Best of our wild blogs: 11 Aug 17

Corals, seagrasses and mangroves of Pulau Hantu
wild shores of singapore

Yishun Dam shorebird primer @ 9Aug2017 PM

The Wild Side of Singapore (2017)
Bugs & Insects of Singapore

Malaysia’s East Coast Rail Link a double-edged sword for environment, wildlife

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Bleaching incident led to late coral spawning

Season was later than usual, likely because corals were recovering
Audrey Tan Straits Times 11 Aug 17;

Warming seas caused Singapore's corals to suffer from the longest-ever bleaching incident on record last year, and observations show that the incident has far-reaching effects.

The reproductive capacity of Singapore's corals was reduced earlier this year, even though they have started to recover from bleaching since late October 2016.

Scientists have observed that some species of hard coral, including Merulina ampliata, Platygyra sinensis and Platygyra pini, spawned outside of the usual reproductive season.

In Singapore, the main mass coral spawning event happens just once a year, usually from the third night after the full moon in late March or April. This year, spawning happened in end-April.

"But after the full moon in May, we observed some corals, which missed the season in April, spawning," said Dr Karenne Tun, director of the coastal and marine division at the National Parks Board's (NParks) National Biodiversity Centre.

Spawning is an energetically expensive process for the corals. During the process, the corals release millions of egg and sperm bundles into the water column at the same time in a spectacular underwater display.

The eggs and sperms then join to form free-floating larvae, which are carried by the water until they find a suitable home - usually a hard surface they can latch on to. But less than 1 per cent of this free-floating larvae eventually settle down and get recruited onto a reef. Many end up being eaten by predators, or fail to settle on a suitable substrate.

Researchers who observed the event in April this year had found it to be more subdued compared with previous years. This is likely because Singapore's corals, which were then still recovering from the bleaching incident last year, had more critical resource concerns.

The bleaching, which stretched from June to December, was the longest coral-bleaching incident to hit local reefs.

Corals depend on symbiotic algae, called zooxanthellae, for energy. Bleaching occurs when abnormally high sea temperatures cause corals to expel the algae, turning the corals white and depriving them of a key source of nutrition.

Following the April event, NParks researchers monitoring the reefs found that egg-sperm bundles were still present in some coral colonies. This discovery led them to hypothesise that these corals may spawn later. They were proven right.

"The fact that there was spawning, even though it was delayed, is an encouraging sign," said Dr Tun.

"But if warming seas continue to affect Singapore, resulting in reduced number of individuals or species spawning, then the number of successful recruits could fall and reduce the rate of reef expansion."

Healthy coral reefs are important as they support a diverse ecosystem and function as a nursery for many species of reef organisms.

Assistant Professor Huang Danwei, from the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences, said a protracted spawning season suggests that corals are adapting to rising sea temperatures and more stressful conditions in general.

"Spreading their egg release over a longer time period is akin to not putting all their eggs in one basket - in this case, a time basket.

"This could increase the likelihood that at least some eggs will survive during stressful conditions," said Prof Huang, a marine biologist.

But he said that while this strategy increased the average survival rate of eggs, it also lowered the probability that they could be fertilised and coral larvae develop to adulthood.

Said Prof Huang: "Delayed spawning year after year could thus be detrimental to the recruitment of corals onto the reef as successful development of corals relies on the synchronised coral spawning that has been calibrated over millions of years of reef evolution."

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Saving wildlife, dogs and people at the same time

Singaporean helps prevent rabies infections in Nepal with project to sterilise, vaccinate dogs
Jose Hong Straits Times 10 Aug 17;

When Ms Debby Ng, 35, went searching for red pandas in the Everest National Park in Nepal in 2013, she asked villagers if they had seen the rare furry creatures.

Yes, they replied, dogs were carrying their carcasses around in their mouths. That is, when they were not killing other rare wild animals.

The story was the same in the seven other villages she visited that year. Ms Ng, a Singaporean freelance photojournalist, said most villagers cared for the dogs, but could not control their ballooning populations and so resorted to the only available method: rat poison.

But this makes dogs die slowly and painfully. And when scavengers like vultures feed on the dogs' bodies, they get poisoned in turn.

She found out that in addition to killing wildlife, the dogs attacked livestock and spread diseases like distemper virus, which affects only animals, and rabies, which affects both animals and humans.

According to a study published last year, up to 100 people die from rabies annually in Nepal. Singapore, in contrast, has been rabies- free since 1953.

Ms Ng's guide told her that free-ranging dogs were also a problem in central Nepal, around the Annapurna Conservation Area.

In 2014, Ms Ng decided to start the Himalayan Mutt Project with her guide, the first and only movement to neuter and vaccinate dogs in the Annapurna Conservation Area.

She and her team work together with Nepalese veterinarians to go around villages and convince villagers to round up free-roaming dogs and bring them in, along with their own, to be sterilised and vaccinated against rabies.

Their journeys last 16 days, and they hope to go yearly, though they could not go in 2015 because of the earthquake that struck the country.

Initially, they faced resistance from villagers, who feared their dogs would not survive sterilisation.

Ms Ng said: "You and I would not think twice about sending our pets to the vet, but these people had never before seen surgery being performed on an animal and its internal organs being removed."

But they soon learnt it was very safe, and Ms Ng was soon able to continue the project. To date, the Himalayan Mutt Project has neutered and vaccinated 447 dogs, and vaccinated 100 more. That may not seem like a lot, till you consider that a female dog can give birth to four to six puppies, twice per year. Ms Ng said with about half of the dogs neutered being female, the project has prevented up to 5,500 puppies being born since 2014.

Furthermore, the number of culled dogs has dropped dramatically. In the first batch of villages visited in 2014, only 10 dogs were culled in the same year and none was culled last year.

Perhaps most importantly, her project has helped protect local communities and wildlife against rabies. Ms Ng said that sterilising and vaccinating dogs costs only about US$15 (S$20). In Singapore, the human rabies vaccinations cost around $450, while treating a human infected with rabies can start from around $3,000, a sum unaffordable to most villagers in one of the world's poorest countries.

But while the sterilisation process itself is not costly, reaching hundreds of dogs in mountainous villages is.

Ms Ng said each trip costs US$20,000, with 35 per cent of the cost going to transportation and another about 40 per cent divided equally between the medicine and surgery, and staff salary. The rest goes to food and accommodation.

Ms Ng's largest challenge is fund-raising. "Investment in managing wildlife diseases is often left as a response rather than prevention. This is especially problematic when trying to protect species that are already rare," she said.

"We have this perception that conservation is only about saving wildlife, and that is one of the main gaps that the Himalayan Mutt Project is trying to bridge. The wonderful thing about this project is that by taking care of the dogs, we take care of both people and animals."

Next month, she will go to the Himalayas again for another round of the project. And next year, she will conduct research into the diseases spread by dogs.

"This is a data-deficient field," Ms Ng said. "I want to look at the diseases present in Annapurna carried by dogs and how these dogs are moving throughout the landscape. By filling in the gaps about diseases, I hope to predict the kinds of diseases that emerge and help prevent them."

Her goal, she said, is to help all the villages in the Annapurna Conservation Area, which total 57.

That will admittedly take some time, but Ms Ng is nothing if not determined. She founded the Singaporean marine conservation volunteer organisation, Hantu Blog, and volunteered with the National Parks Board and the World Wide Fund for Nature (Malaysia).

She is also pursuing her bachelor's degree in geography and zoology at the University of Tasmania.

One of the organisations funding the Himalayan Mutt Project is the Britain-based Rufford Foundation, which supports early-career scientists in developing countries that are undertaking nature conservation projects.

Its trust director Terry Kenny said he was "delighted to confirm" the charity provided Ms Ng with £5,000 (S$9,000) earlier this year. He said this was because "Debby is promoting safer alternatives to controlling dog populations in collaboration with local communities".


Number of people who die from rabies annually in Nepal. Singapore, in contrast, has been rabies-free since 1953.


Number of dogs that the Himalayan Mutt Project has neutered and vaccinated to date. Another 100 have been vaccinated.

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