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Saturday, April 09, 2011

Turtle Known Only From Asian Markets Finally Found in Wild

By Brandon Keim

In the early 1990s, biologists in southeast Asia discovered a species of turtle unknown to science. But there was a catch: They didn’t know where it came from. Cuora picturata, as the new turtle was formally named, was found only in markets where it was sold for food.

Nearly two decades later, a clever piece of biological sleuthing has found the native home of C. picturata. The discovery offers hope not just to C. picturata, but to other turtle species known only from markets.

“It’s frustrating. You see this animal being exploited, and likely facing extinction,” said Bryan Stuart, a biologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, whose search for C. picturata’s home was described April 1 in Biological Sciences. “But there’s little that conservation can do, because we’re missing the basic information necessary for conservation: Where does this species occur in the wild?”

Stuart and other researchers weren’t starting from scratch, however. From the location of markets where C. picturata was sold, they figured the turtles were captured in southern Vietnam or across the border in Cambodia. The turtle also resembled two other known box turtle species, Cuora galbinifrons and Cuora bourretti. Genetic comparisons proved their relation.

Those other turtles live in wet forests with closed canopies. The place best fitting that description in southern Vietnam was the Langbian plateau, at the southern tip of the Truong Son mountains — and C. bourreti lived in the central part of the mountains, with C. galbinifrons to the north.

The puzzle pieces were coming together, and there was one more clue. Where C. galbinifrons lived, so did Hylobates leucogenys, a species of gibbon, and Pygathrix nemaeus, a species of douc langur. Likewise, where C. bourretti lived, so did a Hylobates species closely related to the northern gibbons, and a Pygathrix species closely related to the northern doucs. Such so-called “co-occurences” result from historic events — a new river, a climate change — that split ancestral populations into separate groups. The Langbian plateau also had its own unique gibbon and douc langur; if the pattern held, C. picturata should be its box turtle.

But though Stuart could guess where C. picturata might be, he still needed help finding it. Enter Tri Ly, a biologist at the University of Science in Ho Chi Minh City, who had just finished his undergraduate studies and approached Stuart in search of a project.

Ly traveled to the Langbian plateau, where he interviewed villagers and met with hunters. In July of 2010, the first expedition set off. Hunting dogs were used to find turtles in the dense jungle foliage, but their barks were often false alarms: the group found king cobras, mouse deer, squirrels, monkeys — but no turtles.

Finally, on July 5, 2010, hiding from the dogs under a pile of dry leaves at the base of a rattan bush on the slope of a hill, was a single female C. picturata, seen for the first time in the wild. “I was totally amazed and elated,” said Tri Ly.

Three separate expeditions recovered a total of eight turtles, firmly establishing the Langbian plateau as their home. Unfortunately, the turtles’ habitat is being lost to agriculture and coffee plantations, but the findings are an essential first step toward conservation.

Beyond knowing what places need protection, conservationists now know where turtles bred in captivity can be released. Without this knowledge, C. picturata could end up in the conservation equivalent of life support, bred in captivity in perpetuity.

Stuart and Ly hope their efforts will inspire other biologists in southeast Asia, which is currently experiencing what’s known as the “Asian turtle crisis“: Millions of turtles are sent each year to China, threatening many species with extinction. At least three other box turtle species — C. zhoui, C. mccordi and C. yunnanensis — are known only from markets.

“It is hoped that focused field efforts such as ours will soon identify the mysterious origins of these other rare species that are known to scientists only by turtles bearing price tags,” wrote Stuart and Ly.

Images: 1) Female Vietnamese box turtle (Biological Conservation). 2) A map of southeast Asia and the box turtles’ ranges (Biological Conservation).
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Monkeys main reservoir of human malaria in Southeast Asia

A study led by an Indian-origin scientist has warned that monkeys infected with an emerging malaria strain are providing a reservoir for human disease in Southeast Asia.

It confirmed that the species has not yet adapted to humans and that monkeys are the main source of infection.

Previously thought to only infect monkeys, the researchers have shown that human P knowlesi infections are widely distributed in Southeast Asia and that it is a significant cause of malaria in Malaysian Borneo.

Until now, it was not clear whether the infection is transmitted from person to person, or is passed over from infected monkeys.

Researchers led by Prof Balbir Singh at the Malaria Research Centre, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, collaborating with Sarawak State Health Department, St George's University of London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, examined blood samples from 108 wild macaques from different locations around the Sarawak division in Malaysian Borneo.

Their results revealed that 78% were infected with the P knowlesi species of malaria parasite, and many were infected with one or more of four other species of monkey malaria parasites that have not yet been found in humans.

By comparing the molecular identity of the parasites from monkeys and those isolated from patients with knowlesi malaria, the team were able to build a picture of the evolutionary history of the parasite and its preferred host.

Their analysis reveals that transmission of the knowlesi species is more common amongst wild monkeys, than from monkeys to humans, and that monkeys remain the dominant host.

"Our findings strongly indicate that P knowlesi is a zoonosis in this area, that is to say it is passed by mosquitoes from infected monkeys to humans, with monkeys acting as a reservoir host," said Singh.

"However, with deforestation threatening the monkeys' habitat and increases in the human population, it's easy to see how this species of malaria could switch to humans as the preferred host. This would also hamper current efforts aimed at eliminating malaria," he added.

Based on the molecular data, the researchers estimate that the knowlesi malaria species evolved from its ancestral species between 98 000 and 478 000 years ago.

This predates human settlement in the area, meaning that monkeys are mostly likely to have been the initial host for the parasite when the species first emerged.

This estimate also indicates that the species is as old as, or older than, the two most common human malaria parasites, P falciparum and P vivax.

The study is published in the journal PLoS Pathogens.
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Cambodia 'disappointed' by Thai stance on observers

JAKARTA : Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong yesterday expressed disappointment over Thailand's refusal to accept Indonesian military observers into the disputed area on the Thai-Cambodian border.

''If Thailand really wishes to have a ceasefire at the border, why should they hesitate to receive Indonesian observers?'' he asked reporters in Jakarta ahead of an Asean meeting on the relief response to tsunami-ravaged Japan.

''Every time there's an armed clash, they always accuse Cambodia of starting the fighting. If this is the case, why don't they accept Indonesia as a mediator?'' he said.

At an informal Asean Foreign Ministers' meeting on Feb 22, Thailand and Cambodia agreed to accept Indonesian observers into a flashpoint section of the border where heavy fighting erupted the same month.

But Thailand's military last month said the observers were not welcome in the 4.6-square-kilometre disputed area near 11th-century Preah Vihear temple because it was too dangerous and their presence would only complicate matters.

Hor Namhong said Thailand should respect Indonesia's role in the negotiations as Jakarta had received the UN Security Council's support.

''We have to respect the Asean chair's role in the negotiations. Indonesia as a chair has received the mandate from the UN Security Council,'' he said.

''I never can be optimistic with Thailand; it's very difficult to deal with them. I always trust Indonesia,'' he added.

A two-day Joint Boundary Commission (JBC) meeting of senior officials from the two countries held in Bogor, Indonesia, this week ended without


''The border issue is very complex. The discussion process cannot possibly be solved in just one meeting,'' said Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

However, Thailand continued to urge Cambodia to resolve the border conflict through existing bilateral mechanisms.

Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to the foreign minister, said: ''We want Cambodia to use this mechanism to tackle future problems and prevent severe conflicts along the border.''

He said that the Bogor meeting was held on a bilateral basis and Indonesia did not interfere.

Mr Marty was at the venue but did not attend the talks, co-chaired by Thai delegation head Asda Jayanama and Cambodian Senior Official on Border Affairs Var Kimhong.

There was no mention of which country would host the next JBC meeting.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya last night discussed with Mr Marty the details of the terms of reference for sending Indonesian observers to the Thai-Cambodian border.

The talk was held after Mr Kasit sent a letter to Mr Marty on Friday last week discussing how Thailand would take care of Indonesian observers.

Both Thailand and Cambodia have now agreed not to have any Indonesian observers stationed in the disputed area, said Mr Kasit, adding that the deal was reached after talking with Cambodia through Indonesia.

He said the details of the Terms of Reference would be announced to the cabinet shortly.
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Activists fight to stop dam across Mekong

By Dennis D Gray

A plan for the first dam across the Mekong River anywhere in its meandering path through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has set off a major environmental battle in Southeast Asia.

The $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam is slated for the wilds of northern Laos and would generate power mostly for sale to Thailand. The project pits villagers, activists and the Vietnamese media against Thai interests and the Laotian government in its hopes of earning foreign exchange in one of the world's poorest countries.

A decision on whether the dam gets the green light, is axed or deferred for further studies is expected April 19 during a meeting in the Laotian capital among Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Opponents warn it could open the way for 10 more dams being considered along the lower Mekong.

"Our lives and livelihoods depend on the health of the Mekong River," said Kamol Konpin, mayor of the Thai riverside town of Chiang Khan.

"As local people have already suffered from dams built upstream in China and watched the ecosystem change, we are afraid that the Xayaburi dam will bring more suffering."

China has placed three dams across the upper reaches of the Mekong, but otherwise its 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) mainstream flows free.

The Xayaburi would cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside, forcing the resettlement of up 2,100 villagers and impacting tens of thousands of others.

Environmentalists say such a dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients for downstream farming and even foul Vietnam's rice bowl by slowing the river's speed and allowing saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta.

A Thai firm would build the 1,260 megawatt hydroelectric project. However, Thai villagers along the river are staging protests and planning to deliver letters to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the Lao Embassy in Bangkok, where the Thai government has maintained an official silence on the issue.

Pianporn Deetes, of the U.S.-based International Rivers, said environmentalists are ready to take their case to court if Abhisit doesn't deliver a positive response.

Last month, 263 non-governmental organizations from 51 countries sent letters to the governments of Laos and Thailand urging that the project be shelved.

Laos said in February that the Xayaburi would be the "first environmentally friendly hydroelectric project on the Mekong" and that will "not have any significant impact on the Mekong mainstream."

"We are excited about this project," the statement said.

Vietnam's official media, in a rare disagreement with its communist neighbor, has blasted the dam, while scientists and environmental groups have called for its construction to be delayed for 10 years until more research is conducted.

"It seems that countries of the lower Mekong still haven't learned lessons from the impact of the Chinese dams," Pianporn said. "Xayaburi is so important because it could set off the destruction of the lower Mekong."

Since 2007, there have been proposals to put up 11 mainstream dams in Cambodia and Laos.

The Mekong River Commission, set up by the four Southeast Asian neighbors in 1995 to manage the river, has expressed serious reservations about Xayaburi. A study by the group recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams, a stand supported by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a Southeast Asian trip earlier this year.

The commission cited feared damage to migrations of between 23 and 100 fish species, among a host of other environmental problems.

Another MRC document showed nobody spoke in favor of the dam during public consultations this year in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, while many officials, academics and residents cited problems or lack of information about the project. No consultation was held in Laos.

"If this project goes ahead it would be unimaginably irresponsible," said Ame Trandem of Rivers International.

Somkiat Khuengchiangsa, who has spent his life along the river and heads The Mekong-Lanna Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network, said governments are more interested in the economics of the project than its effect on residents.

"Rivers are not the property of nations or groups of people. They belong to all mankind," he said.

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