Islands in the Sun-II
Dr Gautam Vohra shares memories from his Papua New Guinea Diary: Of colourful flora & enchanting fauna
Papua New Guinea (PNG), apart from its colourful tribals with their rich cultural heritage, is also known for its flora and fauna. Unfortunately tourists cannot wander off over hill and dale in search of its natural wonders as there are no roads crisscrossing the island and so are forced to either limit themselves to the few roads there are or take charter flights which are expensive. To satisfy our curiosity we were perforce taken to its biggest park where many of PNG’s iconic animals could be seen. The Nature Park was a strong indictment of the traditional way of life pursued by the tribes. The plumes they put on their headdress, the feathers, are obtained from killing birds. And each tribe has its own specialty.
The Birds of Paradise are the most prized— and the Cassowary next. Hence they are slaughtered in large numbers, to the extent that some varieties are on the endangered list. The PNG Environment Department states this in so many words. Recognizing that it cannot fight tradition, it has announcements in the Nature Park as to how the feathers can be preserved to serve as a headdress for a longer period so that fewer birds are killed. The notice board states: The Bilas headdress typically lasts 20 years and so 10 to 12 birds living in the wild will be killed for it. And the maximum as noted are the three varieties of Birds of Paradise of which 24 may be required to provide the wherewithal for one single headdress. And it details the methods of how the feathers can be preserved so that fewer birds are destroyed.
The Nature Park was a delight, for we not only met the birds but the animals of the wayward way-out island— admittedly the largest of the South Pacific islands but also the least well documented— of which we could, prior to our visit, obtain the least information even less than those countries in West Africa that we visited. Let me begin with the most striking of their birds, the Cassowary, of which there are three: the Northern Cassowary has a yellow neck and two orange wattles hanging like sausages from its neck. The rest of its body is dark. The Southern Cassowary has an orange neck and one orange wattle, while the Dwarf Cassowary has a blue neck and no wattles at all. The female of the species is the dominant player. She can move from one male to another. And when she lays eggs, the male has to look after them, hatch them, and take care of the chicks while the female wanders off to make eggs with other males of her choosing. The Cassowary chicks are striped until they are 6-9 months old. By age three they change to a black colour. Cassowaries belong to the family of flightless birds and are the third tallest in the world after the Ostrich (Africa) and Emu (Australia). They can run at a speed of 50 km an hour.
As in the case of the Cassowary, the Bird of Paradise is also of three types: the Magnificent Bird of Paradise (which is the least magnificent). The Lesser Bird of Paradise, the most attractive is medium sized maroon-brown with a yellow crown and a brown-yellow upper back. The Raggiana, a third variety, was made the national emblem of PBG in 1972 and figures on the national flag. Another striking PNG bird is the Crowned Victoria Pigeon (of which I’ve given a description in an account of Vincent’s garden). Its smaller cousin is the Southern Crowned Pigeon. A fairly sociable species, it eats the leaves and debris on the forest floor, and also small crabs. Then there is the Trumpet Manucode (note the similarity with our Code of Manu), so named after its powerful and loud trumpeting calls. The white parrots are of two varieties, the brown-eyed cockatoos and the blue-eyed ones. A terribly noisy species, they were fluttering all over the wire mesh. The white cockatoos are the loudest of all parrots. Apparently the loud noises are a means of adaptation for living in the thick dark forests and enable them to communicate over long distances when cockatoos cannot see each other. There is the Papuan King Parrot, with a magnificent large red beak and Lorikeets of various types and hues. Goldies’s Lorikeet, yes the Papuan Lorikeet…. And then Sephanie’s Astrapia. Surely you’ve heard of Stephanie’s Astrapia.
Now I simply must introduce you to some PNG animals. The salt water crocodile, despite the commotion of young visitors lies inert, lost in its own world. Ditto for the possum. He refuses to stir, huddled up in his corner, not even raising his neck to glance at me despite my urgent calls to him. They are shy, the possum, and not often seen because they sleep in the trees during the day. The males may bark, and tend to get into fights with other males. Another species living on the trees is the Tree Kangaroo. He looked down at me peering at him, as if to say: Go on write about me Vohra. See if I care. There are 17 species and sub-species of the Tree Kangaroo found in New Guinea and Australia. The Donn’s Tree Kangaroo is the heaviest tree dwelling marsupial in the world, weighing up to 20 kg. Then there is the Wallaby. He turned out to be the friendliest and came across on the gangplank to say hello. The warden feeding them issued a word of caution: Keep away from Henry (so had he been named) as he gets cantankerous at times. Mark, our guide, informs us that the agile wallaby lives in social groups. The Huon Tree Kangaroo lives in thick mountain forests. It is medium-sized with sandy brown fur.
Then it was time to visit the National Park, which turned out to be not a patch on the Nature Park in the heart of Port Moresby as far as the wildlife was concerned. It is an hour’s drive from it, on a mountain such as Table Top mountain we had visited in South Africa. It is way on high and the air gets cooler. It is even more so when we enter the canopied world which brings darkness at noon to our world. The trees tower all over us at the Varirata National Park. The visitor is told “Leave nothing but footprints behind. Take nothing but photographs.” We reach the main look-outs after an hour’s drive through winding roads: The Conservation and Environment Protection Authority says that we are 8333 metres above sea level.
The rain forest here has had some re-planting done. So we have varieties of pine and eucalyptus. Raintrees that have the widest canopy I have come across and the Pandanus trees, also known as the Walking Tree, which moves towards the river in search of water. We see no wildlife as noted, but a lot of local kids full of mischief, and one refuses to move when he spots a bird and says “I wanna see her egg”. The father explains, no can do. He repeats “I wanna see her egg.” I think I can safely say that for me the ginger flowers and the birds, particularly the Queen Victoria pigeon and the cassowary were the highlight of PNG’s fauna and flora. Pics by Priya Sen