Dr. Lisa Dabek once went seven years without seeing a single wild tree kangaroo. This might seem unremarkable (after all, most of us go our entire lives without seeing one), but it’s a significant challenge when you’re a field biologist spending months at a time in the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea, searching for the species in question.
At a public lecture held last week at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., Dabek recounted the challenges and triumphs she has experienced as director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo—a program funded by Conservation International’s (CI) Global Conservation Fund.
As she showed photographs of Papua New Guinea’s unbroken blocks of forest and local hunters-turned-conservationists, Dabek explained how the conservation of Matschie’s tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei) and its habitat is more than just an effort to save another charismatic creature from extinction; the project is just as committed to the nearby communities. Not only do local people rely on the animals for their meat and fur, but their livelihoods also depend on the forests where the animals live. “We’re trying to figure out how to ensure a sustainable resource for people while protecting these incredible areas.”
Classified as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, Matschie’s tree kangaroo is found only in the isolated cloud forest of Papua New Guinea’s Huon Penninsula. When Dabek first arrived there, the scientific community knew little about these elusive creatures, which are shy and easily camouflaged by the reddish-brown moss dangling from trees. But after 15 years of work, her team’s research has provided insight into many of the animals’ behaviors, from social structure—mainly solitary—to fascinating defense mechanisms—including jumping from treetop to forest floor to escape predators.
Recently, the use of National Geographic’s Crittercam tool has also helped to expand our knowledge of how tree kangaroos spend their time high up in the treetops where humans can’t follow. Check out the video below to see some of the footage:
Last year, the government of Papua New Guinea established the YUS Conservation Area—the country’s first conservation area—through collaboration with CI, TKCP and especially local communities. Cultural tradition has long dictated that certain areas remain off-limits for hunting; only in recent years has this practice tapered off. Dabek describes this revived strategy as a “wildlife bank”—by protecting their core habitat areas, the tree kangaroos can continue to reproduce, and the expanded population will eventually wander outside the boundaries of the protected area, where they are accessible to hunters.
With an eye towards the future, TKCP is working with CI to document the effects of climate change on local ecosystems and species. Through a partnership with Australia’s James Cook University, TKCP is also establishing long-term ecological monitoring in the area, as well as examining the socioeconomic impacts of the program on nearby communities.
In addition to providing alternative livelihoods for hunters through new jobs in the conservation field, the program also supports a variety of other community development initiatives, including the expansion of education and health services. “The tree kangaroos may have brought me to New Guinea,” Dabek said, “but it’s the people that keep me there.”