Papua New Guinea

Matchies Tree Kangaroo Photo
Matchie’s Tree Kangaroo, only found in Papua New Guinea. Its numbers are declining due to deforestation.
Julie Larsen Maher©WCS
Papua new Guinea Kids Photo
PNG encompasses some of the world’s last great tracts of wilderness including tropical rainforest s and coral reefs.
©Jim Large

The tropical islands of Papua New Guinea (PNG)—which encompass the eastern half of New Guinea and a surrounding archipelago—lie between the Coral Sea and the South Pacific Ocean, just below the Equator and northwest of Australia. The country’s large expanses of pristine habitat and high levels of biodiversity, coupled with its low human population and indigenous peoples with strong regard for land ownership provide rare conservation opportunities. PNG encompasses some of the world’s last great tracts of mature tropical rainforest and largest coral reefs. These forest and marine ecosystems, combined with a unique array of species that have evolved here in isolation, have made Papua New Guinea one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.

Fast Facts

  • PNG’s staggering assemblage of wildlife represents almost 7 percent of the world’s biodiversity. It is home to more than 200 species of mammals and 700 species of birds, as well as 21,000 species of plants.
  • Papua New Guinea’s indigenous clans are linguistically just as diverse; more than 800 languages are spoken within the nation’s borders.
  • PNG’s numerous clans control approximately 90 percent of the nation’s land and all near-shore reefs through a system of traditional tenure. As a result, they hold the key to conserving their country’s cultural and natural wealth.
  • The dominant terrestrial herbivore on Papua New Guinea is a flightless bird—the cassowary. The largest of the country’s three cassowary species stands almost six feet tall and weighs more than 100 pounds. The birds are shy, usually silent, and speedy on their feet.
  • There are more than 40 species of bird of paradise, most found only in New Guinea. The males exhibit dramatic, vibrant plumage and a wide array of physical displays—including bewildering “dances” that help them attract mates. Their feathers have had an important role in local customs, but the increased collection of the plumes, together with habitat loss, has left many species under threat.

Challenges

The rugged terrain of PNG protects some of its forests and wildlife from outside threats, but much is still at risk. Roughly 80 percent of lowland forests have been assigned to logging concessions or oil palm plantations. In the mountains, mines destroy land and pollute rivers, and unsustainable levels of hunting persist. Foreign fishing fleets operate in PNG waters with little control, while overfishing due to growing local populations depletes reef fisheries.

Due to its unique land tenure and complex, clan-based societies, conservation models successful in other countries do not work in PNG. Local people depend on their land’s natural resources for sustenance and to make a living. Unlike anywhere else that WCS works, 97 percent of land is under customary ownership in PNG. It would therefore be impossible to create a system of large protected areas by purchasing lands and excluding human settlements from living within them. However, we can help traditional landowners act as the fundamental force behind conservation activities.

WCS Responds

WCS has long been pursuing the exceptional conservation potential of this young democracy and helped to establish two of PNG’s most notable national conservation organizations: the Research and Conservation Foundation of PNG (RCF) and PNG Institute for Biological Research (IBR). RCF is the country’s largest conservation organization, and IBR is its foremost conservation research and training institute. Over the past 10 years, WCS-PNG has focused on training future conservation leaders. Many of the more than 200 graduates of WCS training now hold senior positions in local and international conservation organizations, governmental agencies, and PNG universities. They also form the core of the WCS-PNG team. With the technical capacity and local knowledge of these indigenous scientists, WCS can now concentrate on its core mission in the country: saving wildlife and wild places.

Even if there may never be large protected areas in PNG, biodiversity conservation can still take place. WCS-PNG will achieve this by employing science to help local people solve their resource management problems. Both on land and at sea, we work with communities to establish locally managed reserves with simple management rules. On the national level, our research helps guide wide-ranging strategies and inform policies to conserve coral reefs and other threatened species such as cassowaries, echidnas, cockatoos, cuscus, megapodes, and birds of paradise.

From the Newsroom

On the Trail of a MonotremeJune 11, 2009

Once considered “mission impossible,” a grueling study of Papua New Guinea’s long-beaked echidna reveals this rare, egg-laying mammal’s elusive habits.

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