Rare Species Have Long Been a Part of New Guinean Tradition

Scientists may have limited information on certain rare animals in western New Guinea (the Indonesian province of Papua), but some of them have long been a part of local knowledge and tradition, according to Bruce Beehler, an ornithologist and vice president of the Melanesia Program at Conservation International. Beehler and his team identified a number of plants and animals new to science during a December 2005 expedition to the isolated Foja Mountains, and also studied rare but documented species with which local guides on the trip were already familiar, including the Golden-fronted Bowerbird and Berlepsch’s Six-wired Bird of Paradise.

Knowledge of creatures living in remote areas of New Guinea has been passed down through generations of New Guineans. This rich oral tradition, which includes information on medicines and life forms largely unknown to the rest of the world, is a key component of Beehler’s efforts to conserve the region, one of the planet’s most biologically diverse. “The forest peoples of New Guinea tend to be very knowledgeable about wildlife of their forests,” says Beehler. “They can be teachers to us who know a lot less.”

Raising global awareness of the importance of the Foja Mountain region, Beehler believes, is the best way to gain international support for the area’s protection. Other important factors include improving local peoples’ understanding of the uniqueness of their ecosystems and working to create more sustainable development models. Popular development practices in the region currently include clearing rainforests to plant oil palm plantations and mining for oil and gas, activities that have proven extremely harmful to New Guinea’s environment. 

A trip to the Foja Mountains in the 1970s by popularly acclaimed scientist and author Jared Diamond sparked Beehler’s desire to visit the region. Like Diamond, Beehler and his crew left the area knowing there were many more plants and animals to be documented; by his estimates, his team did not even encounter half the animals and plants that remain to be discovered by scientists.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.