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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 October 2007, 05:32 GMT 06:32 UK
Papua New Guinea's riches 'at risk'
By Georgina Kenyon

Eagle (Image: Jamie Williams)
Environmentalists fear rare species will suffer if habitats are lost
Conservation groups are calling on the international community to protect Papua New Guinea (PNG) against mining, over-fishing and logging.

Regions of PNG contain some of the last remaining pristine and untouched ecosystems in the world.

"If Papua New Guinea is not protected, it's going to be a tragedy not just for local people but a tragedy for the rest of the world," said Professor Jared Diamond, environmentalist and professor of geography at UCLA, Los Angeles, US.

He is calling for international governments and scientists to understand the importance of the nation's habitat, especially for the survival of the world's bird species.

Millions of birds from Europe, Australia and across Asia use it as an important annual migratory stop-off and nesting place.

"In many parts of the world, when you practise conservation biology, you are trying to save the last scraps of a large wrecked ecosystem.

"In PNG, there are still extensively intact ecosystems," Professor Diamond said.

"So if we do conserve habitats, we're not saving the last scraps, we're saving large intact ecosystems."

'Precious landscape'

But in one fillip for conservation - largely driven by the environmental group WWF - the Indonesian and PNG governments have established a series of new conservation zones.

Map of Papua New Guinea

They are sited in a cross-border region in the Transfly area between the two countries. The zones are managed by local landowners, who are mainly tribespeople.

Land is communally owned and these conservation zones are called Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs). Rules are set out by the WMA council as to what laws there are for hunting, fishing and poaching in the area.

The WMAs are designed to promote sustainable resource-use and to act as a kind of business for the community, perhaps to make some money through ventures such as eco-tourism - but they are not national parks.

Tribespeople (Image: Jamie Williams)
Local communities are involved in the zones' management
However, "far better management by both countries is needed to control roads, agriculture and other threats, to allow the WMAs to function," said David Melick, WWF's Transfly Eco-region co-ordinator.

The Transfly is a huge area of savannah, forests and wetlands that are home to millions of birds, marsupials, insects and plants. The WMAs will help to protect almost two million hectares of the precious landscape.

"In this remote corner of the world, we are engaging with communities in villages and officials in planning offices to design a long-lasting conservation blueprint for the Transfly," said WWF International's executive director of conservation, Dr Guillermo Castilleja.

"This is a vision that will support the area's unique landscapes, wildlife and traditional ways of life."

Balancing act

The creation of the WMAs reflects conservation best practice in the 21st Century, namely trying to develop realistic policies that help local communities while also saving habitats and species.

Economic development which is not properly planned is a threat to resource conservation
Enoch Ontiri, WWF Papua New Guinea
There are over 60 cultural groups in the Transfly whose lives, customs, languages and knowledge are linked inextricably with the landscape.

Because the region is one of the poorest in the world, where the average annual income is estimate to be 15 ($30), threats from international mining and logging companies are strong, because local people want to work for money.

In essence, the WMAs can only be effective in preserving the environment if the people want them, they are well managed and if the governments continue to back the concept.

Lake in Papua New Guinea (Image: Jamie Williams)
The unspoiled habitats support many unique species
"Threats to conservation include the imminent development of a highway through the region from Indonesia into PNG. There are also the problems of invasive species, poaching between zones and management disputes," Dr Melick explained.

"One more looming issue is climate change, as drying of this area could change the fires regime in which natural and man-made fires preserve the current savannah habitat. Rising water levels could obviously inundate vast areas."

Enoch Ontiri, WWF's Transfly manager, said the main threats came from "haphazard or indiscriminate mining and logging".

The most rare monsoon forests of the TransFly have been tendered for logging, which will lead to loss of the rare fauna.

To be discovered

"Economic development which is not properly planned is a threat to resource conservation," Mr Ontiri added.

But such issues were forgotten, at least temporarily, as hundreds of local tribal groups from surrounding villages celebrated the announcement of the protected areas in a traditional ceremony.

Local community leaders, members of various tribes, politicians and WWF representatives took part.

Environmentalists hope the WMAs will help preserve the unique nature of PNG because two-thirds of the species are found nowhere else on the planet.

The country is probably best known for its exotic birds, such as the birds of paradise and bower birds, which make the most complex nest structures.

The world's first known poisonous bird, the pitohuis, was discovered 10 years ago in Papua New Guinea. The country is also known for the greater melampitta, the only know bird species that roots underground.

There are also tree kangaroos and the Queen Alexandra's birdwing, a butterfly that is as big as a bird, with a wingspan of 28cm.

Scientists also believe there are still many mammal and frog species yet to be discovered in the region.

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Country profile: Papua New Guinea
14 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

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