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Road construction imperils tree kangaroo recovery in PNG

  • The Torricelli Mountains of northwestern Papua New Guinea are home to a wide variety of wildlife, including three species of tree kangaroos.
  • Recently, construction of a road that could potentially be used by loggers has pushed closer to the border of a proposed conservation area that, if gazetted, would be the country’s second-largest.
  • The Tenkile Conservation Alliance, a Papua New Guinean NGO, has worked with communities for around two decades in the Torricellis with the goal of improving the lives of humans and wildlife living in the mountains.
  • Now, the group’s leaders fear that the road could jeopardize a tenuous recovery by several of the area’s threatened tree kangaroo species.

As recently as 1980, hunters in the forests of the Torricelli Mountains of northwestern Papua New Guinea could count on bagging at least a couple of tree kangaroos in a single outing.

About twice the size of the average house cat, these arboreal marsupials (Dendrolagus spp.) are related to the better-known bounders of Australia and Tasmania. Tree kangaroos have also long been a staple in the diet of forest-dwelling communities across Papua New Guinea. Conversations with village elders in the Torricellis suggest that a single hectare in the mountains may have housed 10 or more animals, or about four per acre — a striking density for what’s thought to be a pretty solitary animal.

But by the mid-1980s, hunters say their quarry had grown so scarce that dedicated hunting trips weren’t worth the trouble. Today, however, there are signs that their slide toward extinction may have changed course, thanks in large part to the efforts of 50 villages in the Torricelli Mountains that work with an NGO called Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA). The communities have stopped hunting tree kangaroos, and they came together in 2010 to request the creation of a wide-ranging conservation area to preserve tree kangaroo habitat in the still largely intact forests of the Torricelli Mountain Range. Since then, tree kangaroo numbers have climbed, and the animals are turning up in parts of the mountains where they haven’t been seen for decades.

The tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae), also known as Scott’s tree kangaroo, is a critically endangered animal endemic to a very small area of the Torricelli Mountains. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

In mid-May 2021, though, construction crews and their equipment began clearing the forest for a new road that would connect the timber-rich mountainsides of the Torricellis with the coastal town of Aitape. Anthony Wouwou, the governor of Sandaun province, attended the official opening of the road, effectively sanctioning its construction.

Though the road has yet to penetrate the would-be boundaries of the conservation area, TCA and several nearby communities say they were never consulted about the construction and are anxious about its impacts. Fidelis Nick, a project officer with TCA who also lives and owns land in the village of Muku, confirmed that authorities hadn’t sought the consent of his community or the other villages along the road’s path. Nick said the communities were mostly in agreement that they did not want a new incursion into the forest they have worked so long to protect.

In addition to affecting their individual landholdings, they say it would ease the access to timber in the mountains, potentially leading to the destruction of the forest and threatening the work the communities have done.

“We don’t want this habitat to be destroyed,” Nick told Mongabay.

The dense forest of the Torricelli Mountains. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.
An Indigenous man from the Torricellis poses with his bow and arrow at TCA. Hunters in the forests of the Torricelli Mountains used to regularly hunt tree kangaroos until the mid-1980s. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

‘Magic’ mountains

A low-slung spine of mountains cresting at around 1,650 meters (5,410 feet) anchors the Torricelli range. Lowland rainforest, much of it still primary and undisturbed, blankets the range from near-sea level and on upslope, hosting a veritable ark of life on one of the most life-drenched islands on the planet. New Guinea, split between Papua New Guinea and Indonesian Papua, accounts for as much as 10% of Earth’s biodiversity on just 0.5% of its terrestrial area. It also has the most plant species of any island by a long shot at 13,634 and counting, according to a 2020 study.

“When you get to the mountains, it really is magic,” Jim Thomas, CEO of TCA, said in an interview. “And if you’re lucky enough to get close to some of these species, it’s incredible. It’s just amazing what’s there.”

In the 1980s and ’90s, Australian zoologist Tim Flannery described two new species of tree kangaroos from the Torricellis, the tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae), also known as Scott’s tree kangaroo, and the weimang (D. pulcherrimus). But local populations, particularly of the endemic tenkile, had dwindled so much that he thought he might be witnessing the tail end of the species’ existence. Hunting, along with the loss of around 99% of their habitat, had taken its toll. Today, both species of tree kangaroos are still listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, but the mountains are still one of the few places where the ranges of multiple tree kangaroos overlap.

A weimang (left) and a tenkile. Images courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

The Torricelli range is also home to 40% of the country’s mammals, Flannery found in the 1990s, and about half of all of Papua New Guinea’s birds, according to biological surveys. TCA’s own research has turned up three species of monitor lizard and six new species of frogs, suggesting that a wider herpetological census is warranted. Scientists note how little is known about all of the country’s fauna, especially its reptiles and amphibians, and they suspect more species await description in this remote corner.

Of the range’s known species, many are threatened. At least five of Papua New Guinea’s seven mammals at risk of extinction live in the Torricellis, including the black-spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus rufoniger) and northern glider (Petaurus abidi), two critically endangered marsupials.

Analysis of deforestation data on Global Forest Watch reveals that tree cover in the proposed conservation area decreased by 1.5% between 2001 and 2020, about the same amount lost in the province of Sandaun over a similar period. But in recent years, those declines have spiked, particularly in the region’s primary and intact forest. At the same time, logging roads have begun to appear in greater concentrations on the map over the past five years. The looming threats to the rich habitat have increased TCA’s urgency in securing official recognition from the government for the conservation area.

Proposed area of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area.

People and wildlife

Local and international scientists teamed up with Papua New Guinean landowners to create the Torricelli Conservation Alliance after a 1998 meeting of the IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group in the town of Lae, at which they had been discussing the future of the country’s tree kangaroos.

TCA’s official designation in Papua New Guinea came in 2001, and two years later, the group hired Jim Thomas and his wife, Jean, to work with TCA. Zookeepers by trade, the pair wanted to work for the conservation of threatened species. So they moved from Australia to Lumi, a town in the Torricellis, and they ended up raising their son in Papua New Guinea. By 2005, the group had begun formulating a proposal for the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area, which someday could be the country’s second-largest.

Thomas said TCA’s strategy centers on looking out for both people and wildlife in the Torricelli range. To replace the protein that tree kangaroos and other wildlife once provided in the community’s diets, for example, TCA introduced communities to fish farming and rabbit rearing.

“I believe that what Jim and Jean are doing is absolutely the only way to go if we care about preserving the forests and the animals in it,” primatologist Jane Goodall said in Into the Jungle, a 2018 documentary about the Thomases. “Unless we can have the local people as our partners, then we can’t hope to conserve any other animals living in the forest.”

Grants have brought solar panels and water tanks to the communities. The programs include education about the region’s biodiversity, and more than a dozen local community members partake in research as employees of the organization.

“The only way to do conservation in Melanesia is on a win-win basis where the community is gaining benefits from the conservation of species,” biologist Tim Flannery said in Into the Jungle.

These types of programs appear to be improving the lot of wildlife in these areas. TCA’s surveys suggest more than 300 tenkiles inhabited the Torricellis by 2013, up from the mid-1990s when Flannery had estimated that no more than 100 survived in the wild. IUCN estimates put the number of adult tenkile at around 200, based on 2015 data.

Thomas said he has also witnessed a shift in thinking for many of the 12,000 to 13,000 people living in the 50 communities where TCA works.

TCA rangers posing with Jim Thomas. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.
Jean Thomas raising awareness among local schools of the significance of their biodiversity to engender support for its conservation. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

“When we first started, the tree kangaroos were just considered food,” Thomas said. The attitude was, “I’m hungry, I’m going to eat, you can’t stop me,” he added.

Today, communities have come to see that tree kangaroo numbers aren’t inexhaustible, agreeing on a hunting moratorium. Now, “People say, ‘Tenkile, weimang [tree kangaroos] are our gold medals, and we’ve got to keep them shining,’” Thomas said.

Community members say they have also realized that participating can help secure their own place in the landscape.

“The conservation area is very important to us because it helps us protect our land rights and protect our cultural Indigenous rights,” Fidelis Nick said. “So we want to stand and support the conservation program.”

On the cusp of approval

In August 2019, the communities and TCA seemed tantalizingly close to locking in protections for the Torricellis’ tree kangaroos and countless other species when Jeffrey Kama, Papua New Guinea’s environment minister at the time, voiced his support for the creation of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area. This positive sign followed years of submitting proposal after proposal to the federal government.

The group’s latest submission that same year included the signatures of male and female leaders from all 50 TCA communities supporting a conservation area that would cover 1,850 square kilometers (714 square miles) of land. The proposal also laid out what would and wouldn’t be allowed within the area’s borders. The villages have worked to map out areas for hunting, fishing and gardening, as well as spots that are off-limits to people.

Thomas has watched the designation of other protected areas in the country on much shorter timelines, so with the environment minister’s support in 2019, he thought the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area’s time had finally arrived. Or so it seemed.

That same year, however, Thomas heard rumors about a logging road that would slice through the proposed conservation area. Then, the prime minister decided to appoint a new environment minister as part of reorganizing his cabinet in November 2019, one who has yet to offer the same support for the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area that his predecessor did.

The next year brought COVID-19, forcing the Thomases to relocate back to Queensland, Australia, and wait out the pandemic. Then, in May 2021, they heard from Nick and other staff that road construction had begun. Today, Papua New Guineans run the day-to-day of TCA — a point of pride for Thomas that he said demonstrates the sustainability of the organization’s programming. But that hasn’t kept Thomas, who hasn’t been able to return to Papua New Guinea, from fretting over the progress of the road and its potential knock-on effects in the Torricellis.

“I do suspect the area they’re going through is very rich in hardwoods, so they’ll be taking out as many trees as they can whilst making that road as they do everywhere else in the country,” he said.

The road inches closer

The exact purpose of the road remains a mystery at this point. Early indications suggested it would be used primarily by loggers, but more recent rumors have begun to circulate that it could in fact be incorporated into the national highway.

Mongabay made repeated attempts to contact Governor Anthony Wouwou and local parliament representative Joe Sungi. Neither responded to requests for comment or clarification as to the purpose of the road.

“The government are trying to push the road to cross the conservation area,” said Caleb Bulu, a TCA project manager who has worked with the organization since 2009. “But the people themselves, they say no.”

Bulu said he believes the road will be part of the national highway network. Information gathered by TCA indicates that it will stretch 53 kilometers (33 miles) from Aitape on the coast, through the proposed conservation area and the villages of Muku, Winbe, Awang, Nunsi, Weiknt and Yuwil.

The road construction began in May 2021. TCA believes that the road will be part of the national highway network. Image courtesy of Jim Thomas/Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

From the outset, members of the communities around the proposed route have questioned its value, given that an existing road connecting the mountains to the port of Aitape sits just a few kilometers to the east. Built in the early 1990s, the Mai-Tadji road is in need of repair, and landslides plague travelers through the highland sections.

“But the people say, go back … and upgrade that old road,” Bulu said.

Peter Bosip, the executive director of the Port Moresby-based NGO Centre for Environmental Law and Community Rights, is working with landowners near logging concessions in another part of the Torricelli Mountains. He said that valuable hardwood trees abound in the range, such as Pacific teak (Intsia bijuga), the source of a durable and sought-after timber known as kwila or merbau — particularly enticing to logging companies given recent surges in lumber prices on the global market.

“[I]f the road is for a national purpose, then strict rules must be put in place so no logging operation is carried out anywhere within or near the Torricelli Mountain areas,” Bosip said in an email, adding that communities should have been part of the decision.

“Whoever is proposing to build the road into Torricelli Mountains must first consult the local people and get their consent before constructing the road,” Bosip added.

He also said it would destroy tree kangaroo habitat, echoing Thomas’s concerns.

A Pacific teak tree, the source of the sought-after timber known as kwila. Image by Denis.prévôt via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

“If this road goes through, it will affect the weimang tree kangaroo. There’s no doubt about it. To what extent is unknown,” Thomas said, “and it could open up several more logging coups.”

A 2019 study led by scientists at Australia’s James Cook University found that Papua New Guinea’s long-term plans to build out its road network could lead to the loss of more than 6,800 km2 (2,600 mi2) of forest by opening up land to logging and agriculture.

Environmental scientist Mohammed Alamgir, who led the research, said at the time that corruption more than economic development often drives decision-making around this type of infrastructure.

“A few politicians and land developers are getting very rich,” Alamgir said in a statement, “but the rest of the country suffers — with traditional communities potentially losing their forests, fisheries, and clean water.”

With the widespread opposition to the road from the communities, Thomas said he is worried the communities could be headed for a violent reckoning with construction crews and security forces. Word has spread that the government authorities in favor of the road are pulling together a “task force” to ensure its success.

“If these guys bring the task force in and force [the road] through,” Thomas said, “there will there will be blood spilled.”

Already, police have been dispatched to the site of the road’s construction, ostensibly to provide security for the work crews, TCA’s Fidelis Nick said.

“The government is sending the police force,” Nick told Mongabay. “They came up to assault us and beat us if we stop this road.”

A pause — for now

On June 21, 2021, Gunther Joku, the head of Papua New Guinea’s Conservation and Environment Protection Agency, met with representatives from the governor’s office and the Sandaun provincial administration. Joku told Mongabay they are planning for another meeting that will include the Tenkile Conservation Alliance to “find a way forward,” though the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed things down.

For now, construction crews have stopped work on the road, Thomas said, and the issue of the conservation area remains unresolved.

Wera Mori, the current minister of the environment, conservation and climate change, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, so it is unclear whether official recognition of the proposed conservation area might come in the near future.

In the meantime, however, the preservation of tree kangaroo habitat by TCA and its communities appears to be paying off. In June 2021, Thomas posted an effusive update on LinkedIn, announcing that TCA staff had found a grizzled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus inustus finschi) — a third species known to live in the mountains — near TCA’s headquarters in the town of Lumi.

A grizzled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus inustus finschi). TCA staff recently found one near TCA’s headquarters. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

“This is a first for TCA, as the Grizzled tree kangaroo has not been seen this close to Lumi for a long, long time,” Thomas wrote.

And more observations by the organization demonstrate what might be a comeback for the animals, as well as the knife’s edge on which that recovery rests. In 2019, a TCA team set up camera traps on a ridge in the Torricellis, Thomas said, “only a stone’s throw” from where the new road could cut through the would-be conservation area. They were hoping to find some evidence that a weimang tree kangaroo or two might be living in the vicinity. What they found took Thomas by complete surprise.

“We got the best data we ever had on this species,” he said. The digital camera cards revealed at least six (and maybe more) weimang tree kangaroos using that one spot. The team had never seen that many tree kangaroos in a single location. And here they were, in a group the size of which recalled to a time before hunting and habitat pressures had whittled away at their numbers.

“That’s pretty significant for tree kangaroos,” Thomas added.

The Torricelli mountain ranges. Image courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

Additional reporting by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Editor’s note: Jane Goodall is a member of Mongabay’s advisory council.

Banner image of a tenkile by the Tenkile Conservation Alliance. 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


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