Loggers threaten Papua New Guinea’s unique forest creatures

GOLGUBIP (Papua New Guinea) (AFP) – In the remote Starry Mountains of Papua New Guinea, indigenous people say the tree kangaroo is king and the bird of paradise is queen. But both have a price on their heads.

These extraordinary species have long been prized by traditional hunters, but conservationists now fear the forests in which they live, one of the last great wilderness areas on Earth, will soon be ax and bulldozed. .

“The old people say the tree kangaroo is the king,” said Lloyd Leo, a young resident of Golgubip, a mountain community where most people are still subsistence farmers – their ancestors lived a Neolithic way of life until. ‘to only a few decades ago.

“He lives high in the forest. Certain fruits that he does not eat. He only takes the costs,” he explained.

The marsupial, which looks like a mixture of kangaroo and lemur, was once a form of currency used to pay the bride’s price. Its tail is always worn as an emblem.

Already, the creature is among the most endangered species on the planet, deemed critically endangered on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Illegal logging is a growing problem in Papua New Guinea Chris McCALL AFP

Two species of birds of paradise also live in the area, and one, called “karom” in the local language Faiwol, which they call the queen of birds.

People hunt them on a small scale, although it is illegal. Feathers and stuffed birds are prized, kept in homes and taken out for festivals.

“People will become desperate”

But the trees around Golgubip are also precious, as are others like them in Papua New Guinea – and the dual threat of deforestation and hunting can seal the fates of the nation’s unique creatures.

“In the villages, there is a general expectation of economic development which, on the whole, is not happening,” said Vojtech Novotny, a biologist working with the New Guinea Binatang Research Center.

“People will become desperate and go for development at all costs.”

The country’s population has roughly tripled since independence in 1975 and now stands at over nine million.

Biologists say they want to involve more Papua New Guinea in conservation, but this has proven difficult, in the face of poverty, a lack of education, and low awareness of the impact humans can have on it. environment
Biologists say they want to involve more Papua New Guinea in conservation, but this has proven difficult, in the face of poverty, a lack of education, and low awareness of the impact humans can have on it. environment Chris McCALL AFP

With less forests in Southeast Asia and much of the land converted to oil palm plantations, some forestry companies are now looking to Papua New Guinea, said Novotny, who has worked in the country for 25 years. .

In the past, authorities mainly allowed “selective” logging, which allows forests to recover quickly. But that could change, he said.

“There is now pressure for large agricultural projects. The big problem here is the oil palm. Once you have the first cut, you come for the second and the third. Very quickly you destroy the structure of the tree. forest. This happened mainly in Borneo, ”Novotny said. .

According to the Global Forest Watch website, Papua New Guinea’s forests covered 93 percent of its land area in 2010.

But the country has seen a 3.7% decrease in tree cover since 2000, according to the website.

At this year’s United Nations global climate summit, COP 26, Papua New Guinea was among over 100 countries to pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

But illegal logging has become such a problem that NGOs and some local politicians have called on authorities to take urgent action now.

Tribal conflicts

The bird of paradise Raggiana is on the country’s flag and although officially only one related species, the blue bird of paradise, is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN, biologists say no one really knows their status with it. certainty.

There are also concerns about another bird, the Pesquet parrot, which has distinctive red and black feathers that are worn in traditional attire for Indigenous ceremonies.

“These bright red feathers are very popular for headdresses,” said Brett Smith, curator of Port Moresby Nature Park, adding that there appeared to be more Pesquet parrot feathers in tribal attire now than on traditional ones. live birds.

Biologists say they want to involve more Papua New Guinea in conservation.

But this has proven difficult, in the face of poverty, a lack of education and a low awareness of the impact humans can have on the environment.

Papua New Guinea has seen a 3.7 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000, according to the Global Forest Watch website
Papua New Guinea has seen a 3.7 percent decrease in tree cover since 2000, according to the Global Forest Watch website Chris McCALL AFP

But there have been successes.

As headhunting declined in the pig-nosed turtle habitat, more people moved in and the rare creature became part of the local diet, according to Yolarnie Amepou, director of the Piku Biodiversity Network.

But by involving local children in the preservation of key species, they created a generation – now adults – invested in the survival of pig-nosed turtles. The hunt has now subsided.

She said, “This environment is what they depend on every day. If we are to save the turtle, we have to heal people.”

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