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13 Asian countries pledge to double tiger population

Elephants run amok in Indonesia
Jakarta (AFP) Jan 29, 2010 - Dozens of wild elephants rampaged through a village in Indonesia's Riau province, terrifying residents and damaging houses and crops, officials said Friday. "Some 70 elephants destroyed more than 23 semi-permanent houses in Lubuk Kandis hamlet," Iwin Karsiawan from Riau's nature conservation agency told AFP. The rampage occurred over the course of three days last week. He said the new communities springing up in the jungle-clad region to farm crops, mostly palm oil, were encroaching on the animals' habitat and resulting in clashes between man and beast. "No one was killed or injured in the incident but half of the 40 families living in the hamlet left for their safety," he said. Conservationists say the elephants' habitat is being taken over by settlements, plantations and industrial forest estates.
by Staff Writers
Bangkok (AFP) Jan 29, 2010
Representatives from 13 Asian countries on Friday pledged to double the number of wild tigers by the year 2022 and called for protection of habitats to save the animals from extinction.

The declaration, announced in a press statement by officials at the first Asia Ministerial Conference on Tiger Conservation, in Thai coastal resort of Hua Hin, was hailed by conservation groups at the meeting.

"Let us join together boldly to save the wild tiger," Suwit Khunkitti, Thailand's minister of environment and natural resources, said in the statement.

The global wild tiger population is estimated to be at an all-time low of 3,200, down from an estimated 20,000 in the 1980s and 100,000 a century ago.

The declaration to preserve the animals will be considered for approval by heads of the 13 states when they meet in a Tiger Summit in September in Vladivostok, Russia, hosted by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"We look forward to seeing their pledges turn into firm actions in Vladivostok," said Michael Baltzer, from the conservation agency WWF, adding he was "delighted to see a ray of hope for the tiger".

The 13 countries who attended the Hua Hin conference were Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The meeting, which began Wednesday, was organised by Thailand and the Global Tiger Initiative, a coalition formed in 2008 by the World Bank, US-based the Smithsonian Institute and dozens of conservation groups.

A recent WWF report blamed infrastructure developments, such as forests being cut up by roads and converted into commercial crop plantations, for destroying tigers' habitats.

The report also cited growing demand for tiger body parts used in traditional Chinese medicine as a major factor endangering wild tiger populations.

earlier related report
Endangered animals get new lease of life in Singapore
Singapore (AFP) Jan 29, 2010 - Sporting spiked hair and silver earrings, Samuel Tay hardly looks like a typical midwife.

The 25-year-old zookeeper beams with quiet pride as he watches over his "babies" -- row upon row of snakes bred for Singapore's popular zoo.

"These are my kids. Why do I need kids when I have so many already?" he told AFP, gesturing to tanks where newborn reptiles, including some from highly endangered species, receive tender loving care.

From jaguars and chimpanzees to Komodo dragons and manatees, heavily urbanised Singapore is gaining a reputation as a successful nursery for some of the world's rarest animals.

With a breeding programme for 315 species, around one in six of which are threatened, the Singapore Zoo is seeing a steady stream of locally born additions to its collection, currently numbering more than 2,500 animals.

Tay, a zoologist by training, is one of Singapore's frontline warriors in the battle against animal extinction, and visitors from around the world help fund the campaign.

The Singapore Zoo and its attached Night Safari, dedicated to nocturnal animals, each welcomes more than a million visitors a year.

Last year, 142 animals were born in the zoo, 32 of which were threatened species, officials said.

Experts from Wildlife Reserves Singapore (WRS), the operator of the city-state's zoo, night safari and bird park, do not rely on Mother Nature for results.

"We are very pragmatic, in the sense that if we need to make things happen, we will go all out to make things happen," said the group's assistant director of zoology Biswajit Guha.

The latest star of the programme is a baby Komodo dragon hatched in December -- the first born in an Asian zoo outside the giant lizard's native Indonesia.

The hatchling was the culmination of three years of effort by zookeepers watching over every step of its parents' courtship and mating to make sure everything went as planned, said Tay.

"It's always supervised contact, we never leave them alone together," he said.

This interventionist approach is extended to other creatures at Singapore's wildlife attractions, including the Jurong Bird Park, another major tourist draw.

"We don't take a wait-and-see approach. We will give it a certain amount of time for the animals to decide for themselves if they do want to mate, but if things don't go right, then we usually come in," Guha said.

Aside from making enclosures look and feel like native habitats, cutting-edge technology and scientific methods are deployed to make sure animals mate with the best possible partners at the most opportune time.

They include matching viable females with genetically superior males using semen analysis and monitoring the females' fertility cycles through regular ultrasound tests -- something that not all zoos can afford to do.

"Diagnostic facilities are not cheap," noted senior veterinarian Abraham Mathew. "You need the manpower and you need the expertise to do this. All zoos actually want to do this type of work, but whether they can do it or not would depend on their management," he said.

A mobile ultrasound machine used by the zoo costs around 20,000 Singapore dollars (14,200 US) and includes an expensive probe that allows veterinarians to accurately check female animals' fertility out in the field.

Such resources have helped make the city state a breeding hub for threatened animals, said Guha.

Zoo staff hope a pair of pandas to be loaned by China will produce offspring in the coming years.

"For us, captive populations form an insurance population, so it is our objective to make sure that there are sustainable numbers in captivity," Guha said.

earlier related report
Washington panda cub to be shipped via FedEx to China
Washington (AFP) Jan 28, 2010 - US-born panda cub Tai Shan will next week leave the National Zoo in Washington and head in grand style for a new life in China -- on board a Federal Express cargo plane, officials said Thursday.

On the morning of February 4, Tai Shan will have a police escort to Dulles international airport where he will board a FedEx jet specially decked out for the occasion with a 40 foot by 40 foot (12 x 12 meter) emblem of a panda painted on either side of the cockpit.

"We're going to use our new 777 freighter, the fastest, most efficient aircraft to get to Asia and Tai Shan will be the special passenger on that aircraft," FedEx vice president of operations John Dunavant told reporters.

"We're going to call this aircraft the FedEx Panda Express," said Dunavant.

With Tai Shan on board the Panda Express -- which normally transports 2,000 pounds (around 1,000 kilograms) of freight -- will be one of his handlers, a veterinarian, and a two-year-old female panda and her entourage who will be picked up in Atlanta.

Tai Shan and his panda travel partner, whose name is Mei Lan, will not have the run of the plane but will travel in comfort, without being anesthetized, in crates crafted out of tubular steel.

"We're confident he'll travel well. He's a very adaptable, laid-back bear," said handler Nicole Meese, who will accompany Tai Shan on the journey and stay with him for a few days to help him make the transition to life in China.

FedEx has years of experience transporting all sorts of wild animals, from lions to tigers to Tai Shan's parents, which the global air freight company flew to the United States in 2000, long before Tai Shan was a twinkle in panda conservationists' eyes.

After his 14-and-a-half-hour flight to Chengdu, Tai Shan will travel 2.5 hours by road to Wolong's Beifengxia nature reserve in Sichuan province, where after spending 30-days in quarantine he will join the breeding program.

Tai Shan's departure for China has been on the cards since the day he was born in 2005, and in fact, under an agreement between the National Zoo and China, he was supposed to have been sent to the fatherland when he turned two.

The Chinese granted Washington an extension, partly because Tai Shan would have been too young, at age two, to enter the panda breeding program in China, but also because of the "huge emotional attachment the American public has for him," said Don Moore, associate director of animal care at the National Zoo.

But now at age four-and-a-half, the young panda is showing signs that he would welcome being part of a breeding program, not to mention the chance to nibble at more than the four varieties of bamboo that are available to him at his home in Washington.

But that won't make waving goodbye to him any easier for visitors and staff of the National Zoo.

"It's like sending your kindergartner off to kindergarten, but this kindergartner isn't coming back. He's going to stay in China," said Moore.

"I'm going to miss him terribly but I always knew this day was coming and we were lucky to have him an extra two-and-a-half years," said Meese, who has spent almost every day with Tai Shan since his birth in the early hours of July 9, 2005.

"But I'm looking at the more important, big picture and that is that Tai Shan is going to be part of the breeding program, which will help to make sure future generations can enjoy giant pandas," she said.

"And also, by him moving, it will free up some space in case his parents have a little brother or sister," she added hopefully.

Zoo officials are carefully monitoring Tai Shan's mother Mei Xiang after artificially inseminating her earlier this month.

If Mei Xiang does become pregnant, the National Zoo could welcome a new panda cub to the world anytime from three to six months from now.

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Mekong tiger population at 'crisis point': WWF
Bangkok (AFP) Jan 26, 2010
Governments must act decisively to prevent the extinction of tigers in Southeast Asia's Greater Mekong region, where numbers have plunged more than 70 percent in 12 years, the WWF said Tuesday. The wild tiger population across Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam has dropped from an estimated 1,200 in 1998 - the last Year of the Tiger - to around 350 today, according to the conser ... read more

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