Encountering the Unknown Part 1
Surveying Papua New Guinea – One of the Last Great Wildernesses Part 1
by Jonathan Booth
Shrouded in mist and drenched by regular rains, the tropical montane forests of Papua New Guinea’s remote western interior offer an unforgiving domain. Concealed by the thick, entangled undergrowth, a pioneering biological survey along the Hindenburg Wall – possibly one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth – has revealed dozens of species new to science. To survey such challenging terrain, a team of local and international scientists assessed three areas during February and March this year. One site, however, lies within the vicinity of the Ok Tedi Copper Mine, a vast copper and gold quarry, which is planning to expand to other areas in the region – a movement that could heavily impact the environment. Organised by the Wildlife Conservation Society and funded by the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Programme, the group, led by Global Wildlife Conservation's Research Associate Stephen Richard, hopes the outcomes will help increase the conservation status of the region and support the Hindenburg Wall’s recent nomination for UNESCO World Heritage site recognition, protecting this pristine area from the pressures of development.
Despite appearing to comprise the eastern-most landmass of the Indonesian archipelago, the island of New Guinea (of which Papua New Guinea makes up the eastern half; the western portion was controversially incorporated with Indonesia in the 1960s) has no geological association with its Asian neighbour. Until 18,000 years ago, when sea levels rose following the retreat of the last Ice Age, New Guinea was joined to northern Australia, while exposed land-bridges attached Sumatra, Borneo and Java to mainland Southeast Asia. These geographical connections with Oceania are also reflected by New Guinea’s animal and human inhabitants.
Although the seeds from many plant species dispersed eastwards from Indonesia, the native mammalian fauna of New Guinea is quite distinct. There are no monkeys or other Eurasian mammals except bats and a dozen rodent species; instead, echidnas – insect-eating monotremes (egg-laying mammals) found only in New Guinea and Australia – and marsupials, including wallabies, tree-kangaroos and the possum-like cuscus, can be found on the grasslands or in the canopy, respectively. The region's bird life comprises some 730 recorded species (almost as many as there are in all of North America), and include the renowned birds-of-paradise, the males of which exhibit elaborate courtship displays with flamboyant plumage and colourful tail quills. Other birds include cockatoos, bowerbirds and cassowaries, which are also largely restricted to Austro-Papuan distributions. Anthropologically, New Guinea is inhabited by Melanesians; a race of people that radiated across the Western Pacific to colonise the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Thus, with dark skin pigmentations, tightly coiled hair and muscular builds, New Guineas are more closely related to other peoples of the South Pacific than to Indonesians and South East Asians.
A land largely cloaked in dense tropical rainforest, tectonic actions have compressed the world's second largest island, resulting in a terrain that is considerably mountainous. Located just below the equator, the rugged spine that runs the length of New Guinea is – in places – adorned with snow-capped mountains up to 4,870 metres high, which are carved and sculpted by glaciers. Flanking this mountainous terrain are deep, jungle-clad valleys, many of which are inhabited by tribal communities.
Modern New Guineans have a heritage of clan-based sustainable farming, a practice thought to have arisen independent of outside influence some 7,000 years ago, making it one of the world’s first agricultural sites (bananas, sugar cane and yams were all first domesticated in the Highlands). Traditionally, New Guineans had little need to interact with clans living in adjacent valleys because they produced their own food and sustainably managed their environment. Living in relative isolation not only led to territorial disputes when rival clans encountered each other (land ownership is of immense importance and tribal warfare between villages over land was – and often still is – commonplace), but also the development of different languages. Today, over 1,100 living languages are spoken in New Guinea, and ethnographers often consider the island to be the most ethnically diverse region on the planet. The geological upheavals that allowed for the biological and anthropological variety of New Guinea also gave rise to the Hindenburg Wall formations; a setting that has excited ecologists.
Exciting New Discoveries
Encompassing a 50 kilometre stretch of limestone escarpment, the Hindenburg Wall is part of the Star Mountain range in south-western Papua New Guinea. This area is largely unknown to science, due to its remote location, regular earthquake activity, frequent landslides, and high annual rainfall of over 10,000 millimetres per year. This wet and isolated geology provides a setting for one of the world’s greatest assemblages of tropical species; yet for the research team, the area is less favourable. Despite the difficult conditions, the outcome of this pioneering four-week survey has so far revealed more than 80 plant and animal species new to science.
At an elevation of 1,780 metres, Camp One, known as Bilbilokabip Camp, was on land owned by the Bultem tribe, who occasionally use the area for subsistence gardening. To access this region, the researchers flew in by helicopter to survey the site for two weeks. The steep and sodden landscape supported tropical montane forest, which was interspersed with palm-like pandanus trees and draped with lichens, mosses, ferns and other epiphytes that trail from the branches. Two researchers, botanist Fanie Venter and mammal expert Ken Aplin, braved the wet and rugged terrain and ventured to Camp Two, located 2,500 metres above sea level and accessed only by a strenuous hike and a further helicopter flight. Many members of the team also sampled around the mining town of Tabubil, which is at a lower altitude of 350 to 900 metres. Surrounded by predominantly secondary forest, many observations were made in this region, which is intersected by fast-flowing streams, thought to provide a habitat for undescribed fish and aquatic invertebrates.
To meet some of the species that were discovered and the scientists that encountered them, and to learn why the survey is important for assessing the conservation status of the region, be sure to read Part Two of this article next week.