Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Biodiversity and a...Nintendo Game?

When Satoshi Tajiri was a young Japanese boy, he was fascinated by arthropods and dreamed of becoming an entomologist - a scientist who studies insects. He loved collecting specimens, and his friends even gave him the nickname "Dr Bug". Unfortunately for him, insect-hunting areas fell drastically as the town he grew up in developed and built paved roads, apartments and railway lines.Refusing to give up his passion just like that, he diverted his attention to creating and designing video games. In 1996, he created a Nintendo game that was just like a virtual world, bursting with biodiversity and packed with 719 fictional species. It proved hugely popular, and has since become the second-most successful video game so far. This video game, borne out of a childhood interest of a young boy intrigued by insects, is none other than Pokémon.

Above is the Pokémon colour wheel, pretty with a myriad of colours! On the darker side, it is a pity that 8 year old children can identify up to 120 Pokémon characters, but only less than 50 % of common wild types native to their area (Balmford et al., 2002). It seems that young children are more interested in fictional species than genuine ones!

"If you can't beat them, join them." Pokémon remains immensely popular, and in a bid to raise interest amongst the young on biodiversity, conservationist and scientists are taking a leaf out of the book (or rather, out of the game), and tapping on Pokémon's success by starting the Phylo Project and introducing a new trading card game called "Phylo: The Trading Card Game". The game aims to expose children to the various plants and animals using trading cards with genuine species, and includes information on their habitat, kingdom and diet (Collins, 2014). Additionally, real-life environmental threats such as climate change and oil spills will also be incorporated into the game to raise awareness of the situation and threats faced by species in our environment.

While it is ironic that conservationists have resorted to a passive, indoor card game activity to raise awareness and interest of biodiversity in a scope that typically involves the outdoors and interacting with nature, this is at least, a step towards striving for concrete and productive biodiversity education. Hopefully, this card game will make an impact and increase children's curiosity and interest in biodiversity around us. Only then will children learn to appreciate the beauty of outdoor activities and field trips, such as going to a zoo or marine park, knowing that it is more than just pure entertainment and fun, but a learning experience that will culminate in compassion and a yearning to protect living organisms that coexist with us.

The fact that Pokémon has withstood the test of time and continues to remain popular among a new wave of young children is impressive. If only the craze and popularity of this video game series can be translated to a genuine interest and passion for the environment and biodiversity. With increasing urban population, young children of today will be the futures of tomorrow. Hence, biodiversity education is important to capture the interest of the young and teach them the beauty of biodiversity and nature, ensuring that they remain motivated and inspired to protect these ecosystems in years to come. I'm sure Tajiri will be truly satisfied only if his work inspires others to protect what's left of the richness of species in our environment, more so then the popularity he gains or profits he receives.

That is all, but I'll like to leave you with an interesting journal article titled: 'It is a Pokémon world': The Pokémon franchise and the environment.

To all you Pokemon lovers out there, you're probably going to love the article.
Ps: I've a confession to make - I've never watched nor played Pokémon.

Literature Citied

Balmford, A., Clegg, L., Coulson, T., & Taylor, J. (2002) Why conservationists should heed Pokémon. Science, 295(5564), 2367-2367.
Collins, J. (2014) Pokemon power: finding fun in biodiversity. Available at: http://www.dw.de/pokemon-power-finding-fun-in-biodiversity/a-17504066
Accessed 18 October 2014].

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Avian Conservation - Make way for the birds!

How many of us have collided against an object, such as a pole/door/mirror before? If you haven't, then you're either a ghost, or probably lying! Most of us should know that colliding with hard objects can be painful or even dangerous. The same applies for migrating birds, with avian obstacle collision becoming more frequent as countries construct even more towering skyscrapers and wind turbines that will look impressive and grand. Based on how frequently they're built, the main forms of obstacles that compete for air space with birds are airplanes, power lines, fences, communication wires, tall buildings and wind turbines (I'll be focusing more on power lines and wind turbines).

Power Lines

mike fisher power lines 4925197048_7ebc0d6a7f_o
Many countries choose to construct power lines above the ground and not underground, as it is much cheaper. This is exacerbated by the increase in energy demands over the years, triggering the construction of numerous power lines. However, these power lines can be dangerous to birds, not just in collision, but also in electrocution. Power lines attract birds like eagles and hawks as they provide a prime spot for them to rest and spot their prey. A bird with a large wingspan might make contact with two power lines, resulting in electrical transmission through the bird, causing electrocution and more often than not, death. An example of a bird vulnerable to collision and electrocution is the Bald Eagle, formerly on the brink of extinction, but later removed from the US' list of endangered species after conservation efforts were introduced to increase its population. Even so, the US' Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act is still in place, and technically, the unintentional deaths of Bald Eagles due to collision or electrocution should require a permit (US Fish and Wildlife Services, 2010). The Bald Eagle is just one of the many types of birds that may unwittingly and unintentionally get caught or collide into power lines, especially when the lines are not easily visible.

Wind Turbines
Harnessing wind energy is thought to be a great environmentally-friendly alternative source of energy. To maximise wind energy harnessed, the wind turbines are constructed as high as possible, piercing the open airspace and standing out from the rest of the surrounding vegetation. Unfortunately, this makes wind turbines a major threat to birds. When the blades spin at high speed, there is a "blurring" effect, and the wind turbine blades are not really visible anymore. Statistics by the American Bird Conservancy (American Bird Conservancy, n.d.) indicated that in the US alone, there were an estimate of 573,000 bird deaths from wind turbines in 2012. Thus, this is no light matter, and there are rooms for improvements, which will be mentioned later.

Shouldn't birds see what's ahead and avoid any form of obstacles?
This was the first question that popped into my head, so I did a bit of research and found some really interesting articles. Do read - Article 1. Article 2. Both discussed reasons behind the tendency of birds to collide with tall structures. Basically, simply looking at something doesn't necessarily mean you'll see something. Factors such as weather, food availability and behavioral activity influence rate of mortality of some birds. In addition, birds tend to look downwards when in flight to search for food below and hence, may not be aware or note the oncoming structure blocking its path (Martin, 2011).

What about in Singapore?
In Singapore, most of our power lines are built underground, so that is not too much of a problem. Rather, it is the skyscrapers in the Central Business District (CBD) area and high-rise Housing Development Board (HDB) flats that may cause potential problems. However, research papers on the frequency or rate of mortality when birds collide into man-made structures built in Singapore have been extremely few. As I had the intention to blog on this topic weeks ago, there was scarcely any information in the Singapore context. It was much later that The Straits Times (dated 13 October 2014) reported on this issue, and mentioned how The Nature Society (Singapore) intends to collect information to compile data and determine how many birds on average, die because of collision with skyscrapers in Singapore. (Read it here.) To quote the group, they said that this phenomenon is "chronically understudied" in Singapore, and I couldn't agree more. Maybe more field studies can be conducted in this area?

-Research have shown that it is better to divert birds away from high-rise buildings and objects rather than make these objects more conspicuous (Martin, 2011)
-Areas with high densities of birds or key bird habitats (either due to high availability of food and shelter) should be clear of any form of potentially dangerous tall objects such as wind turbines and power lines.
- Visual markers or warning signals should be constructed to discourage and induce birds to avoid flying into the vicinity of power lines or wind turbines. Admittedly, this may be a complicated solution as the type of warning signal is difficult to determine, with different behavioral responses for different types of birds.
- The preferred choice would be to built power transmission lines underground, but alternately, insulating cases can be placed around these wires to minimize the risks of electrocution of birds.
-More field studies and research should be carried out to study how avian collision can affect population of birds, especially the endangered ones.

Ultimately, I doubt there is a single, most effective way in minimising avian collision. The mitigating strategies used would have to be tailored to suit the relevant bird species involved, and the type of surroundings.

Literature Citied

American Bird Conservancy. (n.d.) Birds and Collisions. [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/policy/collisions/ [Accessed 10 October 2014].
Martin, G. R. (2011) Understanding bird collisions with man‐made objects: a sensory ecology approach. Ibis, 153(2), 239-254.
US Fish and Wildlife Service. (2010) Eagle Collision Risk Assessment. [ONLINE]. Available at: http://www.fws.gov/midwest/twincities/cpa/capx/pdf/FWS_Collision%20Risk%20AssessmentJune2010.pdf [Accessed 10 October 2014].

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Biodiversity in an Urban Environment

Some say it is impossible, I say it is possible if we try. "Biodiversity" and "Urbanisation" may seem like 2 words that simply do not belong together. The argument presented is that urbanisation often leads to fragmentation of habitats such as mangroves, and often require large clearing of land and greenery, not only contributing to large ecological or carbon footprint, but also depriving and squeezing out areas that used to be home for numerous species. To further compound matters, the portion of Earth that will be viewed as "urbanised" is on track to triple from years 2000 to 2030 (Conniff, 2014).

However, it is not all dark and gloomy. Recent technological advancements coupled with intensive Research and Development (R& D) have bore fruit. With increasing emphasis on building green cities, numerous creative and innovative ideas have been mooted and most are already in place. Examples can be seen in the picture below, and by the way, I think urban agriculture is a really cool practice!

Urban green infrastructure_jpeg

Do give these 3 journal papers a read ( 1, 2 and 3) The 1st paper talks about how urbanisation may paradoxically, drive biodiversity. The 2nd paper studies ways that urbanisation can foster an ecologically heterogeneous city, while the 3rd paper highlights the importance of sustaining urban biodiversity.

While I generally with the 2nd and 3rd journal paper, the 1st paper invoked in me a rather strong sense of emotion. The paper means no harm in highlighting an interesting insight into how wastelands provide space for wildlife to thrive, but what about land-scarce countries like Singapore? Also, it seems like we are segregating animals and humans from each other, and for me at least, I'd very much prefer coexistence and cohabitation with animals, although practicality and realism tells me that this may not work out as well as I'd have hoped for. Other than that, the paper gave me hope, that biodiversity and cities need not be mutually exclusive, and this belief has been reinforced when I read an article about otters who have made their home in (of all places), the Central Business District Area (CBD) of Singapore.

It was a surprise when 2 otters were first spotted in February 2014 within Marina Reservoir and around the coasts of Gardens By The Bay, but an even bigger surprise is that these otters have now raised 5 pups (Ee, 2014). Despite the enclosed area far from freshwater sources, these otters seem to have adapted fairly well, and may have gradually adapted to our urban environment. (Impressive!)

This family of wild otters have been spotted roaming and eating fish along the banks of Marina Reservoir. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JEFFERY TEO
While some animals have shown incredible abilities to adapt, let us not take that for granted. There is only so much environmental stress that these animals or plants can tolerate, and it feels unfair that they are suffering and bearing the brunt of urbanisation that is done primarily to benefit Human Beings. Very often, we fail to realise that the land we live on are not implicitly ours to own. We share them with many other living organisms, and they provide an intricate sense of comfort and joy so greatly valued in our lives. Countries so often, strive to build "Liveable Cities", yet are they actually "Liveable" for other living creatures apart from Human Beings?

Meanwhile, knowing these otters have made the Marina Area their home have placed a smile on my face. Not so much that we may get to see them up close once in a while, but because once again, these animals have shown that they will not back down. They will fight for their survival and try their best to adapt. It is time for humans to join in the fight and make a genuine effort to protect their habitats and spaces. Also, do not simply write off the notion that anything urban, cannot be wild.

And by the way, Singapore aim to be a "City in a Garden". Yet, our ecological footprint is the highest in Asia, and our green ranking has (rather dishearteningly) worsened, ranking as having the 7th largest ecological footprint in the world. Looks like our aim is still a work in progress.

Literature Citied

Conniff, R. 2014. Urban Nature: How to Foster Biodiversity in World’s Cities. [ONLINE] Available at: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/urban_nature_how_to_foster_biodiversity_in_worlds_cities/2725/. [Accessed 10 October 14].
Ee, D. (2014). Wild otters raise family around Marina Bay. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/news/singapore/more-singapore-stories/story/wild-otters-raise-family-around-marina-bay-20140928. [Accessed 10 October 14].

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Palming Off Palm Oil Plantations.

When one thinks of deforestation, the Amazon rainforest comes to mind. However, a lesser-known problem is that clearing rainforests for palm oil plantation in tropical countries have detrimental impacts on orangutans, which can be only be found in rainforests of Borneo (Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia).

Alas, these 2 countries are mega-producers of palm oil. Indonesia is the world's largest palm oil producer with 6 million hectares of palm oil plantations (Benson, 2014), while Malaysia is the world's largest exporter of palm oil. Found in a wide range of products and also an alternative source of energy via palm oil biodiesel, future demand for palm oil in the food and energy sector is expected to increase drastically. And here lies the tension: while viewed as a serious ecological threat to environmental groups, the food industry glorifies palm trees as a wonderful plant that yields oil far greater then other plants such as sunflower.

With rising demand for palm oil, this spells trouble for orangutans - a species closely-related to us. Orangutans tend to inhabit lowlands, but that is also where land is most fertile and suitable for palm oil plantations (Marshall, 2013). Hence, large land-clearing in Indonesia and Malaysia has lead to a competition for land between humans and orangutans. From the picture below, it is evident that land area covered by orangutans largely overlap with forested precincts that are vulnerable to land-clearing for palm oil plantations. Over the years of excessive deforestation, large habitat areas of orangutans have been lost, resulting in fewer than 60,000 orangutans remaining in the wild forests of Sumatra and Borneo today (Chamberlain, 2013).

Habitats under threat
Because of habitat loss, poaching of baby orangutans is made much easier as they are easily spotted by poachers (David et al., 2009). The increase in poaching of the babies is a worrying trend considering that the Sumatran Orangutan is already critically endangered (Nater et al., 2013). Hence, necessary actions by policymakers should be taken to combat this problem, and protect Indonesia's native species from extinction.

Proper ecological planning should be done, namely to identify and protect areas rich in biodiversity and with great conservation value. The interests and rights of indigenous people should also be considered before rainforests are cleared for palm oil plantation. However, a major obstacle is convincing major and minor stakeholders to correct their ways and adopt sustainable practices. Hence, incentives should be and have been carried out to tackle this issue.

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 by WWF, and aims to involve retailers, palm oil producers, food manufacturers and policymakers from different countries to encourage adoption of safe and sustainable methods for Palm Oil plantation sites (Schouten & Glasbergen, 2011). The RSPO has had relative success since then, with 1000 members at present (UCS, 2013).


 In 2011,  RSPO released a brand new trademark label (picture on the left) that can be used on product packaging of member companies. Producers of household products such as peanut butter, margarine and cookies will be accredited with this trademark once these companies fulfill the requirements set out under RSPO's "Principles and Criteria" framework.

It is corporate responsibility to adopt sustainable practices to minimise impacts of palm oil plantations on orangutans. Thus, the introducing of this trademark should incentivize companies to change their environmental-degrading practices, and adopt a more sustainable approach.

While it is impossible and impractical to halt palm oil production altogether (it is a major source of revenue for Malaysia and Indonesia), at least the new methods and techniques proposed by the RSPO are less harmful.

Additionally, Indonesia's government has also taken action by imposing a moratorium on clearing additional areas of rainforests for palm oil plantations in May 2011. Despite outrage from domestic palm oil industries, the ban was extended, and will last until at least 2015 (). This is heartening news for us, as it shows that the government is serious about protecting wildlife habitats of orangutans and other endangered species found in the rainforests of Indonesia.

Next time you shop for groceries, try to avoid products with palm oil, or purchase products that may have the "Certified Sustainable Palm Oil" trademark label. The orangutans will thank you for that! And remember, it is not the crop that should have a negative connotation, but the environmentally-detrimental way it is being cultivated.

Literature Cited

 Benson, T. (2014). Major palm oil companies to halt deforestation. UPI [ONLINE] 21 September. Available at: http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2014/09/21/Major-palm-oil-companies-to-halt-deforestation/2501411326608/. [Accessed 30 September 14].
Chamberlain, G. (2013). Orangutans fight for survival as thirst for palm oil devastates rainforests. The Guardian.[ONLINE] 30 September. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/15/orangutans-fight-for-survival. [Accessed 30 September 14].
David, L. A. G., Serge, W., Justin, E., Daniel, J., Markku, K., & Nigel, L.-W. (2009). The future of forests and orangutans ( Pongo abelii ) in Sumatra: predicting impacts of oil palm plantations, road construction, and mechanisms for reducing carbon emissions from deforestation. Environmental Research Letters, 4(3), 034013.
Schouten, G., & Glasbergen, P. (2011). Creating legitimacy in global private governance: The case of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. Ecological economics, 70(11), 1891-1899.
Marshall, M. (2013). Unlikely alliances are key to saving orang-utans. New Scientist, 220(2939), 27.
Can Indonesia increase palm oil output without destroying its forest? The Guardian. [ONLINE] 11 September. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/sep/11/indonesia-palm-oil-destroy-forests. [Accessed 30 September 14].
Nater, A., Arora, N., Greminger, M. P., van Schaik, C. P., Singleton, I., Wich, S. A., ... & Krützen, M. (2013). Marked population structure and recent migration in the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). Journal of Heredity, 104(1), 2-13.
Union of Concerned Scientists (2013). Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation. UCS [ONLINE] 12 October. Available at: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/stop-deforestation/palm-oil-and-forests.html. [Accessed 30 September 14].

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Wormy Feeling

Much talk has been on the Anthropocene. In my opinion, we're already in the midst of this geological epoch. This sixth mass extinction is gaining ground, and unraveling before our very own eyes. Species are going extinct about 1000 times faster than they would be without humans' presence (Pimm et al., 2014).

Which species do we most need to save? While pandas and polar bears are adorable, less appealing are the worms that are so fundamentally integral as a contributory to ecosystem services, that protecting these species can directly or indirectly influence the perpetuation of many other species as well.


 Why are worms so important? 
As a start, worms eat organic matter and break them up into smaller pieces, allowing fungi and bacteria to further decompose these organic materials and return nutrients back into the soil for plants to utilise. (And I'm sure you know how important plants are as habitats, sources of food, medicine and shelter). 

When worms tunnel through soil, it  facilitates water absorption and allows oxygen to enter the soil during heavy storms, and retains the water during dry periods. This underground tunneling process opens up passageways called soil pores that create space for air and water. Adequate water spaces allow for good infiltration and percolation of water through soil. Hence, drainage is improved, and waterlogging is minimised. This will reduce the chances of fungal diseases and root rot plaguing farmers' crops. Hence, worms are also farmer's good friends, increasing soil fertility and maximising crop yields in the process.

On a separate note, scientists are also studying the feasibility of mealworm as a source of protein for human consumption! With world population set to increase to 9.6 billion in 2050, food production must increase by 60% (FAO, 2014), and global agricultural systems would have to do so using less land, water and fertiliser. This is arguably impossible to achieve unless alternative food sources are scouted.

Perhaps now is the time to get used to worms before it ends up on our plates! 

Literature Citied

Food and Agriculture Organization, International Fund for Agricultural Development, & World Food Programme. (2014). The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2014. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition. Rome, FAO.

Pimm, S. L., Jenkins, C. N., Abell, R., Brooks, T. M., Gittleman, J. L., Joppa, L. N., ... & Sexton, J.    O. (2014). The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science, 344(6187), 1246752.