Saving the Tree Kangaroo in Papua New Guinea – Tales from the Torricelli Mountains


Jim Thomas / TCA
All tree kangaroo species in New Guinea are threatened by human hunting, logging and land-clearing for oil palms. The Scott’s tree kangaroo (Tenkile) and Golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Weimang—shown) are the most threatened of all tree kangaroos.

My passion for tree kangaroo conservation began in 1996 when I attended a three-week field trip to the far north of Queensland, Australia, with researchers from both Monash and Melbourne Universities. The field trip took place among the homes of the two Australian species of tree kangaroos: the Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi) and the Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus bennettianus). I became interested in tree kangaroos and their conservation and began discussions with mammalologists about possible field trips to New Guinea. I had been inspired by Professor Tim Flannery and Mr. Roger Martin, who had both worked on the Tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae), a species of tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea. Tim Flannery had given the first scientific descriptions of the Tenkile and Weimang, or Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus), which were both critically endangered.

The Background of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA)

The TCA was formed as a result of a tree kangaroo workshop that was held in Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1998. Papua New Guinea (PNG), which occupies the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, is an independent country that became free of Australian rule in 1975. Culturally diverse, PNG, which had a population of seven million in 2012, has over 800 languages. Less than 20% of the population live in the urban areas, and unemployment is very high, up to 90%. Most income in the rural areas comes from cash crops such as cocoa, coffee, and vanilla. PNG is also one of the world’s least explored countries, with many undiscovered plant and animal species. In fact, the Tenkile, the focus of this journey, was only described by Professor Tim Flannery in 1992. A year later, he also described the Weimang.

PNG is home to many unique species, including birds of paradise, the world’s smallest parrot (the Buff-faced Pygmy Parrot – Micropsitta pusio), the world’s largest pigeon (the Victorian Crowned Pigeon – Goura scheepmakeri), the world’s longest lizard (the Salvador, or Tree Crocodile, monitor – Varanus salvadori) and the world’s largest butterfly (the Queen Alexandra Butterfly – Orithoptera alexandrae). Unfortunately the unique biodiversity of PNG is under threat from logging, oil palm plantations, and mining. With the human population rising rapidly, and the increasing use of the ‘slash and burn’ agricultural technique, more and more pressure is being placed on the natural environment, including on the native tree kangaroo populations.

The workshop in 1998 discussed the status of all tree kangaroos in New Guinea (Papua New Guinea and West Papua), and concluded that the Tenkile was the most endangered. Professor Tim Flannery discovered when he was in New Guinea that the Tenkile had been hunted to the brink of extinction and its range was now only a fraction of what it used to be. At the time the Tenkile was thought to number only about 100 individuals, making it one of the most critically endangered animals on the planet. The state of the Weimang was also discussed at this workshop.
There are 14 species of tree kangaroos – two found in Australia and 12 in New Guinea. They are mostly wallaby size and range from being one colour, such as the black Tenkile, to burgundy, white and yellow, such as the Weimang. They climb tree well and are the only types of kangaroos that walk biped ally. All species in New Guinea are threatened from human hunting, logging and oil palm. The Torricelli Mountain Range is the only place where three species of tree kangaroo co-exist. The Tenkile and Weimang are the most threatened of all tree kangaroos.

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Jim Thomas / TCA
Golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Weimang).

2003: Work begins in Papua New Guinea

On January 26 2003, my wife, Jean, and I first arrived at Port Moresby in PNG. I was appointed director of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance, or the TCA, and Jean, the education director. While employed for the TCA, Jean and I were also enrolled in the Australian Volunteer International (AVI) Program, for a two-year period initially. The villagers were really friendly, and I quickly learned that this smile of mine went a long way, taking the edge off when communicating.

We left Port Moresby for Wewak two weeks later. We didn’t know it at the time, but Wewak was to become our second base after Lumi. Wewak has a population of approximately 50,000 and has all the essentials needed to run an NGO like TCA: banks, shops, a post office, accommodations, and an airport.

In Lumi, we arrived at a bush material house with an open fire for cooking and a pit toilet. We had no water tank, so we washed using a ladle and bucket. It took us approximately four months to become fluent in Melanesian Pidgin (or Pidgin English), the most commonly spoken language in PNG. We felt it best to visit every village that had Tenkile on their land and to investigate whether the Weimang still existed. At that point I was unsure whether the Weimang was extinct or not.

2004: Creating Change from the Ground Up

When talking to villagers about the wildlife and about their traditions, culture, and attitudes, my conclusions were that in these regions of PNG, there was little optimism and hope. Very few government services had reached the people in these remote areas. Because of the lack of protein in their diet, when the villagers see an animal, they kill it and eat it. The number of animals in the wild has reduced dramatically, largely due to the human population tripling over the past 50 years. Many recorded species are no longer present. For instance, the Victoria Crowned Pigeon, the world’s largest, was no longer found anywhere within the 18 Tenkile villages. Many people remembered seeing this bird when they were younger, but it had been gone for more than 20 years. Although the Tenkile was an important icon in traditional ancestral stories, including ones telling of how some native people had evolved from the animal, there was no longer any empathy for it. At this point, it was seen as nothing more than a food source. In general, a lot of the culture had been lost due to the influence of the West and the presence of missions since the 1950s.

During the surveys of 2004, there were no sightings of the Tenkile. However there were no reports of Tenkile being killed either – a good sign.

I believe that when we erected water tanks in the villages, we began to see small behaviour and attitude changes amongst the people. We were now responsible for something substantial in the lives of many. People started to get behind the program, and there was a belief in the TCA. We had started to prove ourselves to the people. By then, we had been here for two years, which was longer than most expatriates had ever stayed on the ground in that remote area. For the first time we were getting regular heartfelt smiles and handshakes. This is what genuine conservation in a developing country is all about – a bottom-up approach based at the centre of the cause of the problem. In this case, it was the Tenkile, or Scott’s Tree Kangaroo, that was critically endangered and we were addressing this problem at the centre of its decline. It was the villagers and landowners of the Tenkile homeland that had hunted this animal to the brink of extinction. But now I felt that a small change had occurred, and I was now more determined than ever to save this animal.

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Jim Thomas / TCA
In 2006, TCA began developing conservation areas by working with the villagers to establish no-go zones within their land so that the Tenkile and Weimang could come back from the brink of extinction.

It was during a drama program at the last Tenkile village that people from two neighbouring villages visited us. They said they were from an area that had Weimang, or the Golden-mantled Tree Kangaroo, and they had brought a live specimen with them. I now realized that the Weimang existed in other areas.

2005: Connecting with Local Communities

I learnt that the Tenkile is crepuscular, or mostly active at twilight, spends most of its active time on the ground, and uses regular tracks. To sleep, the Tenkile climbs high in the canopy layer of the trees, often snuggling into epiphytes. The male has a distinctive smell unique to the Tenkile, which was one reason why the villagers were able to find the animal with their hunting dogs.

That year, Jean and I completed most of the drama programs for the Tenkile villages. Many villagers wrote songs about the TCA and us. We approached the radio station in Vanimo to see if we could record our radio programs and have them aired weekly, and began recording programs on computer. Each week we covered a different topic, including the rainforests, mammals, birds, reptiles, logging, mining, and so on. We also wanted to connect with school children, the next generation of landowners and decision makers. We liked the idea of presenting the radio program at the village level, as well. We introduced animal characters and purchased puppets and stuffed toys. I created the voices for all three characters, and Jean and I narrated the program.

Around then, I obtained funding to patrol the Weimang area to determine the distribution of its species. I learned that the Nunsi village had a young Weimang in captivity, so I needed to get there as soon as possible in case the animal died. I started my patrol in Weigint village and ended up staying at 12 different villages before I arrived at my destination. Over the course of this journey, I learned that there were at least 18 villages that had Weimang on their land. At Nunsi village I was given a young male Weimang. What a magnificent animal! He weighed 1.75kg and would have still been with his mother had he not been taken from the wild. I knew by now that I had to extend the TCA program and double the workload to include at least another 18 villages, which would mean that most of the Torricelli Mountain Range would be under the TCA program.

2006 & 2007: Creating Conservation Areas

At this point, we began thinking of formulating a Conservation Area with the villages in the program, which now numbered 39. Villagers needed to establish no-go zones within their land so that the Tenkile and Weimang could come back from the brink of extinction. By now, TCA had 18 Tenkile villages and 21 Weimang villages. We had completed a census for each village and the population was approximately 10,000 people. The estimated distribution for the Tenkile was 150 square kilometres and for the Weimang was 350 square kilometres. The total area for a Conservation Area of the Torricelli Mountain Range would therefore be 500 square kilometres, or 100,000 hectares. I began discussions with all the villagers during our patrols to the villages and also during meetings at the TCA Base in Lumi. Most of the villagers were receptive, though many people had the misconception that they would be handing over their land to TCA. Since Conservations Areas were a new concept, I knew it would take considerable effort, time and funding to persuade the villagers and complete the project. It was going to be a huge task, but one that was totally necessary for long-term conservation of the Torricelli Mountain Range.

We won a large grant application from the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Program (RWSSP)/European Union (EU) for water tanks for benefit of the Tenkile villages. TCA was able to deliver sixty 1000-gallon water tanks as well as tin roofing, gutters, downpipes, and other accessories, which was our largest grant success to date, and would enable us to make a real difference to the lives of the village people.

During Research at Bibane, one of our seven sites, a team spotted three Tenkile in a tree. The smallest was caught and brought to TCA Base-Lumi. This was a milestone for TCA because it was the first time I had seen the village people show empathy for Tenkile. Tolgete villagers had previously told us that they didn’t think that Tenkile existed on their land. The animal, a young female weighing 9.7kg, was named Suna by the villagers. I held her in captivity for six weeks. During that time, I took measurements, collected scats, and determined her defecation rate. When Suna was released back within her territory, she had maintained her body weight and had not succumbed to any injuries.

Shortly after representatives from two other villages came to me and relayed other stories of the Tenkile. The villages of Yomoum, which had not had a sighting of the Tenkile for more than 20 years, reported seeing two of them on their land. It was a proud moment indeed for these people; they remarked that they were now true owners of the Tenkile. Some people from the village of Mupun reported seeing a Tenkile close by, where one had never been sighted before. These sightings of the Tenkile were a true indication that the species was coming back. One village chief said that when I first came he did not like me and did not believe anything I said, but after seeing a Tenkile close to his village with his own eyes, he had come to believe in the program and have respect for me.

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Jim Thomas / TCA
Scott’s tree kangaroo (Tenkile).

2008: Making Progress

I received information in Wewak that a village called Asier, which is near Sibilanga, had caught a Weimang and wanted to show it to me. The male Weimang I had received in 2005 was doing well and fully mature. My hope was that this one would be a female, that I would be able to acquire it, and that it had not been not taken from its mother so early that it would need to be bottle-fed. I drove to Sibilanga, walked to Asier village and saw the young Weimang. It was indeed a female! I successfully negotiated with the villagers to exchange food for the animal, which I named Asier, after its hometown. I now had a pair of Weimang at TCA Base-Lumi, which were the only captive Weimangs in the world.

In addition, the work with the Conservation Area was progressing well. All the Tenkile villages had produced sketch maps of their lands and allocated sections as Conservation Areas. With each village having its own protected area, I hoped that the entire Conservation Area, when complete, would look like a jigsaw puzzle, with all the pieces fitting nicely together. The next step was to record the village Conservation Area points with a Global Positioning System (GPS). I had formed a strong partnership with WWF-PNG and acquired one of their staff members to conduct GPS trainings for our officers. Two one-week courses were held; after our staff members were capable of operating the system, TCA began GPS mapping of the Conservation Area.

2009 & 2010: World Environment Day

Every year we would try to do something for World Environment Day on June 5th, and that year was the opening of our training centre. I invited our sponsors, the village representatives, politicians, and the media. Our training centre was to be the centrepiece for Lumi. Our staff were all very proud of TCA’s achievements. The satellite Internet system was up and running, which immediately made a world of difference to our operations. We could not use Skype and keep up to date with world events. It was like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

The World Environment Day celebrations at TCA Base-Lumi had always been huge events. There were at least 200 invited guests, including six international attendees, the governor of Sandaun Province, and many other politicians, all our village representatives, and my full-time staff. There were many speeches, and we arranged for Professor Tim Flannery, who had made the first scientific description of the Weimang, to come in on Skype. It was a touching moment when I sat down the elderly Caspar Wakien in front of the camera to talk to Tim Flannery. Tim, who had worked closely with Caspar during his time in PNG from 1989 to1992, had had no idea Caspar was still alive, and the conversation brought tears to his eyes. Tim later reinforced his support for TCA, stating that it was the best conservation program he knows of in New Guinea, and that he was overwhelmed that the Tenkile and Weimang have come back from the brink of extinction.

During this time, our grant application for phase two of the RWSSP/EU was approved, which meant that the TCA would receive its largest assistance to date. These funds were eventually used to purchase 243 one-thousand-gallon water tanks and accessories for the 40 villages in our program. TCA, which by that point covered 42 villages within three districts and two provinces in PNG, had become a substantial conservation NGO.

Upon returning to the TCA Base-Lumi, I received great news: the Weimangs had bred! Our female Weimang, Asier, was barely two years of age, yet she already had a baby in her pouch. This was the first time ever that Weimangs in captivity had bred.

2011 to 2013: The Work Continues

To date, our efforts in trying to save two critically endangered species in Papua New Guinea have been unparalleled successes. The Tenkile have more than doubled in number, and the Weimang is no longer being hunted. Projects to provide alternative dietary protein sources have been successfully implemented. Many villages are now aiming to increase the size of their Conservation Areas. Some villages began imposing penalties on people who break the local laws of their Conservation Areas. Since my arrival, there have been many behaviour changes among the villagers, who now have a strong empathy towards the local wildlife. Many species are now returning to the Torricelli Mountain Range. For example, 13 Tenkile villages have reported sightings of the Victoria Crowned Pigeon. By contrast, in 2003, there were none. TCA is now recognised as a major NGO and a main employer in Sandaun Province, PNG. The organisation has 50 villages, with hundreds more expressing an interest in joining. TCA is now recognised internationally as a significant conservation entity, and Jean and I are recognised as its founders.

In addition, TCA has established a partnership with Deakin University in Australia, and established a station with it. In addition, TCA and its staff members have won several awards:
*Jean Thomas – Future for Nature Award, 2010
*Mathew Akon – Whitley Fund for Nature Award, 2010
*Jim Thomas – Distinguished Alumni Award, LaTrobe University, 2012
*Jim & Jean Thomas – Australian Geographic, Conservationists of the Year, 2013

TCA is highlighted in an article by Tim Flannery in Quarterly Essay 2012.

For more information please visit www.tenkile.com and www.intothejungle.org