- For millennia, hunting has been a prestigious and traditional activity in many Papua New Guinean cultures.
- With an increase in Western education and economic opportunities, there’s been a decline in young Papua New Guineans’ skills in hunting and traditional ecological knowledge, a recent study suggests.
- This decline in hunting skills and loss of generational ecological knowledge may impact conservation efforts in the country, with researchers highlighting the need to maintain this knowledge.
With two-thirds of the country draped in dense, tropical rainforests, Papua New Guinea is home to diverse wildlife, including several marsupial species, flightless cassowaries, and vibrant birds-of-paradise. Just as diverse are the cultures of its people, who have inhabited the land for nearly 50,000 years, first as hunter-gatherers and later as agriculturalists.
Today, more than 85% of the country’s population live in rural and remote areas, where subsistence hunting is still a part of life. People eat meat from small animals, and hunt cassowaries and tree kangaroos for traditional exchanges. The plumage of birds-of-paradise and parrots adorn traditional costumes and ornaments.
As Western education permeates the society and economic opportunities in cities increase, youths in Papua New Guinea may be veering away from hunting, a recent study published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation suggests.
It found hunting skills are in decline among secondary school students, and while this may imply that animals could be less likely to be targeted by hunters in the future, experts say this isn’t necessarily good news for wildlife, even threatened species: the decline in hunting skills is correlated with poor traditional knowledge about wildlife, which is as necessary for conservation as it is for hunting.
Papua New Guinean ethnobiologist Alfred Kik, pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of South Bohemia in the Czech Republic, wanted to understand whether the growing population in his country, expected to double by the end of this century, could lead to an increase in hunting of wildlife. Since hunting interest in today’s youths determines the future of hunting, he led the current study, the first of its kind at the national level, to understand how well versed young people in PNG are in hunting.
The researchers collected information about the family background and language proficiency of nearly 8,000 students in the 11th and 12th grades, from 30 rural and urban schools across the country. The students were also asked to rank their hunting skills on a three-point scale — none, poor or good — and identify 10 species of local birds in their language as a way to gauge their ethnobiological knowledge.
The study found that a third (34%) of the students reported they had no hunting skills, and nearly half (46%) rated their skills as poor. Only a fifth (20%) said they had good hunting skills. Boys were found to have better hunting skills and knowledge of local birds than girls. Those growing up in towns reported lower hunting skills than their counterparts from rural and remote regions. Students with better hunting skills also fared better in their knowledge of birds and local wildlife, while those with poor or no hunting skills had higher English and math scores.
“While a decline in traditional knowledge among urban students was expected, the low hunting skills of the students was surprising, we did not expect it to be that low,” Kik says about the findings. “Education and employment are taking the place of hunting.”
A loss for conservation
For millennia, Papua New Guineans have hunted sustainably by establishing “taboo areas” in the forests where hunting was banned, giving a chance for wildlife populations to recuperate. However, with the spread of Christianity throughout the country, such beliefs waned over time and hunting became prevalent everywhere, leading to steep declines in the populations of some species.
A decline in hunting skills may seem like a boon for wildlife threatened by overhunting, like the Matschie’s tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei), endemic to the Huon Peninsula in the northeastern part of the country. But Lisa Dabek, founder and director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, a local organization that works with communities on saving these endangered marsupials, says otherwise.
“We totally rely on the local hunters to find tree-kangaroos,” says Dabek, who was not involved in the study. “If they lost that skill, we wouldn’t be able to actually do our research.” In her work as a wildlife biologist studying these elusive marsupials, she banks on hunters and their traditional ecological knowledge to show her the plants that tree-kangaroos eat and signs of their activities in the forest.
“The knowledge about the environment, plants and animals has been passed on from generation to generation orally,” Kik says, agreeing that a decline in this knowledge would affect biodiversity and conservation.
“It’s really important to maintain the traditional ecological knowledge and pass that on to the next generation,” Dabek says.
While the sample size for the study was large, it represents only a sliver of PNG’s youth population: only 15% of the country’s youths attend secondary school. But Kik says the other 85%, most of them in the villages, may only fare slightly better. With young people in secondary education expected to increase to 31% by 2050, he says he expects a further decline in the hunting skills of youths.
“I don’t think it’s doom and gloom,” Dabek says. She suggests youths can still be taught traditional ecological knowledge by integrating it to the current national school curriculum, designing youth-oriented ranger programs that instill both scientific knowledge and traditional ecological knowledge in the future stewards, and opening conservation high schools like the one in YUS Conservation Area in Morobe province.
“To me, a great way of addressing what’s brought out in this paper is engaging youth and highlighting the importance of traditional cultural knowledge,” Dabek says.
Banner image: A baby tree kangaroo on a community chief’s wife’s shoulder. For millennia, Papua New Guineans have hunted sustainably by establishing “taboo areas” in the forests where hunting was banned, giving a chance for wildlife populations to recuperate. Image by Nyctalimon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Kik, A., Jorge, L. R., Bajzekova, J., Baro, N., Opasa, R., Sosanika, G., … Novotny, V. (2023). Hunting skills and ethnobiological knowledge among the young, educated Papua New Guineans: Implications for conservation. Global Ecology and Conservation, e02435. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2023.e02435