Deforestation threatens tree kangaroo habitat in Papua New Guinea


  • A proposed conservation area in northwest Papua New Guinea has seen a substantial increase in deforestation-related alerts, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland.
  • The still unofficial Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area is home to critically endangered tree kangaroo species, as well as a host of other biodiversity species.
  • In May 2021, communities expressed concern about road construction approaching the boundaries of the proposed conservation area and that the intended target may have been high value timber species found in the forests of the region.
  • The investment in local communities and the protection of the forests these communities provide has led to an apparent increase in tree kangaroo populations, but logging and other potentially destructive land uses such as conversion to agriculture large-scale threats remain in the Torricellis and throughout Papua New Guinea.

The forests of northwestern Papua New Guinea are home to a group of wide-eyed, reclusive marsupials known as tree kangaroos. As the name suggests, they spend much of their life in the canopy and depend on the forest for their survival.

For more than a decade, conservationists and scientists have worked to protect an 1,850 square kilometer (714 square mile) area of ​​tropical broadleaf forest in and around the Torricelli Mountains where these animals thrive. But the recent construction of what appears to be a logging road worries supporters of the proposed Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area. And now, satellite imagery has shown an increase in the recent loss of tree cover since August 1.

“Yes, logging continues – they are relentless,” said Jim Thomas, CEO of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA), of recent deforestation along what would be the northern border of the conservation area in an email. The TCA takes its name from one of the tree kangaroo species that haunts the area. Also known as Scott’s Tree Kangaroo, the tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae) is critically endangered, just like weimang, or golden mantis tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus), who also lives in the Torricellis.

Satellite imagery from the University of Maryland reveals further loss of tree cover around a forest path in the Torricelli mountain range. Image by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Satellite The data come from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) laboratory at the University of Maryland. After months of sporadic activity in this part of Sandaun Province in PNG, the pink spots characteristic of GLAD alerts appeared in August, indicating a probable loss of tree cover captured in patches of 30 meters by 30 meters (about 100 meters). feet by 100 feet). More than 1,100 GLAD alerts appeared between August 1 and September 26 in the proposed conservation area, according to Global Forest Watch, with the greatest concentration occurring in the northern part most recently targeted for logging.

More generally, the area within the proposed boundaries suffered a significant loss of its intact forest landscapes between 2000 and 2013. One of the objectives of the publication of the conservation area was to preserve the still significant areas of intact forest. , as well as the habitat it provides. for tree kangaroos and the countless number of other species that call them home.

Found only on the island of New Guinea, which PNG shares with Indonesia, and in the far north of the tropics of Australia, the number of tree kangaroos has been hit hard by the dual threat of hunting and habitat loss, mainly due to logging and clearing of forests for agriculture. Australian zoologist Tim Flannery says he thought he was chronicling the species’ last days on earth even as he first described them for science in the 1980s.

But the inhabitants of the Torricelli, who once hunted tree kangaroos, are today among their most important defenders. Thomas and several local TCA staff told Mongabay that tree kangaroos are symbols of their culture, and they said many community members see future access to clean water, wood and medicine. provided by the forest as being closely linked to the preservation of the tree. kangaroo habitat.

A weimang, on the left, and a tenkile.  Images courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.
A weimang, on the left, and a tenkile. Images courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

Since the early 2000s, the TCA has worked with around 50 communities to preserve the area. At the same time, the organization has also invested in improving the lives of the people of Torricellis. TCA has brought water reservoirs and solar power to villages, and Thomas says fish farming and rabbit rearing now provide the protein in residents’ diets that would otherwise be from animals they could. hunt in the forest.

There are signs that the number of tree kangaroos around these communities is increasing. And the most recent TCA proposal for the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area, submitted to the national government in 2019, included supporting signatures from male and female leaders from the 50 communities where TCA works.

So when teams started building a road that threatened to pierce the core of the proposed conservation in May 2021, communities backed off. They said they had not been consulted about its construction, and expressed concerns about its potential to open up new areas to destructive logging.

The purpose of the road is still unclear. Information gathered by the communities suggests that it would be 53 kilometers (33 miles) long, connecting the mountains to the coast. Construction came to a halt in June to allow government officials to meet with members of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance. Thomas said the government of Papua New Guinea insists that it – and not outside logging companies from countries like Malaysia and China that are active in PNG’s timber sector – is funding the construction. But for him, it is clear that access to the remaining high-value tropical hardwoods is the driving force behind the project. Police, he said, were dispatched to the area to protect road crews.

“I’ve never seen this tactic with journaling,” Thomas added.

Proposed area of ​​the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area showing recent losses in intact forest landscapes and tree kangaroo habitat.  Image by Morgan Erickson-Davis.
The proposed area of ​​the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area shows recent losses of intact forest landscapes and tree kangaroo habitat. Image by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

Meanwhile, progress towards official recognition of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area has stalled. A former environment minister has spoken out in favor of officially releasing the area in 2019. But his replacement has been silent on the matter, even as the road appears destined to continue and parts of the forest fall. , as evidenced by recent GLAD alerts and satellite images.

Thomas knows that even the government’s designation of the conservation area will not protect it from logging and other potentially destructive incursions. He highlighted the 4-year-old Managlas Conservation Area in Oro province, where logging remains a problem.

“Ultimately the area is protected by the people,” Thomas said, “[and] that the area is classified by the PNG government will not make much difference if there are resources to be extracted.

Editor’s Note: This story was fueled by Places to watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch uses a combination of near real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW supports data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains full editorial independence over stories reported using this data.

Banner image of the forests of the Torricelli Mountain Range courtesy of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

John canon is a writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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