Why people and forests need tree kangaroos
What started out as a mission to save tree kangaroos has transformed the lives of over 13,000 people and boosted the conservation of some of Papua New Guinea’s most biodiverse and globally important rainforests.
Papua New Guinea’s forests are extraordinary – and not just because of the fantastic species found within them. They are also set apart by the fact that about 95% of forest land in the country is privately owned (mostly by local communities or tribes), providing a unique conservation opportunity where local people can take the lead. To achieve this, BirdLife International is supporting two organisations within the country: the grassroots NGO Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) and University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), as part of the European Commission-funded Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project, which we co-ordinate. This collaborative project, which runs from 2017-2022 in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, is all about empowering local people to manage and protect their forests. The Papua New Guinean project is based in the Torricelli Mountain Range, consisting of rainforest hosting 50% of the nation’s bird species and 40% of its mammals, including two of the most endangered mammal species in the world. Enter tree kangaroos.
Looking like a curious mix between a kangaroo and a lemur, these have to be one of nature’s more implausible animals. On the ground, they can jump, bound or walk – and although well adapted for life in the trees, they can appear quite clumsy when navigating between branches. There are 14 species worldwide, of which 12 are endemic to the island of New Guinea. TCA takes its name from the Tenkile Tree Kangaroo Dendrolagus scottae – a species found only in the Torricelli Mountains. As charismatic as these creatures may be to an outsider, they were a common source of animal protein for local people, until human hunting pressure sadly resulted in them becoming Critically Endangered.
In 1999, TCA set out to ensure the survival of the Tenkile by persuading 13 local villages to stop hunting them. Today, the Alliance has expanded to 50 villages – who are now part of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area – all agreeing not to hunt the three species of tree kangaroo found here: the Tenkile, the Grizzled Tree Kangaroo Dendrolagus inustus (Vulnerable), and the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo Dendrolagus pulcherrimus (Critically Endangered), which was once believed to be locally extinct, until TCA discovered it still existed in certain areas in 2004. The success of their mission is clear to see: there has been no record of a hunted Tenkile in 16 years and the species’ population has more than trebled since TCA began.
However, the trouble faced by wildlife wasn’t the only thing that concerned TCA. When they noticed the distended bellies of village children, they endeavoured to address social issues in order to secure a lasting future for both the forest and its people. They set about delivering food security by training people in how to farm chickens, rabbits and fish as an alternative source of protein, and have enabled access to clean water through buying and supplying over 350 1,000-gallon water tanks to villages. Thanks to their efforts, the prevalence of water-borne illness has dramatically decreased.
As TCA continued to work on the ground, gaining the trust of local people and opening their eyes to the benefits conservation brings, people changed their behaviour more, whilst embracing their culture and traditional use of natural resources. Now, villages have not only agreed to stop killing tree kangaroos, but no longer go into the mountains to hunt at all. This respite is allowing other special species to recover, including the Black-spotted Cuscus Spilocuscus rufoniger (another Critically Endangered marsupial) and the Victoria Crowned-pigeon Goura victoria – the world’s largest pigeon, a Near Threatened species which had become locally extinct in certain areas.
But the changes being made by local people don’t stop there: in addition to conserving their wildlife, they are beginning to take other positive actions for the sake of protecting their forest home. Logging and forest clearance for mining and oil palm plantations are big threats to these precious forests, but our two project partners are helping communities monitor and manage their own land in a sustainable manner. TCA works directly with local communities running training workshops, providing jobs and advising on sustainable livelihoods such as rice and vanilla farming. Meanwhile, UPNG provides technical assistance by monitoring forest cover remotely and creating maps to aid landowners in land-use planning. Those involved at every level take huge pride in the significance of their work, and with good reason. “We are protecting primary tropical rainforest, containing some of the world’s most special and threatened species - it’s important work globally” remarks Jim Thomas, the CEO of TCA.
“The value of these species goes beyond their charm: they are also vital for the survival of the forest itself, and for people everywhere,” says Dr Hum Gurung, manager of the Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project at BirdLife International. “By acting as pollinators and dispersers of the seeds of forest trees, they are critical to the functioning and long-term resilience of the forest, and therefore its ability to capture and store carbon to help address climate change at the same time as providing water, food, medicine and shelter for local people.”
The tale of Papua New Guinea’s tree kangaroos is a convincing example of the interdependent nature of ecosystems and people, and a persuasive case for flagship species conservation. The key to TCA’s success has been building trusting relationships, and respecting and working with the cultures of the local people. Of course, a soft spot for tree kangaroos also played its part.
This story is published on the occasion of International Day of Forests, 21st March 2020, which has the theme of “Forests and Biodiversity”.
Find out more about the European Commission-funded Asia-Pacific Forest Governance project – “Strengthening non-state actor involvement in forest governance in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea” at birdlife.org/forest-governance