Ibrahim added.

"This is what we need to happen in order to save our reefs."

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Scientists investigate large number of humpback whale deaths


Government scientists launched an investigation Thursday into an unusually large number of humpback whale deaths from North Carolina to Maine, the first such "unusual mortality event" declaration in a decade.

Forty-one whales have died in the region in 2016 and so far in 2017, far exceeding the average of about 14 per year, said Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Fisheries.

Ten of the 20 whales that have been examined so far were killed by collisions with boats, something scientists are currently at a loss to explain because there's been no corresponding spike in ship traffic.

The investigation will focus on possible common threads like toxins and illness, prey movement that could bring whales into shipping lanes, or other factors, officials said.

Humpbacks can grow to 60 feet long and are found in oceans around the world. They're popular with whale watchers because of the dramatic way they breach the ocean's surface, then flop back into the water.

"The humpback is generally people's favorite because they're so animated. They're the ones that like to jump out of the ocean completely," said Zack Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company.

The humpback whale population that feeds in North Atlantic waters each summer was removed from the Endangered Species Act last year when NOAA divided humpback populations into 14 distinct population segments around the world. There are currently about 10,500 in the population that visits North Atlantic waters, scientists say.

While they're not threatened, federal scientists are nonetheless keeping close tabs on the whales, said NOAA spokeswoman Kate Brogan.

The humpback whale deaths that prompted the "unusual mortality event" designation break down to 26 last year and 15 to date this year.

NOAA also declared "unusual mortality events" involving humpbacks in 2003, 2005 and 2006, Fauquier said. No conclusive cause of the deaths was determined in those investigations, she said.

The 10 confirmed fatal boat strikes far exceeds the annual average of fewer than two per year attributed to boat collisions, officials said.

Whales tend to be somewhat oblivious to boats when they're feeding or socializing, said Gregory Silber, coordinator of recovery activities for large whales in NOAA's Office of Protected Resources.

"A vessel of any size can harm a whale. In smaller vessels they tend to be propeller strikes. And in larger vessels they appear to be in the form of blunt trauma, hemorrhaging or broken bones," he said.

Klyver said any whale death is upsetting. Scientists and whale watchers know many of the whales that visit each summer.

"Each whale has its own personality," he said. "We are connected to so many of them as individuals that we hate to see any of them perish."

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