Growing up in the concrete jungle of New York City, Lisa Dabek learned of nature by playing with ants in Dixie cups and visiting the Bronx Zoo with her mother. A kindergarten teacher at Fieldston School taught her about monarch butterflies and tapping maple trees, and she was hooked.
“From really early on, I knew animals were it for me,” Dabek said as she prepared for her next trip to Papua New Guinea as the world’s foremost protector of rare tree kangaroos. How a girl from the Bronx became known as the Jane Goodall of tree kangaroo conservation is a story of passion and opportunity, blended with a healthy sense of adventure and the desire to do what’s right.
As field conservation director at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo and the founder and director of the zoo’s Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, Dabek has spent a lot of time in the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea learning about the furry creatures with the face of a bear, the tail of a monkey and a kangaroo’s pouch. Her work has protected populations of tree kangaroos threatened by over-hunting and habitat destruction, and has helped bring what will be an unprecedented conservation achievement: establishment of the 150,000-acre YUS Conservation Area in Huon Peninsula of Papua New Guinea.
The YUS acronym refers to the Yupno, Uruwa and Som regions comprising the conservation area inhabited by 10,000 people in 35 clan groups. As overseers and traditional stewards of the pristine cloud forest, these people have the most to lose from unsustainable use of their land.
“Our conservation work must be community-based, so that it addresses both the human needs and the wildlife needs,” explained Dabek, who is working with CI and the Woodland Park Zoo to set up a permanent funding mechanism for the YUS Conservation Area. CI's Global Conservation Fund has supported the program with more than $700,000 since 2003 and has also pledged $1 million as the basis for the eventual $6 million conservation trust fund for the area.
It was CI President Russ Mittermeier who first pointed Dabek to Papua New Guinea by challenging her to find the elusive tree kangaroos.
“For all the times he had been in Papua New Guinea, he had never seen a wild tree kangaroo,” Dabek said. “He warned that it wouldn't be easy to find them. I said I’d give it a try.”
READ MORE: CI works with people around the globe, like Randy Borman in Ecuador and Anne Savage in Colombia.
That was 12 years ago, when Dabek and graduate student Will Betz flew on a “little Cessna” to a remote part of Huon Peninsula bearing only the name of a local contact.
“They kind of looked at us funny because they don’t get outside visitors,” she recalled. Dabek and Betz found their contact, but no tree kangaroos. The area had been all hunted out.
Luck turned their way when the owner of the guest house where they stayed told them of his cousin, considered the best tree kangaroo hunter. They met Mambawe (pronounced MAM-ba-vey), who used hunting dogs to bring down the tree kangaroos for their meat, the furry tails used as headbands and pelts for ceremonies. They eventually found wild tree kangaroos, but their first encounter involved a captured baby in a bag carried by a hunter that had killed its mother. He would raise the baby to later sell or slaughter it for the meat and pelt.
“I wanted to offer to buy it from him, but we couldn’t do that,” Dabek said. “We never, ever said that they shouldn’t hunt. There's nothing wrong with hunting sustainably."
Instead, Dabek began discussing the concept of protected or taboo areas, where hunting would be off-limits to conserve the tree kangaroos and other culturally important species. Thus began a journey that led to the imminent government promulgation of the YUS Conservation Area.
Mambawe and other landowners agreed to set aside some of their holdings for conservation to benefit their communities. They talked to others in the region, and eventually, all the clans got together in a meeting set up by Dabek’s team, CI and the government’s Department of Environment and Conservation. It was the first gathering of all the YUS region clans, and the first time the government department sent an official to the region.
“They (clan leaders) had heard about conservation ideas from us, but when they heard it from what they called the ‘big men’ from Port Moresby (the capital), they got it that this was the big time,” Dabek said. “The vote was unanimous. It was really fabulous. That was one of the highlights of my time there – that meeting.”
Back then, Dabek spent months at a time in Papua New Guinea, but now her trips are less frequent. The latest one is her first in a year – the longest stretch away since her initial visit. That gap demonstrates her ability to turn over management responsibilities to people on the ground, a hallmark of successful and sustainable conservation work.
Dabek was particularly excited for the trip because she would be taking Mittermeier to see wild tree kangaroos for the first time. She’s even buying new camping stools for the occasion to replace her 10-year-old models.
“It’s like inviting guests to your house,” she explained.
EXPLORE: Meet Another CI Success.
FEATURE: Chachi Choose Conservation over Timber Concessions in Ecuador
LEARN MORE: Economic Incentives
READ MORE: Kenyan Tribe Chooses to Save its Threatened Predators