- Logging is threatening the Torricelli Mountains, a biodiversity-rich forested range in Papua New Guinea known for its tree kangaroos and other threatened species of birds and mammals.
- Community conservation efforts have helped to increase the numbers of tree kangaroos, once nearly pushed to extinction by hunting and logging, in conjunction with development projects for the people of the Torricellis.
- The Tenkile Conservation Alliance, a Papua New Guinean NGO, has led an effort to protect the area, but the government has yet to officially designate what would be the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area.
- Satellite imagery shows the loss of forest and an increase in roadbuilding over the past two years. And residents of the Torricellis say that representatives of logging companies have been trying to secure permission to log the region’s forests.
The tree kangaroos inhabiting a forested mountain range in Papua New Guinea have made an unlikely comeback in the past 40 years, but old dangers now jeopardize that rebound.
Three species of the Dendrolagus genus — arboreal marsupials about twice the size of a house cat — haunt the leafy tropical canopy of the Torricelli Mountains, which top out at 1,650 meters (5,410 feet). Two of them remain critically endangered, according to the IUCN, but populations of all three species have leapt and their known ranges expanded. Over the past two decades, investments in conservation and the development of human communities appear to have held off the twin threats of logging and hunting that had pushed the Torricellis’ tree kangaroos to the edge of extinction.
In spite of this success, threats to the forests vital to tree kangaroos and a host of other species have resurfaced. Satellite imagery reveals a spike in forest loss and roadbuilding over the past year in and around the core areas of forests that communities have been working to conserve since the early 2000s. In addition, in October 2022, logging companies reportedly began sending representatives to at least three villages to seek consent to harvest the area’s valuable timber in exchange for money and beer.
Fidelis Nick, a project officer with an NGO called the Tenkile Conservation Alliance and a resident of the Torricelli village of Muku, said these companies likely have the backing of the federal government, which has the power to issue permits.
“That’s why they came in to harvest the logs,” Nick said of the logging companies.
Papua New Guinea’s logging industry has faced persistent criticism that it relies on corruption to maintain the veneer of legality. Critics say licensing practices are often not in line with Papua New Guinea’s strict forestry laws. What’s more, promises of development projects such as roadbuilding and school construction often go unmet, and companies don’t adequately obtain consent from communities to log their lands, according to research on the industry.
At the same time, a change in government in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled a decade-long drive to officially designate 1,850 square kilometers (714 square miles) as the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area. The mountains are home to half of all the bird species found in the country and 40% of its mammals, at least seven of which are endangered or critically endangered. Conservation scientists argue this formal protection is vital to lock in the gains from the TCA’s efforts since its inception in 2001 precisely because logging could destroy the foundations of this rich ecosystem, and new roads would mean easier access for hunters.
Nick said the logging company representatives have focused on key members of communities like his to secure approval. Papua New Guinea law requires both government permits and community consent for companies to log. But Nick said these representatives are not after widespread consensus. Instead, their approach, which he sees as bribery, foments rifts in the community and even within the TCA itself.
Now, community members must weigh the benefits of their participation in the TCA’s community conservation model with, in some cases, the immediate cash that logging companies are offering, he added.
Pomio Success Limited and Wagasu Investments Limited, the companies allegedly involved in the effort to gain access to timber in Torricelli communities, do not have publicly available contact information. Several people connected with both companies did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for information and interviews.
Nick said he is worried about his safety because of his stalwart support for continuing conservation.
Biologist Tim Flannery, who has worked in Papua New Guinea since the 1980s, said he sees the companies’ activities to gain access to the timber as a subversion of the decades of investment in both the protection of the forests and the development of the communities that manage them.
“This is just piracy,” he added. “This is outright theft, facilitated through the corruption of both government and local communities.”
And now it’s threatening a unique and biodiverse ecosystem.
The TCA and a proposed conservation area
When Flannery was surveying the forests of northwestern Papua New Guinea in the 1980s and 1990s, he was stunned to come across evidence of not one but two species of tree kangaroo new to Western scientists. (A third species, the grizzled, or Finsch’s, tree kangaroo, Dendrolagus inustus finschi, was already known to inhabit the area.) The tenkile (D. scottae), or Scott’s tree kangaroo, and the weimang (D. pulcherrimus) are cousins to Australia’s land-bound marsupials, and they’re shy and retiring in all aspects save for the cuteness quotient — in particular, said Flannery, the weimangke, as it’s known locally.
“It’s a really beautiful animal, this mahogany-colored thing with white ears and a pale face,” he said.
But from the moment of their appearance in the annals of Western science, these two species seemed on collision courses with extinction. Logging and hunting levied pressure on the animals’ populations, and Flannery estimated that no more than 100 tenkile survived at the time of his survey, clinging to the dwindling forests in this part of Papua New Guinea.
In the late 1990s, Flannery’s discoveries inspired zookeepers Jim and Jean Thomas, working in Australia at the time, to seek a different future for these species. In 2001, Jim Thomas agreed to head up the fledgling TCA, and the couple moved to Papua New Guinea and raised a family there. From that point forward, the goal of the TCA has been to protect the Torricellis’ tree kangaroos and other animal species by investing in the local communities that care for and depend on the forests, Thomas told Mongabay.
Today, the populations of each of the three species are larger today than 40 years ago.
“They did something that was unimaginable,” Flannery said.
With grant support from governments and organizations around the world, the TCA invested in rabbit raising and fish farms, water tanks, environmental education, and a recent solar program involving nearly 2,700 households, often in villages far from centralized sources of power.
The model “depends upon a fairly high degree of consensus,” and it incorporates “equal representation of the sexes and representations across the whole community,” said Flannery, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia.
With their most pressing needs met, so the thinking goes, these communities would put less pressure on the wildlife of the Torricellis. Proponents of the TCA say it has also brought the communities of the Torricellis together around these conservation efforts. The 50 member communities, representing more than 13,000 people today, agreed to stop hunting the tree kangaroos — a key factor in the tree kangaroos’ resurgence, according to Flannery.
The tenkile now lives in places “where it hasn’t been seen for generations,” he said. The IUCN estimated that 200 adults survived in the region’s forests in 2015, and the animal’s numbers are stable. Recent data from the TCA suggest that more than 400 may now inhabit these forests, Flannery said.
The communities, represented by 228 clan leaders, also back the designation of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area, Thomas told Mongabay.
Flannery insists the tree kangaroos are “just the tip of the iceberg for biodiversity in that region.”
“It’s everything from birds-of-paradise to bats to native rodents to a whole series of marsupials, which are just unique to that north coast range,” he said. “It’s one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, so having that protected area there is incredibly important.”
“It’s not just all about the gorgeous little tree kangaroos,” Penelope Figgis, the former head of the World Commission for Protected Areas in Oceania, told Mongabay.
Looking for access
Without a government-supported protected area, threats have crept into the Torricellis. Deforestation alerts tracked by Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland increased between October 2021 and October 2022, suggesting ongoing logging, especially just outside the northern boundary of the proposed conservation area. And a nascent road first visible on satellite images in mid-2021 has grown, along with the proliferation of other roads in the area. Mongabay’s recent analysis of satellite data from the University of Maryland found it now cuts into the proposed boundaries of the conservation area, threatening to split it in two.
The main road would connect the Torricellis with the coastal port of Aitape, leaving little doubt about its purpose, Thomas said.
“We all know the story behind it,” he said. “They’re just trying to get some more trees.”
Nick said he is worried the road will increase the companies’ access to the forests, allowing them to extract timber. Harvest too much wood, he said, and it could destroy not only the species-sustaining habitat, but also the ecosystem that provides communities with clean water and other resources they need to survive.
“That’s my real concern,” Nick said.
There is also a ready alternative, Nick said. A nearby artery called the Mai-Tadji road was first constructed in the 1990s. Though it has fallen into disrepair and mudslides impede efficient movement along its path, Thomas said its route better connects communities while avoiding sensitive areas of forest.
“If that was upgraded, then we wouldn’t need this other road,” he said.
He is now looking for international support to fund the rehabilitation of this road, possibly with the help of the Australian government. The office of Australia’s foreign minister did not respond to requests for comment from Mongabay.
The tension around land rights
Protected area or no, Papua New Guinea’s rules governing decision-making can hamper conservation efforts like those of the TCA, Flannery said. He noted that 97% of the land in Papua New Guinea is clan-owned.
“The clan should theoretically be controlling land, but the government reserves the right to issue forestry permits,” Flannery said. “Owning your land is one thing, but if you can’t manage it, then you’re totally hamstrung.”
Nick said he has been working to remind communities of “the good benefits” they have received as a result of the TCA’s conservation work. But when company representatives arrive with cash, the trade for the permission to log their land can be too enticing to pass up, he said — and understandably so, in some cases.
“It is a really big challenge because they need money to sustain their living,” Nick added.
It has brought the TCA model to a crossroads. The organization aims to expand: Around 100 other villages are eager to participate in the group’s solar program, Thomas said. But these recent entreaties by logging companies threaten to undo many or all of the gains of the past two decades. Flannery and Thomas say a key to safeguarding these successes is the formal recognition of the conservation area, both by the government of Papua New Guinea and the international community.
“We have tried for years to get this protected area listed, which is what really needs to happen,” Flannery said. “I think the U.N. has got a role to say, ‘Look, we’ve put all this money into these programs, and yet now the value of that has been destroyed by this inappropriate logging.’”
According to Thomas, land from the additional villages interested in joining the TCA could bring the size of the proposed Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area to more than 3,000 km2 (about 1,200 mi2). That’s roughly the size of Yosemite National Park in the United States.
“We’ve got four critically endangered species in this area already. We’ve got endangered bird species,” he added, noting that other species that have yet to be recognized by science may remain to be found. “How much more do you need to get this area locked up, really?”
To Penelope Figgis, the questions around protecting the Torricelli Mountains reflect a broader need to consider globally how to involve communities and Indigenous peoples in conservation.
“A very large percentage of the remaining intact systems on Earth … are the lands of Indigenous people,” Figgis said. “Unless we develop ways of constructively working with people who are still using the resources of the land as their livelihoods, as well as normally the central components of their culture — unless we do that, then we are going to lose the most intact places left on Earth.”
Related audio on this topic: Mongabay’s podcast spoke at length with TCA about tree kangaroos; listen here:
Additional reporting by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
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