Lae, Papua New Guinea:
The small, yellow Twin-Otter plane bumped down the tarmac, then climbed in ever-widening circles into the mist-swathed mountains of Huon Peninsula. Inside, Dr. Lisa Dabek, director of conservation at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, gazed out of the window at the wrinkled green peaks marching toward an even higher range rising to 13,000 feet. For the next three weeks, she would lead a research team up into this “lost world,” seeking a creature that seems plucked from fantasy: a kangaroo that leaps from tall trees like a monkey.
Matschie’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei
) lives in the mossy oaks of the Papau New Guinea (PNG) highlands, feeding on fruits and vegetation, and playing somewhat the same biological role as primates in other parts of the world. But unlike monkeys, these marsupials can leap hundreds of feet to the ground when attacked by predators like the New Guinea harpy eagle (Harpyopsis novaeguineae
), puffing up with air to cushion the impact.
Dabek’s fascination with Matschie’s tree kangaroos began in 1987 when she was a graduate student. In 1996, she led one of the first scientific expeditions to study the biology and habits of this Endangered teddy bear-like marsupial. Ten tree kangaroo species are found in New Guinea and in Australia.
By the mid-1990s, populations of Matschie’s tree kangaroo had dwindled to scattered remnants high in the mountains, the result of deforestation and vigorous hunting by local villagers. Dabek initially used scientific studies of these arboreal creatures to introduce villagers to the basics of conservation. Working with indigenous people was crucial because in PNG, 97 percent of all land is owned and controlled by village clans, most of them subsistence farmers.
Dabek’s work has received financial support from Conservation International's (CI) Global Conservation Fund (GCF) since 2002. The program aims to turn at least 150,000 acres of tree kangaroo habitat into PNG’s first official conservation area to be managed by local villagers. Suspicious at first, the villagers soon understood that Dabek and her colleagues, including several PNG natives, were not trying to exploit them but were there to help preserve their homelands.
“Once they realized that there is so much to learn, they joined the scientists collecting data, and it made them value the animals even more,” she says. “Now they think of tree kangaroos not only as food, but as a species valued by science and the global community.”
Entering a Lost World
Dabek’s plane descended and came to rest on the grassy airstrip of Yawan village. Visitors here are rare. As Dabek and her team emerged into the cool, moist air, some 80 villagers greeted her like a returning family member.
That night, Dabek and her hosts discussed how many tree kangaroos hunters had seen recently, how the village children enjoyed learning about conservation in Yawan’s one-room schoolhouse, and how the people felt about making these mountains a conservation area. Such issues were never broached before she launched the project.
Her team set off the next morning for a grueling and muddy three-day hike up the mountain to the tree kangaroo study site named Wasaunon, some 10,000 feet above sea level. The air was thick with moisture. Gnarled oaks and conifers swayed in the mountain breezes, and the forest was alive with animals. They included the downy, mini-kangaroo called the New Guinea pademelons (Thylogale browni
); the weird, weasel-like New Guinean quoll (Dasyurus albopunctatus
); and the spiny long-beaked echidna (Zaglossus bruijni
), a primitive mammal the size of a small dog that lays eggs like a bird.
In two weeks, the team, with the assistance of local villagers, successfully radio-collared four of the flagship Matschies, including the first adult male they ever captured. They also trained locals from nearby villages to use Global Positioning System units to map the boundaries of their lands.
A New View of Wildlife
Back in Yawan village on their return, an old hunter named Yawit related how he had once killed hundreds – perhaps thousands – of tree kangaroos in the mountains. Now that Dabek and CI have come, he sees the animals in a different light.
“Now we understand why we should stop killing tree kangaroos,” he said, as Dabek and her team boarded a plane to depart. “We don’t want to kill any more of them. Now we see these animals to appreciate them.”