By Claire Turrell
Languishing in the soft, silty mud, the living fossil looked as if it didn't have a care in the world as it feasted on the fish left stranded in the tidal mangrove pools of the Sungei Buloh wetlands. However, the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) might have been a little less at ease if it knew nearly 90% of its mangrove habitat in Singapore has been lost over the past century.
But now Singapore is looking to reverse this loss by mounting an ambitious reforestation campaign. In August 2020, the Singapore government announced the launch of the new Sungei Buloh Park Network, a 990-acre park in the northern portion of the island that is a refueling site for migratory birds and is home to oriental hornbills, otters, saltwater crocodiles, and many other species.
Sungei Buloh is part of a wider project that aims to plant 1 million trees over the next 10 years as the government tries to improve habitat quality for the city-state's wildlife while improving living conditions for its human residents.
The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve has a storied history. It is where Singapore's smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) were first discovered in the 1990s after they were assumed locally extinct, and it is also the location of the critically endangered Eye of the Crocodile tree (Bruguiera hainesii). The city-state has 11 of the world's last remaining 200 trees.
Smooth-coated otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) have a midday snack at Jurong Eco Garden, Singapore. JJ Harrison / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
The Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve is also an important stop for migratory waterbirds as they fly from Russia and Alaska to Australia and New Zealand along the East Asian-Australasian flyway. By forming the Sungei Buloh Park Network, Singapore is effectively tripling the size of the protected area comprising the reserve. This new park aims to safeguard the biodiversity of multiple areas, including the Kranji marshes, the Mandai mangrove and mudflat, and the coastal Lim Chu Kang Nature Park, which is state land. Within this patchwork of habitats, researchers have recorded 279 species of birds. These areas comprise many different kinds of ecosystems; Lim Chua Kang Nature Park alone boasts mangrove, woodland, scrubland and grassland habitats, and its diversity has attracted coastal birds such as the gray-headed fish eagle (Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus) and baya weaver (Ploceus philippinus).
Geography professor Dan Friess from the National University of Singapore has studied Singapore's mangroves for 11 years and heads up the university's Mangroves Lab, which focuses on the study of coastal wetlands in Southeast Asia. He says Singapore's mangroves have an outsize ecological impact.
"Singapore's mangroves punch way above their weight," Friess told Mongabay. "We only have a small area of mangroves, but within that we have huge biodiversity. For instance, in the U.S. they only have three species of mangrove plant species, while in Singapore you can find 35 different species of plant species in its mangroves."
Singapore's mangroves are relatively easy to access, providing a living laboratory for researchers who have uncovered many of their secrets through decades of study.
"In the Mandai mangroves alone researchers have found 20 species that are new to science," Friess said.
Researchers have also discovered that the Sungei Buloh wetlands and nearby Mandai mudflat are interdependent; seeds travel from the Mandai mangroves to the Sungei Buloh wetlands, and they are both important parts of the habitat of migratory shorebirds. Bird surveys and satellite tracking technology show that birds roost at Sungei Buloh while they feed on the mollusks, crustaceans and worms at Mandai when its extensive mudflat is exposed at low tide.
A marsh sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis) at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Lip Kee / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
Visitors can currently view the Sungei Buloh wetlands from boardwalks and watchtowers, but starting in 2022, the public will also be able to watch migratory birds from hides situated near the Mandai mudflat. Those interested will also be able to tour the new coastal Lim Chua Kang Nature Park, where a historic 1910 colonial building at the end of a jetty is slated to become an education center.
Helping Ourselves by Helping the Forest
As a city-state with limited land resources, Singapore has long been torn between urban development and protecting nature. It lost much of its primary forest in the 19th century to logging, then a century later, a fast-growing population and rapid urban development meant that trees were removed for land reclamation and to build reservoirs for water security.
This expansion has taken a big toll on the region's mangroves. In 1953, Singapore's mangrove forests covered an estimated 63.4 square kilometers (24.5 square miles); by 2018, researchers estimate that number had been reduced to 8.1 km2 (3.1 mi2) — a loss of more than 87%. The country is now working to replace its losses by turning areas used for industry and infrastructure back into natural-looking landscapes. The National Parks Board (NParks) has already had some success with this, converting a brutalist stormwater canal that ran through a residential area into a natural grassy floodplain to cope with urban water runoff, and reestablishing the Sungei Api Api and Pulau Semakau mangroves.
Singapore retains very little of its mangrove forests. In contrast, there are still large tracts of mangroves just across the strait in Malaysia.
Launched on March 4, 2020, the One Million Trees project involves restoration of both inland and mangrove forests. As of October, 51,819 trees have been planted. Four varieties of native coastal and black mangroves tree species have been selected by NParks to be used in reforestation efforts: Palaquium obovatum, Buchanania arborescens, Fagraea auriculata and Sindora wallichii. The latter two species are considered critically endangered in Singapore.
The trees are sourced from Singapore's tree banks, which include nurseries as well as trees that have been salvaged from construction sites. Up to 13,000 trees could be removed over the next 15 years to make way for transport and housing projects in Singapore, but the government has stated that for every tree it removes it will replant another. Trees from the tree bank are destined for Singapore's parks, university grounds, rooftop gardens, roadsides and its outlying islands. They will also be used to help create 26 therapeutic gardens across the city for the aging Singaporean population. By the time One Million Trees officially wraps up in 2030, a goal is for all Singaporean households to be just a 10-minute walk from a park.
In the parks, city gardeners have been planting soil-boosting, nitrogen-fixing plants such as petai (Parkia speciosa) and great grasshopper tree (Archidendron clypearia), fruit-bearing trees such as the common sterculia (Sterculia parviflora) and the kumpang (Horsfieldia irya), and pollinator-attracting trees like pulai penipu paya (Alstonia angustifolia). They have also been helping to regenerate the rainforest by removing invasive weed species.
A Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator) ponders the future of its habitat. Yeowatzup / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
The government hopes greening the city will also help mitigate the "heat island" effect created by its pavement and skyscrapers, which absorb and radiate solar radiation and increase the temperature of Singapore's urban core. Researchers have found there can be up to a 12.6° Fahrenheit difference in temperature between Singapore's downtown and its less built-up portions.
Mangroves provide many ecosystem services to human communities. They can help stop soil erosion by holding it in with their roots, as well as reduce the impact of waves on the shore. And as mangroves can trap sediment between their roots and create their own soil, researchers say they may be able to help keep coastal cities like Singapore above water as the oceans rise due to global warming. (However, studies show mangroves may not be able to keep pace if greenhouse gas emissions accelerate and cause sea levels to rise too quickly.)
Trees play an important role in creating a livable environment, says NParks Conservation Group director Adrian Loo. "They serve as natural air filters, they reflect radiant heat and cool surfaces and [provide] ambient temperatures through shade and evapotranspiration; and help to mitigate the urban heat island effect and climate change," he said. "Healthy forests also play a role in regulating the water cycle, slowing down floodwaters and cleaning the water that flows into waterways."
The city also plans on more than doubling the amount of its "Nature Ways," which aim to make the streets cooler and more aesthetically pleasing while replicating some of the habitat value of forests by planting trees, shrubs and ground cover along sidewalks.
"The planting along these Nature Ways [is] not only designed to cool the environment (with a higher leaf area index), but also attract butterflies, garden birds and small mammals, bringing biodiversity and nature into our urban landscape," Loo said.
One of the many denizens of Singapore's forests is the mangrove pitta (Pitta megarhyncha). JJ Harrison / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
Carbon Storage Champions
There's another, not-so-local benefit to restoring mangroves: healing the global climate. Getting excess carbon out of the atmosphere through reforestation is a key strategy of multinational efforts to curb climate change. And research indicates that, pound for pound, mangroves can sequester far more carbon than rainforests do.
"Mangroves can store three to five times more carbon per hectare than other forest types can do," Friess said.
Just why are mangroves so good at carbon storage? Friess said it's because they are particularly effective at locking up carbon in soil.
"In a normal forest, leaves and branches would die, fall to the forest floor, and quickly get broken down by bacteria and fungi, which releases the carbon back into the atmosphere," Friess said. "Mangrove soils are waterlogged so they have a different microbial community, so organic matter is not broken down and the carbon stays locked up in the soils."
Friess and his colleagues found that even at their current reduced extent, Singapore's mangroves held 450,571 metric tons of carbon. However, this is not enough to compensate for the city-state's emissions. A report by the National Environment Agency states that the city-state released 48.6 million tons of CO2 in 2014, the last year for which data are available.
Friess says the fact these mangroves are still found in modern metropolises such as Singapore gives him hope that they can hang on and make a comeback in other coastal cities as well.
"It gives you an idea of how resilient they are and that they can cope with these modified urban conditions," he said.
Professor Lian Pin Koh, a conservation scientist and director of the new Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions at the National University of Singapore, says natural measures like reforestation are hugely important because they are immediately deployable.
"Nature had already done the research and development, the proof of concept and even the implementations at scale of carbon capture and storage," Koh said. "Manmade solutions are still many years and perhaps even decades away from becoming commercially viable and operational at scale."
A tree-climbing crab (Episesarma spp.) and a couple common nerite snails (Nerita lineata) sale a mangrove tree during high tide, with a giant mudskipper (Periophthalmodon schlosseri) close behind. Sundar / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0
When it comes to gauging the success of reforestation projects like One Million Trees, Jurgenne Primavera, former co-chair of the IUCN Mangrove Specialist Group, prefers to focus on science and ecology rather than targets or quotas. She said that problems with reforestation projects often arise when the wrong species are planted at the wrong sites. But she adds there are key signs when reforestation has been done effectively.
"High survival and growth rates and healthy forests of the correct trees species," Primavera told Mongabay. "For mangroves, for example, these would be Avicennia marina and Sonneratia alba along coastlines facing the open sea. For terrestrial species these would be native species and not exotics."
To safeguard the trees, NParks carries out regular inspections and offers best-practice workshops to organizations across the island. But Adrian Loo said that for the One Million Trees project to be considered effective, everyone needs to be involved: "The success of the project is also measured by our ability to instill a sense of stewardship among Singaporeans — towards our trees and environment."
Reposted with permission from Mongabay.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
An annual comprehensive report on air pollution showed that it was responsible for 6.67 million deaths worldwide, including the premature death of 500,000 babies, with the worst health outcomes occurring in the developing world, according to the State of Global Air, which was released Wednesday.
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