An Ecologist – Almost off the Map

By John Warren

Do you remember why you first became interested in tropical ecology? Were you attracted by the adventure, and the excitement of travelling to far flung exotic places? Were you drawn by the possibility of studying the incredible richness of life that abounds in the tropics? Or were you driven by a passion to save the rainforest and its inhabitants from the devastation of unsustainable logging?

Most of us are probably motivated by a combination of all of these factors and others. Certainly these were all important reasons that contributed to me accepting the job of Vice Chancellor of the University of Natural Resources and the Environment in East New Britain Province of Papua New Guinea.

View of the rainforest from the New Britain Highway

So having ended up on a remote island on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, how should I go about helping to protect the rainforest from illegal logging, before I become submerged in the administrative burden of trying to run an underfunded university in Papua New Guinea? Is it possible to be more effective at achieving this objective on the ground here, as a big fish in a little pond, than I could have hoped to achieve as an academic ecologist working from my cosy office back in Aberystwyth and visiting the tropics for a few brief weeks every year.

Papua New Guinea is a notoriously difficult place to visit, let alone carry out field ecology. Certainly it’s a very expensive destination to travel to from the UK. Just the flight from Port Moresby, the capital city of PNG, to East New Britain is likely to set you back £400 return. The United Nations claim that PNG is the most expensive country in the world to deliver aid to. Hotel accommodation and other within country costs are all high. On top of all of this, PNG has a dreadful reputation in terms of being incredibly unsafe. I was told you cannot walk alone at night. That’s OK I’m a botanist, but you cannot easily visit the bush, because every bit of land belongs to someone and they will not make you welcome. They may not eat you like in the old days, but you will be required to pay for access, or run very fast.

The Kolwara area. East New Britain


Why would anyone be crazy enough to want to work in East New Britain? Just take a minute and type New Britain into Google Earth.

From space New Britain still looks like an unspoilt tropical paradise. Apart from a few small towns, at first the majority of the forest looks more or less intact. There are a few scattered bush villages, mostly around the coast and really no effective road system around the island. If you want to travel from East New Britain to West New Britain, then you fly. The “New Britain Highway” the only road that connects the two provinces lacks many bridges, and is only passable during the dry season, by the largest of vehicles.  If you are brave enough, the trip will take you 12 to 15 hours of bone-shaking hell.

The New Britain Highway

Ecologically and culturally Papua New Guinea is a must visit destination. Located south of the Wallace line it is populated by a particularly strange fauna. PNG has none of the native primates or squirrels that flow through the rainforest canopy of Borneo with the ease of a liquid. Here the tree Kangaroo clumsily occupies that niche. If ever there was conclusive proof that intelligent design is bunkum, it is the tree kangaroo. It’s not too ridiculous going up, but climbing down, really is a controlled fall.

The terrain of PNG is renowned for being extremely harsh. High volcanic ridges, some active, other extinct calderas tens of miles across, have caused populations of all species to be as isolated. As if they were the residents of remote islands. This isolation has resulted in the evolution of 800 native languages and an equally unfathomable levels of species diversity. When I first managed to visit the rainforests of East New Britain, the level of botanical diversity that I observed here was simply mind blowing.  I have worked in both Amazonia and Borneo but nothing had prepared me for this level of species richness. Everywhere I looked there were different species of orchids and ferns. No two individually looked alike. Having fought my way into the canopy of a fallen tree, I looked around and estimated that from that location, I could probably double my lifetime count of orchid species.

Just a little of the botanical diversity of the region

A few weeks before I had been talking with Allen Alison (the herpetologist in lost land of the volcanoes, BBC / Discovery Channel mini-series on PNG biodiversity). He had just completed a biodiversity audit near a local gold mine. Within the confines of the study site, they had discovered 400 species of orchids. Not bad when the total number of orchids recorded for the whole of New Britain was previously about 200.

East New Britain sounds like the perfect location for a tropical ecologist. Even the repeated warning of high rates violent crime and levels of corruption, did not seem to materialise once I was on the ground. As with all places where average incomes are low, it pays to be vigilant here.  But you will not meet more friendly and welcoming people then the local Toli and Baining communities.

Unfortunately, of course nothing is this idyllic. The oil palm plantations that were first established in West New Britain are now rapidly spreading eastwards. The New Britain Highway, may be less than ideal for family cars, but it is more than adequate to facilitate illegal logging. Every day lorry after lorry load of timber heads west to avoid detection by the authorities in the ports of East New Britain. It might seem harsh to accuse the Indonesian oil palm and logging companies of having less respect for the local inhabitants and environment than they would have at home, but this is certainly what the local PNGans think. The industrial scale obliteration of the forest, right to the front doors of the local residents, is more extreme that I have witnessed before. Entire creeks have been senselessly bulldozed away, leaving the soils totally exposed to be carried away by the next tropical storm. The local rivers all run brown and dead.

So here I am on the ground, as Vice Chancellor of the only University on the island with perhaps more influence than ever before my life. What can I do to try and stop at least some of this ecocide? At this point, I was approached by the representatives of Kolwara community who wanted to know the answer to exactly the same question. Their customary land comprises of 51,390 ha of pristine rainforest in the Gazelle district of East New Britain (see map). Their land is bounded on all sides by illegal logging and oil palm plantations.

Ecological devastation caused by oil palm plantation. Even the creeks have been removes for planting

The Kolwara area is almost unknown to science. Even the map lacks any detail and its accuracy is questionable. So what can I do to help the local Kolwara inhabitants protect their bit of rainforest? The temptation for someone in the community to break ranks and sign an apparently lucrative deal with an oil palm company is intense. There has to be away to find them an alternative income from the land, to help educate their children and fund the medical treatment of the sick.

My first attempt to help can be accessed by the following link.  (Kolwara MOA) If you are interested in being involved please contact me.

John Warren is Vice Chancellor at the PNG University of Natural Resources and the Environment

In East New Britain