Shrouded in mist and covered by dense canopy, the hot, steamy depths of Papua New Guinea’s remote western interior can offer an unforgiving domain. Despite this, concealed in the dark and humid undergrowth, a pioneering biological survey along the spectacular Hindenburg Wall – possibly one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth – has revealed dozens of plant and animal varieties new to science. Led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and sponsored by the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Programme, this region's impressive and largely unknown geological formations provide a setting for one of the greatest assemblages of tropical species. Such news is exciting for scientists and conservationists: it is hoped that this region will gain a greater conservation status and lead to the development of new environmental-protection policies. Yet these discoveries are also important for the wider public, who can seek comfort in this age of environmental uncertainty with the knowledge that areas of our world still thrive in conditions that are not – for now at least – subject to the pressures placed by humankind.
Rivers carving deep gullies in the productive valleys of the Papua New Guinea Highlands
Despite appearing to comprise the eastern most landmass of the Indonesian archipelago, the island of New Guinea (of which Papua New Guinea makes up the eastern half; the western portion was controversially incorporated with Indonesia in the 1960s) has no geological association with its Asian neighbour. Until around 18,000 years ago, when sea levels rose following the end of the last Ice Age, New Guinea was joined to northern Australia, while Sumatra, Borneo and Java formed part of mainland Southeast Asia (the rise in sea level, due to receding ice sheets in the late Pleistocene epoch, resulted in the formation of the Torres Strait, which now separates New Guinea from Queensland). These geographical connections with Oceania are also reflected by New Guinea’s animal and human inhabitants.
Although the seeds from many plant species dispersed eastwards from Indonesia, the native mammalian fauna of New Guinea is quite distinct. There are no monkeys or other Eurasian mammals except bats and a number of rodent species; rather, echidnas (insect-eating, egg-laying mammals that are found only in New Guinea and Australia) and marsupials, including wallabies, tree-kangaroos and the possum-like cuscus, can be found on the grasslands or in the canopy, respectively. The region's bird life, which comprises some 730 recorded species, including the famed birds-of-paradise, the males of which exhibit elaborate courtship displays with flamboyant plumage and colourful tail quills, as well as cockatoos, bowerbirds and large, flightless cassowaries, are also largely restricted to Austro-Papuan distributions. Anthropologically, New Guinea is inhabited by the Melanesians; a race of people that also colonised the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Fiji. Thus, with dark skin pigmentations, tightly coiled hair and muscular builds, New Guineas are related to other South Pacific peoples.
The male Raggiana bird-of-paradise is the national symbol of Papua New Guinea
In 2011, I travelled by land and sea across Indonesia to New Guinea, before continuing on to the Solomon Islands: a fantastic journey that involved three months in Papua New Guinea. Apart from the fascinating wildlife and cultures, and the great hospitality of the local people, what struck me most were the region's varied landscapes. Often considered to be a land cloaked in dense tropical rainforest, tectonic actions have compressed the world's second largest island, resulting in a terrain that is considerably mountainous. Although New Guinea sits just below the equator, the rugged spine that runs across the length of the region is – in places – adorned with snow-capped mountains, up to 16,000 feet high, which are carved and sculpted by glaciers. Flanking this mountainous terrain are deep, jungle-clad valleys, which are frequently inhabited by tribal communities.
Modern New Guineans have a heritage that is heavily associated with clan-based sustainable farming: a practice that is thought to have arisen on the island independent from foreign influences, some 7,000 years ago, making it one of the world’s oldest sites of agriculture (bananas, sugar cane and yams, incidentally, were all first domesticated in New Guinea). Accordingly, most New Guineans had little need to trade or interact with clans living in adjacent valleys because they produced all their own food and sustainably managed their environment. Living in relative isolation, therefore, not only led to frequent territorial disputes when rival clans encountered each other (land ownership is of immense importance and tribal warfare between villages over land was – and often still is – commonplace), but also the development of different languages. Today, over 1,100 living languages are spoken in New Guinea, and ethnographers often consider the island to be the most ethnically diverse region on the planet. Such geological upheavals that allowed for the great biological and anthropological variety of New Guinea also gave rise to the Hindenburg Wall formations; a setting that has provided ecologists with great excitement.
Ornamented with bird-of-paradise and cassowary feathers, men from the Huli tribe in the Western Highlands perform a ceremonial sing sing
Exciting New Discoveries
Encompassing a 50 kilometre stretch of limestone escarpment, the Hindenburg Wall is part of the Star Mountain range in south-western Papua New Guinea. This area is largely unknown to science, mostly due to its remote location, regular earthquakes, high annual rainfall of more than 10,000 millimetres per year, and frequent landslides. After a four week expedition in this secluded yet stunning region, a team of local and international research biologists observed more than 80 new plant and animal species. The survey used traditional ecological fieldwork techniques as well as camera-traps for observing mammals, including large rat-like rodents, some of which appeared to be the size of a small dog. As well as mammals, a number of new butterflies and other insects were recorded, together with undescribed frog species, and an assortment of floral specimens, including carnivorous plants, rhododendrons, and orchids. One plant belonged to the Genus Plectranthus: more commonly known as spur-flowers, these organisms are often grown by indigenous societies for their edible leaves and roots, as well as for their medicinal properties and visual beauty as ornamental specimens.
These new findings have many uses for biologists and for Papua New Guinean conservation. This includes: assessing the conservation status of the region; providing valuable data for the government to assist with environmental policy and planning; evaluating the ecological resources of Papua New Guinea; presenting baselines for monitoring endangered species; and identifying possibilities for ecotourism. After just four weeks of surveying, the outcomes also indicate a need for further studies to provide a greater understanding of the complex ecological communities that such an environment supports, and the medicinal properties that may derive from the newly described plant species.
Undoubtedly, this study reveals the great splendour of the natural world, which still exists relatively unharmed from the presence of humans in one our planet's last great wildernesses: surely a region that should be protected and cherished for future generations.