The Star Mountains of Western Province, Papua New Guinea, is home to one of the largest copper mines in the world, the Ok Tedi mine in the mining town of Tabubil. In 2013, GWC Director of Exploration Dr. Leeanne Alonso joined up with GWC Research Associate and team leader Stephen Richards, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and local Papua New Guinean scientists to survey the biodiversity of two sites near the mining town. The team also spent some time sampling in the forests around Tabubil.
To access the first site, the team had to fly by helicopter. The camp was located alongside huts used by the people of Bultem when they come up to tend their taro gardens there. The forest was mostly undisturbed moist, mossy forest with many Pandanus and epiphytes. Due to overcast skies and heavy rains, only two scientists with a support team went up to the second higher-elevation camp. They sampled there for just a few days, then had to walk down to a village and fly out by helicopter.
Overall, the team found a high level of diversity and many species new to science. The Star Mountains are particularly rich in botanical species: the intrepid research team identified around 700 plant varieties, of which 28 were new species, including rhododendrons, myrtles and orchids (there are more species of orchid in New Guinea than any other region of the world). They found about 180 butterfly species (including two or three new to science), more than 100 ant species, about 26 frog species (including about seven new to science), a reptile new to science and possibly a fish species new to science.
The information the team collected will be used to fill in gaps in the scientific knowledge of the Star Mountains and Hindenburg Wall area and to guide conservation efforts in the region. Though the team surveyed within 20 miles of the OK Tedi mine, the first camp had a full complement of biodiversity and discovered many new species. However, the effects of the mine haven’t yet reached this far. As the town of Tabubil continues to grow considerably and the forests are cleared for gardens, the environmental impacts will become more evident. The Ok Tedi mine is also starting exploration for additional gold and copper deposits in the Star Mountains, which could have impacts on the forests and the amazing biodiversity found here.
The results from the expedition are being used to support the nomination of the Hindenburg Wall, along with the Muller Range and the Nakanai Mountains of Papua New Guinea as a World Heritage Site as part of “The Sublime Karsts of Papua New Guinea.”
Undisturbed moist, mossy forest
Papua New Guinea, Australasia
Wildlife Conservation Society, Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program, James Cook University, Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory of Australia, Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research