IMAGES: Unique islands of New Caledonia

By Amy Russell 28 October 2013
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The French territory of New Caledonia is home to scores of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world.

IT’S JUST PAST 9AM and we are high in the foothills of north-eastern Grande Terre, approximately 1200km east of Brisbane. This island is the largest of the 12 western Pacific islands that make up the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. Mt Panié (1629m), Grand Terre’s highest mountain, looms ahead of us, its summit shrouded in clouds. We’re too high to see Bas-Coulna, where I slept last night, or any of its neighbours.

This is wild back country. Dressed in cargo pants and a camo-print jacket, conservationist Jonas Tein, 45, has a touch of the
warrior about him. In a way he is one. As president of Dayu Biik, New Caledonia’s first indigenous-run conservation group, he marshals the daily fight to protect his people’s land.

Twenty thousand hectares of forest – one of the largest tracts in New Caledonia – has its roots embedded in the summit of Mt Panié, and 5400ha of that comprises a unique wilderness reserve so vulnerable it led to the founding of Dayu Biik.

“It’s an amazing place,” says Dr François Tron. “You walk 300–400m up in the forest and 80 per cent of the plant species will change.” François, 35, is a biologist with Conservation International (CI), the US-based parent organisation to Dayu Biik.

Surveys of the forest have revealed a treasure trove of species, including 73 plant and three reptile species found nowhere else in the world.

The jewel in the crown of this botanical abundance is the Panié kauri, or dayu biik (Agathis montana), an ancient conifer with gnarled, grey branches. Though other species of kauri are found in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Borneo, this kauri only exists in a single 1200ha tract of the forest. It also has significant cultural value to local tribes, so much so that Jonas’s conservation warriors have taken its name.

Read more about New Caledonia in issue 117 (Nov/Dec) of the Australian Geographic journal.




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