Best of our wild blogs: 31 May 17

Signs of dugong at Changi
wild shores of singapore

Hello from the otterside!
BES Drongos

Singapore Raptor Report – March 2017
Singapore Bird Group

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Finding oil palm alternative could be key to haze issue

JOSE MONTESCLAROS Today Online 31 May 17;

The majority of forest fires in South-east Asia occurs in states that produce oil palm, according to Global Forest Watch. Forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations. To save on clearing costs, farmers resort to burning.

While frameworks to stop haze are being established at the regional level as well as in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, the challenge remains to get on board the actors who currently benefit from drained peatlands — the farmers, companies and investors profiting from oil palm.

Could a long-term solution to preventing forest fires in the region lie in promoting alternative commodities that can grow in wet peatlands?

The sine qua non, or the condition without which fires cannot start and spread, is the presence of dry peatlands.

Peatlands are naturally wet swamps of decomposed matter. They are nutrient-rich, but extremely flammable when dry. Yet, farmers are driven to drain these swamps, because oil palm can grow only in dry soil.

The initiative of restoring peatlands to their naturally wet state has been emphasised by Indonesia.

However, unless the practice of draining peatlands is addressed, haze will continue to be a challenge.

At root is the choice of oil palm as the dominant crop for growing. This happens for two key reasons.

First, oil palm is highly profitable and offers higher wages than other crops. The World Agroforestry Centre reports that oil palm in Indonesia yields profits of up to 44 million to 295 million rupiah (S$4,600 to S$30,000) per hectare per annum, and oil palm wages are two to seven times greater than average agricultural wages in the country.

The other reason is the short lead time in growing oil palm, taking three to four years before bearing fruit (with some gestation time before harvesting). This short lead time reduces the risks to investors who wish to invest in oil palm, in comparison to plants such as sago, which can take 10 to 15 years before harvest.

To prevent farmers and private companies from draining peatlands, it must be economically sustainable to keep them wet.

Alternative commodities need to be leveraged that can be grown in peatlands while meeting three key conditions.

First, they must grow in natural wet peat conditions.

Second, they must compete with oil palm in profitability, to translate into equivalent or higher wages to farmers, and into returns to investors.

Third, they must be able to reduce investor risk by having shorter lead times before harvest.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations has already identified commodities that can grow in naturally wet peat conditions.

These include sago, papyrus, wild rice, wetland taro, water celery, water spinach and Chinese water chestnut. Apart from these, there are plants that can grow in moderately drained peatlands, such as rice, bananas, beans, carrots, celery, corn, lettuce, mint, onions, potatoes, parsley, radish, pasture-sod, sugar cane chili, soya bean, tobacco and a few horticultural crops.

The challenge, however, is that there is limited information on which of these commodities meet the second and third conditions — of comparable profitability and time taken before investors start getting net positive returns on their investments. Among the limited studies available, one shows that if sago was chosen as an alternative crop to explore, it takes sago 10 to 15 years before it can start bearing fruit, and that the internal rate of return is up to 8.06 per cent — still low compared with 20 per cent of oil palm.

Alternatively, some crops, such as radish or celery, can be grown in less than a year, but it is not known if there will be sufficient demand for these. Additional preparations may be needed, such as reducing the acidity of the soil, preventing pests and diseases, or increasing the value-add of producers through additional processing.

There is need for more research and institutional support in improving the desirability of producing alternative commodities, in both the demand and supply side. These need to be considered in developing and implementing long-term rehabilitation plans.

Demand-side interventions include research on identifying which among the identified alternative commodities are in demand, who the buyers are, what qualities and traits they desire, and what prices they are sold at.

Buyers may include domestic buyers within Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as importers from higher-income countries abroad. In Japan, for instance, youth are leaving the agricultural sector, creating opportunities for countries such as Indonesia to provide selected crops.

Supply-side interventions require identifying technologies that can allow for meeting buyer requirements, while at the same time being cost effective to producers. Research into how to boost yields in producing the commodities, such as through resistance to submergence/flooding, pests and diseases will be needed.

For instance, if heavy research led to growth in the productivity of cassava production, from just six tonnes/ha to up to 30 tonnes/ha, can this not be done in the case of the crops identified by FAO?

Along with boosting yields, it will also be important to hasten the time before crops can be harvested.

Research at the National Institute of Education, Singapore, for instance, shows that certain planting systems and growing environments can shorten grow-out periods.

Agricultural transformation will have an important part to play in addressing haze, but this requires farmers, businesses, investors, academia and governments to play their part.


Jose Montesclaros is Associate Research Fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

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Malaysia: Sabah leads the way with two more forest reserves

The Star 31 May 17;

KOTA KINABALU: With two additional reserves meeting international standards for well-managed forests, Sabah now leads in certified forest coverage in the South-East Asian region.

The two areas – Trusan Sugut and Ulu Kalumpang-Mt Wulldersdorf – were added by the Sabah Forestry Department recently after being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

Its director Datuk Sam Mannan said with these additions, Sabah now has a total of 746,564.91ha in fully certified forest reserves, with 675,691.68ha under natural forest management and 70,873.23ha in tree plantations.

Trusan Sugut is a Class 1 Forest Reserve covering a total of 8,680ha and is located in Beluran district, he said.

It consists of several unique areas such as lowland mixed dipterocarp forests, freshwater swamps, mangroves and beach forest, providing a haven for rare, threatened and endangered mammals and birds.

The Ulu Kalumpang-Mt Wullers­dorf reserve is in Kunak district and covers an area of 64,953.74 ha.

It is an important water resource for Tawau and Kunak districts, Mannan said, adding that this reserve is mainly lowland dipterocarp forests, last logged in 1986.

He said both reserves successfully met the FSC’s requirements and have now been certified as well-managed forests for a five-year period from May 16 this year until May 15, 2022.

The department is now in the process of getting several other managed forests certified under the FSC within the next three years.

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Indonesia: Illegal snake-skin trade thwarted in North Sumatra

Apriadi Gunawan The Jakarta Post 31 May 17;

The North Sumatra office of the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) thwarted an illegal attempt to trade snake-skin at Belawan Port in Medan, North Sumatra, on Tuesday.

Hundreds of python skins were about to be sent to a recipient in Karawang regency, West Java, according to Zakaria, a BKSDA official.

Zakaria said the delivery attempt was foiled at about 9:45 a.m.

About 350 snake-skins were put in a sack to be sent on a ship to Tanjung Priok Port in Jakarta.

Officials checked the shipment and allege that the sender, Riduan Plipus Sitohang, did not have a permit for trading in wildlife parts.

“This is an illegal delivery. There were no completed documents. Furthermore, it is illegal to trade python skins,” Zakaria told The Jakarta Post on Tuesday.

Officials at the port claim that Riduan told them he sold the skins for around Rp 25,000 per sheet.

Riduan said it took him about a month to cut, skin and dry the 350 snake-skins.

He reportedly added that many people killed the snakes and sold them to him at his house.

Riduan is also reported to have said that his customers like python skins because they can be fashioned into clothes, bags, shoes and jackets.

Besides selling the skins domestically, officials said he also claimed to have exported snake-skins to China and South Korea. (rin)

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Indonesia: Locals Committed to Protecting Dugong in Raja Ampat

Tempo 30 May 17;

Sorong - Indigenous people in Aduwei village in Raja Ampat, West Papua are committed to protecting dugongs.

Adewei village chief Karel Fatot said that dugongs are easily found in the waters off the village. “Indigenous people are protecting dugongs and other marine species with a tradition the locals call Sasi,” he said yesterday, May 29, in Sorong.

He explained that Sasi is a traditional prohibition on catching dugongs and fish in the waters off the village. “People may only catch fish in the waters off the village after the Sasi period ends or Sasi is revoked. Sasi typically applies for six months in a year,” he said.

According to him, people may catch fish after the end of Sasi period but may not hunt dugongs.

Locals protect dugongs because the animals attract tourists.

He said that Aduwei village in Raja Ampat boasts a beautiful marine attraction and tourists can easily interact with dugongs. He, however, bemoaned the lack of transport modes in the area and marketing campaign to draw visitors.


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Vietnam: Explosion rocks Formosa steel plant that caused toxic spill

Faith Hung and My Pham Reuters 30 May 17;

An explosion rocked Taiwanese conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group's new steel plant in Vietnam late on Tuesday, a day after it resumed test operations for the first time since causing one of the country's worst environmental disasters.

The so-called dust explosion was caused by the combustion of fine particles in the air as a result of an equipment malfunction, Chang Fu-ning, an executive vice president of Formosa Ha Tinh Steel, told Reuters.

The incident is likely to raise fresh concerns about the safety of the $11 billion plant although Chang said there were no casualties and it would have little impact on preparations for the launch of production.

"Our equipment which collects dust suffered an explosion. We immediately cut off the power supply for a security check. We're trying to find out what caused it," Chang told Reuters by phone.

"There was no fire, damage or casualties as a result," he said. "The test-runs are still ongoing."

The Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant spilled toxic waste that polluted more than 200 km (125 miles) of Vietnam's coastline in 2016, devastating sea life and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism. The plant restarted on Monday after its operations were halted in the wake of the disaster.

Formosa paid $500 million in compensation to affected communities and in March said it would boost investment by about $350 million in the steel project, amid public outcry against the company and the government's handling of the spill.

The fresh investment would go into improving environmental safety measures, raise working capital, buy material and build a dry coking system.

The plant started test operations on Monday after receiving a test-run license from the Vietnamese government.

The company has said it hopes to start commercial production in the fourth quarter of this year, subject to an approval from the Vietnamese government.

(Reporting by Faith Hung in TAIPEI and My Pham in HANOI; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Formosa steel plant in Vietnam restarts after toxic spill
Mai Nguyen Reuters 29 May 17;

Formosa Plastics Group's steel plant in Vietnam restarted on Monday after its operations were halted for causing one of the country's worst environmental disasters, local media reported.

In April last year, the $11 billion Formosa Ha Tinh Steel plant accidentally spilled toxic waste that polluted more than 200 km (125 miles) of coastline, devastating sea life and local economies dependent on fishing and tourism. Taiwanese-owned Formosa paid $500 million in compensation.

Formosa has met requirements to test-run its first blast furnace, local media quoted Deputy Environment Minister Nguyen Linh Ngoc as saying.

Authorities will closely monitor the furnace and the initial result of the run will be available in 24 hours, while waste samples will be taken every five minutes, local media quoted senior environmental official Hoang Duong Tung as saying.

Formosa has addressed 52 out of 53 violations identified, Tung said, adding the company was expected to put in place a dry coking system by 2019 to replace the current wet coking system, which is cheaper but dirtier.

The Formosa incident is a sensitive topic for the Vietnamese government as it balances political stability, environmental protection and foreign direct investment, one of its key economic growth drivers. Formosa is one of Vietnam's biggest foreign investors.

Last year's spill, and the delay in addressing it, triggered rallies and an outpouring of anger not seen in four decades of Communist Party rule. People in the central provinces have continued protesting to demand more compensation.

Formosa in March said it would boost investment by about $350 million in the project to improve environmental safety measures with the hope of starting commercial production by the fourth quarter of this year.

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Edmund Blair and Mark Potter)

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How the popularity of sea cucumbers is threatening coastal communities

University of British Columbia Science Daily 30 May 17;

Coastal communities are struggling with the complex social and ecological impacts of a growing global hunger for a seafood delicacy, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia.

"Soaring demand has spurred sea cucumber booms across the globe," says lead author Mary Kaplan-Hallam, who conducted the research as a master's student with the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC.

"For many coastal communities, sea cucumber isn't something that was harvested in the past. Fisheries emerged rapidly. Money, buyers and fishers from outside the community flooded in. This has also increased pressure on other already overfished resources."

Sea cucumber can sell for hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of dollars a pound. The "gold rush" style impacts of high-value fisheries exacerbate longer-term trends in already vulnerable communities, such as declines in traditional fish stocks, population increases, climate change and illegal fishing.

"These boom-and-bust cycles occur across a range of resource industries," says co-author Nathan Bennett, a postdoctoral fellow at UBC. "What makes these fisheries so tricky is that they appear rapidly and often deplete local resources just as rapidly, leaving communities with little time to recover."

The researchers based their findings on a case study of Río Lagartos, a fishing community on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. For the past 50 years, small-scale commercial fishing has been the dominant livelihood of the community.

The town's first commercial sea cucumber permits were issued in 2013, a significant economic opportunity for fishers in the region. The leathery marine animals are a delicacy in many parts of Asia, and as stocks have depleted there, demand has rapidly depleted fisheries across the globe.

A host of new challenges emerged in Río Lagartos as the sea cucumbers attracted outside fishers, money and patrons, according to the researchers' interviews with community members.

"Resource management, incomes, fisher health and safety, levels of social conflict and social cohesion in the community are all impacted," says Kaplan-Hallam. "The potential financial rewards are also causing local fishers to take bigger risks as sea cucumber stocks are depleted and diving must occur further from shore, with dire health consequences."

Unfortunately, say the authors, this isn't an isolated situation.

"There are many examples around the world where elite global seafood markets -- abalone, sea urchins, sharks -- are undermining local sustainability," says Bennett. "If we want to sustainably manage fisheries with coastal communities, we need a better understanding of how global seafood markets impact communities and how to manage these impacts quickly. Think of it like an epidemic: it requires a rapid response before it gets out of control."

Journal Reference:

Maery Kaplan-Hallam, Nathan J. Bennett, Terre Satterfield. Catching sea cucumber fever in coastal communities: Conceptualizing the impacts of shocks versus trends on social-ecological systems. Global Environmental Change, 2017; 45: 89 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2017.05.003

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Scientists warn US coral reefs are on course to disappear within decades

New Noaa research shows that strict conservation measures in Hawaii have not spared corals from a warming ocean in one of its most prized bays
Oliver Milman The Guardian 30 May 17;

Some of America’s most protected corals have been blighted by bleaching, with scientists warning that US reefs are on course to largely disappear within just a few decades because of global warming.

New research has shown that strict conservation measures in Hawaii have not spared corals from a warming ocean in one of its most prized bays, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting yet more bleaching is likely off Hawaii and Florida this summer.

“I’m concerned because we could very well see bleaching return to Florida, parts of the Caribbean and Hawaii,” said Mark Eakin, a coral reef specialist at Noaa.

“It won’t be as severe as 2015, but we’ve now moved into a general pattern where warmer than normal temperatures are the new normal. US reefs have taken a severe beating. We are looking at the loss or at least severe degradation of most reefs in the the coming decades.”

A global coral bleaching event has shifted between the northern and southern hemispheres since 2014, affecting around 70% of the world’s reefs. The “terminal” condition of Australia’s sprawling Great Barrier Reef, which suffered bleaching along two-thirds of its 1,400-mile length in 2016 and 2017, has provoked the greatest alarm.

But scientists have pointed out that America’s main reefs, found off Hawaii, Florida, Guam and Puerto Rico, are facing a largely unheralded disaster.

“The idea we will sustain reefs in the US 100 years from now is pure imagination. At the current rate it will be just 20 or 30 years, it’s just a question of time,” said Kim Cobb, an oceanographer at Georgia Tech. “The overall health of reefs will be severely compromised by the mid-point of the century and we are already seeing the first steps in that process.”

Bleaching occurs when prolonged high temperatures in the ocean cause coral to expel the symbiotic algae that provides it with food and colour. The coral turns a ghostly white, and can die if tolerable conditions don’t return. The world’s oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat generated by the release of greenhouse gases from human activity.

Cobb said regular annual bleaching events, which recent research has forecast happening by the 2040s, will “undercut the resilience of these ecosystems”. Corals not killed off by bleaching are left weakened by the process and are less likely to survive if repeatedly subjected to above-average temperatures.

“As scientists we are breathlessly trying to catch up,” said Cobb. “Things started to run away from us around 10 years ago but we were perhaps a little naive in not realizing that.”

In 2014 and 2015, Hawaii’s coral reefs suffered up to 90% bleaching, with some areas losing half of their coral cover. New research now shows that even one of the most protected parts of the Hawaiian coast was ravaged by coral bleaching.

Surveys of the Hanauma Bay nature preserve, a protected enclave on Oahu where fishing is banned, found 47% of the area’s corals experienced bleaching on average, with nearly 10% dying. Hanauma Bay is popular with tourists, with around 3,000 visitors each day, but the research stressed that the heat of the ocean rather than direct human interference caused the coral loss.

“This is a protected place and yet it’s not able to escape the temperature,” said Angela Richards Dona of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and a co-author of the report which was based on surveys taken in October 2015 and January 2016 and published in PeerJ. “It was very distressing to see. It does not bode well for Hawaii’s corals.”

Cobb, who was not involved in the research, said it was “sobering to read about the level of bleaching at one of the crown jewels of coral ecosystems. I’m thankful that most corals didn’t tip over to death.”

“This is another data point on the staggering breadth of damage across the global oceans,” Cobb said. “You can run but you can’t hide from the train wreck that is coming. The recent bleaching has been a brush with death and shows that this fatal stress is upon us.”

In 2014, Hawaii experienced only its second recorded episode of widespread bleaching, with around 90% of the shallow reefs affected at Lisianski Island, part of the vast Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument.

Eakin said this bleaching resulted in “kilometers of reef that was completely dead” and showed that the absence of local pollution or tourism cannot compensate the impact of warming waters.

“You need six pages of paperwork to go diving off Lisianski Island, there’s no-one living there, there are no threats,” Eakin said. “And yet the coral is overwhelmed by these big heat stress events that are becoming more frequent with climate change.”

Elevated heat, spurred by a El Niño climatic event, returned in 2015 and led to bleaching along the shores of Hawaii island and Oahu, the first back-to-back bleaching seen in Hawaii. The situation could have been more severe had storms not brought relieving cloud cover to areas including Hanauma Bay.

Last year, scientists highlighted the “unprecedented” collapse of Florida’s reef, which curves along the south-eastern tip of the state to the Florida Keys. The ecosystem, the only barrier reef in the continental US, was pillaged by bleaching in 2014 and 2015 and is now “beginning to dissolve away”, according to Chris Langdon, a coral expert at the University of Miami.

Despite the onset of La Niña, a flip-side of El Niño that results in an upwelling of cooler waters at the tropics, the global bleaching event continues unabated and is the “longest, most widespread and most damaging on record”, according to Noaa.

Severe bleaching has swept across the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, with some areas altered beyond recognition. More than 80% of shallow water reefs off Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, have died, while images released from a survey last year showed 90% bleaching of reefs around Okinawa, Japan.

Coral reefs are found in less than 1% of the world’s oceans but support a riot of colour and life, with around a quarter of all marine species relying upon the nooks and crannies of reefs for food or shelter. Reefs also act as a crucial coastal buffer from storms and provide food and livelihoods for millions of people. A study published this month found the global reef tourism industry is worth around $36bn.

“In the US our reefs are worth a huge amount but I don’t know if people realize that, more attention would not hurt,” said Dona, co-author of the Hawaii reef study.

“There are places in the world that have lost a tremendous amount of coral and we have the same prognosis if we continue to burn fossil fuels in the way we are doing. We need to cut our carbon emissions because the corals just can’t handle it.”

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