Tree Kangaroos: Ghosts of the Forest

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.”

Comments

  1. Agnes Nowaczek says

    What happens to the critter cam after it stops recording? Will the animal be stuck with it for good? Also, the female with the joey inside is shown dropping down meters from the canopy. Why not use a large net to break their fall? What measures are used to protect the animal? It looks to me like there’s a lot of stress on these animals.

    I appreciate the need for research; however, I am always concerned when I see an endangered species being additionally stressed. Whether it is human acyivity, pollution, or science, I am sure that to the studied animals it all looks the same.

    Thank you,
    Agnes

  2. Megan C. says

    @Agnes Nowaczek

    They mention that the male was to have the camera on “for a few days”. As a fellow scientist, that is perfectly acceptable to me. I would frown on them if they left the critter cam on for good (or if any scientist left such a bulky piece of equipment on for good!). Not to mention, the cameras are probably quite expensive and while they obviously have 2, they may not have any more than that. When studying in the field, often you have very little funds to do what you want. There would be no way that the field research project would have funded these critter cams without National Geographic.

    The narrator also mentions that the animals are physically equipped to leave the trees and get to the ground quickly. I’m assuming they are prepared to make that jump and they do it in the wild. It does look pretty far, but they also appear to have extremely strong back legs which would be able to withstand the fall.

    As a field researcher, I am obviously going to have my reasons for stressing the animals out during the study. These researchers will be keenly aware that they are stressing out the animals, and if I was in Dr. Lisa Dabek’s position, I would be pacing back and forth while NatGeo taped their segments, waiting impatiently for the point that the animals are released. In no way do we want these animals to be more stressed than they need to be! Which is how it differs from human activity or pollution. Those two types of stress are completely indiscriminate and often affect an entire population.

  3. debasish das says

    the way to capture these endangered species is not up to the mark , it seems quite harsh & it needs immediate attention to highlight this issue otherwise it will provide us the wrong picture of conservation.

    Beside the critter cam or collar bone GPRS tracking system also need critical evaluation to safe guard each & every animal free movement .We know the word Scientific experiment used in this world for different way to suit their own purposes.

  4. Xai Viado says

    @ agnes and ashton

    i agree with megan. no study/field research using critter cams leave the cams on the animals being studied after the research. the cams are only place on the animals to know the habits of the animal.

    addressing to your concern in about the stress brought about the research to the animal. even though i am still a field researcher in training, i agree again with megan. stress to the animal is unavoidable since it is wild and probably didnt have any contact with human before the research. but being conservationists and field biologists, field scientists have protocols on when and where to release the animal. they secure that the animal has recovered from stress before releasing it.

  5. Agnes says

    Thank you all for your insightful comments!

    I am sure that no scientist whose passion is the protection of these beautiful animals would stress them on purpose. However, I would still question the case of the female kangaroo with the joey in her pouch. Perhaps if she wasn’t pressed, she would not be making such big jumps in her condition. I simply don’t know.

    In other examples, I have come across studies where scientists in helicopters would chase moose to neutralise them, and at times the running moose would break a leg and have to be shot. On another occasion, I observed long metal wire rods surgically inserted into snakes to track them with radio equipment. These rods were left inside for good — I can’t help thinking how these snakes would ever curl up or what happens to another animal that eats them.

    As a social science researcher studying nature tourism from the human perspective, I may not fully know of the ethics procedures that scientists have to undergo. Comparing what I observed about animal research with the red tape around research with human participants, I see much discrepancy between the two, and much more attention to human wellbeing than wildlife. At least this is my bias and where my questions are coming from. That and my love for wildlife.

    Cheers,
    Agnes

  6. Paul says

    I was backpacking in Australia. Spent a few days in Cape Tribulation. Decided to do a day hike up to the Mt Sorrow viewing point; Got up here so fast that I continued after a short rest; I saw a Tree Kangaroo on my way to Mount Pieter Botte. The roo dropped from a tree a mere meter from where I was standing and took off, hoping away! Needless to say I was startled!!!

    I had to cross a stream. I also remember walking under & around lots of huge boulders in a dark forest too. It was a challenge to not loose the trail!

    On the dirt track back to the hostel, I got a lift by a park warden truck with 3 or 4 people. Needless to say, by the expression on their faces, they were all quite surprised that a Canadian traveller, on a day hike, would catch a glimpse of an elusive Tree Kangaroo in Daintree National Park.

    The view from Mount Pieter Botte was awesome!!!!

    My wish for the Planet: 25/15!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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