Unique Wildlife in Jeopardy
By “Awake!” correspondent in Papua New Guinea
WOULD you like to join in a fascinating tropical wildlife excursion in Papua New Guinea? You would? Fine! But you will need some background information before we start.
Situated north of Australia and just south of the equator, Papua New Guinea is a group of islands that explorers and missionaries have called wild and dangerous. For the conservationist, the terrain is primeval and exciting. Yet, some of its species of unique wildlife now are in jeopardy.
The rain forests of these islands provide the secluded habitat of many species of the gorgeously plumed birds of paradise. On the island of New Britain, volcanic hot springs provide natural subterranean heating systems for incubating the eggs of unique large-footed megapode fowls. In the lowland tropical rain forests of Papua, rare bird-wing butterflies flutter among vine-draped trees.
For centuries dark-skinned tribesmen armed with bows and arrows have stalked their prey here. They shoot and set ingenious traps for birds and animals, which they value for food, trade and personal ornamentation.
While traveling through the dense tropical jungles, you will be surprised at the complete absence of predatory animals like tigers or leopards. And upon emerging from the jungle into inhabited village clearings, you will notice a remarkable absence of domestic beasts of burden, such as horses and donkeys.
The danger to wildlife is not apparent while you are in the jungle terrain. However, conservationists have learned that if protective measures are not taken promptly, with an exploding human population and accelerated industrial development, sooner or later there will be no wildlife left to save. Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund has been approached to assist in early implementation of conservation measures in this developing country.
The main dangers to wildlife in Papua New Guinea are (1) shrinking habitat, (2) hunting and (3) pollution. This country’s native population is expected to double by 1985. Hence, there is increasing pressure for the clearing of forested land for cultivation and industry. Also, there is a greater demand for the skins of animals and plumes of birds that play an important part in the economy and folk customs of the village people. This makes the widespread substitution of the shotgun for the bow and arrow a real hazard to the lives of many attractive birds and animals.
Perhaps the greatest cause of shrinking wildlife habitat is the escalation of technological power while economic development is also being accelerated. Areas of isolated virgin forest, recently considered inviolable by human disturbance, now are the locales of extensive lumbering, mineral prospecting and mammoth copper mining projects that pollute the adjacent rivers. Additionally, gigantic hydroelectric schemes are to provide power for heavy industries that will poison the land, water and atmosphere. Yes, hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat have been earmarked for destruction, either by extensive clearing or by the upsetting of ecological balance.
Birds of Paradise
With this background information, we are now ready to start our excursion into a highland rain forest, the home of the bird of paradise. As we walk warily off the beaten track, suppose we talk about some members of the bird family called Paradisaeidae. Their exquisitely colored plumage and their courtship behavior are unsurpassed by any other species of bird life. Of the 42 known species, 36 occur exclusively in Papua New Guinea. Some of the better-known species are named Raggiana’s, blue, magnificent, twelve-wired and superb—all birds of paradise. Incidentally, in sanctuary conditions a bird of paradise can be taught to talk as does a parrot.
The well-known ornithologist E. Thomas Gillard has written a vivid description of birds of paradise. He tells us that, according to their species, these birds are bedecked with feathers in lacelike patterns, or having the form of skirts, whips, capes, twisted enamel-like wires or erectable expandable fans. Some have saberlike tails and patches of iridescent plumage. These birds also have other ornamentations—jade- and opal-colored mouths, naked, garish areas of skin and nutlike wattles. The beautiful dance movements of these birds also help to make them appear more like an ornament than a living bird.
The species known as the superb bird of paradise is about the size of a dove. When courting, the male opens his bill wide so that its brilliant yellow interior forms a startling contrast with his deep-black plumage, the vivid green of his head and the iridescent purple green of his breast patch. This bird has two tufts of black feathers at the base of its bill.
Shh! Be very quiet. See that tall tree? It is a bird of paradise display tree. Look up at that branch. Can you see that gorgeous bird? Watch him dancing on the branch for the benefit of his mate. Suddenly, he halts and stands stiffly, displaying his long lacelike cascades of plumage.
Other species have their own fascinating dance displays. Some hang by their feet under the limbs of their display trees, in shimmering pendulous masses. Certain male birds dance on the ground, alternately freezing and spinning so that their circular feathers look like the extended skirts of ballerinas.
Doubtless you will be sorry to learn that thousands of these unique birds are not going to live out their natural life-span. Are you surprised? Do you wonder why?
Well, the skins and plumes of birds of paradise are highly valued by the native people. With the enforcement of fauna protection laws, extensive commercial trading in plumes virtually has been stopped. However, there still is widespread shooting. You see, the highland tribesmen value the plumes for decorating their ceremonial headgear.
In recent years the tribesmen have been encouraged to gather annually at the towns of Goroka and Mt. Hagen. There you see them dancing in great numbers at festivals called “Sing Sings.” On such occasions great emphasis is placed on costuming, and an almost incredible number of bird of paradise plumes are displayed on the heads of the tribesmen as they compete with one another.
These spectacles may be affecting the local populations of birds of paradise, for the native people will go to great lengths to obtain this beautiful male raiment. As it is now, a visitor can rarely see the resplendent male birds of paradise, except for their plumage on the heads of native people.
Back at the village we observe how the bird of paradise plumes are treasured. The owners store them away carefully in plugged bamboo tubes. Before a tribal dance, a young man spends hours dressing. Then, suddenly, he bursts into the dancing arena under a shimmering crown fit for an emperor. The crown contains the plumes of a dozen or more male birds of paradise of six or so different species. When some 50 men get together in a dance, the swinging plumages make them appear to be on fire.
The Megapode Fowl
The next part of our excursion involves a two-hour journey by air to the northern island of New Britain. Soon we arrive at the Cape Hoskins area, with its sulphurous hot springs. These are the egg-laying grounds of a unique type of megapode, or junglefowl, which belongs to the wild fowl family called Megapodius freycinet. Incidentally, megapode means “big feet.”
What a bleak and desolate area we see before us! Hot water is spouting from steaming geysers, and deep holes reverberate to the sound of boiling mud. Yes, there is an enormous amount of subterranean heat to warm the incubation tunnels made by the megapode hens. On the fringe of the hot-spring area we can see the forest in which the megapodes do their mating.
Look at that dull-brown henlike bird scratching the warm ground under that tree. Watch how she tunnels with her big feet deep into the volcanically heated soil. She will dig six or seven tunnels close together and extending about four feet (1.2 meters) below the surface. Then she will lay about 10 eggs in each tunnel. Finally, she will fill the tunnels with soil and leave the eggs there for incubation. That will be the end of her role in the breeding of her chicks.
Well, then, what happens to the chicks? This is another unique feature of the megapode. In from six to nine weeks the chicks will hatch and then scratch their way to the surface of the ground and run into the scrub. They will be well developed, covered with feathers and able to fly within 24 hours. Yes, they will be capable of caring for themselves from the time that they emerge from their underground hatcheries!
Wildlife ecologists are concerned that these unique birds are in danger of disappearing. Why? Companies have purchased the rights to cut the timber in large tracts of the surrounding forests. Since these forests provide the habitat for these wild fowl, the extensive clearing of timber places this interesting species in danger.
Now, for the final part of our excursion, we travel to the home of a rare species of bird-wing butterfly known as Ornithoptera alexandrae. We fly south to the tropical jungles surrounding the town of Popondetta in eastern Papua.
Yes, the bird-wing butterfly is indeed a uniquely beautiful creature. It gets its name from the large size and slow rhythmic beat of its wings. It also has a characteristic way of gliding in flight. In fact, alexandrae is the largest species of butterfly in the world. Females have been seen with up to 10-inch (25-centimeter) wingspans. This butterfly is found exclusively in these forests.
As we walk along this hot, humid jungle track, keep your eyes wide open. There it is! Look at that large butterfly gliding high up among the trees. Watch as it instinctively flies down to rest on that vine known as the Dutchman’s pipe. That species of vine is essential to the reproductive cycle of alexandrae. The caterpillars that develop from the butterfly’s eggs feed voraciously on the leaves. Then these creatures develop into shining chrysalides that hang from the leaves. Finally, there emerges another generation of beautiful alexandrae butterflies.
Here is a large male specimen. Its wings measure about eight inches (20 centimeters) across. Notice the pattern of broad black veins separating large patches of blue, green and golden yellow. This insect’s body is black and yellow, with tufts of red hair just below its head. What a pleasure to behold!
Because of its size, beauty and rarity, the alexandrae is greatly prized by wealthy collectors around the world. They are prepared to pay the native villagers high prices for good specimens. The result is that, even though there is a protective law that imposes a heavy penalty, unlawful collecting and surreptitious trading continue. However, it is more the threat of habitat destruction through forest clearing for agricultural purposes that places these unique living ornaments in danger of extinction.
Here we end our wildlife excursion. It is hoped that you have enjoyed it. Likely, you share my concern for unique wildlife that now is in jeopardy. But be assured that the Grand Creator of these fascinating birds and butterflies soon will fulfill his promise to restore paradise to the earth. Then all forms of wildlife will live unmolested in their natural habitats.
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bird of paradise
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