Sunday, December 12, 2010

Vanishing Act

A genius production from some students at Canadian International School Hong Kong

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Plight of the Panda

The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is facing an uphill battle against extinction. The species is now reliant on conservation efforts and the wild population could be as low as just 1500 individuals, making it the rarest bear species in the world.

So why are pandas having such a tough time whilst other bear species such as the North American Black Bear seem to be able to adapt to changes in their environment? Well, the problem comes because pandas are just so fussy! Their diet is almost 100% bamboo; a grass species which is very low in nutrients and difficult to digest. Because of it's low nutritional value they have to eat pretty much constantly, and because it takes so long to digest they are not particularly active animals. What's more they won't just eat any old bamboo; they favour a particular species. Because they are pretty much the only animals that eat bamboo, in theory they would have no competition for their food and so their populations would thrive. Being a highly specialised animal is often the key to success because you don't have to fight for your food. But the case of pandas is a little more complicated; scientists believe that the bears were historically carnivorous but that their diet changed to bamboo over time because it requires less energy to forage than to hunt, and since pandas have no natural predators as adults they can afford to be out in the open grazing. What this means though is that pandas lack the necessary genetics to digest the grass easily and so rely on microbes in their stomach which is a much less effective process than other herbivores such as cows and deer use, chewing the cud several times and digesting it in their multiple stomachs.

The bamboo forests where pandas have previously reined in the lowlands of central China have been extensively deforested and turned into agricultural lands which are becoming the economic heart of the country, forcing the pandas to head for the hills. Up in the mountain ranges the pandas become isolated and it is harder for individuals to find a mate.

Pandas are also VERY fussy when it comes to mating; zoologists and conservationists have had many sleepless nights trying to figure out ways to entice pandas into breeding in captivity. From the female panda's point of view, she wants to choose the male with the best genes because bringing up baby pandas is a big task; they grow extremely slowly (a newborn panda is about the size of a stick of butter - 1/900th the size of it's mother!). Generally if a mother has twins, she will select the stronger of the two and neglect the weakest which will die. The baby will stay with the mother for some 18 months and in this time she will have to boost her bamboo-eating to provide enough milk for her cub.

But even if the female does find a male that takes her fancy, convincing him to mate is another story all together. Pandas seem to be quite bashful in the bedroom and birth rates in the wild and in captivity are very low. Scientists have even tried giving pandas viagra and sex education videos to put them in the mood, and results have been patchy. In fact we know little about their courting rituals, but recent research suggests that 'chirps' and other vocalisations play a big role in panda flirting.

There have been some panda success stories recently and China has spent a lot of money setting up 50 conservation centres around the country to help save the species. China can fund these efforts by renting out it's adult pandas to zoos around the world. In fact Japan is currently renting two adult pandas from China for $1 million and the proceeds are being put towards re-building panda sanctuaries which were flattened by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Countries around the world are starting to realise the economic value of having pandas in captivity and Japan has proudly unveiled a pair of twin pandas to the public this week which were born earlier in August. The twins will no doubt become media celebrities in the country and will hopefully bring in the important dollars needed to keep the panda from it's plight.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Rarest Mammal known to Man...

The slow loris is an amazing creature - see Matt's profile of the Sunda slow loris in a previous post - and there are three species around South East Asia and all are classified as 'vulnerable' or 'endangered' by the IUCN as they face threats from loss of habitat and poaching for the illegal pet trade. Being that cute has its fair share of disadvantages. 

The Horton Plains slender loris.

Returning from beyond the grave - the Horton Plains Slow Loris, discovered in Sri Lanka in 1937, has thought to be extinct for the last sixty years. A chance encounter in 2002 encouraged surveys by the Zoological Society of London, who established that the entire population consists of a sad figure of less than a hundred individuals. 

This Slow Loris lives exclusively in the cloud forests of Horton Plains in Sri Lanka, and deforestation for firewood and agriculture has left individuals isolated in patchy forest, unable to 'date' as it were (unfortunate for a polygamous animal!). When a population is split up and isolated, individuals cannot find mates, and when reproduction rates drop, combined with a loss of habitat, it leaves that species in real trouble. This tiny mammal, at 20 cm and just 310 g is potentially the rarest mammal known to science.

Efforts are being made to protect and enhance the remaining forest areas in Horton Plains, and to try and reconnect the sporadic population. Fingers crossed for the little fellas. We hope that it's not too late.

- Sam

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Biology Without Borders - Jeffrey Kong

In March of this year, we had a special student in the form of Jeffrey Kong, photo journalist from Asian Geographic magazine. Jeff fit right into the team as he tagged along with St. Joseph's Institute International students as they did survey work on their Rainforest to Reef trip in Tioman Island. Here is his account of his experiences with us. 

What is biology? Twenty years ago I learnt it is the study of living things. Twenty years later I experienced it. And it was the passionate team from EFT who brought this subject to life.

When I went on my first trip with EFT to Tioman earlier this year, I was impressed at how the EFT biologists seemed to know every plant and animal on the island like their own family. They know where to look for the lizard known as the flying dragon; they can show you a flying lemur and tell you that it is, well, not a lemur at all. They can tell you the difference between a coral and a sponge, and that a poisonous frog is not the same as a venomous frog (there is a difference!). And cool stuff like how to measure a tree without having to chop it down.

These guys also walk the talk. They don’t just give a lecture on marine conservation; they spend an entire night digging up a hundred turtle eggs with their bare hands to resettle them in a hatchery safe from poachers. Thanks to these experts, young people can appreciate how we are all linked in this great cycle of life, and how any damage to nature would invariably affect us in one way or another – a biological karma of sorts.

Biology is all around us; it’s not just a subject you learn in a classroom. All you need is to get out there: look, listen, smell, touch, taste. The folks from EFT have showed me how I can begin to make sense of the living world. Now it’s up to me to connect the dots on my own, and to share what I’ve learnt with the world.

To the EFT biologists – Bridget, Ligia, Samantha, Richard, Ling, Jack, Jana, Jen – thank you for a lesson that was 20 years overdue.

Your overaged student
Jeffrey Kong
Editor/photojournalist, Asian Geographic Magazines

P.s. Jeff - we're not sure there are any venomous frogs, but a point well made none-the-less!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The pen is mightier than the sword...but is it mightier than...The Photograph?!

Probably not!

In this TED talk, National Geographic photographer explains how he has been able to use images to tell the story of the decline in our oceans. Without photographs and video, Conservation would not be where it was today.

Think about it, you can talk until you're blue in the face, and you'll get through to a few people, but others may think you are just exaggerating, or perhaps be distracted and not listen; but if you show someone a photograph , or a video , it captures their attention and the same information you were talking about is now associated with an image that inspired some emotion in that person. That way they are more likely to remember!

That is why when we held our student photo competition, we wanted an explanation of what that photo meant to you. We will be holding more photo competitions, and hopefully more and more people will show us how they are using their photography skills to spread the word of conservation!

~ Samantha Craven

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Photography Competition Winner!


It was a very close competition with many amazing pictures submitted. Wan Ting's picture was chosen as a winner for her interesting use of light, superb photographic skill and her explanation of why she chose this picture;

"I took the photo while scuba-diving in Fiji. The marine life there is amazing and this is taken at a site called North Saventech, where lots of pelagic fish hangs around to feed. It was just awesome seeing such a sight with my own eyes. It was also my first time seeing such a majestic scene in real life so I took hundreds of photos in hopes of capturing the moment perfectly."

Runners Up include Donovan Saw Tuan Li, 16 from SJII and James Tong of Tanglin Trust School, age 13.

Donovan: "On the day the picture was taken, I was granted a rare opportunity (as a city dweller) to witness what nature had to truly offer – a beautiful sunset. What struck me about this picture is how the rays of light was filtered out by the clouds, which fell softly on to the ocean surface, and the almost perfect symmetry of the clouds, with the sun in the centre.
I was marvelled by nature’s ability to create a perfect scene (as if it were digitally created) with just random, dynamic props. Then, I was consumed by a dark feeling – Is this what we have been missing all along? Is this what we have been destroying all along? Can we bear to never see such clarity and effortless perfection again?"

James:Black and Yellow - This picture was taken in England over Easter, I took with a 90mm macro lens. My favorite thing about it is the level of detail in this shot. It was taken with a f-stop of f/5 and and exposure of 1/800.

Special mention also goes to Nicole Teng, Nancy Teng, Clare Lee, Mackenzie Foord and Syafiq Baki for their excellent entries.

Thanks to everyone who sent in images- it was a truly hard decision for all of the judges to pick a winner as we had so many amazing shots to choose from. Congratulations once again to Wan Ting who wins a turtle t-shirt!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Student Nature Photography Competition!

The Fig Tree Forum announces the first Student Nature Photography Competition!

Send us your best pictures by 15th May and our panel of judges will select a winner.

The picture can be of anything you like as long as it relates to the themes of Nature, Conservation or Culture.

The rules are simple:
1. The picture must be your own work.
2. The winning picture and runners up will be displayed here on the Forum for all to see!
3. Please include a couple of sentences about the picture; why you like it and if there is a story behind it.
4. Please tell us your age and school.
5. The picture must be related to the themes of Nature, Conservation or Culture.
6. Closing date is 15th May.
7. Tell all your friends! This competition is open to all students, not just those who have been on an Ecofieldtrip!

Happy snapping! The winning shot will earn you a cool EFT turtle t-shirt and will be published in our June newsletter!
Send your entries to

Monday, February 8, 2010

Animal Profile: Sunda Pangolin

The sunda pangolin, or Malayan scaly anteater is a nocturnal mammal found in Malaysia and Singapore. Similar species exist throughout Asia and Africa in varying sizes but all have one thing in common; their soft bodies are covered in armoured plating. The thick plates are made from keratin, the same stuff your fingernails are made of and give the pangolin a great defence against predators, as well as the biting jaws of its prey; ants and termites. The scales overlap, making it very difficult for the ants or termites to attack the pangolin’s soft flesh underneath; their only hope if they are to defend their colony against its long, sticky tongue. The pangolin’s tongue is extremely long in relation to its body size and can reach right down into an insect nest (sometimes up to 40cm!), slurping up its inhabitants by the hundreds. It also has sharp, curved fore claws, ideal for scraping through termite mounds. However these curved claws are clumsy to walk on, and so the pangolin often holds them up and scuttles around on its hind legs in a sort of comical crouch.

Pangolins can emit a noxious odour in a similar way to a skunk, making them unlikely prey for larger animals. However if they are attacked, the razor sharp scales are a great defence; it can curl into a ball, tucking its face under its legs and it will be safe from anything that wants to eat. Well, almost anything. Unfortunately the pangolin’s biggest threat is man; they are often sought after for Chinese medicine and many people believe that pangolin soup can cure asthma. Trade in pangolins and pangolin products has lead to them appearing on the IUCN Red List as ‘Endangered’. Their population in the wild is decreasing also due to loss of habitat; in Malaysia and Singapore pangolins inhabit rainforest, which is fast being cleared for logging, urban development or plantations.

People You Should Know About - David Suzuki

David Suzuki is a long standing environmental campaigner and ambassador for nature. The Japanese-Canadian conservationist studied zoology at university in Canada and went on to host a children’s TV show – Suzuki on Science – in the early ‘70s. In the late ‘70s Suzuki began hosting ‘The Nature of Things’, which has aired around the world and has been his main vehicle for discussing matters of human-wildlife conflict, renewable energy and sustainable development; how we can continue to develop our societies without having harmful affects on nature.

David Suzuki is outspoken about his views on climate change and has been a leading voice in many campaigns to urge governments around the world to act on their carbon emissions. In 2007 Suzuki travelled across Canada in a bus, meeting the public and discussing climate change in a bid to raise awareness in his own country.

His website, The David Suzuki Foundation is a great way to keep informed about climate change but also about many other conservation topics around the world. You can even log on to his site for kids and take the nature challenge to learn about energy saving and lowering your carbon footprint:

Another great page on the kid’s site is an environment glossary – a place you can go to look up words that you don’t understand about the environment, but also to find out about things such as ‘acid rain’, ‘fossil fuels’ and ‘reforestation’: