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Taiwan rushes to contain sudden cane toad invasion

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Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has officials and environmentalists scrambling to contain their spread.

With flashlights in hand and shielded by protective gloves, dozens of volunteers from the Taiwan Amphibian Conservation Society worked through the night searching rice fields and vegetable plots for their quarry — the cane toad.

There should be no reason for these large and highly toxic amphibians to exist in Chaotun, a township in the foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range.

Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan.

Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan. Photo: AFP

Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan. Photo: AFP

That was until a few weeks ago when a local resident discovered some large amphibians hanging out in her community vegetable garden and uploaded a photograph online, a move that sparked an immediate toadhunt.

“A speedy and massive search operation is crucial when cane toads are first discovered,” Lin Chun-fu, an amphibian scientist at the government-run Endemic Species Research Institute told AFP as he explained why conservationists have since rushed to find and remove any cane toads.

“Their size is very big and they have no natural enemies here in Taiwan,” he added.

Cane toads are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. Photo: AFP

Cane toads are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. Photo: AFP

Fingertip search

Soon after the photo was uploaded Yang Yi-ju, an expert at National Dong Hwa University, sent a group of volunteers from the Amphibian Conservation Society to investigate.

They arrived at the vegetable garden and were shocked to find 27 toads in the immediate vicinity.

She quickly identified the interlopers as rhinella marina thanks to the tell-tale large partoid glands behind the ears where cane toads secrete a dangerous poison.

“I was shocked and worried when they found more than 20. This is not going to be an easy thing to tackle,” she recalled.

“We began to notify and mobilise everyone to act,” she said, adding the presence of juveniles showed the toads were breeding.

Cane toads are a dangerous invasive species for three key reasons.

They are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. That latter quality, a defence mechanism, is especially dangerous to dogs who might lick or bite one.

Local farmers told conservationists they had noticed the arrival of these burly toads but never reported it.

“Taiwanese farmers generally ignore toads and even look favorably at toads when they find them because they help rid the land of pests and are also a good luck symbol,” explained Yang.

“It never occurred to them that this is an invasive species from a foreign land.”

Conservation officials and environmental volunteers have been working non-stop to do a painstaking search.

“We have divided (the township) into 200 by 200 meters square grids to investigate one by one if there are marine toads present,” field researcher Lin Yong-lun said, pointing to a series of colour-coded maps.

The search perimeter has since been expanded to a 4-kilometer radius.

Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has officials and environmentalists scrambling to contain their spread. Photo: AFP

Toads are a symbol of prosperity and good fortune in Taiwan, but the unexpected discovery of an invasive species has officials and environmentalists scrambling to contain their spread. Photo: AFP

Symbols of fortune

So far more than 200 marine toads of various sizes have been captured and housed at the Endemic Species Research Institute.

Cane toads are among the world’s ‘100 Invasive Alien Species’ list compiled by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), an international advisory body of scientists and policy experts.

Also known as marine toads, their most common English name came from the fact that it was used in sugar plantations to hunt cane beetles.

They were introduced into plantations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, the Caribbean as well as Florida and Hawaii where they have caused damage to the local ecosystems.

Despite their warty appearance, toads are a symbol of wealth, longevity and good luck in Chinese culture. They are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck.

“In store fronts you can find toad totems, drawings and even real live toads. It’s a symbol of fortune and good luck,” amphibian scientist Lin said.

Toads are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck. Photo: AFP

Toads are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck. Photo: AFP

Until 2016 it was legal to import cane toads into Taiwan as pets where they can fetch between NT$3000 to NT$4000 (US$107-US$142).

Conservationists believe since imports were banned, people have started breeding cane toads locally and some have since escaped or abandoned by their masters.

So far there have been no other reported sightings in Taiwan and Yang is cautiously optimistic about stopping the spread.

“Next spring during mating season is when we truly know for sure if we have contained it,” she said.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20211206/taiwan-rushes-to-contain-sudden-cane-toad-invasion/64569.html

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Police respond to ‘hostage situation’ at Texas synagogue

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Police were negotiating with a man believed to have taken people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, during a religious service on Saturday that was being broadcast online.

The Colleyville Police Department said FBI negotiators remained in contact with the hostage taker late Saturday afternoon, after a male hostage was released uninjured more than six hours after the crisis began.

Other hostages were still being held.

The police said it had evacuated residents from the area around Congregation Beth Israel as it deployed SWAT teams after responding to an emergency call at 10:41 a.m. No injuries have been reported and it remained unclear what weapons, if any, the man had.

There were initially four hostages, including the rabbi, according to a person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

A law enforcement vehicle blocks the street where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

A law enforcement vehicle blocks the street where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

The man could be heard having a one-sided conversation in what appeared to be a phone call during a Facebook livestream of the Shabbat service of the Reform Jewish synagogue in Colleyville, which is about 16 miles (26 km) northeast of Fort Worth. The livestream cut off around 3 p.m. EST (2000 GMT).

Before the livestream was ended, the man could be heard ranting and talking about religion and his sister, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. The man could be heard repeatedly saying he didn’t want to see anyone hurt and that he believed he was going to die, the newspaper said.

President Joe Biden has been briefed on the “developing hostage situation,” his press secretary said. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Twitter that he was monitoring the situation and was praying for the safety of the hostages.

An armored law enforcement vehicle is seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

An armored law enforcement vehicle is seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

Texas Governor Greg Abbott said officials from the state’s Department of Public Safety were also on the scene working to get “the best and safest outcome.”

Barry Klompus, a member of the congregation since it opened in 1999, said he tuned into the livestream.

“It was horrible listening and watching, and it’s that much more horrible not knowing,” Klompus said in a telephone interview.

Though he was not able to clearly understand what the man wanted, Klompus believed the man wanted to talk to his sister.

Law enforcement vehicles are seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

Law enforcement vehicles are seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

A U.S. official briefed on the matter told ABC News the hostage-taker claims to be the brother of Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year U.S. prison sentence on her 2010 conviction for shooting at soldiers and FBI agents, and demanding she be freed.

But authorities have not yet confirmed his identity, the official told ABC News.

Siddiqui is being held at a federal prison in the Fort Worth area.

The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, said on Twitter the union was “very grateful to law enforcement who are working to free the hostages.” The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, said it was aware of the standoff, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a U.S. Muslim advocacy group, condemned the man’s actions.

Law enforcement vehicles are seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

Law enforcement vehicles are seen in the area where a man has reportedly taken people hostage at a synagogue during services that were being streamed live, in Colleyville, Texas, U.S. January 15, 2022. Photo: Reuters

“This latest antisemitic attack on Jewish Americans worshipping at a synagogue is an act of pure evil,” CAIR said in a statement.

Klompus said he did not know of any significant previous threats to the congregation.

“We don’t have a security officer on staff but we have what I would say is a very good relationship with the local police,” he said.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220116/police-respond-to-hostage-situation-at-texas-synagogue/65255.html

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Concerns mount for Tonga after tsunami triggered by underwater volcano

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Pacific nations and humanitarian groups struggled to establish communications with Tonga on Sunday after a tsunami triggered by a massive volcanic eruption cut telephone and internet connections, raising concerns for the tiny island nation.

An underwater volcano off Tonga erupted on Saturday, triggering tsunami warnings and evacuation orders on the shores of Tonga as well as several South Pacific islands, where footage on social media showed waves crashing into coastal homes.

Internet and phone lines went down at about 6.40 p.m. local time on Saturday, leaving the 105,000 residents on the islands virtually uncontactable.

“The images of the volcanic eruption in close proximity to Tonga are hugely concerning,” Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, located about 1,481 miles from Tonga, said in a statement on Instagram.

“Communication as a result of the eruption has been difficult, but our defence force team and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are working as we speak to establish what’s needed and how we can help,” she said.

The New Zealand foreign ministry said there were no reports of injuries or deaths as yet but communications were limited.

Ardern will address the media at 3 p.m New Zealand time (0200 GMT) to give an update on the situation.

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. Photo: Planet Labs PBC/via Reuters

A Planet SkySat image shows the underwater volcano Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai two hours before its eruption in Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, Tonga, January 15, 2022. Photo: Planet Labs PBC/via Reuters

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) Pacific Office in Suva, Fiji said it was monitoring the situation and had no updates on damages or casualties.

Tongan churches in New Zealand organised prayers for their families back home.

“We pray God will help our country at this sad moment. We hope everybody is safe…,” Maikeli Atiola, the Secretary of the Wesleyan Church of Tonga in Auckland said, Radio New Zealand reported.

The Hunga-Tonga-Hunga-Ha’apai volcano has erupted regularly over the past few decades but Saturday’s eruption was so loud that residents parts of faraway Fiji and New Zealand said they heard it.

Satellite images captured the volcanic eruption on Saturday as the explosion sent plumes of smoke into the air and about 12 miles above the sea level.

The sky over Tonga was darkened by the ash.

The eruptions triggered tsunami warnings across the Pacific, with the United States and Japan urging people on their Pacific coastlines to stay away from the shores.

Australia issued a marine tsunami warning for the New South Wales coastlines, Lord Howe Island and Norfolk Island, and said local beaches along the state’s coast have been closed. A tsunami advisory was also issued in New Zealand.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220116/concerns-mount-for-tonga-after-tsunami-triggered-by-underwater-volcano/65254.html

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Thieves loot freight trains in Los Angeles with impunity

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Dozens of freight cars are broken into every day on Los Angeles’s railways by thieves who take advantage of the trains’ stops to loot packages bought online, leaving thousands of gutted boxes and products that will never reach their destinations.

According to the tags found Friday by an AFP team on a track near the city center — which was easily accessible from nearby streets — many major US mail order and courier companies such as Amazon, Target, UPS and FedEx are being hit by the thefts, which have exploded in recent months.

The thieves wait until the long freight trains are immobilized on the tracks, and then climb onto the freight containers, whose locks they easily break with the help of bolt cutters.

They then help themselves to parcels, ditching any products that are difficult to move or re-sell, or are too cheap, such as COVID-19 test kits, furniture or medications.

Rail operator Union Pacific has seen a 160 percent rise in the thefts in Los Angeles county since December 2020.

“In October 2021 alone, the increase was 356 percent compared to October 2020,” UP said in a letter to the local authorities, seen by AFP.

The explosion in looting has been accompanied by an upsurge in “assaults and armed robberies of UP employees performing their duties moving trains,” the letter said.

The phenomenon spiked recently with the peak of activity linked to Christmas shopping.

An open box of unused Covid-19 tests is left behind on a section of Union Pacific train tracks littered with thousands of opened boxes and packages stolen from cargo shipping containers, targeted by thieves as the trains stop in downtown Los Angeles. Photo: AFP
An open box of unused Covid-19 tests is left behind on a section of Union Pacific train tracks littered with thousands of opened boxes and packages stolen from cargo shipping containers, targeted by thieves as the trains stop in downtown Los Angeles. Photo: AFP

According to figures reported by UP, more than 90 containers were vandalized every day on average in Los Angeles County in the last quarter of 2021.

To combat the trend, Union Pacific says it has strengthened surveillance measures — including drones and other detection systems — and recruited more security staff for its tracks and convoys.

Police and security agents have arrested more than 100 people in the last three months of 2021 for “trespassing and vandalizing” Union Pacific trains.

“While criminals are being caught and arrested, charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the person is back on the streets in less than 24 hours after paying a nominal fine,” said a spokesman for the rail operator.

“In fact, criminals boast to our officers that there is no consequence,” he said.

Union Pacific wrote to the Los Angeles County attorney’s office at the end of December asking them to reconsider a leniency policy introduced at the end of 2020 for such offenses.

The operator estimates that damages from such thefts in 2021 amounted to some $5 million, adding that the amount in claims and losses “does not include respective losses to our impacted customers” or the impact on Union Pacific’s operations and the entire Los Angeles County supply chain.

Source: https://tuoitrenews.vn/news/international/20220115/thieves-loot-freight-trains-in-los-angeles-with-impunity/65252.html

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