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New Guinea

Lying just north of Australia, the island of New Guinea and the neighboring islands of Raja Ampat, Aru, D’Entrecasteaux, and Louisade comprise the New Guinea High Biodiversity Wilderness Area. It is the third most important tropical rain forest on Earth and the largest remaining wilderness area in the Asia-Pacific region.

The country of Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian province of Papua share the island of New Guinea. Covering some 309,000 square miles, the island is defined by extremes: wild rivers, gushing waterfalls, and terrain that soars thousands of feet from fertile floodplains to towering green mountains. It is the world’s highest island, topped by the only tropical alpine glaciers between the Himalayas and the Andes.

About 70 percent of New Guinea’s lush rain forests remain intact. They are home to thousands of native plant and animal species, most undescribed by science. Those that are known include some of the world’s most spectacular creatures: birds of paradise, kangaroos that live in treestree kangaroos, and more orchid species than anywhere else on Earth.

A land of extremes
Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis continue to shape New Guinea’s landscape. Millions of years of such activity have created isolated pockets of biodiversity where unique plant and animal species thrive.

New Guinea’s montane rain forests cloak the Adelbert mountain range, running down the center of the island like a lizard’s jagged spine. These cool, misty slopes are alive with colorful birds and insects, including iridescent bowerbirds (Sericulus spp) who adorn their nests with glittering shells, leaves, and feathers to attract mates. Among the towering pandanus palms (Pandanus amaryllifolius) and mahogany trees, threatened Queen Alexandra's birdwing butterflies (Ornithoptera alexandrae, EN) with four inch wingspans, float nimbly through the vines.

New Guinea is a veritable birder’s paradise. From giant, flightless cassowaries that stand up to 6 feet tall to poisonous pitohuis (Pitohui spp.) whose feathers and skin are laced with potent toxins that ward off predators, New Guinea’s birds have long lured international explorers to the island. The 19th century Italian adventurer Luigi D’Albertis made several expeditions to Papua New Guinea in search of unusual birds and successfully returned with the Raggiana bird of paradise (Paradisaea raggiana), Papua New Guinea’s national symbol. More than any other wildlife species, birds of paradise truly represent New Guinea. With 38 of the 42 recognized species, this is clearly a lineage that evolved on this great island.

For some 50,000 years the Melanesian peoples of New Guinea inhabited its tropical islands, broad alluvial floodplains, and lofty highlands. The island has an estimated 1,100 valleys throughout its interior, where thousands of years of isolation created as many languages and cultures – the most linguistically diverse on the planet.

Throughout the island, the people and the wilderness are closely tied. For millennia, most people on New Guinea lived as hunter-gatherers. As modern technology and healthcare reshaped their lives, the human population has increased, but it remains largely dependent on forest animals for food. Cassowaries, tree kangaroos, and fruit bats are among the animals threatened by hunting.

Rising Threat
Threats to New Guinea’s biodiversity are similar to those in other parts of the tropical world. Fortunately, the majority of its resources -- forests, fresh water, and fisheries -- are intact. Short-term threats include industrial logging, unplanned development, and mining. Longer-term threats include population growth, forest conversion to monoculture farming, climate change, fires, roads, industry, and invasive species.

For more than 20 years New Guinea, has been a major target of Asian logging companies, its exotic tropical hardwoods growing increasingly valuable as the world’s rain forests dwindle. Large-scale commercial agriculture is also a threat, with export crops such as oil palm resulting in forest clearing. New Guinea also has large stocks of oil, gas, and minerals. The extraction of such resources often results in severe environmental damage, particularly in fragile wetlands and watersheds.

Hunting, by traditional methods and more recently with firearms, is a major concern with some dwindling wildlife populations at risk of extinction. The illegal wildlife trade, a component of the black market in Papua, Indonesia, threatens bird populations such as lories and cockatoos. Overfishing, pollution, coral-reef mining, and dynamite and cyanide fishing threaten New Guinea’s marine fisheries.

Conservation Opportunities
Conservation on the island of New Guinea is a tale of two very different government systems. The Indonesian government in Papua has focused on the creation of a large network of reserves, sanctuaries, and parks. In Papua New Guinea, 97 percent of the land is owned by traditional landholders, resulting in small-scale community-based activities.

Fortunately much of the island’s captivating biodiversity remains intact and conservation opportunities still exist. Developing programs that protect biodiversity and simultaneously attend to the needs and aspirations of its people, are key to protecting New Guinea’s rich and diverse natural and cultural heritage.

Resources and Links
CI Wide
Conservation Regions: Melanesia
GCF: Asia-Pacific Projects
RAP Expeditions: Irian Jaya, Indonesia
Books: Field Guide: Bats of Papua New Guinea


© Patricio Robles-Gil/Sierra Madre/Minden Pictures
Morning fog in the Tari Mountains, Papua New Guinea.

© CI, Debbie Gowensmith
A RAP scientist prepares to free a bat (Dobsonia minor) during an expedition in Papua, Indonesia.

© Christina Mittermeier
Performer from the Mt. Hagen Highlands, Papua New Guinea.

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Photo credits for banner images: (Greater Flamingos © Tui De Roy/Minden Pictures); (Diagonal-banded Sweetlips © Fred Bavendam/Minden Pictures);
(Madagascar Aloe © Frans Lanting/Minden Pictures); (Hippo © Frans Lanting/Minden Pictures); (Hummingbird © Pete Oxford); (Malagasy Frog © Piotr Naskrecki/CI)