Research and Conservation: People Behind Conservation Work in PNG

Research and Conservation: People Behind Conservation Work in PNG

Editor’s note: Bradley Gewa has a unique style of writing. He presents his experiences in the areas of Research and Conservation in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in a wonderful way. We are lucky to publish his story on PNG Writers’ Corner.

In this story, Bradley takes us – the readers – from Yonki Dam, up Kassam Pass and through Goroka Town where he shares his childhood memories of the Apo country. Then along the Asaro Valley and up Daulo Pass; down Water Bung and pass the limestone roads to Sinesine and arrived at ‘K’ Town, Kundiawa.

Bradley writes about the conservation organisations in Goroka and Simbu, and the women and men behind the organisations. A full collection of his writing can be found at the end of this story.

We would like to thank Bradley for this brilliant article and photos (and the sources for the use of their photos). We invite the readers of PNG Writers’ Corner to take a cup of tea or coffee and enjoy the read…

Yonki Dam, Kainantu and towards Goroka

Yonki Dam, Papua New Guinea
Yonki Dam, Source: www.pngpower.com.pg

Past the lush country and settlements near the waters of the Yonki Dam, we have a brief rest and leg-stretch at a roadside market on a mountain top overlooking the serene 33 million cubic metres man-made lake.

Seeming a little out of place for me is the sight of dugout canoes bobbing on its surface bearing fishermen. Obviously, I had not been to Lake Kutubu in the Southern Highlands yet, and did not typically associate canoes with the highlands.

The construction of this vital 77 Mega-Watts Yonki hydroelectricity facility began in 1986 and it was finally opened in 1991, supplying power for the highlands region, as well as Lae City and Madang. Picking up again from our rest, the small, sleepy township of Kainantu breezes past as we now head towards Goroka.

The ‘K92’ (Kainantu) dilemma

Travel Papua New Guinea
Kainantu township, Source: Wikipedia

The mention of Kainantu brings to mind a funny, self-inflicted incident that happened on another subsequent trip into the highlands for a biodiversity survey.

As team-leader of that patrol, I was mainly responsible for handling the cash needed for the team’s expenses and kept a record in my notebook of all purchases we made during the field trip. This book-keeping was very important because, at the end of all BRC patrols, team leaders were required to acquit all expenditures with receipts attached and submit this to the office accountant.

And so during that particular trip, there happened to be an instance where our team stopped at Kainantu and bought some supplies or food (I cannot recall now).

After noting down the cash used, I, thinking of using some shorthand during our rush, near the amount wrote “K92” – using a popular code-name for Kainantu town mostly promoted by its inhabitants.

All was well until we returned to Madang some weeks later and I eagerly sat down to get this tedious acquittal reporting out of the way. After summing up all our field expenses, I subconsciously added the “K92” code for Kainantu as K92.00 into the records and finally ended up going over-budget by K92.00, without any receipts or faint recollection of what we had spent this ‘amount’ on.

For many minutes I racked my brain, trying to recall for what we had spent the mysterious K92.00. Exasperatingly going through the faded pile of receipts again, I even asked my team members if they would help me recall our stop in Kainantu, but this was all to no avail.
On the verge of despair, sitting still for a moment, it suddenly dawned on me: KAINANTU. K92!! I slapped my forehead in annoyance and happily balanced up my records.

As an aside, it is generally true that although BRC staff (especially team leaders) relish field trips and are experts in field research, returning to base after all the exciting adventures, and faced with the daunting prospect of going through weeks of accumulated receipts and payment records can certainly be a stressful endeavour.

Talair the Highlands Warrior

Talair aeroplanes at Goroka airport, Source: Bradley Gewa)

As we drive into Goroka town I notice its popular landmarks that bring back memories of my childhood here. The tall pine trees that lined the green space beside the airport are still standing, although some had been removed.

The airport is now mostly devoid of planes. Although as a child, with my late father working as a Traffic Manager with the former Goroka-based Talair Airlines, I remember my fascination at how the tarmac would always be crammed with all kinds of Talair aircrafts, from single-engine Cessnas to the workhorse DHC-6 Twin Otters and the stylish Dash-8s. Ubiquitous on the tails of this sea of orange and white-coloured aeroplanes would be the dark silhouette “Highlands Warrior” logo- a symbol that evokes nostalgia for Papua New Guineans familiar with this bygone era.

Suddenly ceasing its operations in 1993 after 40 years of servicing some of the most remote parts in PNG, at one point the Talair fleet numbered about 70 different aircrafts and was the largest third-level airline company in the world.

Early memories of Goroka

My father had also travelled a lot throughout PNG for his work, and once brought me a box of white beach sand (perhaps as a compromise for declining my request to take me with him on the trip) from Vanimo to play with. For a young boy growing up in the highlands and never having been to a sea beach, this was certainly priceless, and my friends and I would have hours and hours of fun with it. At the end of the day, we would carefully scoop up precious ocean sand that had been displaced out from the box, and pour them back in.

I also remember on one occasion him bringing home a large live turtle in a tub of seawater (I hereby extend my apology to my turtle-loving friends and readers for this particular recount- I too am very fond of turtles!).

The hardy creature lived for a night and finally ended up in a highlands-style mumu shared with our neighbours, many of whom were local Eastern Highlanders who would have their first taste of sea turtle meat. Sago from Wewak, Barramundi and mud-crabs from Kerema, and fresh venison from Daru would also find their way into our mumu pit and dinner table whenever my Dad visited those parts. Talair had transformed Goroka into PNG’s central hub, it seemed then.

It was in Goroka too where I first appreciated the beastly Harley Davidson motorcycle and its ear-splitting roar when my mother’s Australian boss (also a giant of a man), would sometimes drop by for a visit to the Talair Compound on the weekends, to the great exhilaration of the kids there. Hours after the massive man and machine had left, the annoying din of Talair workers’ kids mimicking the motorcycle’s rumbling sounds in their play would still be heard throughout the neighbourhood, myself not exempt.

Some of the rowdy Talair compound kids posing for a photo Source: Bradley Gewa

Mal Meninga at the Bird of Paradise Hotel

As our convoy turns towards North Goroka, I catch sight of the popular Bird of Paradise Hotel, with its room balconies overlooking the town’s busy main street. In

1991, perched on an uncle’s shoulders inside a tightly-packed crowd, I remember waving excitedly up to my childhood Australian rugby league heroes Mal Meninga and Bradley Clyde standing on these balconies when they were here for a match with the PNG Kumuls.

Revisiting Goroka surprisingly revived many good memories from those days with crisp clarity, when it was regarded as one of the most peaceful and beautiful towns in PNG. I think it perhaps still is, although its heydays may seem to have passed, for the moment.

Regarding these revived childhood memories, it has been found that smells can also act as powerful psychological triggers for long-forgotten or suppressed memories. For me, it may have been the cool Goroka air and its unique accompanying scents.

My elder sister going off to school, Goroka’s CBD. Bird of Paradise Hotel visible in the background, Source: Bradley Gewa

The Research and Conservation Foundation (RCF)

As it is now evening, our destination to overnight at in North Goroka will be the quiet and neatly-kept Research and Conservation Foundation (RCF) Guest House. This comfortable accommodation facility is the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (BRC) team’s main place of lodging when staying in or passing through Goroka, as a way of connecting with and supporting a sister NGO doing important similar work in PNG.

The RCF organization (www.rcfpng.org) is mainly involved in carrying out conservation awareness and outreach activities in the highlands region, also facilitating training for teachers and conservation professionals.

As our convoy comes to a stop in the RCF yard, the road-weary teams spilling out of the cars look forward to the guesthouse’s invigorating hot water shower, its delicious hot dinner menu of chicken and fresh highlands vegetables, and the thick warm blankets that cosily insulate against Goroka’s chilly nights.

researcg and conservation foundation
The RCF premises in North Goroka, Source: www.rcfpng.org

Stay at the Research and Conservation Foundation Guesthouse

I had previously stayed here at the RCF Guesthouse for several weeks in 2011, along with a former colleague from BRC, Gibson Sosanika, who is now a botanical researcher with a Master of Philosophy Degree in Forestry. With students from UPNG, UOG, UoT, and various organizations, we were there to attend training in Field Biology.

The training was run mainly by two American Biologists with highly-impactful, long-term research and biodiversity conservation experience in PNG, as well as training Papua New Guineans in these fields.

Searching for ‘Pekpek’ by Dr. Andrew Mack

Dr. Andrew Mack is a specialist on birds and author of the popular book “Searching for Pekpek” (a reference to cassowary droppings), an insightful autobiographical recount of his acclaimed career as a field researcher and conservationist in PNG. This especially concerned his pioneering cassowary research and efforts in establishing the important former Wara Sera Field Research Station in the remote Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which covers the Eastern Highlands, Simbu and borders with the Gulf Province.

Searching for Pekpek papua new guinea
Dr. Andy Mack’s book ‘Searching for Pekpek’ Source: www.goodreads.com

In his intriguing book, Dr. Mack also discusses the importance of a bottom-up approach for conservation initiatives in close consultation and partnerships with the concerned local communities. He points out that conservation plans drawn up by overseas, desk-bound conservation organizations, whom he refers to as “Big Conservation” in his book, are mostly bound to fail without the support of indigenous stakeholders.

Dr. Debra Wright is also a Biologist with many years of experience in field research in PNG, supporting conservation initiatives along with Dr. Mack and training Papua New Guineans in field biology.

(Here are similar books on research and conservation in Papua New Guinea, including Dr Mack’s book ‘Searching for Pekpek’ available on Amazon)

The PNG Institute of Biological Research (PNGIBR)

With the advice and support of Dr. Mack and Dr. Wright, their former students and current PNG Biologists like Banak Gamui, Dr. Miriam Supuma, and Muse Opiang established the former PNG Institute of Biological Research (PNGIBR) in 2008.

The PNGIBR was one of PNG’s few, if not only, scientific research and conservation NGOs mostly founded and operated by Papua New Guineans, who had been trained and mentored by Dr. Mack, Dr. Wright and other like-minded people who believed in the potential of Papua New Guineans in Science.

Apart from its research and conservation aspects, the PNGIBR was also involved in training PNG undergraduate and postgraduate Conservation Biologists, many of whom are now accomplished researchers and academics, and continuing the mission of PNGIBR in the capacity building of Papua New Guineans in biodiversity conservation.

Biodiversity conservation efforts in PNG

wildlife conservation in Papua New Guinea
Part of the former PNGIBR team, Source: www.pngibr.org

Although focused on mainly Biological research and conservation, the PNGIBR also recognized the importance of anthropological studies and how local cultures and traditional knowledge were intertwined with biodiversity conservation efforts in PNG. In this regard, an American Anthropologist Dr. Paige West, also with vast experience in PNG and attached as an advisor to the PNGIBR, carried out biocultural studies and trained PNG students in this area.

Apart from its expatriate mentors in Drs Mack, Wright and West, Papua New Guinean academics like Dr. Eric Kwa and Dr. Andrew Moutu also played crucial advisory roles within the PNGIBR organization.

Sadly, however, after struggling with funding support and with key PNG members leaving for further studies abroad, the inspirational PNGIBR has now become dormant.

Inspite of this, the PNGIBR’s vision and mission live beyond its short time through its students and the many people who received training and came across the team’s enthusiasm and passion for biodiversity research and conservation in PNG.

The PNGIBR Training Course

Beginning in 2010, the PNGIBR and its two American mentors ran the month-long PNGIBR Field Biology training in Goroka, which was hosted at the RCF premises. The course was mainly taught by Dr. Mack and Dr. Wright, with the PNG experts from PNGIBR also conducting training in their various areas in field biology.

The training course covered essential aspects of field biology such as the:

  • Field Sampling of various organisms to Statistical Analysis for Biologists,
  • writing scientific research proposals and papers, and
  • critically read scientific literature.

It provided valuable training for early-career Biologists and conservation professionals.

Its in-depth and easy-to-read training’s Course Manual booklet, detailing all the topics covered in the training, is available in PDF format for download on the PNGIBR website (www.pngibr.org) and is an indispensable reference for both aspiring and current PNG field biologists.

In fact, the PNGIBR course booklet and the training itself was derived from an earlier Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) field biology course run by Dr. Mack and Dr. Wright, in which many current PNG Biologists received training, including the PNGIBR founders. And so in 2011, this PNGIBR course was what brought my BRC colleague and I to Goroka.

Learning Biostatistical methods- a crucial tool for field research

(Inset) A younger Dr. Mack demonstrating specimen labelling at the early WCS training course, Source: www.pngibr.org (Outset) PNGIBR course students during a field trip in 2011”, Source: Mazzella Maniwavie

At this course, I first got to understand the complex concepts of Statistics for Field Biologists. Without the use of any computer software, in true old school biologist style, we had to painstakingly crunch our field data and lookup formulas in the Manual to perform relevant analyses and calculations. Others who had laptops perhaps had an easier time.

Looking back, this I figured, was essential and the best way for students to grasp the concepts behind the Statistical tests, instead of loading data into a software to spit out graphs and analyses results, which is the norm nowadays.

Meeting PNG Biologists at conservation course

Also importantly, I had the privilege of meeting co-participants from various PNG institutions, who are now established professionals in the field of Biology. Notable among this group is Yolarnie Amepou, the inspirational young Director of Piku Biodiversity Inc., involved in research and conservation of the endangered Pig-nosed (Piku) freshwater turtle in the Kikori area.

Others include Dr. Tania Areori, who recently completed a 6-year veterinary science program at Charles Sturt University in Australia, becoming PNG’s first female veterinarian. Gibson Aubona is now a Master of Science graduate in biochemistry, and Wilda Hungito, who did a 2-year Masters program in Forest Ecology in Guyana, among many others.

I was also fortunate to meet and learn from the inspirational PNGIBR founders including Dr. Miriam Supuma, a bird specialist and Muse Opiang, PNG’s echidna expert.

“High Distinction” Award Recipient

At the end of the course, I was happily surprised to learn that I had received a grade of “High Distinction”. This was mostly thanks to my science and maths wiz team-mate and hardy field companion Conscilliah Menda.

She later went on to graduate from the University of Hokkaido in Japan with a Master of Science (Immunology and Infectious Diseases) degree and is currently a pioneer of Divine Word University’s MBBS program, undergoing her medical residency. She denies her valuable input in my PNGIBR course performance, although I know better.

PNG woman in stem
Dr. Tania Areori with her child Taegan. She graduated in 2020 to become PNG’s first female veterinarian, Source: www.edu.pngfacts.com

It is evident that I have been deviating a lot from the main subject of my story, which is the tale of my journey from Madang to Mt. Wilhelm for an international Biodiversity survey project. However, I am taking the time to include and mention various individuals and organizations where relevant, who I feel will make this story richer and help promote their work and inform and inspire Papua New Guineans reading about them here.

(Editor’s note: We are glad to have followed your story so far, Bradley. You have documented your journey pretty well. And we are delighted you’ve added the details, twists and turns, which make this a delightful read. We are sure our readers who have followed your story have enjoyed and certainly appreciated the wonderful and rich areas of your conservation work in PNG)

Bill Habiri- Founder of FODE Centre and Apone Mushrooms

At this point, I would like to briefly share the remarkable story of a Goroka local named Bill Habiri. I am very fortunate to call Bill a brother and friend, even though we have never met in person yet. We became Facebook friends while Bill was studying for his Master of Science (Drug Discovery) degree at the University of London.

Bill is a highly inspirational Papua New Guinean and I regard him as an outstanding example of an individual citizen who is using his skills and knowledge to become a catalyst for change and development in his local community, and empowering others in self-development and attaining sustainable livelihoods.

Goroka Career FODE Centre

After graduating from the University of London in 2011, Bill became a Lecturer in Organic Chemistry at the University of Goroka. In 2016, he left his academic post and founded the “Career FODE Centre”, an institution that provides the opportunity for school-leavers and drop-outs to upgrade their academic grades.

His other major establishment, the “Career Training Institute” includes a Nursing School plus other disciplines such as Business and Accounting, where graduates from his FODE Centre are also able to enrol after upgrading their grades.

Without any government or outside support since the establishment of his self-funded schools. Bill has graduated over 2000 students so far and is looking forward to bigger improvements in the coming years.

FODE STUDY CENTRE GOROKA
Bill Habiri with some of his 2021 School of Health Sciences student intakes Source: Paragon King Facebook page

Goroka Apone Mushrooms

As a Pharmacologist by profession, Bill was also conducting his PhD preparation research on the chemicals contained in mushrooms for possible drug discoveries and realized the potential for commercially growing mushrooms and training local farmers in this venture, to improve sustainable livelihoods and poverty eradication. This led to his establishment of Goroka’s “Apone Mushrooms” company, which aims to be a leading supplier and distributor of fresh, organic mushroom products throughout PNG.

Since its inception, more than 500 local people have been trained in mushroom farming and Bill reports that interest has been growing exponentially in this exciting new industry.

mushroom cultivation in Papua new guinea
Bill Habiri’s Mushroom farming Workshop Source: Paragon King Facebook page

Several days ago, I was again awe-inspired to note on Bill’s Facebook page “Paragon King” that he had offered 10 scholarships through his “Habiri Foundation” to dropouts in Goroka District to study Business and Accounting at his institution.

Even with all his accomplishments, one thing I have noticed that stands out for Bill is his simple lifestyle. In almost all of his social media posts, he can be seen with his favourite old beanie, T-shirt and shorts. I have never seen him in a flashy car, or a suit and tie. Nor does he seem to sport a pot belly- which is increasingly becoming the trademark look of so-called ‘leaders’ today.

Bill does have a huge heart, and an inspiring passion and dedication to selflessly serve his people and help improve their living standards. He is the kind of person I would personally call a leader. I believe, if we had more people with Bill’s mindset in PNG, we can truly make a change for the better.

scholarship recipients of the Habiri Foundation
Bill Habiri with the 10 scholarship recipients of the Habiri Foundation Source: Paragon King Facebook page

Travelling through Asaro Valley and Daulo Pass

Early the next morning, with Goroka’s enveloping fog still hugging the ground, our convoy takes off again from the RCF Guesthouse for our final leg to Mt. Wilhelm.

Even with the Landcruiser vehicle’s fog lights on, it is scary to see but for a few metres ahead on the road in the white impenetrable veil of condensation.

As the sun reaches higher. and pokes its warm rays into the slowly-awakening Goroka Valley, the fog gradually clears and we find ourselves in Asaro valley.

The road traversing Asaro Valley, an area famous for its mud-men cultural spectacle with grotesquely-faced mud masks, is fairly straight and leads onto the abrupt Daulo Pass mountains rising in the distance.

Asaro Mudmen Papua New Guinea Conservation
Asaro Mudmen in a lift heading to a performance in Sydney, 2016, Source: Sydney Morning Herald

Soon we begin the ascent onto Daulo Pass, a steeply winding climb and as treacherous as the Kassam Pass I had described in my previous story.

Sections of the road had chunks missing on its edges, lost to the powerful erosive forces of rainwater draining off the rugged terrain.
Along this Pass, we see young boys and men on the roadside selling long, heavy strings of succulent Passionfruits, and beautiful wreaths made from montane flowers.

Arriving at Kundiawa, Simbu Province

The intermittent mix of bitumen and dirt roads of Goroka now turn into white crushed limestone. We are now in rocky Simbu country.
Surrounding us as our convoy kicks up a trail of milky dust towards Kundiawa is a precipitous landscape that advertises its harsh geology with sheer limestone mountain faces gleaming brightly in the sunlight amid the greenery.

Hours later we alight into Sinesine country, an area equally renowned for both its fearsome warrior tribes and warm hospitality to visitors.
This is welcome territory for us, as several members of our team are from the roadside Mu village of this area.

We toot our car horns to make aware the expectant community of our arrival, and soon up ahead we see a group of people standing on the road leading into the village.

There we stop for a short while as a brother of one of our team leaders from this area gets onto one of the cars to act as a local escort to Kegesugl village near Mt. Wilhelm.

The winding road at Daulo PassSource: Stegman Cinematography Facebook page

Research and conservation in Highlands Region

The New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (BRC) has always had a close relationship with Mu village. During its early years in the 90s, BRC had been formerly known as the Parataxonomist Training Centre (PTC). Apart from its research activities, the PTC was involved in training Papua New Guineans in biological research. These trainees were mostly local villagers with little formal schooling but with vast experience and indigenous knowledge of their natural environments, who then became key members of its research team.

At that time, the Mu community had set up a community-based biodiversity research and training organization called the Mu Sky Laboratory. Through an arrangement with the then PTC, young, promising members of the Mu team were sent to the Madang-based PTC for training in biological research, and thus facilitated the PTC’s research in the highlands region in Mu’s surrounding natural habitats.

After a few years, the Mu Sky Lab fell into dormancy and the PTC later changed its name to the current New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (BRC). Prominent members who had had valuable research training from PTC and demonstrated adeptness at mastering field research techniques were then kept as members of the now BRC team, and continued to strengthen collaborative ecological research activities into Mu and the highlands region.

Notable among BRC’s recruits from Mu are Martin Mogia and Joseph Kua, two PNG experts in beetles, with Mogia being a BRC team leader and vital community liaisons officer for many years.

Through this connection with Simbu, Mu continues to host many research projects as well as cultural awareness programs for expatriate students and researchers facilitated by BRC.

Of importance among these activities hosted at Mu village is BRC’s biennial International Tropical Ecology Course, where 10 students from the Czech Republic and 10 from PNG attend a training course in Madang (similar to the PNGIBR course mentioned above). At the end of this month-long training, the Czech students undertake a trip to Mt. Wilhelm, and stopover for a night at Mu village for a cultural experience of traditional sing sings and other exhibitions.

wildlife conservation in papua new guinea
(Inset) Martin Mogia of Mu village is a beetle expert with several species of beetles named after him (Outset) A ‘Tanim Het’ cultural ceremony at Mu village performed for students Source: BRC website

Community conservation initiative in Sinesine- MENCERTC

Many years after the Mu Sky Lab’s eventual fall into dormancy, a new community-based conservation and sustainable development program has been initiated by members of the Tabare LLG in Sinesine-Yongomugl District.

In 2015, after attending BRC’s International Student Course in Tropical Ecology in Madang, Moses Kerry, currently a Senior Tutor in the Science Division of the University of Goroka, began planning to start community-based nature conservation and sustainable development program in his Dinima village. And thus, the Mauberema Ecotourism and Nature Conservation, Education, Research and Training Center (MENCERTC) program was born.

simbu wildlife conservation papua new guinea
(Outset, R) Moses Kerry showcasing some of the wildlife fauna of Mauberema (Inset, L) Some of the ecotourism activities offered at Mauberema Source: MENCERTC Facebook page

Moses was awarded a UOG staff development Master of Science scholarship in 2017. MENCERTC was to be part of his study’s project. However, his scholarship was unfortunately withdrawn when the university faced financial difficulties. Still undeterred by this change of circumstances, Moses went ahead to organize his community members and, through the support of various conservation-oriented organizations, developed MENCERTC’s programs. The conservation and educational programs include:

  • community ecotourism,
  • wildlife protection and
  • conservation through education, research and training.

The program is supporting local community livelihoods through sustainable community development projects.

MENCERTC was officially launched in 2020 and partners with and receives support from organizations like the University of Goroka’s Science Division, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) PNG, Binatang Research Centre (BRC), USAid, and others.

Moses Kerry and Bill Habiri Selfless Passion for Giving

Stories like that of Moses Kerry and Bill Habiri (which I shared earlier) are those of perseverance, dedication and a selfless passion to improve the livelihoods and living standards of their communities at the level of an individual citizen. These are tales of citizens with a mindset to initiate community development programs through their own means, without waiting for handouts or government help.

Moses and Bill are the kinds of people that many of us Papua New Guineans should strive to learn from and emulate, and be agents of the changes we want for our lives and our communities.

Highlands Conservation and Education Research PNG
MENCERTC Founder and Director Moses Kerry speaking at MENCERTC’s official launching last year Source: MENCERTC Facebook page

*The next part of my story will continue from Kundiawa to Kegesugl village and onto the base of Mt Wilhelm at 3700 metres elevation, where for three weeks my team conduct a biodiversity survey.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Brian FIAWO

    Absolutely. I hope you have more experience we need more young PNG educators joint research team to look for new s spaces of animals, plants and many more

  2. Michael

    Bradley is an exceptional writer. I shared the link on social media and had many positive responses, mostly from former roommates in school, those who went to University of Flinders who were there together with Bradley.

    1. PNG INSIGHT

      Absolutely. We hope that his work is given the prominence it needs by the govt and conservation development partners it surely deserves.

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