PNG Scientist Visits Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Bradley Gewa (front right) is a former Research Technician from the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Madang, where he helped in the study of insect-plant interactions in the PNG rainforest, as well as supported community-based conservation projects. He has a keen affinity for nature, loves books and writing, and is a life-long student after the pursuit of knowledge.

The story is Part II of My European Sojourn series by Bradley. Links to Parts I and II are at in the Editor’s note.

Pic: Dr Mika Peck takes a group photo using the drone’s Go Pro camera at Sussex University

Visit Kew Botanic Gardens

At the end of our three memorable weeks in the Czech Republic in 2013, a British Airways jet heaves my colleague and I across mainland Europe back to London’s Heathrow Airport.

After a relaxed time in Czechia among familiar faces, visiting laid-back villages and towns, openly speaking Tok Pisin and enjoying nostalgic amounts of the world’s most inexpensive beers, arriving now in one of the globe’s busiest airports with more than a thousand aeroplanes landing everyday nerve-rackingly jolts us back to the reality of being two travellers alone in the world.

New Guinea Binatang Research Centre supporters in the UK

There to meet us, holding no placard bearing our names as we had imagined (since we had never personally met before), is a kindly-looking, elderly gentleman who smiles as we approach and calls us by name.

Dr Alan Stewart is a lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex, and a long-time UK research collaborator of the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre and would be our main host here.

Recommended read: An article from the University of Sussex titled ‘Sussex researcher training ‘para-ecologists’ to protect the rainforest

Working together with his other colleague from Sussex, Dr Mika Peck, they both help to seek financial support for some of the Binatang Centre’s activities through the Darwin Initiative, a UK Government funding program aimed at assisting developing countries that are rich in biodiversity with conservation and training projects.

Over the years, these funds have supported collaborative research projects in PNG and the training of Papua New Guineans in biological research, including the 2-month overseas travel and training opportunity that my colleague and I are currently on.

Plans for the UK visit

In England, we witness some of the icons of the British lifestyle that we had only always seen on TV- bright red telephone booths, perplexing accents, and our first taste of the humongous ‘English Breakfast’ and the famous newspaper-wrapped ‘Fish and Chips’.

Although I must admit that the fish tasted a little bland, but then this is coming from a coastal Papua New Guinean with usually high expectations from fish. And yes, lots and lots of Indian people were observed there as well.

Our first week here will be spent at the University of Sussex to the south of the capital city, then a week at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium in south-west London, another in Oxford to attend a professional tree-climbing course, and finally a week with an entomologist colleague at the National Museum in Wales.

University of Sussex and PNG research connection

At the University of Sussex, we get to finally meet Dr Mika Peck, an affable and humorous chap with biodiversity conservation research projects in Ecuador and other places, as well as our work in PNG.

With him, we try out a new software program for calculating Above-Ground Biomass using only measured tree trunk diameters, hear about his amazing community conservation efforts to protect Spider-Monkeys in the Amazon with his lovely Mexican PhD student named Citlali, and his ideas for BioAcoustics/ Soundscape.

The BioAcoustics/ Soundscape – placing recording devices deep in the forest and later retrieving them to analyse the sounds to estimate animal species diversity and any encroaching human activities like logging.

The most fun part is when he pulls out a prototype drone for us to test, destined for the Ecuadorian rainforest to help identify tree species from the air.

We take comical selfies with the drone’s Go-Pro camera (one of the earliest drone selfies for Papua New Guineans, maybe..?), and finally, crash-land it (luckily) into the tyre of an unknown vehicle in the university’s car park.

Weekend in Brighton and Dover

On the weekend we visit the nearby Brighton Beach with its impressive Palace Pier- the original Brighton after which many other beaches around the world are named.

We also drive out to the seaside town of Dover and take a walk over its iconic chalky “White Cliffs” and catch a distant glimpse of the French coastline across the wind-swept English Channel.

Colleagues at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, London

After a wonderful week in Sussex, Dr Stewart takes us to Kew in south-west London, where we will work and train with botanist colleagues at the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens Herbarium.

The 170-year old Kew Gardens Herbarium is one of the world’s largest botanical facilities, housing over 8 million plant specimens from all over the globe, and with specialist research teams focusing on each region and its plant groups.

Its seemingly endless rows of giant, tirelessly-catalogued plant storage cabinets occupying several stories of the building- a far cry from our tiny one-room herbarium in Madang- engorges us with awe.

Our colleagues at the Herbarium are experts on South-East Asian plants (including PNG) and here we witness how new plant species are classified, named and stored for long-term research.

Meeting the tropical plants herbarium curators there, we are also astounded to learn that some of them have never seen or touched a full, living specimen of some of the species they work on- only handling dried leaves, fruits and flowers that are stored there.

Nonetheless, these people are some of the foremost taxonomic authorities on these plants and contribute greatly to the world’s understanding of them.

The Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

Adjacent to the Herbarium is the magnificent Kew Royal Botanic Gardens with its carefully tended arrangements of planted flowers, plants and trees brought in from almost all corners of the world.

Each of these plants bears their species identification and country of origin on little signs placed in front of them, thus acting as a sort of living complement to the dead specimens housed in the nearby Herbarium.

Established in 1740 and historically serving as the residential grounds for some of Britain’s early monarchs (hence the regal association of its name), the Kew Gardens contains the world’s largest and most diverse plant and fungi collections, and as such, also boasts its own police force for the safeguarding of these treasures.

A World Heritage Site

Because of its idyllic beauty, history and renowned collection of flora, it is a World Heritage Site and draws more than a million visitors each year as one of London’s top tourist sites.

Apart from its outdoor gardens, its attractions include a canopy walkway extending over the treetops, ornamental buildings from various parts of the world, and a number of glass greenhouses among which are an Alpine House, Waterlily House and a Conservatory containing carnivorous plants.

As an indisputable global garden, without my ever setting foot in the Middle East, it is at the Kew Gardens that I first lay eyes on the gigantic and sturdy Cedar of Lebanon, legendary during Biblical times for King Solomon’s temple construction.

And likewise, through witnessing the countless other exotic plants that have now taken home here, I am able to tread the far reaches of the globe from just within the wondrous confines of the Gardens.

Kew Royal Botanic Garden’s tropical plants collection

The Kew Royal Botanical Garden’s tropical plants collection- unbelievable even to imagine such an existence in England’s temperate, seasonal climate- is ingeniously housed in a huge, dome-shaped, glasshouse with wrought iron frames.

Called the “Palm House”, in this highly popular attraction at the Kew Gardens, the temperature, watering and humidity are carefully regulated to artificially recreate a tropical climate for its resident plants.

This no doubt is a must-see for us and as we enter its sealed doors we instantly notice the familiar warm humidity of its controlled environment, and gladly welcome this brief respite from the chilling cold left outside.

Buai, Daka and Sago in London’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens

But then, as if to surprise us in a further welcome especially tailored for two Papua New Guineans: growing tall and beautiful just at the entrance is a beloved Betelnut palm, complete with hanging young fruits!

Hugging the palm and climbing upwards are luscious, green Piper vines (Daka). For these two familiar plants, we do not need to look at their scientific name labels of “Areca catechu” and “Piper betel” to confirm what they are.

Our joyous bafflement at these nostalgic reminders of home does not end there. Standing majestically in the middle of the glasshouse is a thick Sago palm, with leaves extended and almost reaching up to the glass ceiling.

Beside it, a white metal staircase spirals upwards to walkways running above for a birds-eye view of the cleverly reconstructed tropical garden within the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens.

We come to the realisation then, that the 19 metre-high dome ceiling of the giant glasshouse is to accommodate giants such as this towering centre-piece, the quintessential “Tree of Life” for our people, here now proudly bearing the name “Metroxylon sagu” on its label.

Of course, we see many other familiar plants and palms growing inside the Palm House. But none would have a more powerful sentimental effect on us than these two palms and the Piper vine, as any Papua New Guinean privileged to share this encounter would certainly agree.

Millennium Seed Bank: Largest Seed Storage in the World

A part of the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens research arm, we also visit the nearby Millennium Seed Bank. This mind-blowing facility aims to collect, research and store viable plant seeds from all over the globe, which can then be possibly used to repropagate forests or important food crops in the event of a major catastrophe that would drive species extinct.

Realising the growing threats to plants from the quickly-changing environment and climate, the UK achieved its goal of preserving the seeds of all its native plants in this facility in 2009 and currently partners with 95 other countries to pursue this at an international scale.

Now, before I get too distracted from the main purpose of my story with tales of our visit to the world-renowned British Museum of Natural History and seeing its prominently-placed Charles Darwin marble statue and the glass-enclosed original copy of his revolutionary publication “On the Origin of Species”, I must take you back to our first night in London after arriving from Sussex.

First night in London

After settling into our accommodation, a rented self-contained top room in a nice family home on a quiet street, my colleague and I go out for a night-time tour of south-west London’s streets to look for dinner.

As one would expect in a European city, night time is as bustling with people as during the day, and perhaps even more so, with food stalls, restaurants, shops, and entertainment businesses operating busily at their nocturnal routines.

Passing people by on the streets, it is hard not to notice homeless ones sitting and lying along the pavement in front of shops with all their earthly possessions, with some begging passers-by for extra change. My colleague and I look at each other and quietly shake our heads in sadness as we pass a pretty young woman sitting with her dog, seemingly comfortable and unmindful of the crowds walking past.

London streets at night

Coming from a communal society of close familial connections and innate obligations to support other kins, we make conscious efforts not to stare at these people as we attempt to wrap our naïve minds around this strange, new issue facing us of homelessness in supposedly affluent nations.

Among this group of street people, we notice up ahead of us a noisy, bedraggled guy asking pedestrians for loose change as they passed him. We see some people stop briefly to help him, while others carry on without throwing him a glance.

Suddenly realising that we would inevitably be faced with this unfamiliar situation of being begged for money by a homeless white man, my colleague and I grow nervous as we get closer to the obviously intoxicated person. As we pass, he looks up at us and asks loudly:

“Spare change, brothers?”

Although somewhat prepared for this, we still find ourselves bewildered at this new experience and are unsure whether or not to stop and give him some of our money. Our undecidedness allows us to move by without acknowledging his request, and this quickly starts to incite feelings of guilt in us for ignoring the destitute-appearing fellow.

The homeless, pedestrians and night visitors in London

Any pity we may momentarily feel for the homeless man swiftly gives way to indifference, as perhaps noticing that we are not native Londoners and appearing to capitalise on this, the homeless guy calls out again as we continue on our way.

Then, unexpectedly and perhaps in a final effort to reach out to us and particularly my dread-locked appearance, or maybe to rub in our guilt for not ceding to his requests, or just simply because we somehow remind him of a favourite tune, he suddenly lifts up his loud voice in Bob Marley’s famous song of love and compassion:

“One Love…One Heart…

Let’s get together and feel alright..”

We find this strangely amusing, as he possesses a good singing voice, much to ours and the other pedestrian’s noticeable surprise, and also brings me to the uneasy realisation that I am wearing a reggae-colour woollen cap.

A night to remember in London

Nonetheless, letting his beautiful singing drown out as we continue walking, we are comforted by the thought that he would now certainly attract many willing givers with the inspiration that we may have accidentally gifted him. Instead of giving him fish (and chips), we had made him realise that he could be a better fisherman, we muse.

To bring this story to a close, after having dinner at a Middle Eastern food stall (the kind where they carve delicious roasting meat from a vertical rotating slab) we take another route home. Along the way, we stop and gently place the extra plate we bought in front of a half-asleep homeless guy and carry on, quietly pondering the night’s interesting events.

Editor’s note:

This wonderfully written piece is Part III of Bradley’s work titled My European Sojourn on Facebook. The original article was adjusted to fit the article template on PNG Insight.

It was a pleasure to read about the opportunity, such as this, given to young and vibrant PNG scientists to travel overseas, share their knowledge and learn from the others in the field of biodiversity and conservation.

Thank you to the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre, its supporters in the UK, University of Sussex, the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens and other conservationists in this story.

A special thank you to Bradley who kindly let us publish his story on PNG Insight. You can read the My European Sojourn series Part I (A Case of Extreme Culture Shock, Facebook) and Part II (A Case of the Glum Gorilla, Facebook) of Bradley’s exciting trip to Europe.

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