Best of our wild blogs: 16 Mar 18

Saving horseshoe crabs in Singapore
wild shores of singapore

18 Mar (Sun): FREE screening of "Birth of a Marine Park"
wild shores of singapore

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Dramatic Photos Show How Sand Mining Threatens a Way of Life in Southeast Asia

Vietnam is a prime example of a little-known global threat: the mining of river sand to build the world’s booming cities.
By Vince Beiser, Photographs by Sim Chi Yin National Geographic 15 Mar 18;

One afternoon last year, Ha Thi Be, 67, was sitting with her son in her tiny coffee shop in the town of Hong Ngu, looking out on the lazy Tien River, the main branch of the Mekong in Vietnam. Suddenly, the ground beneath them gave way. The river bank was crumbling into the water. “We shouted out loud and ran,” she says. “It crashed with a huge sound, boom, boom, boom.”

Be and her son escaped unharmed, but the coffee shop and her nearby house were destroyed. “It took all of what we owned to build the house, and now it's all gone,” she sighs. Still, Be counts herself lucky. “If it had happened at night, I and my grandsons would have died. We used to sleep in that house,” she says.

The main causes of the collapse can be seen floating in many places on the Tien’s murky waters: dredging boats, using rackety pumps to raise from the river bed enormous quantities of sand. In recent years, that humble substance has become an astonishingly hot commodity. Sand is a key ingredient in concrete, the essential building material of Vietnam’s fast-growing cities. Demand for it is surging—and that is wreaking havoc not only on Vietnam’s rivers, but also on the all-important Mekong Delta.

In towns and villages all along the Mekong River and many other rivers around the country, banks undermined by dredging are collapsing into the water, taking with them farm fields, fish ponds, shops, and homes. In recent years, thousands of acres of rice farms have been lost, and at least 1,200 families have had to be relocated. Hundreds more have evacuated in-stream islands that were literally disappearing beneath their feet. Government officials estimate some 500,000 people in the Mekong Delta area alone need to be moved out of such landslide zones.

River sand mining isn’t only a problem for people: It also muddies waters and scours riverbeds, killing the fish, plants, and other organisms that live there. “When I was a child, we'd catch fish and snails to eat,” recalls Ha Thi Be. “Since the sand dredges came, the fish and snails are no more.”

Vietnam is far from the only place where sand mining is inflicting such damage. All over the developing world, cities are growing at a furious pace, devouring sand in unprecedented quantities. The number of Vietnamese living in cities has doubled in the last twenty years, to some 32 million. Worldwide, the urban population is rising by about 65 million people annually; that’s the equivalent of adding eight New York Cities to the planet every single year. Nearly 50 billion tons of sand and gravel is extracted annually to create all the concrete office towers, apartment blocks, highways, and airports those people need. (Some Vietnamese sand is also sold to nearby Singapore, which uses gargantuan amounts to build artificial land.)

Why, you might ask, don’t we simply mine sand from the Sahara and other deserts? The answer is desert sand doesn’t work in concrete—the wind-eroded grains are too smooth and rounded. As a result, from China to Jamaica, from Liberia to India, sand miners are plundering riverbeds, floodplains, and beaches for the precious grains.

In Vietnam, sand mining poses an additional danger: It’s contributing to the slow-motion disappearance of the Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people and source of half of all the country’s food and much of the rice that feeds the rest of southeast Asia.

Climate change-induced sea level rise is one reason the delta is losing the equivalent of one and a half football fields of land every day. But another, researchers believe, is that people are robbing the delta of its sand.

For centuries, the delta has been replenished by sediment carried down from the mountains of central Asia by the Mekong River. But in recent years, in each of the several countries along its course, miners have begun pulling huge quantities of sand from the riverbed. According to a 2013 study by three French researchers, some 50 million tons of sand were extracted in 2011 alone—enough to cover the city of Denver two inches deep. Meanwhile, five major dams have been built in recent years on the Mekong and another 12 are slated for construction on the Mekong in China, Laos, and Cambodia. The dams further diminish the flow of sediment to the delta.

In other words, while natural erosion of the delta continues, its natural replenishment does not. “The sediment flow has been halved,” says Marc Goichot, a researcher with the World Wildlife Federation’s Greater Mekong Programme. At this rate, he says, nearly half the delta will be wiped out by the end of this century.

The problem is made more complicated by the fact that much of Vietnam’s sand mining is completely unregulated and illegal. The sand trade is so lucrative that it has spawned a thriving black market, with hundreds of unlicensed boats plying the rivers. In 2016 alone, Vietnamese police caught nearly 3,000 people dredging without permits or in protected areas around the country.

Many of the miners—legal and otherwise—are ordinary Vietnamese just trying to make a living. Some of them bring their families along on their boats as they travel up and down the rivers.

Nguyen Van Tu, 39, used to mine sand from the Tien near Ha Thi Be’s home town, until police cracked down. “The business was so good,” he says. At times he pulled in as much as $13,000 US per month. “Such easy money. Think, you just suck sand out, and you got money. Simple.”

Vietnamese officials regularly declare their determination to end illegal sand mining—but as in many other countries, some of them prefer taking a cut of the action to shutting it down. In 2013, three local government officials in the Hong Ngu area were charged with taking bribes in exchange for ignoring illegal sand mining on the Tien River. Last March, Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hòa Bình acknowledged that large-scale illegal sand mining continues partly because local administrations have “loosened their management, covered up and offered protection” to the miners.

In some cases, illegal miners have resorted to violence to keep their businesses going. In India and other countries, “sand mafias” have assaulted and even murdered police officers, environmentalists, journalists and others who got in their way. During a crackdown in Vietnam last spring, according to local media, illegal miners tried to sink a police boat by dumping sand onto it.

Fed up with official inaction, dozens of Vietnamese fishers took matters into their own hands last year, attacking sand miners they blamed for destroying their livelihoods. Last June, scuffles between miners and villagers put two people in the hospital.

As the tensions rise, the Mekong Delta keeps eroding—and so does the ground beneath the feet of villagers like Ha Thi Be.

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Using insect army to fight food waste

Black soldier flies are bred to eat discarded food, their larvae turning waste into plant fertiliser
Samantha Boh Straits Times 16 Mar 18;

An army is being amassed in the war against food waste.

Black soldier flies, armed with voracious appetites as larvae, are being bred here to eat discarded food, at the same time creating a rich fertiliser for plants. When their job is done, the larvae themselves are turned into nutritious animal food.

As an added bonus, the insects remove that typical rubbish stench, and they represent a zero-waste product.

The battle is being waged here on two fronts: At the National University of Singapore (NUS), scientists are hoping to breed the fittest, hungriest insects; while an outfit on the fringes of Queenstown has opened Singapore's first fly farm.

Black soldier flies are found all across Singapore. While the adults do not eat as their sole purpose is to mate, the larvae eat almost any organic matter and can stomach up to four times their weight a day.

They convert the waste they eat into plant fertiliser - making them efficient food-waste recyclers.

At NUS, a couple of 30cm-wide square containers line a biological sciences laboratory shelf as part of an experiment to find insects which can mate in small spaces.

Come April, the scientists will start a second experiment to separate out the fastest-growing larvae - an indication that they are the most voracious eaters - to breed.

The experiments are part of a two-year project funded by Temasek Foundation Ecosperity.

"We are trying to optimise their mating system so that we get these super egg layers, fast growers and efficient recyclers," said Assistant Professor Nalini Puniamoorthy from NUS' Department of Biological Sciences.

Meanwhile, in Jalan Penjara near Queenstown, Singapore's first insect farm - Insectta - was set up in March last year.

About 500kg of food waste from food suppliers, stalls and homes is recycled each day by about 100kg of black soldier fly larvae.

The fertiliser produced is used to grow kale, lettuce and other vegetables, while the team at Insectta is studying how the larvae can be turned into pet food, for instance.

"Insects are the biggest farmers in the world. And they work for free, so why not harness them," said Insectta founder Darren Ho, 29.

Mr Ho and his team will start to build a three-storey unit by the end of the month to combine recycled food waste, hydroponics and a chamber to grow mushrooms into a closed-loop system - a project also funded by Temasek Foundation Ecosperity.

A main concern has been that the recycling method will introduce flies to the environment, noted Professor Rudolf Meier, from NUS' Department of Biological Sciences. "But it is the larvae of the insect that is used to recycle the food waste, not the adult. Breeding is also tightly contained in a separate facility," he said.

Food waste is already recycled this way in China and parts of Europe. And after the larvae have done their job, they are killed with heat or frozen, and sold as fish feed.

About 100,000 tonnes of food waste can be converted into some 10,000 tonnes of feed.

Prof Meier said about $300 to $400 can be earned from a tonne of food waste - about $200 from selling the larvae and $100 from selling the fertiliser. "Instead of having to pay to get rid of food waste, you are actually making money," he said.

Since its inception in 2016, Temasek Foundation Ecosperity has provided close to $16 million worth of funding to 16 projects.

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6 animal-smuggling attempts via Woodlands Checkpoint detected in February: AVA

Ng Huiwen Straits Times 15 Mar 18;

SINGAPORE - Officers from the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) uncovered six attempts by travellers to import live animals without permits via the Woodlands Checkpoint in February.

Among the creatures detected included a live Jambul bird kept in a drawstring pouch inside a Singaporean woman's handbag on Feb 9, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) said in a Facebook post on Wednesday night (March 14).

The following day, on Feb 10, ICA officers found two small plastic aquariums containing live mealworms and insects in the back seat of a Singapore-registered car.

While officers were conducting checks, a live oriental white-eye songbird, or mata puteh in Malay, flew out from the car's window. It was captured with the help of an AVA officer.

On Feb 26, ICA officers again detected 121 live birds in 10 boxes, concealed in a compartment of a Malaysia-registered tour bus.

The driver, a 30-year-old man, had also tried to smuggle in 4,500 sachets of chewing tobacco in another luggage compartment.

The authorities have also found wildlife being smuggled into Singapore on three occasions through the Woodlands Checkpoint last month.

A Greek tortoise kept in a plastic container was concealed in the car jack compartment of a Singapore-registered vehicle on Feb 9.

And on Feb 14 and 17, ICA officers detected three live sugar gliders.

Two were kept in a pouch hidden under the driver's seat of a Singapore-registered car, and the other was hidden in a sling pouch of a Singaporean woman.

All the offenders were referred to AVA for further investigations, it said in the Facebook post.

Meanwhile, the animals have been placed under the care of Wildlife Reserves Singapore.

In the post, AVA and ICA issued a reminder for travellers on the regulations Singapore has on the import of animals to safeguard public and animal health.

Anyone found guilty of importing any animal or bird without a licence may be fined up to $10,000, jailed up to a year, or both.

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Malaysia: FRIM scientists to reap profits from discoveries


SOME 200 local scientists with the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) may soon get to reap profits from their discoveries, says Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar.

The Natural Resources and Environment Minister said a mechanism was being drafted to implement the new incentives to spur commercialisation of research under FRIM Incorporated, which was set up last year.

“For some scientists, it is not about how much money they can get.

At present, he said only FRIM and the Government were entitled to royalties from discoveries.

He said new incentives were allowed under the FRIM Act 2016.

Dr Wan Junaidi was replying to a question raised by Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad (BN-Parit Sulong) as to what measures were being taken to offer local scientists adequate rewards for their hard work.

On a separate matter, Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek said some 1,600 operators were involved in Sabah seaweed farming, covering some 1,000ha out of 38,000ha of land reserved for algae cultivation, near Tenom.

Ahmad Shabery said Sabah seaweed was considered a superfood with some 206 metric tonnes harvested annually.

He was replying to a question by Datuk Raime Unggi (BN-Tenom).

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Indonesia: Special team formed to catch tiger in Riau

Rizal Harahap The Jakarta Post 15 Mar 18;

Local authorities in Indragiri Hilir regency, Riau, have formed a special team to catch a female tiger that has killed two locals in Tanjung Simpang village, Pelangiran district, since January.

The Indragiri Hilir administration decided to form the team in response to local people’s threats to take action if the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) failed to capture the tiger within a week.

“We hope we can soon capture the tiger peacefully so local people can continue their daily activities without fear,” Indragiri Hilir Police chief AKBP Christian Rony Putra said on Thursday.

The team comprises government officials, Indonesian Military and National Police personnel, BKSDA officers and NGO activists, as well as local people and representatives of plantation companies.

The team has erected two camps in Sinar Danau village and in a palm oil plantation owned by PT Tabung Haji Indo Plantation in Tanjung Simpang village, Pelangiran. They have also prepared four snipers to anticipate potential tiger attacks against locals.

BKSDA personnel and conservation group World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Indonesia activists believe the animal’s behavior is unusual because tigers are nocturnal and afraid of people. It was further revealed that the tiger was not lured by a goat staked inside a trap.

“We tried to catch the tiger in a box trap, which was equipped with tools containing liquid anesthetics but it didn’t work,” BKSDA head Suharyono said. The team has urged all locals to remain on alert. (sha/ebf)

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Thais weigh merit of Mekong dam

Andrew Nachemson Phnom Penh Post 15 Mar 18;

Environmental watchdogs expressed hope on Wednesday that the Thai government’s announcement that it will delay a decision to purchase power from the controversial planned Pak Beng Dam could signal a shift in the country – and possibly the region – towards renewable energy.

The dam, which is in Laos but is partially funded by Thailand – with 90 percent of generated power expected to be sold to Thailand – has faced significant opposition from civil society, local communities, and environmentalists who warn that it could have devastating downstream impacts in Cambodia and Thailand. If it goes forward, construction is expected to be complete in 2024. It is also the subject of an ongoing lawsuit by Thai villagers worried about the downstream impacts.

According to a Tuesday press release from International Rivers (IR), Thailand issued a letter in mid-February saying the decision would be postponed until after the country completes its Power Development Plan later this month. “The current review of the PDP was reportedly spurred by the … recognition that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are swiftly becoming mainstream in the global energy market,” the statement says.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand director for the organisation, is quoted in the press release as saying the review is “an opportunity to seriously rethink Thailand’s investments in environmentally destructive energy projects”.

“What’s more, alternatives – including renewables and energy efficiency measures – are available, pose much less risk to the environment and local people, and must be properly considered in the power planning process,” she continued.

Brian Eyler, with the Stimson Institute in Washington, DC, said the move shows a “window of opportunity” is opening for Mekong countries to switch to renewable energy. “To drive this process forward, the region needs local sustainability leaders to work within mainland Southeast Asia and ASEAN,” he said in an email.

Eyler praised Thailand’s “broad re-examination of its national energy policy”, but said so far Thailand seems to be concerned with domestic reform, not regional solutions.

IR director Maureen Harris said that while the organisation hopes the delay is “a positive sign with broader implications”, it is not definitive. “It is still possible that the [agreement] will be signed once the review of Thailand’s PDP is complete. It is therefore still too early to say what effect this delay will have on the project overall,” she said via email.

Harris did say the delay “indicates that campaigning by Mekong communities and environmentalists … has had some impact”.

Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said the delay was “not bad news indeed”.

Navuth said if the dam is to go ahead, it would need further consultation with relevant stakeholders like Cambodia both before and during the construction process.

Meanwhile, the MRC held meetings with Thai authorities on Tuesday to discuss findings from a comprehensive Council Study, a five-year study of impacts of hydropower development on the four MRC member countries, but it did not discuss “any specific dam, nor on the Pak Beng hydropower project”, a MRC spokesperson said.

The study predicted too many dams along the Mekong could have catastrophic consequences for Cambodia’s fisheries, which sustain millions of people.

Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

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