Best of our wild blogs: 6 May 17

Talk at Bishan Public Library: Finding safe drinking water overseas
Water Quality in Singapore

Snakes – Why No Legs?
Herpetological Society of Singapore

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Critically endangered trees: Hope for the Hopea Sangal

Despite its size, Singapore is teeming with animal and plant species. Conserving them is an ongoing challenge. In this five-part series leading up to the National Parks Board's Singapore Biodiversity Week starting on May 20, The Straits Times highlights some which have been saved from the brink of extinction. Today, we look at the inspiring story of the Hopea sangal, and efforts to save other critically endangered trees.
Audrey Tan Straits Times 5 May 17;

In a quiet corner of southern Singapore, a ray of hope is growing slowly. A Hopea sangal in Pasir Panjang's Hort Park is only 15 years old - a mere infant of a tree.

But on its branches and those of its few "siblings" lies the responsibility of populating the country with the forest giant, which can grow up to 40m tall. They are descendants of what was believed to be the last tree of its kind here, a 150-year-old specimen felled illegally in 2002.

However, in a fortunate turn of events, five more have been found since then - three in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve in 2005, and two others in Nee Soon Swamp Forest in 2014. All are believed to be more than a century old.

Yet, there are still fewer than 20 known mature Hopea sangal trees in Singapore. But with more young specimens being nurtured, they could one day help fill forests here.

At first glance, though, the 4m-tall plant in Hort Park, with its scrawny trunk and sparse foliage, looks nothing like the towering sentinel it will one day become.

But it will not have to depend solely on the winds to spread its seeds (pictured below). The National Parks Board (NParks) is lending a hand, with some tender loving care in its nurseries.

National Parks Board's (NParks) Mr Ang Wee Foong (left) and Dr Adrian Loo are among staff responsible for increasing the long-term survival chances of critically endangered plants in Singapore. For instance, NParks staff salvage seeds from plants and


NParks' efforts have borne fruit.

Seeds salvaged from the Hopea sangalin Changi have been nurtured into saplings and some have taken root in various places. For instance, visitors to the Singapore Botanic Gardens' Learning Forest may spot two Hopea sangal saplings along the SPH Walk of Giants.

The Hopea sangal is a critically endangered tree usually found in pristine forests, said Dr Adrian Loo, director of the terrestrial division at NParks' National Biodiversity Centre. It has been found in peninsular Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2002, Singapore was added to the list - botanists found one tree growing in Halton Road in Changi.

Before scientists had time to study the tree, which was 35m tall with a girth of 3.3m, it was chopped down by DTZ-Debenham Tie Leung Property Management Services. The reckless act had members of the public, as well as nature and heritage groups, up in arms.

Known commonly as chengal pasir or chengal mata kuching, the tree is believed to have given Changi its name.

"Luckily, some of the seedlings and fruits were collected from where they had sprouted and fallen around the tree, and passed to Pasir Panjang Nursery, where we managed to propagate them," said Dr Loo. Before the tree was felled on Nov 20, 2002, botanists had collected some seeds from the ancient tree, without knowing they would be among the last.

One of the seedlings grew. Late last year, about 15 years after it was "rescued", it bore fruit - marking the beginning of a third generation of Hopea sangal trees in Singapore.

Its seeds were sown again in Pasir Panjang Nursery. They have now grown to become 30cm seedlings. In a way, these are the "grandchildren" of the original Hopea sangal tree at Changi, said Mr Ang Wee Foong, deputy director of nursery management at NParks.

He hopes there will be many more generations to come.


The Hopea sangal is one of the plants for which NParks is carrying out recovery efforts to increase their long-term survival chances.

Many trees in Singapore have become critically endangered due to habitat loss, said botanist Wee Yeow Chin. "During the years immediately after Raffles founded Singapore, large tracts of rainforests were cleared by immigrants for the cultivation of pepper, a spice, and gambier, which was used for leather tanning," he said.


Nanyang Technological University's Asian School of the Environment botanist Shawn Lum said the situation remains critical.

Dr Lum has been monitoring trees with diameters of more than 30cm in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve over the past decade. While species diversity is high, many appear to be the last of their kind, he said.

"Of the roughly 500 different species of large trees in Bukit Timah, about 60 have but one individual. This is not good," said Dr Lum, who is also president of the Nature Society (Singapore).

While many crop plants, such as corn, for example, can self-fertilise, many of the critically endangered native species are "self-incompatible". This means that one tree can only be pollinated by a different tree.

"If two trees of the same species are too far apart to be effectively pollinated, then that tree's future is not bright," added Dr Lum.


That is why habitat protection, or "in-situ" conservation, is a key strategy for NParks. This entails making sure the whole habitat is protected and unaffected by developmental works, said Mr Ang.

"For instance, a dead branch hanging over a plant could potentially damage it. So we will arrange for the branch to be removed."

Growing plants in nurseries - or "ex-situ" conservation - is another strategy. This involves collecting seeds or taking cuttings from plants in parks and nature reserves.

Said Dr Lum: "For most animals, you can't cut off a piece to grow a new one. However, you can sometimes chop off part of a tree to propagate another tree. The cutting is a clone of the plant from which it was taken, but it can keep a species going, at least in the short term, to keep it from disappearing."

But prolonged inbreeding in plants could expose genetic weaknesses in that population, just like in animals. So the longer-term strategy would be to introduce genetic variation into a population, said Dr Lum.

One way to do this is to facilitate cross-pollination across the island, by connecting habitats with groves of native endangered trees that have been carefully selected to minimise inbreeding. This would allow pollinators, such as insects, to move between natural and planted populations of native trees, linking them up and enhancing their genetic resilience, said Dr Lum.

On the ecological value of native trees, NParks' Dr Loo said they contribute to the structure of Singapore's forests and provide food for rare animals such as the Raffles' banded langur - a shy, black and white monkey.

Agreeing, Dr Wee noted how trees - part of the Republic's rich natural heritage - fit into the complex food web that exists in local forests. Insects feed on plants and, in turn, they are eaten by other predators. This is why growing exotic trees from far away countries will not help much in drawing in biodiversity, he said. "We only import the tree but not the fauna associated with it."



•Botanists find an old tree growing in a tree conservation area in Changi, where permission must be sought from the National Parks Board (NParks) before it can be cut down. It is identified as the Hopea sangal, once thought to be extinct here.


•Mr N. Sivasothi - a research officer at the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research in the National University of Singapore (NUS)- discovers the tree has been felled when he comes across its stump.

•DTZ Debenham Tie Leung Property Management Services claims it chopped down the tree in view of public safety as it was termite-infested and had been struck by lightning.

•Botanist Shawn Lum, then vice-president of the Nature Society (Singapore), refutes DTZ's claims, saying the tree had still been healthy.

•NParks takes DTZ to court for flouting the Parks and Trees Act as well as for failing to secure a permit to fell a rare tree in a gazetted conservation area.

MARCH 2003

•DTZ is ordered to pay $76,035 to the state as compensation for the loss of the Hopea sangal tree. The company is also fined another $8,000 for illegally felling the tree.

APRIL 2003

•NParks sets up a volunteer group to decide how the wood from the tree can be used.

•The committee decides nine pieces of wood will be sculpted into artworks by artists from the Sculpture Society.

APRIL 2004

•Sculptures find a home at the Singapore Zoo.


•Then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew plants a 1m-tall Hopea sangal sapling in his Tanjong Pagar constituency. This sapling is one of several presented to NParks' Pasir Panjang Nursery by the Nature Society (Singapore) after the tree is felled.


•Amendments to the Parks and Trees Act to introduce stiffer fines to protect trees are passed in Parliament. Those found guilty of cutting down any tree with a girth exceeding 1m in a designated tree conservation area, vacant land, national parks and nature reserves, could be fined up to $50,000, up from $10,000.


•Sculptures made from the logs of the original Changi tree can still be seen at the zoo entrance. Cross-sections of the trunk can also be viewed at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in NUS and at the Changi Museum.

•Sources: Infopedia, ST Archives, Habitatnews

Trees in Singapore threatened with extinction

Audrey Tan Straits Times 5 May 17;


Conservation status: Critically endangered

This tree has "patriotic flowers" that bloom with a red heart surrounded by white petals. It can be found growing naturally in the Nee Soon Swamp Forest within the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. There are fewer than 50 known individuals growing here.


Conservation status: Critically endangered

There is only one individual growing in Singapore, at the National University of Singapore's University Town. It was discovered in 2012, after surveys of the site were done. The species is a new record for Singapore. It is also the first plant from the genus Margaritaria to be recorded here. Saplings have been successfully propagated by cuttings.

Conservation status: Vulnerable to extinction

This plant can be found within the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Also known as the marsh pulai, it is common in freshwater swamp forests and can grow up to 25m tall.

It can also be seen at the Singapore Botanic Gardens Learning Forest.

Its latex can be used in medicine for sores and skin ailments, as well as for filling a tooth.

Its wood is commonly used for making household items, carvings, floats and plywood.

Its plywood is used for coffins in peninsular Malaysia, and for floats that are used with nets in Thailand and Indonesia's Sumatra.

Conservation status: Critically endangered

This palm was thought extinct till it was rediscovered a decade ago. It can be found in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and there are fewer than five trees in the wild. A few fruits have been collected and successfully germinated.


Conservation status: Vulnerable to extinction
Found in Central Catchment and Bukit Timah nature reserves, this tree flowers and fruits before the leaves sprout, and appears red against a backdrop of green.

Audrey Tan

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Cambodia: Taiwan-bound vessel’s sand ‘exempt from ban’

Yesenia Amaro Phnom Penh Post 5 May 17;

Taiwan officials yesterday confirmed that a ship by the name of Deryoung Sunflower – a vessel that this week appeared in a viral video released by NGO Mother Nature claiming that it was loaded with sand for export despite a ban – is expected to arrive today at Taiwan’s Port of Taichung.

However, the officials said, the ship is actually carrying silica sand, which the Cambodian Ministry of Mines and Energy says is not subject to the ban.

Irene Tang, of the Port of Taichung, told The Post that the ship’s last registered port is in Cambodia and that it was carrying silica sand. The Post could not confirm what kind of sand a second ship, identified by Mother Nature as being named Ocean Beauty, was carrying.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy last November banned sand exports after controversy arose from huge discrepancies between Cambodia’s recorded sand exports and Singapore’s recorded sand imports from the Kingdom.

In the video, which the group said was taken on April 29, Mother Nature showed the Deryoung Sunflower being loaded with white sand.

Meng Saktheara, spokesman for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said after the video was released that it was “very likely” the ship was loaded with silica sand, which is exempt from the ban. Silica sand is mined on land, he added, rather than pumped from the sea, and is used for industrial purposes like for making glass.

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a founder of Mother Nature, said that when the government banned sand exports it made “no allusion whatsoever to exceptions” to the ban.

“For them to now say that silica sand can continue being exported is nothing but a pathetic lie that no one is going to believe,” he wrote in an email.

When asked what led Mother Nature to believe sea sand was being loaded on the ship, he called distinction between types of sand “totally irrelevant”.

He added his NGO would continue its investigation into whether dredged sea sand was still being illegally exported.

Ministry officials declined to comment yesterday, but said the ministry will release the findings of its investigation into the case today.

Two companies – Mong Reththy Group Co Ltd and Silica Services Cambodge – are licensed and had recent approval for exports of silica sand, although the locations of departure and the names of the boats did not match those of Ocean Beauty and the Deryoung Sunflower.

Cambodia Dismisses Claims of Illicit Sand Exports Despite Ban
Radio Free Asia 5 May 17;

Cambodia’s government on Friday dismissed accusations by an environmental group that the country is still exporting sand, despite a national ban, saying a vessel seen loading the material in a video the group posted on social media was doing nothing illicit.

On May 1, the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia posted a video to its Facebook page purportedly showing a vessel named the Deryoung Sunflower loading white sand for export in Sihanouk province’s Stung Hav district two days earlier.

On Friday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy said in a statement that Mother Nature did not accurately identify the vessel or its location in the video, and also gave the wrong time for when the video was taken.

It said the video claimed the vessel could carry up to 30,000 tons, while the Deryoung Sunflower can only load up to 8,679 tons, and that the Deryoung had left Cambodia on May 1 after gathering silica sand for producing glass, while the video was likely filmed afterwards.

The ministry banned sand exports in November 2016 after public outrage over large inconsistencies between Cambodia’s recorded sand exports and Singapore’s recorded sand imports from Cambodia, but has recently said that silica sand was not part of the ban.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, director of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, on Friday told RFA’s Khmer Service that the ministry’s response was “an excuse” and suggested that sand exports are continuing, despite the ban.

“We have collected ample evidence and I will absolutely not stop posting the videos on Facebook as the ministry has asked,” said the Spanish environmentalist, who was expelled from Cambodia in February 2015 after leading a campaign against a controversial dam and placed on a black list that prevents his return to the country.

“If we report sand exporting activities to the ministry, it will tell the owner of the vessels to destroy the evidence. The ministry has a record of collusion with criminals to destroy natural resources,” he said.

“By posting such activities on Facebook, we hope we can keep people informed and that it will lead to some sort of resolution.”

In the meantime, Gonzalez-Davidson said, the Deryoung Sunflower had arrived in Taiwan Friday with its cargo.

“The Taiwanese authorities told reporters that the sand was imported from Cambodia,” he said.

“We believe that the Deryoung Sunflower has stolen sand from Cambodia and we will do our best to pressure the Taiwanese authorities to take action against such illegal activities.”

The Phnom Penh Post quoted officials in Taiwan on Thursday confirming that the Deryoung was carrying sand to the country’s Port of Taichung, but said the sand was silica.

The Post was unable to confirm what kind of sand a second ship, identified by Mother Nature as being named Ocean Beauty, was carrying.

The paper also quoted Gonzalez-Davidson calling the government’s recent claim that silica sand was not part of the ban on exports “a pathetic lie,” adding that the type of sand on the Deryoung was “totally irrelevant.”

Mong Reththy Group Co Ltd and Silica Services Cambodge are two licensed companies that received recent approval for exports of silica sand, but the Post reported that the locations of departure and the names of the boats did not match those of Ocean Beauty or the Deryoung Sunflower.

Reported by Sonorng Kher for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Ministry denies illegal sand exports
VEN RATHAVONG Khmer Times 8 May 17;

The Energy Ministry has responded to an NGO’s claims that illegal sand exports are continuing in Preah Sihanouk province, despite a government ban.

Cambodian NGO Mother Nature posted a video accusing the Deryoung Sunflower ship of illegally exporting sand.

However the ministry clarified that the ship was carrying silica sand which is not affected by the ban. Silica is used as a raw material to manufacture glass. It is different from ordinary sand as for royalty and tax applied.

It said the silica sand being shipped by the Deryoung Sunflower belonged to Mong Reththy Group Co Ltd, which has the appropriate licence for the work.

Mother Nature activist Lim Kimsor, who featured in the video, said she was not aware that silica was not part of the ban but she remain unconvinced by the government’s response and would discuss the issue further with colleagues.

After the controversial claim of NGOs and opposition party on the discrepancy of import and export figure of sand from Cambodia to Singapore based on UN Comtrade data base, the ministry has decided in November 2016 to temporary suspend the export of refill sand and construction sand until a new export procedure can be formulated.

But many environmental groups say sand dredging companies never stopped and may have even increased their intake of sand. According to a report from the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, millions of tonnes of sand have been dredged and exported to Singapore from Koh Kong’s estuaries since 2009.

Facing those recurrent accusations from NGOs, the ministry has called on those NGOs to provide relevant, useful and timely information or evidence of any suspicious illegal sand exports, via the ministry hotline 095727727, so that officials can jointly investigate and take timely legal action. “But it seems that Mother Nature prefers to work with the press, instead of collaborating directly with the ministry,” said Mr. Tina the ministry spokesman.

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