Papua New Guinea’s first conservation area

By Mark Ziembicki 12 June 2015
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An AGS-funded project is working with the traditional tribes of Papua New Guinea to protect endangered wildlife in the nation’s first major conservation area

AS THE LAST OF our gear is crammed into our single-engine aircraft at an airstrip near Lae on Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula, I look north towards our destination across the mountains. The Saruwaged Range, rising abruptly from the Markham Valley, is shrouded in cloud. Normally I enjoy flying, but today I’m nervous. Two weeks earlier I’d had a lucky escape, narrowly avoiding taking a flight that came down approaching the town of Madang, killing 28 people. This was PNG’s worst ever air disaster.

I grip my camera bag tight as we climb into the mountains. The conditions improve little on the other side of the range, and when the pilot resorts to navigating by instruments alone, my heart beats faster and my palms sweat. Through breaks in the cloud, I catch glimpses of rocky peaks and crags, which seem just metres from the wingtips. When the cloud finally disperses, we get a glimpse of our destination: an impossibly small, slanted airstrip perched on the side of a mountain. Eventually we land and my tension dissipates as our plane is mobbed by dozens of smiling, waving children.

We’ve landed in the village of Yawan in the heart of the YUS Conservation Area. YUS was created in 2009 as the nation’s first conservation reserve, and derives its name from the Yopno, Uruwa and Som rivers that flow through it. The protected area covers some 78,700ha of tropical rainforest along with village gardens, plantations and grasslands, as well as 46ha of coral-studded coastal waters. 

The campaign to create YUS was led by Dr Lisa Dabek of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, USA, and the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program she heads. The impetus was to protect the habitat of the endangered Huon tree kangaroo (see Ghosts of the forest, AG 113), but the charismatic marsupial has now become a furry flagship for protecting an extraordinary variety of other unique and wonderful species found on the Huon Peninsula.

Animal diversity in Papua New Guinea’s conservation area

The island of New Guinea is one the world’s great natural wonders. With less than 0.5 per cent of Earth’s landmass, it is home to some 10 per cent of its species, with many found nowhere else. It owes much of its biodiversity to its isolation and topography. Its history as part of the ancient supercontinent of Gondwana – and the fact that rising and falling sea levels have seen it repeatedly attached to and cut off from Australia – have ensured that New Guinea has developed a unique suite of species. The great variety has been driven by the high and rugged mountains, which create a broad range of environments and isolated ecosystems.

YUS is a prime example of this. Over a distance of just 35km, the conservation area rises from sea level at the coast, to the 4000m peaks of the Saruwaged Range. Traversing this steep altitudinal gradient gives you a window into the New Guinean world. The steamy lowland forests harbour a rich array of birds, including palm cockatoos, eclectus parrots and hornbills. In the canopy, possums and cuscus feed on the leaves and fruits of the tallest trees, while scurrying and hopping throughout leaf litter is a variety of frogs, reptiles and insects.

A little higher, from about 500m up, you enter the domain of the secretive dwarf cassowary. New Guinea is home to three cassowary species, which are the largest native land animals, and among the most important because they disperse rainforest seeds from the fruits they eat. Also found here is the aptly named vulturine parrot, which has a curious relationship with cassowaries; it has a naked head and unusually elongated beak, thought to be an adaptation to delving head first into cassowary droppings and fleshy fruits in search of seeds.

By the time you reach about 1500m, the animal diversity is at its greatest. Bowerbirds are common, as are birds of paradise, which legendary naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (see AG 96) deemed the “most beautiful and most wonderful of living things”. New Guinea is home to an extraordinary variety of these lovely birds with their striking plumage and spectacular mating rituals (see page 86-7). The extravagant beauty and fascinating behaviour of male birds of paradise are all in aid of securing a mate. It’s a tactic not lost on local human males, who – in an eccentric act of mimicry – adorn themselves in the feathers of these birds and dance for hours in pursuit of a similar goal.

Higher still, above 2500m, are the mist-filled cloud forests, where trees are laden with mosses and epiphytes. Here roams the Huon tree kangaroo, one of 17 species and subspecies of these remarkable tree-climbing marsupials found in the rainforests of New Guinea and northern Queensland. Another oddity of the cloud forest is the long-beaked echidna, the largest of all the egg-laying monotremes (a prehistoric relict group that also includes Australia’s short-beaked echidna and the platypus). In the final stretch above 3000m, the trees become more stunted until they yield to shrubby heath, tree ferns and alpine meadows, all with a unique assemblage of cool-climate adapted species.

Cultural diversity in Papua New Guinea

New Guinea is as rich culturally as it is biologically. And, as its topography and isolation have given rise to its great diversity of species, they have also fostered the development of many distinct indigenous groups, each with its own language and culture. PNG alone (the eastern half of the island) is home to more than 820 distinct languages – the highest linguistic diversity on the planet. The YUS region has seven languages, and with 11,000 people in 50 villages, this equates to about one language for every 1500 people. Each of these languages vocalises a different way of looking at the world, and each encapsulates a wealth of knowledge accumulated over millennia in response to the environment and social contexts of its speakers.

Many of the plants and animals in YUS are culturally important to the local people. Recognising that wildlife was -becoming scarcer, clans from more than 50 villages came together to set aside parcels of their own land for the protected area. On this land they have committed not to hunt, log the forest or extract resources. Such close collaboration with local -communities is essential to set up and maintain protected areas, because more than 95 per cent of PNG’s land remains the property of the indigenous clans who inhabit it.
Through the YUS Conservation Organisation, local -communities have been empowered to work together to manage the reserve, and also develop projects such as health and education initiatives.

An understanding of traditional knowledge and local practices plays a pivotal role in Papua New Guinean conservation efforts. For example, most tribes have important sacred sites that are taboo – they are only visited for special ceremonies and hunting is prohibited. It felt natural to the local people, then, to include these sites within the formal YUS protected area.

Culture remains strong in YUS, but it is changing as the outside world increasingly encroaches on this remote spot. People here want a higher standard of living and better schooling for their children, and are increasingly leaving for bigger towns. The old ways of life in the forest are being lost and with them go traditional knowledge and local languages.

Development in Papua New Guinea

As Jared Diamond, professor of geography at the University of California, Los -Angeles, puts it: “In the last 75 years, the New Guinea Highland population has raced through changes that took thousands of years to unfold in much of the rest of the world.” Just how the local people deal with these changes will be critical to preserving one of the most culturally and biologically diverse places on the planet.

The morning after the flight into Yawan, we’re up early to climb up to one of our high-elevation study plots. Heading out of the village I admire the manicured lawns and colourful flowerbeds that frame the tidy, thatch-roof houses constructed from materials obtained from the surrounding forest.

I’m with Gabriel Porolak, a native Papuan who I’m co-supervising for his PhD at James Cook University in Cairns. Gabriel has been working in YUS for more than a decade. As he organises our porters, I set off, stealing a head start for the long uphill climb ahead. YUS is logistically difficult, as nowhere here is flat; even the airstrips are at ridiculous angles. The dense rainforest, high mountains and deep valleys make for challenging bushwalking.
After 10 hours of heading uphill it’s about 4pm and I’m soaked through by the rain.

Overtaking me are old men going for a stroll, elderly women carrying 30kg baskets of taro, and small, barefooted children. It never ceases to amaze me how tough these people are. Thankfully, I soon smell smoke suggesting that camp isn’t far away. In a small clearing the men have erected a shelter. It’s remarkable how quickly they assemble a hut from the forest using nothing but bush knives and ingenuity. I’m handed a cup of tea, sit down by the fire to dry, and all is well with the world once more.

Since 2010 we have been developing a long-term ecological monitoring program for YUS. Critical to the success of any protected area is assessment of how well it is performing. One of the primary aims is to protect species that the local -communities rely on for subsistence hunting. Therefore, the monitoring program has focused on assessing how well tree kangaroos, wallabies, possums, cuscus and cassowaries have responded to conservation measures, because they are important food species.

But it’s no easy task: these cryptic animals are difficult to find and observe in the dense forests. Instead, we look for the signs that they leave behind. Local hunters are skilled at finding evidence of their quarry and several of them have now become part of the YUS Conservation Area rangers. They are PNG’s first protected-area ranger group and have been charged with monitoring work, assisting visiting scientists and patrolling the reserve. The data they have collected are already showing us that game species are doing much better within the protected zones than outside them. This is encouraging given that the reserve is less than five years old, participation by landowners is voluntary and enforcement of rules is limited.

Mammal populations in Papua New Guinea

Several weeks later Gabriel and I are in another part of YUS, in the village of Bonea closer to the coast. It is at the base of a walking track with field camps at regular intervals, which allows us to assess mammal populations as we head up into the mountains. This ‘altitudinal transect’ climbs to over 3000m and was set up to monitor the long-term impacts of climate change on the flora and fauna. 

Scientists have so far used it to study carbon storage in the forest, and the distribution of a range of species, including birds, bats, beetles, moths and trees. Several new species – including two spectacular tree frogs and a small bent-toed gecko – have even been discovered here. Indeed, for biologists, New Guinea is a little-explored wonderland ripe for discovery. From 1998 to 2008 alone, some 1060 new species were identified across the island, which is a rate of more than two a week. Many more await discovery. It is estimated, for example, that more than half of the island’s amphibians are yet to be documented by scientists.

Climate change, along with logging, mining, and the clearing of land for agriculture, is increasingly threatening the forests of New Guinea. Research into the effects of climate change at the elevational transect and elsewhere reveal that life is responding rapidly to the changes. Dr Bruce Beehler, former director of Conservation International’s Asia-Pacific field division, has been studying the birds of New Guinea for more than three decades, and has noted some significant changes.

“Many species are ranging higher up the mountains, where it is cooler, while others are expanding downwards,” Bruce says. “And the abundance of some species is rising whereas for others it is decreasing. This is all happening because the forest bird communities are restructuring themselves to adapt to changing temperature and rainfall.”

On our fourth day working our way up the transect, I awake to find my teammates roasting sweet potatoes on the fire inside the hut. Overnight some of the village men went hunting in the forest buffer zones outside the protected area. Using bow and arrow, they returned with an assortment of mammals including a striped possum, mountain cuscus and a lesser forest-wallaby. As I take measurements of these animals for our research, the men eagerly wait for me to finish so that they can cook their catch.

Handing back their bounty, I ask them to save the skulls of the specimens so that I can make some additional notes. Half an hour later I’m called over for breakfast. To my surprise and bemusement, I’m handed a bowl with the roasted head of a possum resting on a bed of boiled cabbage. This wasn’t quite what I’d meant – but it didn’t stop me taking some more measurements.

Hunting in Papua New Guinea

Gabriel’s PhD research focuses on understanding the complexities of hunting in PNG. With the help of our -AG-Society sponsorship, he has been recording hunting patterns and -traditional knowledge in a dozen villages across YUS. Subsistence hunting of wildlife in New Guinea has sustained human populations in the region for millennia and continues to provide an important source of protein. However, rapid population growth, coupled with changes to traditional laws and the ways in which people trade and use wildlife, are threatening local fauna.

“People once had traditional methods that directly or indirectly promoted sustainability,” Gabriel says. “They may have only hunted some species for special occasions, had land
management practices that benefited certain species, or avoided taboo areas for spiritual reasons… But these things are changing.”

Understanding how local people hunt, and how this is evolving, is important for managing the reserve in the future, he says. “It’s all about how we can make the old ways work with the new.”

Later that day we arrive in Gomdan, a village further along the transect. The locals are celebrating an initiation ceremony with a sing-sing – a traditional display of singing and dancing. The men are adorned with a range of colourful traditional costumes and headdresses; I lose track of the numbers of parrots and birds of paradise they are made of. Several men even sport John McEnroe-style headbands made of tree kangaroo tails.

After the ceremony, we meet a village leader who wears a large headdress of red and black feathers. He tells us in Yau, the local language, that the feathers belong to the vulturine parrot. I count the feathers, make a quick estimate of the number of birds they came from, and multiply it by the number of similar headdresses at the ceremony. It equates to many dead birds.

I wonder whether such hunting is sustainable, and ask him how often he collects birds and how he preserves his costumes. He reaches into the eaves of his house for a bamboo container and from it pulls several pristine white cockatoo feathers. He tells us that his father gave them to him when he was a boy, which means they are at least 30 years old. Costumes of this kind are enormously valuable to their owners and are often kept in good condition for long periods of time, so that harvesting animals to produce them isn’t something that happens every year.

Overall, people in the YUS region now have a keen awareness that their species are special and a finite resource. “We are the first conservation area in PNG,” says Timmy Sowang, president of the YUS Community Organisation. “It is the people of YUS’s job to preserve their environment and culture so we can all look after our heritage for today and future generations”.

Even lifelong hunters don’t want to see these creatures disappear. Mambawe Manauno, aged in his mid-50s, for example, was once one of the best hunters in the YUS region. He explains how he saw firsthand that animals had declined significantly around Wungon where he lived. “When I went hunting I could no longer find tree kangaroos. Before I would catch them often,” he says. Despite opposition from his village, Mambawe was the first landowner to offer his land to YUS and he became a champion for conservation. “I want my grandchildren to learn about the traditional ways of the forest, but also to go to school so they can learn to look after our environment and culture,” he says.

Today, the village has embraced the protected area – as have 49 others across the YUS area – and Mambawe has even seen the odd tree kangaroo stealing sweet potatoes from his garden, something he could never have imagined before. With leaders like him, and initiatives driven by local communities, there is hope that we might yet preserve some of the most biologically and culturally rich regions on our planet.


PNG Country of contrasts

PNG Birds of paradise