YUS - Papua New Guinea's first conservation area

The YUS Conservation Area was created in 2009 as Papua New Guinea's first conservation reserve, and derives its name from the Yopno, Uruwa and Som rivers that flow through it. Located on the north coast of the Huon Peninsula, east of the town of Madang, the protected area covers some 78,700ha of tropical rainforest along with village gardens, plantations and grasslands, as well as 46ha of coral studded coastal waters. The impetus to set up the area was to protect the habitat of the endangered Huon tree kangaroo, but the charismatic marsupial has now become a flagship for protecting an extraordinary variety of other unique and wonderful species found on the Huon Peninsula.

Many of the plants and animals in YUS are culturally important to the local people. Recognising that wildlife was becoming scarcer, clans from more than 50 villages in the area came together to set aside parcels of their own land for the protected area. On this land they have committed not to hunt, log the forest or extract resources. Such close collaboration with local communities is essential to set up and maintain protected areas, because more than 95 per cent of PNG’s land remains the property of the indigenous clans who inhabit it. Through the YUS Conservation Organisation, local communities have been empowered to work together to manage the reserve, and also to develop community development projects including health, education and sustainable livelihood initiatives.

See the current issue (May-June 2014) of Australian Geographic magazine for a story
 about the YUS Conservation Area



Why target maternal health?

Somewhere in the world a woman dies every 90 seconds from complications of birth. Of these deaths, 99 per cent occur in developing countries. The vast majority are preventable. Australia is one of the safest places to have a baby in the world. Here, women face a risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth of less than one in 10,000. In stark contrast neighbouring countries such as Papua New Guinea, remote parts of Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, this figure is a staggering one in 20. When mothers die, they leave more than one million children behind each year.

 - Dr Barry Kirby (www.sendhope.org/png)


The YUS Conservation Area is located in one of the most remote regions of Papua New Guinea. Due to a lack of resources, transportation and the difficulty in traversing the rugged terrain in this remote area, the people of YUS have been unable to access the health services which would otherwise be provided by the PNG health department.

Healthy Village, Healthy Forest Project

In order to address this lack of access, the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (the organisation that was instrumental in the establishment and management of the YUS Conservation Area) has developed the Healthy Village, Healthy Forest Project. Under this project, TKCP partners with the PNG Medical Research Institute and the PNG District and Provincial Health Departments to provide training and medical treatment through TKCP-sponsored health patrols across YUS. The local villagers have identified maternal and infant health as a key priority for the community. To help address this issue our fundraising will contribute to TKCP’s project by helping with the establishment of safe birthing houses, training of village birth assistants and provision of essential basic supplies for mother & infant health.


Does saving children lead to overpopulation?

There is a common myth that saving poor children in developing countries leads to overpopulation. The opposite is in fact true. Where child mortality is highest in the world, population growth is highest because parents need to compensate for the loss of children. Statistics from around the world consistently indicate that educating women and ensuring they are healthy lowers maternal and infant mortality and enables parents to choose to have smaller families. (for a great perspective on this issue see Hans Rosling explain how this works)

In short, look after the women in remote, poor regions such as YUS ensures that the children are healthy. Healthy children and women make for healthy villages, and ultimately a healthy community means a healthy forest and environment. 

Map of the YUS Conservation Area, Morobe Province, PNG (reproduced from Australian Geographic magazine)

Map of the YUS Conservation Area, Morobe Province, PNG (reproduced from Australian Geographic magazine)

View a short film about the establishment of the YUS Conservation Area:

Aboriginal knowledge addresses species decline

Aboriginal knowledge and science join forces to help northern Australia’s declining native mammals

I’m at an outstation on the edge of the Arnhem Land plateau drinking what must be my 13th cup of tea for the day. Several local Aboriginal women and about 30 camp dogs are watching as I show them the selection of stuffed mammals I’ve brought from Darwin, where I work as a research biologist for the Australian National University. We’re up to tree-rats – a group of large, tree-dwelling rodents endemic to northern Australia. From the back of my Toyota I bring out a kordberr, or Golden-backed Tree-rat (pictured) – a species whose numbers have declined dramatically over the past century, and which hasn’t been recorded in the Northern Territory since 1969.

One of the younger women, who’s remained silent up until now, suddenly pipes up. “I seen that one last year down the road,” she says. I’m surprised and mildly sceptical. “Are you sure it was this one and not one of these?” I ask, pointing to other similar, more common tree-rat species. “Nope,” she replies emphatically. “It was that one. It had a big long, white tail and that colour on its back, just like that one.” As she continues describing it and the habitat in which she saw it, I grow increasingly excited, convinced we’re talking about the same creature– one scientists feared had long disappeared from the Territory.

Observations such as this are priceless for scientists like me. Although large parts of the country’s northern landscapes appear largely intact, many mammal species – in particular bandicoots, possums, quolls, smaller wallabies and rodents – and some bird species, have declined or disappeared over past decades. The difficulties of studying these mostly nocturnal groups of animals over large and sparsely settled regions means that much of our scientific knowledge is fragmented, making it hard to pinpoint the extent and timing of losses and the reasons behind them.

To address this problem, in late 2005 a collaborative research project between the Australian National University, the NT Government, The Wilderness Society and Aboriginal groups and individuals across northern Australia was launched. Its aim: to bring together scientific and traditional knowledge to chart the pattern of mammal decline across northern Australia. When examined in relation to a broad set of environmental factors, such as topography, land use and fire regimes, such information can help us assess the reasons for the declines and the success of the region’s protected areas in conserving biodiversity. It may also help us work out how we can improve.

By the end of the project in 2008 we had travelled around 30,000 km – on foot and by car, boat and light plane – across the Top End and the Kimberley, visiting over 30 outstations and communities. Thanks to Indigenous knowledge we more than doubled the number of records for many mammal species in these areas. We learned, for example, that the Northern Brush-tailed Phascogale was much more widespread than scientists knew, although its numbers are declining. We discovered that the Black-footed Tree-rat is thriving in places we thought it hadn’t been seen in for more than 30 years, and that its numbers have declined in the places we considered it to be common.

But there is more than just science at work here. In many ways, Aboriginal knowledge of plants and animals is more thorough than ours because it’s based on information and experiences accumulated over many generations. It’s also a lot more intricate. While Western science tends to describe a species based on its individual characteristics, Aboriginal people classify plants, animals and their environments differently. They will often speak of groups of animals in the context of their environment and social and spiritual settings, which may vary depending on local conditions. In a sense it’s a more holistic approach. Such collaborative projects help Aboriginal rangers and communities to look after their land and understand the way things have changed since the old days; and in turn, they’re showing us their country in a different light and teaching us what’s important about it.

During the study I interviewed senior elder and traditional landowner from central Arnhem Land, Peter Billiers. This remarkable old man could name every Australian prime minister since World War II and talk about their policies in depth, but when pressed, he couldn’t remember what year the yok, or Northern Brown Bandicoot, disappeared from his land. Instead, he said: “It was when that John Howard bloke started. John Howard finished those animals!” We may have blamed the former Prime Minister for many things, but I reckon this one’s got to be a first!


This blog post is reproduced with modifications from an article in Volume 87 of ‘Australian Geographic’ magazine

Watch an ABC Catalyst program about the project:

Focussing on conservation science

Photography can be a powerful tool for communicating science and relaying the conservation message

In the 1980s, at the height of one of Australia’s most famous and intense environmental battles, a series of images inspired a nation and swung a debate in favour of the protection of one of the world’s great wilderness areas. The photographer was Peter Dombrovskis, and his images of the Tasmanian wilderness played a pivotal role in helping save the Franklin River and surrounding regions from environmental destruction.

Dombrovskis, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was a passionate advocate for his adopted Tasmania. His simple yet effective philosophy was based on the belief that by showing people the beauty of Australia’s wild places they might be moved to save them.

It worked for the Franklin River, and it also worked to inspire a whole new generation of photographers – people like Christina Mittermeier, co-founder and president of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). The ILCP consist of a group of the world’s best nature photographers who go beyond merely taking photos of nature to using photography as an essential tool for advocacy and raising awareness about environmental, social and conservation issues worldwide.

As a conservation biologist by profession, working on threatened species and ecosystems and trying to better understand how contemporary environmental issues impact indigenous people, the work of these photographers is inspirational. One of the best things about being a biologist is being able to get off the beaten track, to see and study wildlife in their natural settings and to meet people whose lives are affected by environmental changes on the ground. In recent years I’ve been fortunate to work across the Aboriginal lands of northern Australia, in the remote highland villages of New Guinea, the isolated islands of the tropical South Pacific and the jungles of South-east Asia. Invariably, I find myself wanting to share many of the wonderful sights, remarkable and exotic plants and animals, and the rich and fascinating cultures of such places. At other times, to highlight the plight of declining species, degraded habitats and the effects of severe and sometimes seemingly intractable environmental changes on local communities.

As scientists, we largely communicate among ourselves through reports, scientific research papers and conferences, and too often neglect to effectively communicate the significance of our research to the broader community – yet in few disciplines is effective communication more important than in those dealing with the plight of the Earth’s environment. Photography in this sense provides one tool for relaying the message, and one that should be in the communication toolbox of more field biologists.

But communicating more effectively is only one benefit of taking pictures. Photography has also aided my research by helping to view and understand the bigger picture associated with the projects I work on. Translating conservation science projects into a narrative of visual images is a challenge. To properly represent a subject you need to understand the background, to place it in its proper context and, to be really effective, to capture the essence or ‘soul’ of an issue or environment. As a consequence, you end up needing to dig deeper, to know much more than just the details of the particular research project you might be working on. The process and results can be enormously rewarding and enjoyable – usually much more so than writing scientific papers!

As conservation challenges continue to mount around us, the need for us to better understand our impacts on our planet, based on rigorous science, is vital. But equally important is the need for communicating science and conservation issues effectively to a broader audience. Photography in this sense can be an immensely powerful tool. If a photo speaks to a person and touches their hearts, changes their minds or inspires them to take action, then for a conservation photographer, it has achieved its purpose.


This blog post originally appeared on ABC Open - a website dedicated to the people and places of regional Australia.