Tree kangaroos are found only in the rainforests of Australia, West Papua, and Papua New Guinea. Looking like a cross between a kangaroo and a lemur, they are marsupials that have adapted to life in the trees, with short hind legs and stronger forelimbs for climbing. Weighing up to 16 kilograms, they are elusive, and often invisible, moving quickly high in the forest canopy which is often shrouded in cloud.
Despite this, in Papua New Guinea they have almost been hunted to extinction.
“I thought everything was in order. I exploited my natural resources just as my father did, and his father before him. I paid little attention to what was actually left in the forest,” says Danny James.
Tree kangaroos are a flagship species — a high profile, ‘charismatic’ animal that acts as an ambassador for others that share its environment.
Many of the 14 tree kangaroo species live in some of the last undisturbed rainforest in the world in Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinea has nearly 1,000 tribal groups who speak more than 850 languages. The country is estimated to have between five to ten percent of the world’s flora and fauna.
More than 90 percent of the land is controlled by customary landowners.
The Yopno-Uruwa-Som region on the rugged Huon Peninsula is dotted with 50 remote villages, home to 15,000 people who collectively own 1,600km2.
They live a primarily subsistence life. Still, in recent decades they noticed important resources were becoming scarce.
“Our hunters had to travel longer distances to find animals in the forest. Sometimes we had to hunt in areas belonging to other clans without their consent because we could not find enough in our traditional land to feed our families,” says Matthew Tombe.
In 1996 the landowners met Dr Lisa Dabek, a conservation biologist studying the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo, known to locals as the ‘ghost of the forest’ because it’s so hard to find. They teamed up and the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) was born.
They had an ambitious goal: to collect land pledges from clans and create the country’s first nationally recognized nature reserve.
The Yopno-Uruwa-Som Conservation Area was established in 2009 with more than 78,000 hectares of land.
Now the forests and ecosystem are healthy, and the ‘ghost of the forest’ and other key species are thriving.
“I am seeing a huge change. I am seeing animals just on the edges of the villages, the gardens, and even within village boundaries. More and more Yopno-Uruwa-Som villages are pledging areas of their customary land for conservation so that they can contribute and benefit,” says Matthew Tombe, Isan Village.
In the subsequent decade, the TKCP and the Yopno-Uruwa-Som Conservation Area have become a national model for conservation within the unique context of PNG’s customary land tenure system.
With funding from the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Programme and with UNDP support, TKCP is building on this success with the next generation. The benefits have spread. Local livelihoods have improved — teams of local Conservation Area rangers monitor the protected areas every month — and there are new opportunities for education and health.
“I can see young people in Yopno-Uruwa-Som are beginning to realize their role in the community as future leaders,” says Gibson Gala, TKCP Education & Leadership Coordinator.
Tenkile Conservation Alliance
In the southern foothills of the Torricelli Mountains in Sandaun Province, the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) was formed to save the critically endangered Tenkile tree kangaroo. In 2001, it was on the brink of extinction, with an estimated population of just 100.
Three years later, they made a happy discovery. The Weimang tree kangaroo, long thought extinct, was found alive. By turning hunters into conservationists and signing on many villages to establish the proposed Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area, both species, though still critically endangered, are now protected.
Equipped with GPS units, TCA staff map the boundaries of the proposed conservation area. All 50 villages have maps of their land delineating no-go zones, or Special Management Areas, as well as sites for cash crops, gardens, and villages. Satellite imagery helps designate and expand protected areas so that the needs of both ecosystems and communities are met.
The Tenkile are now being seen in areas where they haven’t been for a while. To the delight of locals, two have been spotted this year near human settlements for the first time in seven decades. Local leaders see it as a very good sign.
“It’s incredible that this is now starting to happen. This is just great and has made a tremendous difference to the attitudes of all our stakeholders. They believe in conservation,” says Jim Thomas, CEO of TCA.