Best of our wild blogs: 7 Jul 17

22 Jul (Sat): R.U.M. mangrove clean up and Mangrove Speaks@Sungei Buloh
Restore Ubin Mangroves (R.U.M.) Initiative

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The volunteer lifeguards of Pulau Ubin: ‘We won’t give up until the body is found’

Kampong spirit lives on in a community christened “Sea Angel”, who conduct their own search-and-rescue efforts in waters off Singapore.
Justin Ong Channel NewsAsia 7 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE: Fifteen minutes is all it takes for the fish farm to shed its creaking, bobbing picture of calm set against rippled waters off Pulau Ubin. As storm clouds rush into view, a fearsome racket arrives, mixing the howling wind with slamming doors while white-capped waves lash against flimsy wooden moorings.

Four years ago, the same abrupt change in conditions saw a fisherman in the vicinity thrown off balance by a sudden gust as he hauled in his catch. The elderly man was knocked unconscious by his boat’s propeller as he fell into the sea, and drowned.

“His face got all smashed up. It wasn’t nice. It was very ugly,” said the farm’s owner Phillip Lim, who retrieved the body by himself from the Johor Straits.

Armed with bare-bones diving gear and a modest motor-sampan, the 55-year-old and three other like-minded souls have dutifully served as voluntary lifeguards for the last decade, plumbing Ubin’s waters in search, rescue and salvage missions.

They form part of a wider community dubbed “Sea Angel”, made up of farmers, fishermen, kayakers and other outdoorsy folk aiming to keep the area safe.

At its helm is Lim, who in 2007 experienced a close shave himself when he tumbled out of his boat during a thunderstorm. “I had engine failure, my leg was stuck, half of my body was in the water,” he recalled. “One of the farmers saved my life - if not I would have died a long time ago.”

The incident was a turning point for Lim. A few months later, witnessing the collapse of a nearby kelong, he quickly swung into action, gathering his trio of dive buddies to search for bodies under the debris and recover precious personal belongings.


Lim’s self-professed rescue team has since logged at least 15 dives but they are, as he sternly told Channel NewsAsia, “not interested in records”.

The stories, however, are plentiful: the dead body with an entire leg of meat chewed clean by a wild boar; a senior fisherman who suffered a heart attack out at sea; the numerous boaters, kayakers and sailors towed to safety after capsizing in the middle of the channel.

There is even an origin tale, involving an American family on holiday in Singapore in 2009.

"The parents and their two children, six to seven years old, were kayaking through Ubin when they drifted apart due to a heavy storm,” said Lim. “Visibility was really bad, about 10 metres only.”

“We approached the parents and they told us to save their children first. We found the kids, sent everyone to a kelong, gave them towels and hot drinks.”

“And they gave us the name of Sea Angel.”

Another enduring memory, his “most painful” one yet, was that of a kayaker struck by lightning in 2007.

“When I approached him in the middle of the waters, his body was on fire. And he was still alive. I looked at his face, in pain and stunned… We sent him to hospital and the next day he passed away. It’s very sad. He was just 35.”

Lim recounted his toughest outing to date as an attempt to salvage a farmer’s sampan which had sunk to the bottom of the sea.

“I took two days. It was hard because I was alone, and the visibility in these waters is not good… But the old man is over 80 years old. It’s the only sampan he has, and it’s his livelihood. I had to help him get it back.”

To do so he had to make repeated dives about 12 metres deep, dredging up bulky wreckage with his thin, slight frame.

Lim is accustomed to far greater depths and dangers, having worked as a commercial diver for an oil and shipping company and “seen friends die underwater”. But in the years that passed he has also suffered two collapsed lungs and contracted asthma.

“Small thing,” said Lim, grinning widely in a break from his otherwise unsmiling, weather-beaten appearance and disposition.


It begs the question of whether the Sea Angel community are putting themselves in harm’s way by taking matters into their own hands. But their founder rejected the idea.

Said Lim: “We are all trained in first-aid, CPR etc. We are quite well-versed with the terrain, current and underwater features here. All my divers have communications equipment, night-vision goggles and BCDs (buoyancy control devices) so in an emergency, we can surface. If the current is too strong, we abandon.”

And while the divers typically work alone, above water, the rest of the community also chips in, he added.

For instance a fisherman might help watch for passing motorboats as nearby farmers take turns looking out from their individual vantage points.

“Once we spot something, we'll activate, using phones, surrounding people as fast as possible,” said Lim. “We've no time to wait.”

“Drowning cases only have about five to 10 minutes of a chance of survival. If by diving I can save somebody, even though I lose my own life, it doesn’t matter.”

“But if we miss the window, then no choice. We have to start to do a surface search for the body.”

“Regardless of what, we have to find their bodies. Because it’s someone’s child or parent. That’s our principle. We will not give up until the body is found.”

This unflinching position has seen Lim clash with authorities on more than one occasion. His gripes include being stopped from diving and officials activating their own personnel hours too late.

“It’s not that we don’t want to work with authorities. But it’s difficult. All the times I found dead bodies, I ended up being interviewed by this and that, and my farm got inspected.

“They have a lot of red tape. If we call them and wait for them to SOP here, SOP there, I think we would have saved the person by then.

“They have to open up to working together with the community.”


Back in 2002, it was the same defiant streak which led to Lim swapping high-rises and highways for life on a big floating plank accompanied by no-filter sea views, a permanent breeze and a dozen hyperactive dogs.

“I’m a kampong kid. I can’t stand living in the city,” he said.

Wife and kids - a son and a daughter, both in their 20s - live on the mainland but see him once a week and are supportive of what he called his “social work”.

Aside from search-and-rescue, the Sea Angel community counts mangrove restoration and protection of marine life amongst their activities.

They also venture inland to lend aid to Ubin’s elderly and needy by delivering meals, looking after their medication and raising funds where required.

“Ubin is the last proper village we have in Singapore,” said Lim. “The kampong living way, the kampong spirit - there’s no price. If you need, I will help you.”

“Rather than staying at a home where you don’t even know your neighbours. Real, human-to human interaction is more important than just reading books and going to school.”

“That’s the spirit we want to pass down to the next generation of youngsters. That’s why’ve been trying to call for more people to join us.”

Though apparent that his beliefs form the bedrock of Sea Angel’s initiatives, Lim refused to describe himself as a leader. “I can’t say that. It’s everybody’s effort.”

His farm business has also not yielded much income since a devastating plankton bloom in 2009 - yet he does not think it right to return to Singapore now.

“I cannot give up. Because there’s a need for a community to be here.”

“Anyway, I don’t think too much about the future,” said Lim. “My philosophy is simple - today I can do something, so I do it.”

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Wild crocodile dies from injuries after accident along Kranji Way

Straits Times 7 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE - A wild crocodile has died from its injuries after being involved in an accident along Kranji Way on Wednesday (July 5) evening.

The reptile, said to be 1.5m long, was hit by a car at around 10pm near the Kranji Dam, Shin Min Daily News reported.

Its right hind leg was reportedly injured.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, an Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) spokesman said the crocodile died on Thursday morning.

"AVA is aware of the crocodile incident, and understands that it was a wild crocodile," the spokesman added.

"AVA advises the public not to approach, disturb, feed or try to catch any wildlife, including crocodiles. Members of the public can contact AVA at 1800-476-1600 to provide feedback."

According to Shin Min, a member of the public alerted the police after coming across the injured crocodile.

Police officers arrived on scene and cordoned off the area. It is not known how the crocodile ended up on the road.

2.5m-long crocodile stuck at fish farm rescued and released at Sungei Buloh

A staff member from a nearby crocodile farm offered to tend to the reptile. With the help of a few colleagues, they took it back to the farm for treatment.

Wildlife rescue group Acres told The Straits Times it was alerted to the incident, but did not respond to it as it was told the situation was under control.

Acres' deputy chief executive, Mr Kalai Vanan Balakrishnan, said it is rare for wild crocodiles to encroach onto urban areas as they are usually very shy.

There have been crocodile sightings in the Kranji Way area, however, because of its proximity to Sungei Buloh nature reserve.

In November last year, a 2.5m-long estuarine crocodile wandered into a Lim Chu Kang fish and had to be rescued after being found wedged between a fence, some wood and machinery.

It did not suffer any injuries and was released into Sungei Buloh nature reserve.

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The haze fight: A new lease of life for affected people in Indonesia

In the first of a four-part series on the haze fight in Indonesia, we visit Pekanbaru to find out how things have changed for villagers
Latashni Gobi Nathan Straits Times 7 Jul 17;

PEKANBARU - A permanent blanket of smoke and a stifling charred smell permeating the air — these were the abhorrent living conditions many had to endure for months during the 2015 haze.

A combination of factors, such as the illegal slash-and-burn practices of some farmers, the dry weather due to the El Nino season and the flammable nature of peatlands, caused forest fires in the provinces of Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra to quickly get out of hand.

What arose was a haze crisis in South-east Asia that lasted approximately four months.

Among those most badly affected were residents in Pekanbaru, the capital of Indonesia’s Riau province, which is about 280km away from Singapore. There, the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) reached a staggering 1,065 on Sept 14, 2015.

The city has a population of about 1,090,000. A majority of whom work in the agriculture industry as farmers or researchers. Some others are business owners whose income relies on those who visit the city.

As conditions worsened, thousands began fleeing the city to neighbouring Medan, or west to Padang.

Flights were grounded, and at times, visibility was reduced to between 100m and 200m.

Bad for business

Café owner Bambang Suhendro, 43, recalls having very few customers during that period.

He says: “During the 2015 haze, we would go days without seeing any customers. It was frustrating for my wife and me.

“Most of our customers are working adults who drop by after work with their colleagues and friends. The haze caused them to rush home after work to escape the bad air conditions.

“It was hard seeing children constantly coughing and falling ill. It was not just my own children, but those of every other family I knew. The adults shared tips on managing the difficulties and updates on which places were less badly affected.”

Stopping the haze

Mr Suhendro says it was a tough time, but that the Indonesian government and some major companies have been helping to stop the haze.

“I know that Asia Pulp and Paper gave out free masks during the haze in 2015 and has been trying to find solutions to ensure the air quality never gets that bad again,” he says.

“I am relieved and happy that we have had clean air in the past year.”

He adds: “My children can go to school safely and we do not have to spend money on medication. People are able to take part in outdoor activities again.”

Nurse Ance Wovita, 33, a resident of Pekanbaru, says she is pleased she no longer sees a huge number of cases of children with upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), asthma or other related health problems.

Recalling the situation at Perawang Clinic during the 2015 haze, she says: “The clinic is more affordable than a hospital, so during the haze period, most locals brought their children to Perawang Clinic.

“The clinic staff had to attend to more than 400 patients in 24 hours. It was disheartening to see that so many of them were children with URTI.”

Ms Wovita says she used nebulisers - a device that allows medication to be inhaled through the mouth and nose — to help them and that children and babies found it uncomfortable.

The clinic was well-equipped and no patient was turned away, she adds.

Despite the tiring shifts and continuous stream of patients, Ms Wovita still loves her job.

Being a nurse has always been her dream and she likes helping others, she says.

“As a nurse, I know the struggles that come with the job. Once in awhile, some patients will show their appreciation,” she says.

“On several occasions, children whom I have attended to would thank me when they see me outside. It is heartwarming to know I have affected others positively.”

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Hong Kong seizes largest ivory haul in 30 years

Reuters 6 Jul 17;

Authorities in Hong Kong this week made their largest haul of contraband ivory in more than 30 years, amid surging illegal wildlife seizures fuelled by lax regulations and buoyant demand from mainland China.

The former British colony situated at the mouth of China's Pearl River Delta is one of the world's top global transit hubs for endangered species and their products, such as shark fin, pangolin skin and rosewood furniture.

Customs officials on Thursday said they had seized 7,200 kg (15,873 lb) of ivory tusks, valued at around HK$72 million ($9.22 million), at a cargo warehouse beside the city's harbor.

The ivory was discovered in a 40-foot container from Malaysia declared to hold frozen fish, beneath which officers found the tusks.

"The 1,000 boxes were half-empty when we found them with frozen fish put around the ivory," said customs official Raymond Chan.

Conservation group WildAid estimated the tusks had probably been taken from about 720 elephants.

Hong Kong's agriculture, fisheries and conservation department said it was investigating the shipment's final destination, probably a nearby country.

A special administrative region of China, Hong Kong has lagged other places, including the mainland, in adopting tighter rules against trading of ivory and other endangered species.

Regulatory loopholes allow traders to use a stockpile of legal ivory as cover to smuggle illegal ivory to unsuspecting buyers, say groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and WildAid.

China, Singapore and the United States have all banned the ivory trade, with the mainland closing down all operations by the end of this year.

Hong Kong, however, has only timetabled a ban by 2021. Legislators are set to discuss the issue on Friday and decide if traders should be compensated in the case of a total ban.

The teeming port city has the largest retail market for ivory, with 90 percent of consumers from the mainland.

Hong Kong has been trading ivory for more than 150 years, fashioned into jewelry and sculptures, but activists say illegal poaching is pushing elephants toward extinction.

The independent Environmental Investigation Agency last week identified Shuidong, a southern Chinese coastal town close to Hong Kong, as the hub for 10 to 20 Chinese-led criminal syndicates bringing in ivory from Africa.

African rangers detailed harrowing firsthand tales of elephant poaching during a June visit to Hong Kong, an event marked by a tense standoff with traders who say their business is legal.

(Reporting by Doris Huang and Farah Master; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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