Best of our wild blogs: 11 Jan 18

14 Jan (Sun): Ubin Waterways Exploration - A scenic survey by kayak
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

Mudflats of Singapore: Kopi Tiam of the Sea
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

Read more!

Activists raise concern over blacktip reef sharks kept in dental clinic aquarium

Audrey Tan Straits Times 11 Jan 18;

SINGAPORE - Animal activists have raised concerns over three juvenile blacktip reef sharks spotted in the aquarium of a dental clinic in Tanjong Pagar, calling for the animals to be moved to a bigger facility.

While it is not illegal to keep the sharks in a tank, activists worry that the small space may constrict the growth of these animals.

The issue is whether such large-ranging animals should be kept in private tanks in the first place, said marine conservationist and photographer Michael Aw, 61.

Blacktip reef sharks, which can be found in Singapore's waters, typically grow to 1.6m, and up to 2.9m, said Mr Aw.

The sharks seen at the Braces & Implant Dental Centre at 163, Tras Street, now measure about an arm's length, or about 0.3m.

"The tank is far too small to allow for the natural growth and behaviour of this species," said Mr Aw. "Black tips are (related to) the bull shark and oceanic whitetip shark - they are big animals and free ranging."

In response to queries, a spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said its officers have visited the dental clinic and did not find any animal welfare issues.

Blacktip reef sharks seen in display aquarium of dental clinic

"The clinic has also engaged an aquarist to maintain the tank and take care of the fishes. The sharks were also seen by an aquatic veterinarian," said AVA.

The sharks are likely recent acquisitions by the clinic.

The animals were spotted in the tank in the last week of December by one of Mr Aw's colleagues, Ms Linda Leong, who took a video of the sharks and uploaded it on Facebook.

The video prompted netizens and local marine conservationists to express concern about the welfare of the animals.

A group of conservationists led by Mr Aw then sent an e-mail to the dental clinic, asking for permission to relocate the sharks to a fish farm with an open sea pen.

Dr Jimmy Gian from the dental clinic told the group that the clinic intended to move the sharks when they got bigger, but did not give details on where they will be moved to, according to e-mail exchanges seen by The Straits Times.

Dr Gian said the objective of the aquarium was to show the public "the beautiful side of sharks", and to change the perception that sharks are fearsome.

"Our main aim is to bring the marine aquarium to the busy people of Singapore who don't have your privilege of diving in clear waters or have the extra money to bring their families to (Resorts World Sentosa's or RWS') aquarium to see sharks and other marine animals," he said in the e-mail.

Dr Gian also agreed to Mr Aw's suggestion to work together on an "outcome that will benefit the public and fishes".

He said he did not require financial compensation, but suggested that the conservationists provide "a total of 600 entry tickets to the RWS Aquarium for underprivileged children/families of our choice to visit and see the sharks & beauty of ocean life".

Mr Aw, who founded the Ocean Geographic magazine, said he has no affiliation with RWS and came up with a counter-offer of 600 invitations to an upcoming Sharks4Kids programme in April and discounted subscriptions to the magazine.

Mr Aw said Dr Gian has yet to reply to the latest e-mail. The Straits Times has also reached out to Dr Gian for comment.

Read more!

Surprising branch in Singapore's otter family tree

Jose Hong Straits Times 11 Jan 18;

The smooth-coated otters entrancing Singapore are most probably the descendants of two different species caught up in an unconventional romance.

Research indicates that the creatures frolicking in our waters could be the result of a fraught union.

Picky small-clawed otter females had initially rejected smooth-coated males, but their fruitless search for suitable mates of their own species eventually led them back to the smooth-coated males and an aquatic marriage of convenience.

Researchers do not know if this original union occurred in nature or captivity - that is the subject of further research - but it is quite the story behind the world's first known case of wild otter hybrids.

Research assistant Meryl Theng and her team made the discovery that was published last year, when her team studied smooth-coated otter samples from all over the world in order to understand their population movements and how to better conserve them.

They also examined the dung and skin of 18 samples from five locations around Singapore, with surprising results.

"We questioned what could have gone wrong. Was spraint (dung) from the wrong species collected? Was there contamination of small-clawed otter DNA?" said Ms Theng, 28. Only after they verified that they did not make any mistakes, and after another colleague got the same results, did they realise that they were on to something.

Singapore has two species of otters. Smooth-coated ones grow up to 1.2m long and 11kg in weight. They are the more familiar ones here and have been increasingly seen since the 1990s in places like Sungei Buloh, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and Gardens by the Bay.

Small-clawed otters weigh around half as much, at 5kg, and in recent decades have been seen only on offshore islands such as Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin.

Ms Theng said there are several reasons why the two species could have bred with each other, the top contender being the "picky female" theory.

Singapore's otters do not look like hybrids because their genes are not split equally between the smooth-coated and small-clawed otters.

Rather, the original offspring of the two species continued breeding with smooth-coated otters across several generations, meaning that the descendants did not look like small-clawed otters at all, though they kept some of their genes, said Ms Theng.

One implication of this is pure classification - Ms Theng said the two otter species are more genetically similar than previously thought and so should be recognised as such by taxonomists.

Biology lecturer N. Sivasothi, who heads community group OtterWatch, said that the research raises interesting questions.

"How extensive is this occurrence in southern Malaysia and in Singapore? Should a threatened species be protected if there is evidence of hybridisation? Should hybrids be allowed to persist if they fill an ecological role?" he asked.

"This will be discussed by the otter specialist group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Species Survival Commission at a proposed workshop for South-east Asian otter researchers."


Singapore's smooth-coated otters are perhaps one of the country's favourite wildlife mascots, remaining popular even after a provoked otter bit a five-year-old girl two weeks ago.

Yet, despite being native to the region, they had disappeared from the country's consciousness until relatively recently.

Habitat loss and reclamation works drove them from the nation's waters in the 1970s. But as Singapore worked to clean up pollution in its waterways and as the neighbouring shores of Johor became developed, the furry swimmers began moving back.

There are now at least 60 otters in Singapore, found in places such as Pasir Ris, Sungei Buloh, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, Pulau Ubin and Gardens by the Bay.

As their numbers grew, more people started photographing and recording their movements, including groups such as OtterWatch.

However, while the smooth-coated otters have seen their star rise, the small-clawed otters have waned in status.

These otters weigh about half as much as their more famous counterparts and have slowly disappeared from Singapore.

Now, they are suspected to be visitors rather than residents in Singapore's waterways and have been recorded only on offshore islands such as Pulau Tekong and Pulau Ubin.

Read more!

Thailand: Downpour triggers Bangkok city chaos

SUPOJ WANCHAROEN Bangkok Post 10 Jan 18;

A morning downpour submerged several areas in Bangkok on Wednesday, triggering traffic chaos and trapping hundreds of office workers on flooded streets during rush hour.

The freak weather is expected to dump more rain on Bangkok and upper Thailand throughout Wednesday, to be followed by a "rapid drop in temperatures" on Thursday. The cold weather will continue until early next week, the Meteorological Department said in an urgent warning on Wednesday.

In Bangkok, torrential rain from 2am to 9am flooded sections of Pattanakan, Sukhumvit, Srinakarin, Lat Phrao, Ramkhamhaeng and Suwinthawong roads, surging up to 20 centimetres deep, causing a long tailback and restricting cars to a crawl.

Pedestrians also bore the brunt, with footpaths near Tawana Market on Lat Phrao Road completely blanketed by water.

Showers continued to soak Bangkok streets, pedestrians inching their way carefully through water toward shelters. Some taxi drivers rejected soaked passengers.

Soldiers from many military units were ordered to help police facilitate the traffic.

The heaviest rainfall recorded on Wednesday morning was 137.5 millimetres in Bangkok’s Nong Chok district, according to the City Hall flood prevention centre.

Bangkok deputy governor Chakrapan Pewngam explained the reason for the flooding. He said that with the end of the rainy season some pumps were down for necessary maintenance. In addition, the level of water in many canals was already high because City Hall recently began flushing out old polluted water with freshwater channeled from the river.

Heavy rain was reported in many parts of Thailand after a high pressure system brought cold weather over the Northeast and expected to reduce temperatures in this region by 6-8°C, the Meteorological Department chief Wanchai Sakudomchai said.

In Kalasin, the temperature had already dropped to 16°C, with villagers  lighting bonfires to keep themselves and their animals warm.

Mr Wanchai expected the temperatures in Bangkok and nearby provinces to drop by 4-6°C on Thursday.

The cold spell will continue until Jan 15, he said.

The northeastern monsoon in the South is expected to strengthen, causing widespread rain in the region.

Read more!

Warming will put millions more at flood risk in next 20 years - scientists

Alex Whiting Reuters 10 Jan 18;

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Unless countries urgently boost their flood defences, millions more people will be at risk from river flooding in the next 20 years as global warming increases the likelihood of severe rainfall, scientists said on Wednesday.

In Asia, the numbers at risk will more than double to 156 million, up from 70 million, with India, China and Indonesia among the worst-affected countries, according to a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

The numbers at risk in South America also will double, to 12 million, and Africa will see a rise to 34 million facing flooding threats, up from 25 million, the researchers said.

However, the actual number of people at risk is likely to be higher than the scientists’ predictions, as the estimates do not take into account population growth or more people moving to areas at risk of flooding, scientists said.

The United States and parts of Europe also will need to make major investments in flood protection - such as improving river dykes, river management and building standards, or relocating people - to prevent a rise in the numbers of people facing flooding.

“More than half of the United States must at least double their protection level within the next two decades if they want to avoid a dramatic increase in river flood risks,” Sven Willner, from the Germany-based Potsdam Institute, said in a statement.

Global warming increases the risk of flooding because the amount of rain that can fall during an extreme downpour “increases exponentially” as temperatures rise, Anders Levermann, also of the Potsdam Institute, said in an interview.

Global temperatures have already risen by more than 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and are expected to continue rising.

Countries committed in 2015 to try to hold global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, but the world is currently on track for more than 3 degrees Celsius of warming, a level expected cause much more extreme and unpredictable weather, and to cause worsening crop failures and more migration.

“This is already something we have caused ... and we have to adapt to now,” Levermann said. “Doing nothing will be dangerous.”

Although river floods may seem less dramatic than hurricanes and cyclones, they can inflict serious damage. Last year, Peru experienced its worst flooding in decades, causing up to $9 billion in damage.

South Asia in 2017 suffered its worst monsoon flooding in a decade, which killed more than 1,400 people, left hundreds of villages submerged and drove tens of thousands of people to relief camps.

Disaster management officials in the region said although flooding is normal during the monsoon months, they received a whole year’s rain in just a few days.


But the question of how best to protect people from river floods is a complex one.

“It’s not that straightforward to think if only we built dykes and levees along the rivers ... then the world will be a safe place,” said Richard Klein, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Building flood protection “will also have an effect on food production and it will increase the risk of particularly high magnitude events”, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In Bangladesh for example, regular and often predictable floods dump a fertile layer of river sediment on fields, one reason the country is self sufficient in rice, Klein said.

“People tend to pick up their stuff, move to higher ground and come back when the water’s gone, and (they) benefit from the fertile soil that they have,” he said.

Building infrastructure to contain floodwaters can also give people a false sense of security, so they are more likely to build in areas still at risk of flooding after a severe downpour.

“That’s not to say one shouldn’t protect people, but ... simply protecting ... has consequences,” he said.

Reporting by Alex Whiting; editing by Laurie Goering

Read more!

Corals die, farmers suffer through Australia's third-hottest year

Reuters 10 Jan 18;

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia had its third-hottest year on record in 2017, the country’s weather bureau said on Wednesday, as global warming changed the continent’s climate and farmers warned unpredictable seasons are hurting the $47 billion agricultural sector.

Unusually, the high heat last year came despite the absence of an El Nino weather system in the Pacific, which tends to warm Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology said in its annual climate statement.

“I think what it illustrates is even without the strong driver of an El Nino, the world is still producing very warm temperatures,” Blair Trewin, a senior climatologist at the bureau told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

During 2017 hotter ocean temperatures near Australia’s northeast coast prompted “significant” coral bleaching along the world-heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef, the first time it had occurred in consecutive summers.

The national mean temperature was nearly one degree Celsius above average, with the heat “mostly associated” with human-caused global warming that also reduced rainfall in Australia’s south, the bureau’s statement said.

That made for the driest September ever recorded in crucial grain-growing regions of New South Wales and the Murray-Darling riverbasin, with heavy rains then hitting during harvest and making it even more difficult for farmers.

The world’s fourth largest wheat exporter is set for its smallest crop in a decade.

“It’s really the unpredictability of it rather than the actual event,” said Matt Dalgleish, a market analyst at agricultural advisory firm Mecardo.

“Farmers are used to dealing with different weather as long as it can run within a reasonably predictable pattern and sit reasonably close to the seasons they expect - it’s when you get these events that are uncharacteristically out of season that cause the most amount of heartache.”

Seven of Australia’s 10 warmest years have occurred since 2005, the bureau found, and another hotter-than-average year is expected in 2018, which has already brought heatwave conditions to the country’s southeast.

Sydney on Sunday sweltered through its hottest day in 80 years, while highway bitumen melted in Victoria state and bushfires burned out of control. In the northwest, a tropical storm is gathering and forecast to make landfall at cyclone-strength between Broome and Port Hedland on Saturday.

Globally it is likely 2017 will be the second- or third-warmest year on record since 1850, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology said.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Michael Perry

Read more!