Best of our wild blogs: 26 Feb 18

24 Mar (Sat): Reefs 101 - FREE workshop at St John's Island
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

10 Mar (Sat): Marine Open House at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum
Celebrating Singapore Shores!

NSS Blue and Green Survey 22 Feb 2018
Singapore Bird Group

Balik Kampung and RUMblings in January and February!
Restore Ubin Mangroves (R.U.M.) Initiative

World Pangolin Day 2018

From Booted & Striped to Snakes & Ladders
Winging It

Mangrove Horseshoe Crab (Carcinoscorpius rotundicauda) @ Coney Island (Pulau Serangoon)
Monday Morgue

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Angler filmed throwing stones at otters in Punggol Waterfront

Ng Huiwen Straits Times 25 Feb 18;

SINGAPORE - An angler was filmed throwing stones at a family of otters next to the Marina Country Club in Punggol Waterfront on Saturday evening (Feb 24).

A housewife, who wanted to be known only as Ms Chong, told The Straits Times on Sunday that she was in the area at about 6.30pm when she spotted the family of eight otters swimming away.

Ms Chong was filming the sight when she noticed that a man had started throwing stones at one of the pups.

"Obviously, I was shocked. He did it not once, but twice, at two of the pups," said Ms Chong, who declined to give her age.

A video of the incident was shared on the OtterWatch Facebook page on Saturday night.

Mr Jeffrey Teo, who is a member of the OtterWatch community, told The Straits Times that this particular family of otters have been spotted frequently in the Punggol stretch since about two months ago.

They comprise of parents, a sub-adult and five pups.

He said that a few otter watchers have since alerted the authorities to the incident.

Ms Chong, who was alone, said that there was a fence separating her and the man, who was part of a group of six male anglers.

While there were other groups of anglers in the area at the time, none of them did anything to stop the man, she added.

To ensure that the otters were unhurt, she stood at the location for a few minutes to monitor them.

"I was glad to see the pups were okay and that they were all accounted for," she said, adding that she hopes the video would help to raise the public's awareness of wild animals in Singapore.

"I hope that people will be more tolerant of wild animals and share some of their space with them. The otters were there for only about five minutes and they went away. There's no need to be cruel," she added.

A spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said it is investigating the incident. Members of the public who have information on the case or witnessed the incident can contact AVA at 1800-476-1600.

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Malaysia elephant sanctuary trumpets effort to cut human-animal conflict

M Jegathesan AFP Yahoo News 26 Feb 18;

A herd of elephants tramp through jungle before lumbering into a river under the watchful gaze of their keepers, training at a Malaysian sanctuary for their vital work in reducing human-animal conflict.

The sanctuary in Kuala Gandah, central Malaysia, is an area of secluded rainforest where "mahouts" -- as the keepers are known -- care for a 26-strong group of endangered Asian elephants.

A handful were rescued after suffering injuries or being orphaned, but most of them have been domesticated and trained to aid the National Elephant Conservation Centre's effort to help elephants who become embroiled in conflicts with humans.

They accompany a highly-trained team on their missions to find and subdue fellow pachyderms whose habitats have been encroached on, and are putting themselves and villagers at risk.

Since the centre started operations about 30 years ago, its staff have relocated more than 700 wild elephants, taking them away from inhabited areas and deep into the jungle.

Malaysia is home to vast tracts of rainforest and a kaleidoscope of exotic wildlife, from elephants to orangutans and tigers, but the numbers of many rare species have fallen dramatically in recent decades.

Some have been hunted for their body parts that are then sold on the black market, but a growing number are falling victim to human-animal conflict -- which happens when rapid expansion of plantations or development of settlements encroaches on animals' natural habitats.

Many elephants in Malaysia have been injured or killed after coming into contact with humans when they wander onto the country's ubiquitous palm oil plantations, or enter settlements and eat crops.

Villagers and plantation workers sometimes target them, viewing them as pests and not realising they are endangered and protected by law.

One elephant among the herd at the 30-acre (12-hectare) sanctuary, Selendang, lost part of its leg after it was caught in a snare trap, and has been fitted with a prosthetic limb.

On a recent visit to the centre, a dozen of the resident elephants marched in single file with their trunks swinging as their mahouts put them through the paces during a morning workout.

They emitted trumpeting sounds before splashing into a river, where the mahouts scrubbed their bellies and trunks.

There are believed to be some 1,200 wild Asian elephants in peninsular Malaysia, down from as many as 1,700 in 2011.

"If their remaining habitat faces rapid deforestation, I think before the end of the century, there will be no more wild elephants left," warned Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, a Malaysia-based elephant expert.

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Can a tourist ban save DiCaprio’s coral paradise from destruction?

South-east Asian idylls – from Philippine islands to the Thai bay made famous in The Beach – plan to turn tourists away so that devastated coral reefs have some time to recover. Will it be enough?
Hannah Ellis-Petersen The Guardian 25 Feb 18;

Our Thai tour guide, Spicey, takes a drag on her cigarette and gestures sadly towards the beach. “The problem with people is that they are too greedy. They see a beautiful place and they want it. They take, take, take from nature. And then they destroy it.”

The golden sands of Maya Bay where Spicey stands are some of the most famous in the world. This once-idyllic cove, on the tiny Thai island of Koh Phi Phi Leh, was the paradise location of The Beach, Danny Boyle’s 2000 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It was then pushed by tourism officials in advertising campaigns to entice more wealthy visitors to Thailand.

But mass tourism has since taken a vast toll on the fragile coral reefs here: 80% of the coral around the bay has been destroyed, the result of millions of boats dropping anchor on it, tourists treading on and picking it, or poisoning by rubbish and suncream.

It is a sad tale replicated across the once-unspoilt bays and beaches of south-east Asia. It was here that the world’s greatest diversity of coral and marine life used to occur, but the reefs are now the most threatened on the planet, with 80% of what remains at high risk. Human pollution has combined with overfishing and the lucrative tourist trade to deliver appalling environmental destruction.

“What we are seeing now with coastal tourism in Boracay [in the Philippines], Maya Bay and Koh Phi Phi Leh is not new, but what is surprising is that this story is still very real today,” said Dr Loke Ming Chou, a tropical marine science professor at the University of Singapore, who said that “frenetic, makeshift and ad-hoc development driven only by profit” was a curse for these pristine beaches.

“After so many lessons of overwhelmed beach locations, the rush to make money still ignores the environment, which is what attracts tourists in the first place. This is not sustainable and such places will collapse when tourists stay away to avoid swimming in their own muck.”

This month it seems that governments are finally paying attention to a situation that is spiralling out of control. According to recent announcements, both Maya Bay and Boracay could be shut down for up to six months to give the environment a chance to recover.

In the Philippines, the president, Rodrigo Duterte, has called for Boracay’s temporary closure, comparing it to a “cesspool”. “You go into the water, it’s smelly,” said Duterte. “Of what? Shit. Because everything that goes out in Boracay … it’s destroying the environment of the Philippines and creating a disaster.”

In Thailand, where the ministry of environment has already banned smoking and littering in beachside locations, the mooted June-to-September shutdown of Maya Bay would be the most far-reaching attempt yet to get a grip on an industry that is both a money-spinner for the nation and an environmental menace.

In the high season, Maya Bay, just 200 metres long, receives up to 5,000 visitors a day. About 300 speedboat trips are made here every day. Larger boats sailing round the islands also stop by the cove.

Although the beauty of the place is still evident, the atmosphere resembles a busy industrial port more than a paradise beach, with the endless roar of engines and the smell of petrol in the air. By 9am, as the speedboats continually pull up, the beach is so tightly packed with people that it resembles a mass game of sardines. Every patch of sand is fought for, especially by the optimistic few who risk lying down for a spot of sunbathing. People visibly duck to avoid the selfie sticks and umbrellas that fill the air like strange antennae.

Three uniformed national park police stand on the shore, blowing their whistles at the boats that park directly on the beach, obstructing the view of the bay. If tourists want to swim in the sea, there is a small area on the left side of the beach, where they are packed in as tightly as on the sand, many in orange life jackets.

Paradise? American tourist Chad Roberts certainly thinks so. “It’s amazing, better even than the pictures, I can’t believe how blue the water is,” he said. “I don’t mind all the people. Look, I come from the middle of America and we don’t have anywhere like this at home. Most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”

But Spicey, who was born in Phuket and has been a tour guide for almost seven years, said she hoped the Thai government followed through on its pledge to close Maya Bay, even for a few months. “It needs just a small break to heal.” She spoke sadly of the destructive behaviour she has witnessed from the millions of tourists who come through Maya Bay on the island-hopping tours. The corals and fish that used to be visible when snorkelling have all but disappeared, she said, yet tourists still insist on taking bits of coral to feed the fish, which is illegal as it stops the fish cleaning the coral, causing it to die.

“Most people don’t care – they want to see the fish, so they feed them anyway,” she said. “All the tourists will try to take everything and see everything they possibly can in the short time, and they don’t really care about the cost to nature. I have had so many arguments with tourists, asking them not to take the coral.”

According to Spicey, most tour guides just let the tourists do what they want. “There is no respect, and the attitude of most tour guides is ‘it’s illegal but I will close my eyes’. It happens usually when the tour guides are foreign. We Thai tourist guides love our home. We want to protect it. But for foreign tourist guides, when they’ve earned enough they fly back to their home, what is left for us? Nothing.”

The local environmental authority has laws in place to protect Maya Bay and the surrounding national park, but the fines are so low – often only 500baht (£12) – that the rules are routinely flouted. A year and a half ago, a law was put in place that prevented boats throwing down anchors, and possibly destroying 10 years’ worth of coral growth in a single second. But Kezia, a diver who has spent the past year in Koh Phi Phi Don (the largest inhabited island on the Thai archipelago), said it still happens. “In low season last year we had this one big fancy boat that came to the national park every day for diving, and they just didn’t care about throwing down the anchor because the fine is not very much,” she said. “They just paid it every day and still used the anchor.”

There is still a reluctance by local authorities to prioritise the environment over profit. Maya Bay is a massive money earner. Every visitor has to pay 400baht (£10) simply to access the island, which can add up to a daily revenue of £50,000. According to another tour guide, Yass, temporarily closing Maya Bay is not enough. People must be taught to look after it if the place is to remain a beautiful tourist destination rather than become a ruined paradise. “I see the guys in the speedboats fix the oil and change the engine on top of the reef in the morning, and you can’t say anything to them,” he said. “It makes me so angry that they have all this beautiful landscape and they don’t educate people how to look after it.”

More than 1,600 miles away, Boracay – which, like Maya Bay, features on every list of paradise destinations – is grappling with the same problems. More than 2 million tourists flock to this five-mile-long island every year. Unregulated development has seen the rise of hotels, restaurants and food chains along the entire shoreline of its famed White Beach, which runs the length of the island. Inland is also covered with huge hotels. Everywhere, new construction projects are visible.

The sea is suffering as a result. An endless flow of sewage is pumped into the ocean, as well as detritus from the construction work. The sparkling clear waters seem pristine, but the huge destruction of coral over the past few years tells a very different story.

Jojo Rodriguez works for Sangkalikasan Producers Cooperative, an NGO that has been monitoring the state of Boracay’s reef since 2012. He believes the authorities “purposefully turned a blind eye” when it came to environmental issues that could threaten the tourist trade.

After a massive die-off of coral in 2015, local authorities threatened to declare Rodriguez persona non grata after he publicly linked the disaster to the sewage being pumped into the sea. He said intimidation tactics and threats have since been used against reporters and campaigners who have tried to speak out about the environmental damage. “All these huge profit makers don’t want anyone to get in the way – everybody is afraid to lose the tourism money,” he said, “and so we’re slowly losing Boracay.”

Many living on the island said that while there were technically rules in place to save the environment, bribes meant these were rarely upheld. “It’s really corrupt. If you have money, you can do what you want, build what you want here,” said Simone, the owner of a kite-surfing shop.

As in Maya Bay, boats are the great destroyers. On White Beach the entire horizon is filled with sailing boats, speedboats, jet-skis, yachts and traditional fishing boats, and a steady hum of boat engines fills the air. Fertiliser from the island’s vast golf course (built purely for tourists) is also a major pollutant of the coral, as are the mounting piles of rubbish that end up in the sea. Angie, a diver from Worcester in the UK who moved to Boracay five years ago, said they often came back from dives with bags of rubbish they have picked up off the coral.

Michael Martillano, president of the diving association on the island, is conflicted over Duterte’s declaration that he might shut down the island. “Boracay definitely needs some help,” he said, “but we shouldn’t all be punished for the few who are breaking the rules and causing the problems to the environment.”

He conceded that the marine life of Boracay is nowhere near as rich as it used to be. “The reef is now totally different from when I first started diving here in 1994,” he said. “You used to see a lot of sharks and barracudas, all the big stuff. Now you’ll see one, maybe two sharks if you’re lucky, nothing like before.

“And there used to be a lot of crustaceans, like lobsters, but now I see more in the market because there’s a real tourist demand to eat them. The island really needs help.”

Is there still hope for the island? “Boracay will never be the same again,” said Rodriguez. “The president said close down Boracay, but it’s not going to be solved in six months. For the island to heal itself? Maybe 60 years if we are lucky.”

In both Maya Bay and Boracay, a six-month tourist ban may not be nearly enough to solve an ecological crisis. That is certainly the view of environmental campaigners. But as the coral reefs of south-east Asia continue to die, it would be a start.

What is coral?
Coral is made up of layers of skeletons of tiny animals called polyps. Over many years, these colonies form banks that are known as reefs. Only the living surface of the coral is coloured – the layers of dead matter beneath are white.

Where are reefs found?
Coral reefs are located in tropical oceans. The world’s largest coral reef is the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. The second-largest is off the coast of Belize, in central America. Other reefs are found in Hawaii, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Because they need sunlight to survive, the reefs form in waters that are usually no deeper than 45 metres.

Why are they important?
They protect coastlines from damaging wave action and tropical storms; provide habitats for thousands of species of marine organisms; and generate essential nutrients for food chains. They are also a critically important source of revenue. It is estimated that the Great Barrier Reef alone supports a tourism market worth more than A$1.5bn (£842m) a year to the Australian economy.

Why are the reefs dying?
The temperature of our oceans is rising as global warming grips our planet. When the water temperature gets too warm, corals expel the algae that thrive in their tissue and provide them with nutrition. Coral without the algae quickly die of starvation. Tourism is also taking its toll. When boats carrying visitors drop anchor, they smash into reefs and spill oil into once-pristine waters. Hotels also pump sewage on to the reefs, as our report points out.

How bad is the threat?
Marine biologists estimate that roughly 75% of the world’s coral reefs face danger. Local threats include destructive fishing, uncontrolled coastal development, tourism and pollution. Global threats include climate change and ocean acidification.

How many reefs will die out?
We have already lost about half of all the world’s coral reefs, most them having disappeared over the past 30 years. Scientists warn that even if we could halt global warming today, more than 90% of the reefs will die by 2050.

Robin McKie
, Science Editor

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Philippines: Reduce threats to coral reefs

Jonathan L. Mayuga Business Mirror 25 Feb 18;

The Philippine coral-reef system is the second largest in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia. It is estimated at 26,000 square kilometers (sq km). However, a recent coral-reef survey revealed that they are in a bad state.

Amid this situation, the Philippines is joining the global celebration of the third International Year of the Reef (Iyor) with the call to strengthen the protection of the country’s precious marine and coastal ecosystems.

As a strategy, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) is taking the path of reducing, if not totally eliminating, the various threats to the country’s network of marine ecosystems, including its vast coral-reef areas.

New coral-reef areas

The Philippines’s estimated 26,000-sq-km coral-reef system does not include newly discovered coral-reef areas based on the results of explorations conducted in the last two years, and the Benham Rise is the shallowest portion of the 13-million hectare Philippine Rise is 250 km off the waters of Aurora province in the eastern part of Central Luzon.

The Philippine Rise officially became part of the country’s territory in 2012 by virtue of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (Unclos).

Since the allotment of a P500-million budget for the rehabilitation of damaged coral reefs in 2016, DENR’s Biodiversity Management Bureau (BMB) Director Theresa Mundita S. Lim told the BusinessMirror last week in a telephone interview that new coral-reef areas were discovered which will add spice to the challenge of protecting the country’s reefs.

ICRI founding member

The Philippines is one of the founding members of the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), a partnership between nations and organizations, which strive to conserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world.

The partnership was founded in 1994 by eight governments: Australia, France, Japan, Jamaica, the Philippines, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. It is currently supported by 60 countries.

In the Philippines Lim said the DENR-BMB will take it as an opportune time to add to its database of coral reef around 4,000 sq km of newly discovered coral-reef areas as a result of a nationwide survey in the last two years.

This would bring the country’s total coral-reef system to 30,000 sq km, still excluding Benham Bank, which has a perfect, or 100-percent coral cover, she added.

Alarming status

However, despite the discovery of new coral-reef areas, the country’s reefs are not getting any better.

At a news conference on February 14 held at the Greenpeace flagship, the Rainbow Warrior docked in Pier 15 in Manila, scientists, environmental activists, conservation advocates and other stakeholders sounded the alarm on the impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans, starting with the country’s coral reefs.

The nationwide Philippine coral-reef survey revealed they are in bad state.

Conducted from 2015 to 2017, the survey covered 166 coral sampling stations (108 in Luzon, 31 in the Visayas and 27 in Mindanao) in 31 provinces.

None of the coral stations were classified in the excellent category. Ninety percent were either “poor” or “fair”.

Scientists explained that increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere drives the rise in atmospheric temperatures, resulting in extreme weather events, changes in rainfall patterns and warming of oceans.

This lead to mass coral bleaching and sea-level rise from ice melt and expansion.

“Increase in CO2 in the atmosphere also means higher dissolution of carbon dioxide in the oceans, causing ocean acidification,” the Greenpeace statement said.

Massive coral bleaching

According to the group Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, it has documented the impacts of mass coral bleaching at least three times in the last 20 years—in 1997 to 1998, 2010 and 2016 to 2017.

“Coral-bleaching impact was sporadic across the country. The degree of bleaching severity was varied and occurred at different months. What we are not certain about is whether or not our [Philippine] coral reefs still have the capacity to recover from such acute events amid more chronic stressors, such as pollution, overfishing and sedimentation,” said Mags Quibilan, coordinator for Philippine Coral Bleaching Watch, at the same news conference.

The combined effects of human activities on marine coastal ecosystems and impacts of climate change will cause significant degradation and impede, or further delay the corals’ natural recovery.

The group said that highly degraded marine coastal ecosystems would be compromised from delivering essential ecosystem goods and services to Filipinos, which are now valued at $966 billion.

Pollution, illegal fishing

Already troubled by pollution, illegal fishing and destructive fishing have made the fisherfolk sector the poorest of the poor.

“Now, as we face the devastating effects of climate change, we can see that this will aggravate the plight of our poor fishers, including fellow Filipinos reliant on a healthy sea for food, tourism and other forms of livelihood,” said Ruperto Aleroza, national chairman of Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, a national coalition of fishers and farmers in the Philippines, at the news conference.

However, according to the group, despite all the threats on coral-reef ecosystems and on the plants and animals associated with them, the oceans still protect the people from the impacts of global warming.

Climate-change effects

Over 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases has been stored in the ocean. But the environmental groups warned that man-made pressure coupled with climate change are pushing ocean ecosystems to its limits.

“The impact of climate change is far-reaching, and we need to address it at the root cause and extract accountability from carbon majors. Our reefs, seagrass, mangroves and other organisms in our seas are feeling the heat. A healthy ocean is a solution to climate change, and we need to keep it that way by creating a large network of no-take marine-protected areas,” said Vince Cinches, Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace Philippines, at the news conference.

The establishment of an effective management of a network of marine-protected areas and ocean sanctuaries including not only coral reefs but also seagrass and mangrove areas are needed to safeguard and strengthen their natural climate-mitigation and adaptation capacity.

This, coupled with better enforcement of fishery laws and the implementation of coastal, land- and water-use plans, will help save the day for the country’s dying coral-reef system, they added.

Being the epicenter of global marine biodiversity and the apex of the coral triangle, the Philippines is crucial to a healthy and resilient world ocean, said Dr. Perry AliƱo, professor at the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute.

“Even though massive bleaching has happened across the country, we can remain hopeful since there are coral-reef areas that did not bleach and are showing signs of recovery. While we need to better understand the factors that make our coral reefs resilient, it is imperative that we improve our protection efforts and mitigation measures,” he said at the news conference.

Rich marine biodiversity

According to the DENR, the vast expanse of the country’s coral-reef system makes the Philippines, which sits at the apex of the Coral Triangle, the center of the center of marine biodiversity.

The country’s coral-reef system sits within 240 million hectares of water, which is home to some 468 species of scelactinian corals, also called stony or hard, over 50 soft corals, 1,755 reef-associated fishes, 648 mollusks and 27 marine mammals.

Important roles

Lim said this year’s Iyor celebration aims to ensure the protection of the country’s coral reef ecosystem, underscoring its significance in ensuring not only for food security and food self-sufficiency, but its role in mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“Coral reef is a spawning ground of commercially viable fish. On top of that, it acts as buffer to waves from the Pacific,” she explains, referring to the Philippine Rise.

Raising awareness

Lim said that during the yearlong event, the DENR-BMB will step up the information drive to highlight the importance of corals and amplify the call for cooperation among stakeholders.

She added that the agency would take the opportunity as it takes part in international events as part of the Coral Triangle Initiative and the East Asian Seas Congress.

“This year [of Iyor] offers opportunities to raise awareness and appreciation for our coral-reef areas. Also, the campaign for ridge-to-reef protection, which highlights direct and indirect threats to coral reefs, will be stronger,” she added.

In launching the third Iyor on February 12 at a hotel in Mandaluyong City, the DENR-BMB kicks off the year long campaign to promote conservation action and strengthen long-term collaborations for coral reef conservation.

In a statement issued on February 15, Environment Secretary Roy A. Cimatu said: “We have to recognize the fact that there is an urgent need to increase awareness and understanding of coral reefs and other associated ecosystems. Being an archipelagic nation, our coral reefs can be considered one of the lifelines of thousands of communities all over the region.”

Through this celebration and the succeeding initiatives with our conservation partners, he added, “We hope more Filipinos will have a better appreciation of the benefits—both social and economic—the coral reefs provide to the people.”

Titon Mitra, country director of United Nations Development Programme, said in a statement last week: “The Philippines is known to harbor more diversity of life per hectare than any other country in the world. This immense natural wealth—and this is a remarkable asset—however, faces significant risk.”

Mitra added: “Over exploitation and unsustainable practices, pollution, overfishing, poor land management and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change are contributing significantly to an alarming rate of biodiversity loss, particularly with coral reefs.”

Underscoring this year’s theme in celebrating Iyor, “Together in Protecting Our Reef,” Lim said getting the acts together to protect our coral reefs is imperative.

“One of the main issues that we want to highlight is the reduction of threats on marine biodiversity,” she said.

“No matter what we do, as long as the threats are not reduced or eliminated, our reefs will always be at risk, and so are the communities who rely solely in our marine resources,” Lim added.

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