Papua New Guinea - A habitat for the tree kangaroo

Tree kangaroo sitting on a branch
Timmy Sowang surrounded by a group of people

Tree kangaroo in the YUS conservation area. Picture: Mark Ziembicki Timmy Sowang at work for YUS Conservation Organization. Picture: Mikal Nolan

High in Papua New Guinea's cloud forests lives the Matschie's tree kangaroo. Despite the fact that this fascinating animal, which occurs exclusively in the Huon Peninsula, has hardly any natural predators, its numbers are now threatened. 'Tree kangaroos have been hunted for centuries for their pelts and their meat,' explains Timmy Sowang, President of the local YUS Conservation Organization. 'And now, due to the continuously growing population and the felling of many trees in the forest areas, their habitat is shrinking more and more.'

Timmy Sowang knows his way around the forests on the Huon Peninsula's northern coast. He is from Gomdan, a small village at the heart of the tropical forest with no road connections, which can only be reached on foot or in a small plane. He was among the first to call for the creation of a protected area in the region. That call was successful, for in 2009 Papua New Guinea established YUS as its first national conservation area.

Indigenous forest conservation area, YUS

The abbreviation YUS refers to the names of three rivers, the Yupno, Uruwa and Som, whose watersheds correspond with the boundaries of the conservation area. YUS encompasses 76,000 hectares of tropical forest that are rich in species and ecosystems; it stretches from the coast up to the Saruwaged Mountains in the interior, up to an altitude of over 4,000 metres. To gain official recognition for a protected area in Papua New Guinea, a set of provisions must be contractually agreed upon with the owners of the land, for example ban of hunting or compensation for restricted use of the areas. More than 90% of these are local and indigenous groups.

Since 2008, the International Climate Initiative (ICI) has been providing funding to KfW development bank, Conservation International (CI) and Woodland Park Zoo to support the local people in administering the YUS area for themselves. Working together with members of the forest communities, the project partners demarcated zones in which there would be no more hunting, and where logging and mining were forbidden. In this way, the 35 indigenous villages are greatly contributing to the protection of the tropical forests. After all, the forests are not only home to rare species like the Matschie's tree kangaroo but also store huge amounts of carbon and provide local people with important resources such as wood, food and drinking water.

CI and Woodland Park Zoo are working continuously with the roughly 11,600 inhabitants to develop a comprehensive land use plan and an ecological monitoring system. This helps to ensure the sustainable use of the YUS area and its natural resources. Working with local universities from Lae und Port Moresby, the partner organisations are developing methods for measuring the amount of carbon sequestered in the forest, and they are assessing the local effects of climate change on trends in species composition. They are also working to establish alternative sources of income for the local population. For example, smallholder farmers have been able to boost their household incomes considerably thanks to the increase in coffee exports in recent years. At the same time, more efficient agricultural methods have helped restrict the expansion of cultivated areas, thereby curbing deforestation.

In return for their willingness to protect the forest, the inhabitants of YUS identified a range of topics, where the project is supposed to provide assistance. These include better medical care and additional funding for schools. Accordingly, the project partners provided training for health personnel in YUS and supplied them with equipment, for instance for performing inoculations and delivering child healthcare. A programme of scholarships and training for local teachers is improving the school education enjoyed by people in the area - and the curriculum also includes environmental and nature protection. 'Some people oppose protecting the forest,' says Timmy Sowang. 'We need to educate them so they understand why it makes sense. Climate change is another thing,' he explains, 'because it hurts our agricultural systems. Already, insect infestations and shifts in weather patterns are causing changes to taro and sweet potatoes, some of our most important crops.”

A model project for the future

YUS was the first communally administered conservation area created under the national Conservation Areas Act. Now it serves as a model for the entire country. Papua New Guinea's Minister for Environment and Conservation, John Pundari, stressed this fact during a visit to the area in February 2013. He held out the prospect of additional financing for the management of the conservation area.This approach, which brings together nature conservation and development with the active involvement of the local people, is to be transferred to other parts of the country.

Timmy Sowang is happy about that, as are the many other committed people in the area. If the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea are saved, it will secure not only the globally unique habitat of the Matschie's tree kangaroo, but also the livelihoods of the local communities - now and for the future.