Philippine island boasts world’s largest concentration of unique mammals

Most of the threats to Luzon’s wildlife were observed in lowland forests. Above, rangers on patrol in Norzagaray, Bulacan of Luzon island. (AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2024
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Philippine island boasts world’s largest concentration of unique mammals

  • 93% of mammals in Luzon are found nowhere else
  • Island has higher biological diversity than Galapagos

MANILA: Luzon may be known as the largest and most populous island of the Philippines, but it is also home to the greatest concentration of unique mammal species on Earth. Most of them are found nowhere else in the world.

The island, where the Philippine capital Manila is located, had never been connected to any continental land. Throughout the ages, this allowed the species that arrived there from the Asian mainland to evolve, diversify, and thrive in different habitats of its mountain ranges and peaks isolated by lowlands.

It is also one of the oldest islands, with geological research indicating that parts of it have been dry land areas continuously for some 27 million years.

“It’s a really old island. So, there’s time for rare events to take place. That’s a big part of it,” Dr. Lawrence Heaney, biologist and curator of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago, told Arab News.

“There are no countries in continental Europe that have (this number of) unique species of mammals.”

Heaney is one of the first researchers to document the island’s diversity and has been leading American and Filipino scientists studying mammals in the Philippines since 1981.

His team’s 15-year study, which started in 2000, concluded that there were 56 species of mammals — not including bats — on the island, and 52 of them were endemic.

This means that 93 percent of Luzon’s non-flying mammals are found nowhere else, making it a biological treasure trove.

Luzon beats even the Galapagos islands, where each has been known for its diverse and unique array of wildlife.

“Luzon takes it another step further because there are isolated mountain ranges and isolated mountain peaks that are separated from all others by lowlands. They function as islands. Islands in the sky. Each one of those islands in the sky has its own unique set of species. Luzon island is made up of islands within the island,” Heaney said.

“What’s in the northern Sierra Madre, you know Cagayan province ... is very different from what’s in the mountains that are in Aurora province, because there’s an area of lowlands that separates those two different mountain chains. Then the mountains, the next set of mountains down also are separated by another low-lying area ... There are species of mammals that occur there that don’t live anywhere else in the world.”

Many of those mammals are tiny — the size of the house mouse. When most people think about mammal species, they usually imagine those on the larger part of the spectrum, like themselves.

“We think about water buffalo and horses and lions and tigers and bears,” Heaney said. “There are actually very few large mammals, overwhelmingly, most mammals are small, less than 200 grams ... Not surprisingly, given that, most of the things that we have discovered that were previously unknown are small.”

Mariano Roy Duya, associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Biology, who has been working with Heaney, told Arab News that 28 out of the 56 mammal species identified in Luzon were rodents.

Two of them — the Banahaw shrew rat and the Banahaw tree mouse — were endemic to Mt. Banahaw, which is only 100 km from Manila.

The Banahaw shrew-rat has a long, slender snout, a short tail, and weighs 150 grams, while the Banahaw tree mouse is the smallest member of the cloud rat family at 15.5 grams, and navigates tree branches and vines.

Their habitat is now protected due to the efforts of the Biodiversity Conservation Society of the Philippines, a group that was created thanks to the work of scientists like Heaney and Duya, who now serves as its vice president.

The society is an organization that the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources consults on the country’s conservation efforts.

Some 20 percent of the species Heaney, Duya, and other researchers studied during their long Luzon project are vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered due to habitat loss, hunting, and illegal wildlife trade.

“(These include) deer, warty pigs, cloud rats, flying foxes, cave-dwelling bats, and civets,” Duya said.

“According to the hunters we meet in the forest, these animals are becoming hard to find.”

Most of the threats to Luzon’s wildlife were observed in lowland forests, which are usually lost to human development, overlogging, conversion to agricultural fields, and trafficking.

“Close monitoring of illegal wildlife trade and regular enforcement activities should be a priority,” Duya said.

“Securing these forests, as well as forest fragments, will provide refuge to many of these endemic faunae.”


Russian attack on Ukraine’s Kharkiv kills two: rescuers

Updated 23 June 2024
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Russian attack on Ukraine’s Kharkiv kills two: rescuers

KYIV: A Russian strike on a residential building in Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv killed two people and injured more than 50, rescuers said on Sunday, revising down a previous death toll.
Russia has stepped up attacks in the northeastern Kharkiv region after launching a new offensive there last month, seeking to break a largely static front line as the invasion grinds through its third year.
A five-story residential building was damaged when guided bombs hit Kharkiv city on Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, with the state emergency service announcing the completion of rescue work by Sunday morning.
“As a result of this aerial bomb strike, 2 people have been killed and 53 others were injured, including 3 children,” it wrote on Telegram.
President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday had announced three deaths and condemned Russia’s “calculated terror.”
An engineer wounded in a Russian strike on an energy facility in the southern Zaporizhzhia region died in hospital, regional governor Ivan Fedorov said on Sunday.

Meanwhile, one person was killed and three wounded after Ukrainian drones attacked the Russian town of Graivoron in the Belgorod region, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on Sunday on the Telegram messaging app.


Deaths from Indian toxic alcohol rise to more than 50

Updated 23 June 2024
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Deaths from Indian toxic alcohol rise to more than 50

  • Locally brewed arrack drink was laced with poisonous methanol, killing 37 within hours after they drank the illegal alcohol
  • Tamil Nadu is not a dry state, but liquor traded on the black market comes at a lower price than alcohol sold legally

BENGALURU, India: The death toll from a batch of toxic illegal alcohol in India has risen to 53, media reported Sunday, as more victims in hospital succumbed to the poisonous brew.
Tamil Nadu state Chief Minister M.K. Stalin has said the locally brewed arrack drink was laced with poisonous methanol, killing 37 within hours after they drank the illegal alcohol on Tuesday.
More than 100 people were rushed to hospital, but some were too sick for medics to save.
Hundreds of people die every year in India from cheap alcohol made in backstreet distilleries, but this poisoning is one of the worst in recent years.
To increase its potency, the liquor is often spiked with methanol which can cause blindness, liver damage and death.
The Indian Express newspaper on Sunday quoted a local councilor, Palraj, describing how poor laborers in Kallakurichi district regularly bought the liquor in plastic bags costing 60 rupees ($0.70), which they would drink before work.
Some went blind and were rushed to hospital.
Others died rapidly, collapsing in the street.
“The men work just to drink, and the women run the family,” motorized rickshaw driver Shankar, who lives on a street where 23 people died, told the Indian Express.
M.S. Prasanth, the top government official in the state’s Kallakurichi district, said “53 people have passed away,” according to the latest figures on Saturday, the Press Trust of India news agency reported.
Other Indian media on Sunday put the toll as high as 55, but there was no immediate official confirmation.
Prasanth said that seven people had been arrested in connection with the “spurious liquor tragedy,” PTI added.
Tamil Nadu is not a dry state, but liquor traded on the black market comes at a lower price than alcohol sold legally.
The Indian Express also spoke to Kolanji, a domestic helper whose husband died on Thursday after drinking a packet of the tainted brew.
She said people drank the moonshine “because they cannot afford” alcohol from the government-run shops.
“They start buying packets early in the morning,” she said.
Selling and consuming liquor is prohibited in several other parts of India, further driving the thriving black market for potent and sometimes lethal backstreet moonshine.
Last year, poisonous alcohol killed at least 27 people in one sitting in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, while in 2022, at least 42 people died in Gujarat.


Russian lawmaker warns Moscow may change timing for use of nuclear weapons

Updated 23 June 2024
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Russian lawmaker warns Moscow may change timing for use of nuclear weapons

  • Russia’s 2020 nuclear doctrine sets out when its president would consider using a nuclear weapon

Moscow may change the timing for use of its nuclear weapons if threats against Russia increase, the RIA state news agency cited Andrei Kartapolov, the head of the Russian lower house’s defense committee, as saying on Sunday.
The former general’s comments follow recent warnings by President Vladimir Putin that Moscow may change its nuclear doctrine, which lays out the conditions in which such weapons could be used.
“If we see that the challenges and threats increase, it means that we can correct something in (the doctrine) regarding the timing of the use of nuclear weapons and the decision to make this use,” the agency quoted Kartapolov as saying.
“But of course, it’s too early to talk about specifics now.”
Russia’s 2020 nuclear doctrine sets out when its president would consider using a nuclear weapon: broadly as a response to an attack using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, or conventional weapons “when the very existence of the state is put under threat.”
Putin has also said Russia could test a nuclear weapon, if necessary, though he saw no need to do so at the present time.
The heightened rhetoric on nuclear weapons comes as both Russian and US diplomats say that Russia’s war in Ukraine, launched against its smaller neighbor in 2022, is in the most dangerous phase yet.


Philippines not in business of instigating wars, says President Marcos

Updated 23 June 2024
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Philippines not in business of instigating wars, says President Marcos

  • Philippine navy personnel and the Chinese coast guard had their latest clash last week in the disputed waterway
  • China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual shipborne commerce

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said on Sunday his country is not in the business of instigating wars and will always aim to settle disputes peacefully, amid escalating maritime confrontations with China.
“In defending the nation, we stay true to our Filipino nature that we would like to settle all these issues peacefully,” Marcos said in a speech to troops of the Western Command unit in charge of overseeing the South China Sea.
Philippine navy personnel and the Chinese coast guard had their latest clash last week in the disputed waterway, where the Philippine military said a Filipino sailor was severely injured and its vessels damaged.
“In the performance of our duties, we will not resort to the use of force or intimidation, or deliberately inflict injury or harm to anyone,” Marcos said.
He did not name China in his speech.
Beijing’s actions during a routine Philippine resupply mission have been condemned by the United States, Britain and Canada.
China’s foreign ministry disputed the Philippine account, with a spokesperson saying on Thursday that the necessary measures taken were lawful, professional and beyond reproach.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion of annual shipborne commerce, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague said China’s claims had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.


Four members of Indian-origin billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers

Updated 23 June 2024
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Four members of Indian-origin billionaire family get prison in Switzerland for exploiting domestic workers

  • Swiss court dismissed charges of human trafficking against tycoon Prakash Hinduja, wife, son and daughter-in-law 
  • Forbes magazine has put Hinduja family’s net worth at some $20 billion, family set up residence in Switzerland in 1980s

GENEVA: An Indian-born billionaire and three family members were sentenced to prison on Friday for exploiting domestic workers at their lakeside villa in Switzerland by seizing their passports, barring them from going out and making them work up to 18 hours a day.
A Swiss court dismissed more serious charges of human trafficking against 79-year-old tycoon Prakash Hinduja; his wife, Kamal; son Ajay and daughter-in-law Namrata on the grounds that the workers understood what they were getting into, at least in part. The four received between four and 4 1/2 years in prison.
The workers were mostly illiterate Indians who were paid not in Swiss francs but in Indian rupees, deposited in banks back home that they couldn’t access.
Lawyers representing the defendants said they would appeal.
Robert Assael, a lawyer for Kamal Hinduja, said he was “relieved” that the court threw out the trafficking charges but called the sentence excessive.
“The health of our clients is very poor, they are elderly people,” he said, explaining why the family was not in court. He said Hinduja’s 75-year-old wife was in intensive care and the family was with her.
A fifth defendant — Najib Ziazi, the family’s business manager — received an 18-month suspended sentence.
Last week, it emerged in court that the family had reached an undisclosed settlement with the plaintiffs. Swiss authorities have seized diamonds, rubies, a platinum necklace and other jewelry and assets in anticipation that they could be used to pay for legal fees and possible penalties.
Along with three brothers, Prakash Hinduja leads an industrial conglomerate in sectors including information technology, media, power, real estate and health care. Forbes magazine has put the Hinduja family’s net worth at some $20 billion.
The family set up residence in Switzerland in the 1980s, and Hinduja was convicted in 2007 on similar charges. A separate tax case brought by Swiss authorities is pending against Hinduja, who obtained Swiss citizenship in 2000.
In this case, the court said the four were guilty of exploiting the workers and providing unauthorized employment, giving meager if any health benefits and paying wages that were less than one-tenth the pay for such jobs in Switzerland.
Prosecutors said workers described a “climate of fear” instituted by Kamal Hinduja. They were forced to work with little or no vacation time, and worked even later hours for receptions. They slept in the basement, sometimes on a mattress on the floor.