In countries as rural as Papua New Guinea, the wilderness is never far away, though that doesn't mean it's an easy journey getting there.
On an April 2009 expedition in the Nakanai Mountains of the island of New Britain, Conservation International (CI) herpetologist Stephen Richards and a team of scientists flew in a tiny plane to a remote airstrip, and then continued by dugout canoe, on foot and by helicopter before reaching their destination in the mountain highlands. Travel was so difficult that the team had to ship all their food and equipment to the site beforehand.
Excited by their findings in New Britain, the team returned to Papua New Guinea in September 2009 to explore the Muller Range Mountains in the highlands of the country. "As we flew in to land the helicopter in a montane meadow, zooming into this spectacular landscape, it was an incredible realization, knowing that no scientist has ever been there before," said Richards, who manages CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) in the Asia-Pacific region.
For 20 years, CI has organized RAP surveys in some of the world's least studied and most threatened regions, bringing together local and international species experts to quickly collect valuable biodiversity data and use it to guide conservation efforts. In just two months of field work in Papua New Guinea at these two sites, CI's RAP team discovered around 200 species previously unknown to science – an exciting find that shows just how much of the planet's biodiversity we could be losing without immediate conservation action.
A History of Isolation
For thousands of years, steep mountain ranges and dense forests limited interaction between many of Papua New Guinea's indigenous groups, creating one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse countries in the world. Geographic barriers also have limited scientific exploration in the country, which is known to harbor many undiscovered species.
"As we flew in to land the helicopter in a montane meadow, zooming into this spectacular landscape, it was an incredible realization, knowing that no scientist has ever been there before."
– Stephen Richards
CI's Rapid Assessment Program (RAP)
Manager in the Asia-Pacific region
Despite the lack of knowledge about what these forests contain, deforestation is becoming a bigger concern across the country. Although industrial logging, mining and land-use conversion for agriculture provide short-term benefits for communities with few economic alternatives, when done unsustainably these practices threaten the natural resources which are critical for their long-term survival.
The national government of Papua New Guinea recently nominated the Nakanai Mountains for World Heritage status. To help support this nomination, CI organized a month-long RAP survey of three sites within the mountain range.
The Nakanai and Muller RAP teams were made up of scientists from CI, the Papua New Guinea Institute of Biological Research and other research institutions, along with local community members and several officials from the provincial government.
Camping under tarps to hold off the heavy rain, researchers used various methods to search for their target species. In his search for frogs, Richards tape-recorded their calls and played them back in order to zero in on the frogs' locations. Ingi Agnarsson, the RAP's spider expert, tracked down spiders at night by the glow of their webs in his headlamp.
VIDEOS: See the scientists in action
The team's hard work did not go unrewarded; they revealed over 200 species new to science, including 24 frog species, six mammals, nine plants, about 100 spiders and 100 insects (katydids, ants, dragonflies and damselflies). In addition, some of these species (including one mammal, one ant and several katydids) are so different from previously known species that they are thought to represent entirely new genera.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about the species discovered.
These findings are undoubtedly a positive indication of the health of Papua New Guinean ecosystems, but encroachment of destructive human activities is taking an increasing toll on these forests.
"Standing on top of the Nakanai Mountains, I could see oil palm plantations extending almost to the coast," said Richards. "It struck me just how much of the lowland forest has disappeared for oil palm. The steepness of the highlands has limited their destruction, but if people start building roads, these areas will be more accessible."
IN PHOTOS: See photos of the species discovered in the Nakanai Mountains.
Expanding Biodiversity Protection
As RAP celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, these two RAP surveys in Papua New Guinea reveal some of the most exciting species yet. Their findings provide strong evidence that the biodiversity of Papua New Guinea remains very poorly documented.
At both sites, participating community members were happy to earn income from research activities like RAP surveys which don't destroy the forest, adding that they see the protection of traditional forest resources as a very high priority.
IN DEPTH: Learn more about the benefits of discovering species to people and communities.
In a world where we often hear dismal news about the global extinction crisis, it's refreshing to hear about species discoveries rather than disappearances. However, the fact remains that an unprecedented number of species are threatened with extinction.
As world leaders prepare to create new biodiversity protection goals at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) meeting in Japan later this month, the species documentation and scientific knowledge procured on expeditions like RAPs will help to make the case for more ambitious conservation efforts.
This project is a collaboration between CI and A Rocha International, and funding was provided by a generous grant from the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation. Porgera Mine provided additional logistical and financial support for the Muller Range survey.