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PNG’s unique wildlife faces gloomy future

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Papua New Guinea has the world’s third-largest rainforest, but increasing numbers of its unique and beautiful species of wildlife are being caught and sold.

The animals are often sold for traditional reasons, for personal consumption or for use in ceremonial costumes, reports ABC’s Eric Tlozek.

Most Papua New Guineans do not see any problems with this, but conservation groups said it was starting to put many of the country’s iconic species at risk.

The highlands city of Goroka is buzzing with people from all over the region who have come to show off their traditional dances and costumes at the annual Goroka Show. The famous event attracts so-called “sing-sing” groups who compete to have the best performances and best traditional dress.

It also attracts people like Saifa Kaupa, who is selling a dead bird of paradise for about $40.

“I shot seven down. I had enough of my children getting them so I will sell three, and four I cooked,” he said.

Mr Kaupa is from a rural part of the highlands and has come to Goroka to sell the bird to people who will use its feathers in their traditional costumes.

“It’s going to be the Goroka Show soon and people will buy it for traditional costumes and sing-sings,” he said.

The bird of paradise is the national emblem of PNG and it is illegal to sell them, although the law dates back to Australian colonial times and does not account for traditional practice.

There is plenty of demand and Mr Kaupa soon sells the bird to a young woman, Stephanie Hero.

“When we go to the dance we put the bird’s feathers on our head and some others, like parrot [feathers],” she said.

“The parrot’s feathers go first, but the main part of that headdress is the bird of paradise.”

The killing and trading of wildlife for costumes is a longstanding practice in PNG, but it is particularly notable around the time of cultural shows.


Animals seen as ‘spare parts’

Nathan Whitmore, a scientific support officer with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Goroka, said many animals get brought in as “spare parts” for the cultural shows.

“Birds of paradise, vulturine parrots and a lot of tree kangaroos,” he said.

“So these are replacement parts for the feathers and the pelts which get used in their traditional attire.”
Birds are sold dead, while mammals like the tree kangaroo and the possum-like cuscus are sold alive.

“The mammals have a dual purpose, they are brought in both for their pelts and for their meat,” Mr Whitmore said.

“And so most people in PNG don’t have access to electricity, and even more people don’t have access to any type of refrigeration or freezing.

“So the animals have to be brought in live in order to have any value as meat.”

PNG’s cultural practices have remained important as the country modernises, but that has been putting more pressure on its wildlife as the population grows.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has been studying the use of vulturine parrot feathers in traditional headdresses in Simbu Province, also in the highlands.

Mr Whitmore said his colleague found there were more dead parrots in Simbu costumes than live ones in the wild.

“So our kind of strategy has been to recognise that the dead vulturine parrot resource is much bigger than the live vulturine parrot resource,” he said.

Mr Whitmore and his colleague, researcher Grace Nugi, assessed the number of headdresses containing vulturine parrot feathers, and how many parrots would be needed to make one headdress.

She found that each headdress contained feathers from an average eight parrots, and that roughly 50,000 people in the province had this type of headdress, meaning the provincial costumes held the feathers of about 400,000 dead parrots.

Mr Whitmore said there are only estimated to be 44,000 vulturine parrots remaining in the wild, so the research found there were more dead parrots in Simbu costumes than live ones in the forest.

“Rather than try to spend our time as a conservation organisation trying to go to these remote areas, we’ve focused on trying to conserve the dead parrots by extending the life-span of the headdresses,” he said.

The society is now giving preservation kits to people in Simbu to help them protect their costumes from mice and insects and reduce the demand for new animals.