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Honour among thieves

On the trail of PNG’s Tenkile, rarer than the Great Panda

EUAN RITCHIE | The Conversation

TenkileMUCH OF MY TIME as an ecology lecturer has been spent teaching students about the wonders of this planet’s biodiversity, but also, regrettably, how much of this biodiversity is under severe threat. Hundreds, if not thousands, of species become extinct each year.

With such a disastrous outlook for the species with which we share Earth, it’s easy to get disheartened about where we’re headed. More personally, I often question whether my own fields of ecology and conservation biology are really enough to help stem the extinction tide.

But I’ve embarked on a journey to Papua New Guinea’s remote Torricelli Mountains - part of a crowd-funded project, Discovering Papua New Guinea’s Mountain Mammals, that is a partnership between myself at Deakin University and Jim and Jean Thomas of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

Together, as part of conservation efforts in the region, we’re counting and identifying mammals including some very special species of tree kangaroo.

The Tenkile (pronounced ten-kee-lay) is one of 14 tree kangaroo species found in the tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea and Australia.

In 2001 there were only 100 Tenkile left in the Torricelli Mountains of PNG. To put that in perspective, there are thought to be around 1,600 Giant Pandas in the world today.

That made the Tenkile one of the world’s most endangered animals. The reason they’re still with us today is largely thanks to the work of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance.

The alliance sets itself apart from many others by focusing on causes rather than symptoms of extinction.

The Tenkile had become endangered due to over-hunting so, rather than ignore the needs of local people, the alliance places a strong emphasis on these communities who share the region with the Tenkile.

The reason for the bounce back of Tenkiles is a switch from hunting to more sustainable and reliable sources of protein, including farmed rabbits and chickens.

Along with improved education about the local community’s wildlife, and health and living conditions, there has been a real reversal in the once dire trajectory of the region’s wildlife. Thanks to these actions there are now more than double the number of Tenkile there were in 2001.

The Tenkile Conservation Alliance has a community-based approach to conservation

Professor Tim Flannery, himself no stranger to the wilds of PNG, wrote: “A decade on, the Tenkile Conservation Alliance is the most successful conservation organisation in Melanesia … and no other organisation I know of in a developing country has had anything like this degree of success.”

Our trip took us to the northwestern Torricelli Mountains near the Waliapilik area in Sanduan Province. Over two weeks we placed 35 remote, motion-sensing cameras along lines at a gradient ranging from 500 to 1,500 metres above sea level. These will help us determine a number of things, including whether tree kangaroo species are in the region, how many individuals of each species there are, what habitats are most important for each species and whether species are found only at specific elevations and in particular climates, and how susceptible species could be to the impacts of global climate change.

When we retrieve our cameras in a few months’ time it’s going to be exciting to see what we find, and it’s almost guaranteed that there will be many firsts for science. Because camera traps detect and record anything that moves past them, we’ll collect valuable data on a large range of species.


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