The golden-mantled tree kangaroo or weimang (D. pulcherrimus) is only found in the Torricelli Mountains, Papua New Guinea.
© Photo: Tenkile Conservation Alliance.
In November and December, 2005, a team of field naturalists from Indonesia, America, England, and Australia carried out the first comprehensive biodiversity survey of the Foja Mountains, an isolated range in northern Papua, a province of western (Indonesian) New Guinea (see Figure 2).
Spending a month in the Fojas, the 20-person team inventoried plants, frogs, reptiles, butterflies, mammals, and birds, documenting more than 40 new species in this little-studied corner of the tropical world. These amazing discoveries were the culmination of years of effort and planning.
The Foja Mountains on the island of New Guinea are host to a dazzling variety of new and rare animal species.
© 2006 Conservation International.
The senior project co-leader began planning this expedition in 1982—the 23-year project timeline should adequately convey a sense of the political challenges to obtaining permission for the field research as well as the nature of this area’s near-absolute inaccessibility. The team members all agreed the stunning results proved the project was worth the long wait, and that all the hard work that went into making it happen was well and truly worthwhile.
The search for a lost world
The Fojas’ story begins back in the mid-1890s, when a shipment of stuffed birds, intended to adorn women’s hats, arrived in Europe from New Guinea. Some of the more peculiar specimens in this shipment were removed by the Dutch trader who received them and forwarded to prominent European naturalists. An unusual bowerbird was sent to Lord Walter Rothschild in England, and a black-and-white bird of paradise was forwarded to a German natural history collection. Shortly thereafter, these were described as new species by Rothschild and renowned ornithologist Otto Kleinschmidt, respectively. They noted the following:
- The bowerbird was distinct in sporting a large erectile crest of golden plumes that stretched from forehead to nape.
- The bird of paradise exhibited a curious mix of characters found in two already-described species of six-wired birds of paradise.
- Most importantly, neither specimen came from an identified locality, but it was assumed that both originated from somewhere in the mountains of western New Guinea, then a Dutch colony.
In the decades to follow, a number of ornithologists were to make expeditions to western New Guinea trying to discover the homeland of these two unique species. Certainly, the researchers wanted to know more about these two “lost” forms, but undoubtedly a greater motivating force was the thought that whoever found the homeland of these mysterious birds might find additional species new to science—the prime goal of most expeditions.
Those who ventured to New Guinea in search of this mountain habitat scoured a number of isolated mountain ranges and adjacent mountainous islands, but to no avail.1 The mystery of the golden-fronted bowerbird was finally solved in 1979 by biologist Jared Diamond, who helicoptered with a small team into the uplands of the Foja Mountains of northern Papua (then called Irian Jaya). He observed that this species
- creates distinctive terrestrial display bowers made of moss and sticks and decorated with blue and yellow fruit
- builds dozens of these bowers on mid-elevation ridge tops in the Fojas
Diamond’s wonderful discovery was met with considerable coverage in the Western press, and his paper reporting the rediscovery of the bowerbird was featured as a cover article in Science.2 Diamond also collected evidence hinting that the missing bird of paradise might inhabit the Foja Mountains, but the solution to this mystery had to await our visit to the Fojas in 2005.
The 2005 expedition
I began making plans to conduct a comprehensive biological survey of the Foja Mountains shortly after Diamond’s discovery. With this in mind, I visited Indonesia several times, made three overflights of the mountain range, and held discussions with a range of governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders. Thus began more than two decades of on-again, off-again efforts to pull all the pieces together to conduct such a complex, expensive, and difficult mission.
In 2003 I met with project co-leader Stephen Richards of the South Australian Museum to reformulate our plans in light of evidence of improvement in the political climate in Indonesia. Our redoubled efforts produced results in 2005, when our multi-institutional team received preliminary approval for our plan from Indonesia. We then pushed into high gear, pressing for government permits, making an extra effort to raise additional funds, and clearing personal travel schedules to make way for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In October, local village landowners granted us their approval for the field trip. The international team arrived in Jakarta in November, and the final national and provincial authorizations were finalized shortly thereafter.
One final hurdle remained. The team would not be able to get into the misty montane uplands of the Fojas without a helicopter, and helicopters were rare and expensive in Papua in November 2005. Through some indirect negotiations with several institutional partners, the evangelical service organization Helimission agreed to a charter of one of its helicopters, providing its incomparable bush pilots for the challenging mountain-top drop-off and retrieval. At that point we were set to go.
The team and its copious supplies and equipment were ferried by a single-engine Cessna aircraft into the Kwerba airstrip at the foot of the mountain range in mid-November. We divided this large party into a hill forest survey group and a montane survey group:
- The hill group established camps on foot in the hill forest northeast of Kwerba.
- On 22 November, the mountain team got its helicopter ride up to a boggy clearing in the montane forest at 1,650 meters above sea level, in the heart of the Foja’s interior.
Being at 1,650 meters in the Foja Mountains was a dream come true for the research team of six: botanist Wayne Takeuchi, lepidopterist Henk van Mastrigt, herpetologists Steve Richards and Burhan Tjaturadi, mammalogist Kris Helgen, and ornithologist Bruce Beehler. A 30-minute helicopter ride transported us into a montane forest tract of humid tropical forest that showed no evidence of human impact: no road, no trail, no trash, no village, no TV, no radio. Only rarely did a passenger jet overhead disturb our isolated wilderness environment. Our six local guides, from the villages of Kwerba and Papasena, were just as amazed as we were. They assured us that they had never visited this interior region of the Foja Range. And the wildlife in many instances was remarkably unwary (unusual in a place like New Guinea, where subsistence hunting is chronic and all pervasive). Birds flitted around our campsite and sang lustily from nearby trees. A giant rat visited nightly to collect scraps. Most remarkably, the long-lost bird of paradise carried out an elaborate display on the ground within view of our rough dining table on a drizzly afternoon.
Our team of 12 worked night and day for 15 days, to learn as much as we could about the natural history of this remarkably pristine and isolated mountain range.3 Whereas the hill forest team found that the forest in their area supported mainly common and widespread species (their five apparently new species of palms were an exception to this rule), our montane team found a world of biological novelties:
Berlepsch’s six-wired bird of paradise (Parotia berlepschi) is named for the curious wires that extend from its head in place of a crest.
© 2006 Conservation International, Bruce Beehler.
- up to 20 new species of frogs
- 5 to 10 new species of plants
- 5 new butterflies
- several possible new mammal species, including a large mammal (golden-mantled tree kangaroo, see Figure 1) new to the Indonesian national list
- a new bird species: the wattled smoky honeyeater
- the “lost” Berlepsch’s bird of paradise (see Figure 3)
Moreover, we believe that there are dozens of additional new species from these focal taxonomic groups that will be found with additional effort.
A call for conservation
Finding new species in the tropical rainforest is no rare event. What, then, is so remarkable about this expedition and its findings? Why should we ensure this lost world’s biodiversity remains intact?
- When coupled with the remarkable recent discovery of more than 50 new marine species in the waters just west of the Foja Mountains,4 the scale of the biodiversity discoveries coming from Indonesian New Guinea is remarkable. Conservation International, which sponsored and led both the marine and terrestrial field research, is proposing additional field studies, and these are clearly justified. Today, Papua might well be considered a “lost world” for novel biodiversity, and the situation is such that a province-wide biological survey (both marine and terrestrial) is warranted. Perhaps as little as 50 percent of New Guinea’s frog species have been described.5
- This offers an opportunity for institutional collaboration and training of new field students, benefiting Indonesia and tropical field science. A large-scale multi-year program of field surveys, matching Indonesian and international scientists with local research students, would set the stage for a renaissance of field study in this important but little-studied part of the tropical world. This, in turn, could lead to greatly expanded ecotourism in the Province, providing local economic benefits.
- The expanded field research and ecotourism could drive a conservation-planning process that could help Papua design and manage a network of forest and marine parks that could become the envy of the tropical world. This would go a long way toward addressing the growing threats of poaching, over-hunting, and unconstrained industrial logging and plantation development. There is room for both development and nature conservation in Papua, if guided by thoughtful planning and management of these resources. It is not too late to make these steps.
The good news is that the Foja Mountains are already part of Indonesia’s system of national wildlife sanctuaries. It should be noted, however, that the Fojas are also the traditional lands of several forest-dwelling peoples who inhabit the range’s surrounding foothills. The forests constitute these communities’ patrimony—their main source of wealth. From the upland forests of the Fojas the local people obtain
- their pure drinking water
- their wild game in the form of pigs, cassowaries, wallabies, and tree kangaroos
- fish from the rivers
- fiber and building materials from the forests
- stories, legends, and myths as a product of their long interaction with the hills, woodlands, plants, and animals
It is safe to say that these local forest peoples are the true stewards of the pristine forests of the Foja Mountains. Any sustainable conservation plan for this remarkable region must place these local stakeholders at the center of any future agreements and plans. These are the voices who can speak with authority about the forests, and these are the people in place to protect these natural resources from the relentless pressure of large-scale development that is bound to arrive at their doorstep in the decades to come. It is the mandate of conservation organizations, such as Conservation International and counterpart government agencies, to work closely with these local stakeholders for the good of this globally significant resource.
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