Best of our wild blogs: 21 Jun 17

Palm oil trade body calls out Singapore supermarket over sustainability claims

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Malaysia tackles 3km-wide tanker oil spill near Singapore

Today Online 20 Jun 17;

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia is using chemical dispersants to break up an oil slick off its coast after a tanker laden with marine diesel sank last week, a top official said Tuesday (June 20).

The MT Putri Sea, registered in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, went down on Thursday in a busy shipping lane off the southern state of Johor, near Singapore.

Authorities said all six Indonesian crew were missing and feared dead.

Two marine department boats were using chemical dispersants on the more than 3km-wide slick, Zulkifili Abu Bakar, director-general of the Maritime Enforcement Agency, said in a statement.

The oil spill is close to Petronas’ billion dollar refinery and petrochemicals integrated development project in Pengerang.

Mr Zulkifili said the spill had not affected shipping activities and that the affected area was not a fishing zone.

Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, natural resources and environment minister said a “tier one” response has been initiated to fight the oil spill.

“Measures are being put in place to ensure the oil slick does not reach land,” he said in a separate statement.

Tier one is regarded as a minor oil spill that can be resolved within days. AFP

Oil spill approaching RAPID project area in Pengerang
Malay Mail 20 Jun 17;

KUALA LUMPUR, June 20 ― Part of the oil spill from the tanker, MT Putri Sea which caught fire and sank last Thursday is headed towards the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (RAPID) project area in Pengerang.

Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said RAPID had mobilised a Tier One response by utilising equipment and personnel to tackle the spill.

“The Department of Environment (DOE) and related agencies will continue to monitor the oil spill and take measures to tackle the incident,” he said in a statement here today.

On Thursday morning, the tanker was ablaze and sank 4.6 nautical miles from Tanjung Setapa, Pengerang.

Wan Junaidi said preliminary investigations found a kilometre-long oil slick offshore but until Saturday, there was still no sign of oil in the beach areas close to the scene of the incident. ― Bernama

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Baby steps towards First World animal welfare in Singapore

The recently released code of conduct for pet owners not only educates them on expected standards of care, it also sets the right tone for animal welfare in Singapore, argues SOSD's Dr Siew Tuck Wah.
Siew Tuck Wah Channel NewsAsia 21 Jun 17;

SINGAPORE: The Agri-food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) released a code of conduct for pet owners last Thursday (Jun 15) that specifies minimum standards which pet owners should comply with when caring for their pets.

Areas covered in the code include standards regarding accountability, animal housing and environment, and animal management and care. The code goes down to specifics, such as specifying the tether length for your dog.

At first glance, it may seem strange for AVA to release a document telling owners how they should look after their pets. But judging from how common it is to see some pet owners keeping too many animals or chaining their animals up for long periods of time, educating them on the minimum they must provide for their pets is a welcomed move.

However, the promulgation of the code goes deeper than that.

MINDEF and MND announced in May that dog handlers from SPF and SCDF's K-9 units and the Singapore Armed Forces' Military Working Dog Unit who live in public housing will be allowed to adopt their retired canine friends from June. (Photo: Ria Chen)

We are taking baby steps to shaping a society that upholds animal welfare. We are putting in place key building blocks that might not seem significant individually but are important foundations to ensuring a more humane, caring society.


Over the past three years, we have seen measures put into place, in line with the aim of fostering responsible pet ownership, greater responsibility in the pet industry and better animal welfare.

The code of conduct for pet owners is a culmination of past efforts in this direction. It was put together by a Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration Committee for Animal Welfare (MSCC) formed in 2013 to follow up with the recommendations made by the Animal Welfare Legislation Review Committee (AWLRC) a year earlier.

The MSCC, established in October 2013, comprises Members of Parliament and representatives from animal welfare groups, the pet industry, the veterinary profession and AVA.

The AWLRC itself had proposed several changes after its year-long review, most notably to the Animal and Birds Act to increase the penalties against those convicted of animal cruelty. Besides that, the review also laid down concrete measures to improve animal welfare – such as setting a minimum age for buying pets, a mandatory pre-sale screening in pet shops and minimum standards for animal welfare. All 24 recommendations were accepted by the Government in 2013.

A significant step in ensuring animal welfare in the pet industry was earlier taken in August 2016 when AVA released the much needed code of conduct for the pet industry. It lists minimum standards on animal housing, management and care which pet businesses are expected to comply with and best practices which they are encouraged to adopt.

With this first code in place, it has become easier to prosecute wrongdoers who compromise animal welfare in pursuit of commercial gain – a problem which has been plaguing the pet industry.

For decades, many breeding farms, also known as puppy mills operate like factories, churning out litter after litter of puppies for sale, while breeding dogs are kept in deplorable conditions.

Over the past year, AVA has successfully prosecuted and punished farm owners who ill-treat the animals under their care, after the promulgation of the code. For example, a pet farm licensee who owned Top Breed Pet Farm was fined S$180,000 after failing to ensure the health and well-being of eight dogs under his care earlier in June.


Naysayers point out that both the codes for the pet industry and pet owners are not legislation, and failure to meet the minimum standards are not offences in themselves. Indeed, it was debatable deciding what was considered animal abuse and what was not in the past.

However, with both codes in place, AVA can now use non-compliance with the minimum standards specified in the codes as supporting evidence when prosecuting wrongdoers for animal cruelty. With these concrete guidelines, I believe that we will see more cases of animal cruelty brought to light in the near future.

Being able to successfully prosecute such cases citing violation of these codes will be the true litmus test of whether they make a sum difference.


This is only the beginning. Animal welfare in Singapore is still in its toddler stages.

The measures put in place so far are more legislative in nature, involving laying down the rules. What comes next is even more challenging – it involves changing what decades of relentless economic pursuit has produced.

Emphasis has to be placed on education on animal welfare issues, as well as community involvement, to foster a harmonious environment between pet owners and non-pet owners.

But we also require a mindset change about how we think about our pets, our environment and the stray animals around us. We need to be kinder, more compassionate and more tolerant.

This can only be done if the majority of Singaporeans begin to care for animals. Education is key and it begins with our young. I strongly believe in this and for this reason, I regularly give talks on animal welfare in schools, to students as young as pre-schoolers, through SOSD’s education and outreach programmes.

AVA is setting the right tone for animal welfare, and it is now up to every one of us to ensure that Singapore becomes the First World country we want it to be – not only in terms of economic growth, but also in other important areas, such as animal welfare.

Dr Siew Tuck Wah is President of SOSD, a Singapore-based organisation dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming stray and abandoned dogs

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Malaysia: Sabah to bring back ‘no plastic’ bag campaign

The Star 21 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: The “no plastic” bag campaign is set to be re-launched in August.

This follows the scrapping of the prog­ramme in May 2015, when the use of funds collected from the sale of plastic bags to shoppers was questioned.

State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun said the rebranded Bawa Beg Bah (Bring A Bag) or 3B campaign would see participating outlets charging 20 sen for plastic bags on weekends and Mondays, with City Hall to manage the funds.

Under the previous campaign launched in June 2010, a total of 384 outlets were involved with the collected funds managed by the Environmental Action Centre under the Sabah Tourism Ministry.

Masidi pledged that the collection would be used solely for environment-related activities.

His speech at an event here yesterday was read out by his permanent secretary Datuk Ginus Yangus.

“We hope business outlets will support this rebranded campaign,” he said, adding that the 3B campaign aimed to reduce, reuse and recycle plastic bags for the sake of the environment.

Masidi also urged the public to give full support to the campaign, which was vital to help protect the environment.

At the event, a memorandum of understanding on Clean City, Healthy Community was signed between Gleneagles Hospital and City Hall.

Masidi said these efforts were aimed at making Kota Kinabalu a greener and more liveable city.

KK City Hall to manage funds collected from 'no plastic bag' campaign
STEPHANIE LEE The Star 20 Jun 17;

KOTA KINABALU: A rebranded no plastic bag campaign will kick off in August after the previous initiative was scrapped following calls for more transparency, with funds collected to be managed by the Kota Kinabalu City Hall.

Previously, funds were collected and managed by the Environmental Action Centre (EAC) under the Sabah Tourism Ministry.

Sabah tourism, culture and environment minister Datuk Masidi Manjun, in a speech delivered by his permanent secretary Datuk Ginus Yangus, said the rebranded campaign – Bawa Beg Bah (bring a bag, bah) or 3B – would see participating businesses collect 20 sen for every plastic bag used by customers on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays.

The EAC will still collect the funds under the rebranded campaign.

A total of 384 businesses were involved in the previous campaign that started in June 2010.

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A third of the world now faces deadly heatwaves as result of climate change

Study shows risks have climbed steadily since 1980, and the number of people in danger will grow to 48% by 2100 even if emissions are drastically reduced
Oliver Milman The Guardian 19 Jun 17;

Nearly a third of the world’s population is now exposed to climatic conditions that produce deadly heatwaves, as the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere makes it “almost inevitable” that vast areas of the planet will face rising fatalities from high temperatures, new research has found.

Climate change has escalated the heatwave risk across the globe, the study states, with nearly half of the world’s population set to suffer periods of deadly heat by the end of the century even if greenhouse gases are radically cut.

“For heatwaves, our options are now between bad or terrible,” said Camilo Mora, an academic at the University of Hawaii and lead author of the study.

High temperatures are currently baking large swaths of the south-western US, with the National Weather Service (NWS) issuing an excessive heat warning for Phoenix, Arizona, which is set to reach 119F (48.3C) on Monday.

The heat warning extends across much of Arizona and up through the heart of California, with Palm Springs forecast a toasty 116F (46.6C) on Monday and Sacramento set to reach 107F (41.6C).

The NWS warned the abnormal warmth would “significantly increase the potential for heat-related illness” and advised residents to drink more water, seek shade and recognize the early symptoms of heat stroke, such as nausea and a racing pulse.

Mora’s research shows that the overall risk of heat-related illness or death has climbed steadily since 1980, with around 30% of the world’s population now living in climatic conditions that deliver deadly temperatures at least 20 days a year.

The proportion of people at risk worldwide will grow to 48% by 2100 even if emissions are drastically reduced, while around three-quarters of the global population will be under threat by then if greenhouse gases are not curbed at all.

“Finding so many cases of heat-related deaths was mind blowing, especially as they often don’t get much attention because they last for just a few days and then people moved on,” Mora said.

“Dying in a heatwave is like being slowly cooked, it’s pure torture. The young and elderly are at particular risk, but we found that this heat can kill soldiers, athletes, everyone.”

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, analyzed more than 1,900 cases of fatalities associated with heatwaves in 36 countries over the past four decades. By looking at heat and humidity during such lethal episodes, researchers worked out a threshold beyond which conditions become deadly.

This time period includes the European heatwave of 2003, which fueled forest fires in several countries and caused the River Danube in Serbia to plummet so far that submerged second world war tanks and bombs were revealed. An estimated 20,000 people died; a subsequent study suggested the number was as high as 70,000.

A further 10,000 died in Moscow due to scorching weather in 2010. In 1995, Chicago suffered a five-day burst of heat that resulted in more than 700 deaths.

However, most heat-related deaths do not occur during such widely-covered disasters. Phoenix, for example, suffered an unusually hot spell last June that resulted in the deaths of at least four people. Hyperthermia, an excess of body heat, can lead to heat stroke and a potential inflammatory response that can kill.

Mora said the threshold to deadly conditions caries from place to place, with some people dying in temperatures as low as 23C. A crucial factor, he said, was the humidity level combined with the heat.

“Your sweat doesn’t evaporate if it is very humid, so heat accumulates in your body instead,” Mora said. “People can then suffer heat toxicity, which is like sunburn on the inside of your body. The blood rushes to the skin to cool you down so there’s less blood going to the organs. A common killer is when the lining of your gut breaks down and leaks toxins into the rest of your body.”

Global warming is a potent instigator of deadly heat, with research from University of California, Irvine this month finding the probability of a heatwave killing in excess of 100 people in India has doubled due to a 0.5C increase in temperature over the past 50 years.

“The impact of global climate change is not a specter on the horizon. It’s real, and it’s being felt now all over the planet,” said Amir AghaKouchak, UCI associate professor and co-author of that study.

“It’s particularly alarming that the adverse effects are pummeling the world’s most vulnerable populations.”

Elevated temperatures and dry conditions have been exacerbated by the clearing of trees, which provide shade and cooling moisture, in urban areas. Mora said that while adaption such as government heat warnings and the increased use of air conditioning has helped reduce deaths, this was not a viable long-term solution.

“The heat means that we are becoming prisoners in our own homes – you go to Houston, Texas in the summer and there’s no-one outside,” he said.

“Also, the increased use of air conditioning means that electrical grids fail, as has happened in New York City, Australia and Saudi Arabia. We need to prevent heatwaves rather than just trying to adapt to them.”

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Best of our wild blogs: 20 Jun 17

Next time you’re at St. John’s or the Sisters’ Islands, check out the plants
News from Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Highlights of the June Love MacRitchie Walk

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3-year global coral bleaching event easing, but still bad


A mass bleaching of coral reefs worldwide is finally easing after three years, U.S. scientists announced Monday.

About three-quarters of the world's delicate coral reefs were damaged or killed by hot water in what scientists say was the largest coral catastrophe.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a global bleaching event in May 2014. It was worse than previous global bleaching events in 1998 and 2010.

The forecast damage doesn't look widespread in the Indian Ocean, so the event loses its global scope. Bleaching will still be bad in the Caribbean and Pacific, but it'll be less severe than recent years, said NOAA coral reef watch coordinator C. Mark Eakin.

Places like Australia's Great Barrier Reef, northwest Hawaii, Guam and parts of the Caribbean have been hit with back-to-back-to-back destruction, Eakin said.

University of Victoria, British Columbia, coral reef scientist Julia Baum plans to travel to Christmas Island in the Pacific where the coral reefs have looked like ghost towns in recent years.

"This is really good news," Baum said. "We've been totally focused on coming out of the carnage of the 2015-2016 El Nino."

While conditions are improving, it's too early to celebrate, said Eakin, adding that the world may be at a new normal where reefs are barely able to survive during good conditions.

Eakin said coral have difficulty surviving water already getting warmer by man-made climate change. Extra heating of the water from a natural El Nino nudges coral conditions over the edge.

About one billion people use coral reefs for fisheries or tourism. Scientists have said that coral reefs are one of the first and most prominent indicators of global warming.

"I don't see how they can take one more hit at this point," Baum said. "They need a reprieve."

Worst global coral bleaching event eases, as experts await next one
US researchers believe worst event on record is ending but fear coral won’t recover in time before oceans warm again
Michael Slezak The Guardian 20 Jun 17;

The worst coral bleaching event in recorded history, which has hit every major coral region on Earth since 2014, appears to be coming to an end, with scientists now worrying how long reefs will have to recover before it happens again.

After analysing satellite and model data, and finding bleaching in the Indian ocean no longer appeared widespread, the US National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa) has announced the event is no longer occurring on a global scale, and appears to be coming to an end.

Over an unprecedented period of three years, unusually warm water spread around the world, bleaching and killing coral.

Coral bleaches when the water is too warm for too long. The coral polyps get stressed and spit out the colourful algae that live in inside them, leaving them white. Since the algae provides the coral with 90% of its energy, the coral starves and – unless the temperatures quickly return to normal – dies.

In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef suffered the worst bleaching event in recorded history in 2016 and then again in 2017. It was estimated about half of its coral was killed between the two events.

In the Indian Ocean, reefs were badly hit. One survey in the Maldives found all reefs there were affected, with between 60% to 90% of coral colonies bleached. Christmas Island had virtually all its coral bleached, and 85% of its coral died.

In some other reefs, virtually all the coral was killed, with 98% of the coral around Jarvis dying, for example. Japanese reefs were badly hit, as were reefs in every other coral region.

“We know it has been the longest-lasting event and it has been the most widespread,” said Mark Eakin, coordinator of Noaa’s coral reef watch program. “And it probably has been the most damaging. In some places it definitely has been.”

Eakin said the data on total reef damage had not yet been analysed, so he could not say for sure whether it had been the worst but he said he would bet it had been.

The event started in 2014 when waters in the Pacific Ocean started to warm, in a pattern that resembled El Niño. The El Niño never fully kicked in, but the warming caused widespread bleaching.

In 2015 an El Niño did occur, which spread the bleaching even further, and the effects continued all the way until now.

Although the El Niño cycle tipped water temperatures over the edge, and triggered the bleaching, Eakin said there was no doubt the underlying cause of the bleaching was climate change. There have been two recorded global bleaching events previously, both of which occurred when strong El Niño events warmed oceans around the world – in 1998 and then 2010.

Eakin said the underlying warming was priming the ocean for coral bleaching, potentially with every El Niño.

“We didn’t even have an El Niño in 2014-15,” Eakin said, adding that a near-El Niño was enough to cause widespread bleaching then. “At this point I’d say any El Niño, even moderate ones, will probably result in widespread, if not global, bleaching.”

That view is backed up by studies with modelling that suggests the conditions causing the most recent global bleaching event would be average conditions within two decades.

Coral reefs need between 10 and 15 years to regain their coral cover, Eakin said. But that assumes they are not hit with too many local problems – such as pollution – or another bleaching event.

“The big fear is just simply that these events keep coming,” Eakin said.

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Malaysia: Fisheries Dept: Up to RM6bil lost to illegal fishing every year

The Star 20 Jun 17;

PUTRAJAYA: A total of 980,000 tonnes of seafood worth up to RM6bil is lost annually due to illegal fishing activities, says the Fisheries Department.

Its director-general Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan said it is estimated only about 50% of seafood caught in local waters was landed in the country while the rest were not reported.

"There are two forms of leakages. Firstly, foreign fishermen invading the country's waters and secondly, local fishermen selling their catch to foreign fishermen," he told reporters here Monday.

Ismail hoped the Government would provide an allocation to the Fisheries Department to add nine more ships to strengthen enforcement operations, especially in hot spots along the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia.

"Currently, the enforcement department has 380 personnel, and 40 ships, most of which are aged. Provisions are required for the repair of existing ships and adding new assets," he said.

On enforcement, Ismail said a total of 184 cases were recorded by the Department this year for various offences involving vessels and unlicensed equipment, intrusion, use of foreign crew and using prohibited equipment.

For offences involving vessels, he said the department had auctioned the catches totalling RM260,351, while RM423,100 in fines were imposed.

"The Fisheries Department also detained three foreign fishing vessels, one from Thailand and the rest from Vietnam. The value of seizures was RM7mil," he added.

In the meantime, he said the Department was proposing to make it compulsory for Zone B and C fishing vessels to install Automated Identification System (AIS) from next January to facilitate monitoring by the authorities.

"However, the matter is subject to the decision of the Cabinet," said Ismail, adding that about 2,630 AIS units had been given free of charge to trawlers in Zone B and C nationwide last year. – Bernama

Malaysia loses RM6b annually due to illegal fishing in South China Sea
NOORSILA ABD MAJID New Straits Times 19 Jun 17;

PUTRAJAYA: Malaysia loses RM6 billion in revenue annually due to illegal fishing by encroaching foreign fishing vessels in the East Coast, said the Fisheries Department (DOF).

Describing the issue as ‘very serious’, DOF director-general Datuk Ismail Abu Hassan said most of the illegal fishermen are from Vietnam and Thailand.

“These illegal, big fishing vessels from Vietnam and Thailand purposely encroach into our waters. They steal about 980,000 metric tonnes of fish annually from us, estimated to be worth RM6 billion,” he told a press conference in his office today.

Among the hotspots are Kemaman (Terengganu), as well as Kuala Sedili and Mersing (Johor).

In the first half of the year, the DOF recorded two encroachment cases from Vietnam and one case from Thailand.

All the foreign fishing vessels have been confiscated, with total assets (including the stolen fish) worth RM7 million.

The captain of an illegal foreign fishing vessel can be fined up to RM1 million each and his crew members can be fined RM100,000 each if found guilty.

“I've also discussed the issue with my counterparts at Asean level," said Ismail.

Ismail admitted that DOF’s assets are in dire straits as they are already 25-years-old and cannot keep up with the illegal foreign boats in high speed chases.

“My department desperately needs new ships in order to protect our waters from these illegal foreign fishermen.

“In our current situation, we have to risk our lives in catching any illegal fishermen because our old ships can only travel up to 12 nautical miles per hour.

With new assets, Ismail said his department, comprising 380 enforcement officers, can reduce illegal fishing by 20 percentage points.

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Malaysia: On the trail of the dugong

ANDREW SIA The Star 20 Jun 17;

Our hunt for dugongs began at 6am. The air was heavy with salt and darkness as I trudged sleepily from the village homestay to the jetty.

I was on Pulau Tinggi, one of several islands off eastern Johor, with two marine scientists; and we were going to chug along in a large wooden fishing boat to Pulau Sibu Kukus, 45 minutes away.

Last October, seagrass expert Dr Jillian Ooi and coral reef ecologist Affendi Yang Amri, both from Universiti Malaya (UM), had accidentally discovered that a group of dugongs were regularly frolicking on the surface of the sea at dawn near Sibu Kukus, a small rocky island near the larger Pulau Sibu Besar. Would we see them again this year?

Why care for dugongs?

Our underwater buddies may be helping to ensure we have lots of seafood.

This is because dugongs are like the “cows of the sea” – they are marine mammals (like dolphins and whales) which feed mainly on seagrass.

While feeding, they are also “cultivating” large underwater beds of seagrass by recycling nutrients as they uproot whole plants to feed on them. An adult dugong can consume about 30kg of seagrass a day. Constant “trimming or pruning” by dugongs encourages the regeneration of more seagrass. The mammals’ faeces also act as fertiliser.

But why should the average Malaysian care about all that?

Research by Affendi and Ooi shows that there are six times more juvenile fish in seagrasses than in adjacent coral reefs. In contrast, coral reefs have five times more adult fish than the seagrass areas.

Their hypothesis is that seagrass meadows are probably a nursery and feeding ground for many juvenile fish, which then move over to coral reefs when they become adults.

In addition, seagrass also filters out pollutants and bacteria that bring disease, thus creating healthier environments for coral reefs.

“Both kinds of habitat are important for the marine environment. We can’t just protect coral reefs without also protecting seagrass,” summed up Ooi. She explained that seagrass does not always occur near coral reefs, but Johor is lucky to have both types of habitat close to each other.

“Dugongs are like ecosystem engineers,” she explained. “If the dugongs become extinct, what would this mean for the seagrass meadow? We are not sure yet, but the meadow could be affected in a way that fish, crabs, squid and prawns that depend on it could also decline. This would hurt our source of seafood and the livelihood of Johor fishermen.”

Patriotic duty

But do we really need to justify protecting dugongs based on how much seafood and profit we can extract from the sea? What about basic human compassion for these loveable gentle giants?

Isn’t it our patriotic duty to protect our national living heritage?

The hill at Pulau Sibu Kukus offers a glorious view of the surrounding seas. Photos: The Star/Andrew Sia

If Africa is proud of its giraffes, lions and hippos, shouldn’t we be proud of our dugongs? Sure, neighbouring Singapore may have its famous zoo and aquariums, but Johor has the real thing in the wild!

“It’s a matter of national pride that Malaysia has a wealth of wildlife,” said Ooi.

“Every species should matter to us, especially one as iconic as the dugong.”

Johor happens to be blessed with two major areas of seagrass. There is one off Gelang Patah in southern Johor, but it has been damaged by land reclamation and other development work and the number of dugongs there have dropped.

Luckily, the second expanse of seagrass off eastern Johor is still largely intact. This will be the site of a proposed dugong sanctuary including all islands from Pulau Rawa (in the north) to the Pulau Sibu groups of islands (in the south). It will also stretch right up to the mainland in Mersing.

Media reports have noted that it will soon be gazetted as the Sultan Iskandar Marine Park – that would be a royally fitting way to conserve and celebrate our marine heritage.

Robinson Crusoe

So there I was, in a wooden fishing boat off tiny Pulau Sibu Kukus. By now, I was fully energised by the chilly winds of our boat trip just as the first rays of the morning sun peeked out of the horizon.

“Sssshhhhh,” Affendi reminded us – dugongs are very sensitive to noise and we didn’t want to scare any away.

Everyone – including Ooi, Affendi, five other research assistants and the boat crew – focused their eyes or binoculars on the calm morning sea.

Looking out for dugongs from the boat. Photo: The Star/Andrew Sia

Suddenly, there was a little splash, but no … it was a sea turtle coming up to catch its breath before diving back down. We kept scouring and scanning the sea with laser-like attention … hmmm, were those just little waves in the distance? Or the faint marks of dugong activity? But after an hour, we only saw more turtles.

“We know the dugongs are around because we’ve seen their feeding trails in the seagrass,” explained Ooi.

“But we are not sure why they are not surfacing at dawn like last year. Had the last monsoon season changed the dugongs’ habits? We need to do more research.”

Dr Jillian Ooi (left) and Affendi Yang Amri plan to spend at least six months on Pulau Sibu Kukus to monitor dugongs, seagrass and corals in the surrounding seas.

In fact, Ooi and Affendi plan to become like Robinson Crusoe “hermits” for at least six months on Pulau Sibu Kukus to monitor dugongs, seagrass and corals in the surrounding seas.

To this end, they surveyed the only (tiny) beach on the island to see where they could set up work and sleep areas, a kitchen and that most crucial thing – a toilet.

“Well, luckily we’ve not seen any scorpions or centipedes here yet. Only kerengga ants (which have painful bites!),” smiled Affendi. “We also have to watch out for sea snakes that may return to the island at night.”

We then clambered up the slippery slopes of a small hill, to be rewarded with a glorious panorama of the surrounding seas and islands.

“From up here, we can constantly look out for dugongs,” quipped Affendi.

After the land survey, it was time for a marine survey. I had a chance to kayak round the small island (it took about 20 minutes) and could see how wild and rugged it was – most of it was rocky.

Affendi is off on his round-island kayak survey.

Then we all donned our masks and fins to snorkel among the seagrass.

“The seagrass has decreased compared to last year,” reported Ooi.

Before we left the island, we had one more spotting session from the boat. With every eye peeled and every ear opened, we waited … and soon enough, we saw little tell-tale splatters with our binoculars – the dugongs had showed up!

The kayak was promptly lowered into the sea and Affendi paddled out to have a closer look.

As for me, I was just savouring the scene from the boat, ah … this was the frontline of scientific research and conservation. Why, it was like being in a National Geographic episode!

Hopefully, the dugongs and seagrass will continue to be a national treasure.

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Philippines oceans in trouble: Overfishing, pollution, climate change ail our seas

Jonathan L. Mayuga Business Mirror 19 Jun 17;

WILFREDO LICUANAN, a professor and fellow at the De La Salle University, said the world’s oceans are suffering from three global threats: climate change, solid waste and sewage pollution and overfishing.

These threats, he said, are experienced in the most remote areas and even in relatively pristine areas, like in the Philippines.

“Philippine seas are unique, especially in terms of biodiversity, but suffer from the same threats,” Licuanan said. “The combined effects of these threats are actually enhanced locally because of our high human-population densities.”

Another global trend is the destruction of mangrove forests.

Also known as the “rainforest of the sea”, mangrove forests exist in tropical countries, including the Philippines.

Illegal wildlife trade

ASIDE from the degradation of coastal and marine ecosystems, the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines reported that large marine wildlife, despite laws to protect them, are being targeted to the brink of extinction.

Globally, deaths of large marine wildlife, such as whales, dolphins, marine turtles, sharks and rays, are attributed to pollution—mainly ingestion of plastics and other solid wastes dumped into the ocean, habitat destruction and accidental bycatch.

In the Philippines, however, deaths of large marine mammals are now also being attributed to illegal wildlife trade.

Marine turtles are being killed for their meat and shell, while their eggs are being harvested. Sharks and rays are being targeted not only for food, but for their medicinal
or pharmaceutical values.

Other practices threatening ecological balance are observed in Oslob, Cebu, with whale sharks being fed to promote whale-watching as an “ecotourism” attraction.

Advocacy organization Oceana Philippines said the country’s fishing grounds are overfished, very much like most of the world’s fishing grounds.

Destructive fishing activities aggravate the sorry-state of Philippine seas, as commercial fishing continues to harvest fish in excess of the fish’s capacity to breed and replenish the ocean with fish stock.

Degraded mangroves

MANGROVES compose one of three habitat-forming species that are essential for the survival of fish and other marine species.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), of the world’s more than 70 mangrove species, around 46 species are known to occur in various parts of the country.

But over the last 50 years, mangrove forests in the Philippines have deteriorated significantly. The country now only has approximately 120,000 hectares of mangroves remaining.

Mangrove reforestation efforts in the past few years have increased the country’s mangrove cover from 247,000 hectares in 2003 to 311,000 hectares in 2012.

Despite such effort, the country remains unprotected from climate change’s worst impacts as demonstrated by the storm surge triggered by Supertyphoon Yolanda (international code name Haiyan) in November 2013, which devastated coastal areas in Central Philippines.

In response, the DENR launched a P1-billion project, dubbed “Mangrove and Beach Forest Development Project” in 2015, on top of its annual allocation for mangrove reforestation efforts under the National Greening Program (NGP) implemented between 2010 and 2016.

Climate-change effect

ASIDE from the environmental degradation and unsustainable fishing practices, sea level rise and ocean temperature increase are starting to take its toll on coral reefs in the Philippines.

In Honda Bay, Palawan, scientists have recently discovered that 90 percent of the corals in the area have suffered extensive damage because of coral bleaching.

Coral bleaching have been reported to occur in other areas, as well. The government has yet to come up with its own assessment of the areas affected by coral bleaching.

Scientists explain that coral bleaching occurs when corals experienced stressed caused by change in temperatures. When water temperature becomes warmer, corals expel algae living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn white.

Another cause of death of corals is the extinction of reef fishes depriving the process of symbiosis to take place. Reef fishes feed on algae that cover corals, allowing it to “breathe” and survive.

Without reef fishes, the health of corals suffer eventually leading to their demise.

Globally, climate change is causing massive bleaching of corals. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) warned that if current trends continue and the world fails to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, nearly all of the world’s coral reefs will suffer severe bleaching every year. Coral bleaching was described by the UNEP as the gravest threat to one of the Earth’s most important ecosystems.

The UN body’s report on coral bleaching was culled from a study that reviewed new climate-change projections to predict which corals will be affected first and at what rate. It says that “on average, the reefs will start to undergo annual bleaching starting in 2043”.

“Without the required minimum of five years to regenerate, the annual occurrences will have a deadly effect on the corals and disrupt the ecosystems which they support,” it added.

Declining fish production

THE Philippines is one of the top fish producers in the world. However, annual fish production continues to experience slight but steady decline in the past few years.

On account of “unfavorable weather”, fishery production last year went down by 6.34 percent, from 4.69 million metric ton (MMT) in 2015 to just 4.35 MMT in 2016.

El Niño, which caused warmer ocean temperature, was seen as the reason behind the drop in fish production. It is also seen as the reason behind the high mortality rate of fish in the aquaculture sector.

The “Fisheries Situation 2016” released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) indicate that all fisheries subsectors posted production decline. Commercial fishing dropped by 6.35 percent, municipal fisheries slid by 6.47 percent and aquaculture dropped by 6.27 percent, thereport said.

Commercial fisheries recordeda total volume output of 1.05 MMT, compared to the 1.084 MMT posted in 2015. Commercial fisheries accounted for 23.33 percent of the sector’s total production. Municipal fisheries production recorded an output of 1.4 MMT in 2016, down from 1.22 MMT in 2015. The subsector accounts for 26.13 percent of total output.

Fish caught in inland municipal fishing grounds declined by 21.37 percent, from 204,733 MT recorded in 2015 to 160,989 MT in 2016. Meanwhile, the fish caught in aquaculture farms, which accounted for more than half of the country’s total production last year, dropped by 6.27 percent to 2.2 MMT, from 2.35 MMT in 2015.

Overfishing woes

OVERFISHING is seen as a serious threat to sustainable fishery production.

Oceana Philippines Vice President Gloria Estenzo-Ramos said the country’s ocean badly needs resuscitation and healing from humanity’s over exploitation of its marine resources.

According to Ramos, two-thirds of the country’s fishing grounds are already overfished.

She added that the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) needs to come up with more accurate data so that scientists can come up with an accurate assessment, as well as possible solutions to overfishing and other threats to the country’s coastal and marine areas.

From time to time, the BFAR has been declaring “fishing ban” in certain areas to allow fish stocks to recover.

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Best of our wild blogs: 18-19 Jun 17

Chek Jawa Wetlands Tour (Pulau Ubin) - Part I
Rojak Librarian and Part II

Butterfly of the Month - June 2017
Butterflies of Singapore

Equatorial Spitting Cobra (Naja sumatrana) @ Bedok Reservoir
Monday Morgue

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Hidden sentinels of Singapore’s biodiversity

SIAU MING EN Today Online 17 Jun 17;

SINGAPORE — On a regular dive trip to Pulau Hantu, all her friends were excited about seeing a dirty-green frogfish for the first time but Ms Toh Chay Hoon just could not spot the 12cm-long ambush predator no matter how she tried.

Her friends had to point it to her eventually.

“When I dive and people ask me to find things, (I have a) problem (if it is) bigger than 2cm,” said the 40-year-old senior executive with a chuckle.

Her eye for minute marine creatures though, has stood her in good stead as a volunteer with the National Parks Board (NParks): She has discovered a new species of coral mimic crab and about 10 new records of sea slugs in Singapore’s waters over the years.

An accidental discovery while she was on the lookout for sea slugs, the 0.4cm cream-coloured spotted crab was found to be an undescribed species that was previously only spotted in the Philippines.

Her supervisor at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, Professor Peter Ng, named the crab Nursia tohae — after her last name Toh. It was in recognition of Ms Toh’s “knack for finding small and interesting species during her many beach-combing trips”, wrote Prof Ng in the Raffles Bulletin of Zoology Supplement.

Little known to many, volunteers like Ms Toh have been doing important work, on top of their day-jobs, that adds to the rich biodiversity and contributes to conservation efforts in Singapore.

Their work come in many forms, from the discovery and sightings of flora and fauna, guiding at nature reserves and parks, bird-watching to the surveying of Singapore’s shores.

Last month, NParks announced that over 500 species of marine and terrestrial animals, plants and insects have been newly discovered or rediscovered by their staff, researchers and volunteers in the past five years.

Volunteers have contributed to NParks’ work since 1993. Today, more than 25,000 have participated in a wide range of activities, such as the citizen science programmes, which gets the public to participate and collaborate in scientific research.

While the coral mimic crab she discovered was a new species, Ms Toh’s main passion is in nudibranch or sea slugs. In the Singapore Biodiversity Records, about 10 species, ranging in size from 0.2cm to 5cm, were identified and recorded by her.

Ms Toh’s love affair with sea slugs started when she began volunteering as a guide at Chek Jaya in 2003. Back then, she did not even know what sea slugs were. But after setting her eyes on the species’ colourful bodies, she started reading up on them.

She also picked up diving so she could scour for sea slugs underwater — an activity she spends about 12 hours each month on now.

Whenever she spots a species that looks unfamiliar, Ms Toh would take pictures of it before checking them against a reference book she keeps at home. If they have never been seen here, she would contribute her sightings to the Singapore Biodiversity Records.

“There (wasn’t) a moment where I thought of giving up (on) volunteering because every time we go out, we look forward to finding stuff on our shores, and hopefully something new,” said Ms Toh, who has been guiding and searching for sea slugs for 13 years.


But contributing to Singapore’s biodiversity is not always about discovering new species or recording first sightings in Singapore.

As bird-watcher George Cheah, 58, said when people ask if his work involves finding new species of birds: “Let’s try to keep the existing species alive first.”

Armed with a pair of binoculars, his fisherman’s hat, a clipboard and a plastic folder containing information on 30 common birds here, the vice-principal of a secondary school in the east spends two weekends in April and November — the breeding and migratory seasons respectively — as part of NParks’ Garden Bird Watch.

For about two hours in the morning those days, he would stand at places such as East Coast Park and HortPark identifying, counting and recording the number of different bird species he sees.

The data collected can shed light on bird populations and where they are found around Singapore, which is useful information for better park management and conservation measures as well.

While others might think this is a small role to play, the father of two girls finds his role meaningful in the larger picture of conservation as the authorities can keep track of the bird species and their habitat changes, for instance.If there are noticeable changes to population numbers, for example, they would be the ones to sound the alarm bells and get the authorities to look into it, he noted.

Mr Cheah only started bird-watching last year — he decided it was time to “get back into nature” — but he can now identify some of the birds by their calls.

At the start, he had no problems spotting common birds, such as the rock pigeon and mynahs, out in the open. But things were different when it came to birds in the trees. “It was really difficult. They were so well-camouflaged that unless they call out, or they sang or moved, it wasn’t easy to spot them,” he added.

Ms Ria Tan, 61, is another who chips in by keeping watch over Singapore’s shores. She has been spending about 100 days a year, or roughly twice a month, combing through various shores during the spring low tides, at times looking out for coral bleaching or mass fish deaths.

The founder of nature site, the former civil servant is well-known among marine enthusiasts and professionals alike.

When Singapore experienced the longest mass coral bleaching incident last year, Ms Tan was one of the first to document these on her website. Bleaching occurs when the waters are too warm and forces the corals to expel the algae called zooxanthellae living in their tissues and exposing their limestone skeleton.

She continues to share photos and her findings on how the corals are recovering from the bleaching incident as well as how the north-eastern coast is coping after they were affected by the oil spill in Johor.

At times, dropping in on the shores feels like paying visits to a grandmother, she noted. “Some shores are really, literally dying. And we’ve seen grandma in better days and every time we see her, she’s like declining a little bit more. But we still want to visit her,” she said.

To catch the low tides, she sets off sometimes as early as 2am to take a boat out to Singapore’s northern and southern shoes, accompanied by other volunteers and researchers at times. She has to transfer to a dinghy before wading through knee-deep water to reach the reefs.

With a towel tied around her head and dressed in a neck gaiter, rash guard, track pants, and dive booties, Ms Tan treads along the shore with her walking stick, stopping every now and then to take photos of the marine life, from hard and soft corals, small octopuses, sea anemone to sea cucumbers.

Unlike some others who splurge on long-distance holidays, Ms Tan spends her savings on visiting Singapore’s shores, paying S$10,000 to S$20,000 a year, mostly for hiring boats.
But surveying the shores “is the most fun part of my life”, she said.

Despite her long volunteering experience, Ms Tan said she continues to struggle with raising problems or issues with the relevant stakeholders. “The thing about it is that people get angry, which is not what I want,” she said.

For instance, if someone is seen fishing illegally, she grapples with how she can raise the issue without turning the public against the individual who may not have done it with ill-intentions.

“It’s these kind of issues that cause me grief. I have to think about it, figure out a way to deal with it which doesn’t hurt people,” Ms Tan said.

“I think everybody is trying their best. Everyone has their own focus and constraints, it’s just a matter of finding a way to synergise, collaborate.”


Volunteering amid Singapore’s nature does not always require an individual to invest a lot of time or money.

Healthcare professional Michelle Neo, 29, who volunteers as a guide at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, said a common misconception people have is that it is a very time-consuming endeavour.

“I’m here just once a month and that is very manageable,” she said, adding that she also has the flexibility to choose when she would like to volunteer for other activities.

People also have the wrong impression that volunteer work means helping out with registration or administrative tasks, said Ms Neo, who developed an interest for plants while collecting Young Scientist badges in primary school.

“When people hear that I’m volunteering as a guide, (they) are very surprised. They wonder whether I received professional training in this area … whether I need a degree. In fact … I do not have any educational specialisation in this but it can still be done,” she added.

Even for nature guide Jenny Lim, 52, who has a Bachelor of Science degree, she said she barely recalls what she learned at school because “she only studied to pass the exams”.

“I never really liked botany (that) much,” said Ms Lim, who only started to develop an interest in plants after participating in a sensory trail with her students at Pulau Ubin some seven years ago.

The senior teacher at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore Woodlands Garden now picks up new plant knowledge from fellow volunteers and NParks officers at their monthly sharing sessions or WhatsApp chat group with them.

The nature guide at Pulau Ubin and the Istana also applied what she has learnt by setting up a butterfly garden at her school last year. To attract butterflies, the garden grows plants, such as the Seven Candlesticks, Snakeweeds, Lantana and Rose Myrtle.

What gets her goat when she is volunteering is meeting individuals who insist on releasing non-native species, such as terrapins, in the wild and do not understand why this could damage the environment.

“There are those who might not understand the idea of why it’s important to protect our own native species and not just bring in insects or plants (that are not preyed on in that area),” she said.

“(Sometimes) it takes time for them to buy your idea but we don’t stop telling them what is right … We (just) do what we can.”

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