Feathers of a bird of paradise, or bird of paradise, in Golgubip on November 17, 2021 in Papua New Guinea (AFP / Chris McCALL)
In the remote Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea, locals say the tree-kangaroo is king and the bird-of-paradise is queen. But their heads are at a price.
Long prized by traditional hunters, these extraordinary species are now threatened by the disappearance of their habitat.
The forests they live in, one of the last great wilderness areas on the planet, could soon fall to the ax and the bulldozer.
“Old people say the tree-kangaroo is king,” says Lloyd Leo, a youngster from Golgubip, a mountain community whose inhabitants live mainly from subsistence farming and whose ancestors, just a few decades ago, led a way of life close to that of the Neolithic period.
“He lives high in the forest. He doesn’t eat certain fruits. He only takes the fresh ones,” he says. The marsupial, which looks like a mix of kangaroo and lemur, was once a form of currency, used to pay bride price.
The creature, whose tail is still worn as an emblem, is critically endangered and is among the most endangered species on the planet, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
Two species of birds of paradise, or bird of paradise, also live in the area. One, called “karom” in the local Faiwol language, is considered locally as the queen of birds.
The village of Golgubip, Papua New Guinea, November 16, 2021 (AFP/Chris McCALL)
People hunt them, although it is illegal. Feathers and stuffed birds are prized, kept in homes and brought out for festivals.
But the trees around Golgubip are also valuable, like other similar trees in Papua New Guinea, and the twin threats of deforestation and hunting could seal the fate of these unique species in the country.
– Despair –
“In the villages, there is general expectation of economic development which, on the whole, is not happening,” said Vojtech Novotny, a biologist for the Binatang Research Center of New Guinea.
The country’s population (9 million inhabitants) has almost tripled since independence in 1975.
A heron, along the Fly River near Bosset, Papua New Guinea, October 16, 2021 (AFP / Chris McCALL)
As there is less and less forest left in Southeast Asia and much of the land has been converted to palm oil plantations, some logging companies are now looking to Papua New Guinea. , said Mr. Novotny, who has worked in the country for 25 years.
In the past, authorities mainly allowed “selective” logging, which allows forests to recover quickly. But that could change, Mr. Novotny adds.
“Now there is pressure for big agricultural projects. The big problem here is oil palm. Once you make the first cut, you come for the second and third. Very quickly you destroy the structure of the forest. That’s what happened in Borneo,” he said.
According to the Global Forest Watch website, Papua New Guinea’s forests covered 93% of the land in 2010. Between 2001 and 2020, the organization estimates that the country has lost 3.7% of its forests.
Like a hundred other countries, Paua New Guinea pledged at COP26 in early November to end deforestation by 2030. But illegal logging has grown to such an extent that NGOs and some local political actors are calling on the authorities to take urgent action.
The Raggiana bird-of-paradise is featured on the country’s flag, and although only one related species — the blue bird-of-paradise — is officially classified as “vulnerable”, biologists say no one knows for sure its conservation status.
A crocodile skin, hung in a hut, dries along the Fly River, Papua New Guinea, October 16, 2021 (AFP/Chris McCALL)
Another bird of concern is the Pesquet parrot, whose red and black feathers are worn in native ceremonies.
“Its bright red feathers are highly prized for headdresses,” says Port Moresby Nature Park Conservator Brett Smith, saying he fears there are more Pesquet parrot feathers in traditional outfits today than on birds. living.
Biologists say they want to involve the population more in conservation. But poverty, lack of education and low awareness of the impact of human activities on the environment complicate the task.
However, there have been successes, explains Yolarnie Amepou, director of the Piku biodiversity network.
By involving children in the preservation of key species, a new generation, now adults, is invested in the survival of pig-nosed turtles in an area where this rare species was part of the diet.
“Their environment is what they depend on every day. If we want to save the turtle, we have to help people,” she says.