Community-based Tree Kangaroo Program Wins Top Conservation Prize

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is one of the most diverse places on Earth — a country with over 850 languages and numerous mountain ranges that have historically limited contact between clans.

Matschie's tree kangaroo

Juvenile Matschie’s tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea’s YUS Conservation Area. (© Bruce M Beehler)

These clans traditionally manage their own land their own way. Yet over the past two decades, communities scattered across the Huon Peninsula have defied tradition, joining hands to create a community-based group that collectively manages what in 2009 became known as the YUS Conservation Area, the first legally protected area of its kind in PNG.

These communities did this because they realized it was their best chance of saving an important cultural icon: the Matschie’s tree kangaroo. Five years later, their success has been internationally recognized; today their community-based NGO, the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program-PNG, was officially awarded one of this year’s Equator Prizes.

boy in traditional dress, Papua New Guinea

Boy wearing traditional dress (including a headband of tree kangaroo fur) at a sing-sing in Papua New Guinea. Fur from Matschie’s tree kangaroos has long played an important cultural role for local communities; their creation of the YUS Conservation Area was largely to protect this species for the future. (© Zachary Wells)

The Equator Prize is one of the conservation community’s most prestigious achievements, recognizing local sustainable development solutions that support the resilience of both people and nature. The award is particularly important because it is given to community-led examples of conservation innovation — cutting-edge projects driven by local people.

YUS (an acronym for the area’s three main rivers the Yopno, Uruwa and Som) deserves global recognition. A unique interaction between people and place, the YUS project is accomplishing amazing things in protecting an area of exceptional biodiversity while improving the welfare of the 12,000 people who live there.

village in YUS Conservation Area, Papua New Guinea

Yawan village in Papua New Guinea’s YUS Conservation Area. (© Bruce M Beehler)

Stretching over 75,000 hectares (185,330 acres), YUS encompasses cloud forest peaks towering 4,000 meters (13,120 feet) high, coral reef on the coast below and tropical rainforest in between. It is a microcosm of the country’s incredible human diversity. It is the kind of place that lovers of nature and culture dream about.

What makes the YUS initiative so special is that the entire area is owned by local people, passed down generation after generation along traditional clan lines. These same clans have taken the progressive step of legally protecting their landscape from major developments like mining or oil exploration.

YUS isn’t a “hands-off” park where people are relegated to living on the outside looking in. Villages and farms, even small schools and health centers are all within the protected area. The YUS landowners have zoned the entire landscape and manage it to meet their needs, both now and in the future — this forest for conservation and wildlife habitat, that hillside for gardens, this grassland for reforestation, that valley for a village, and so on.

This is truly cutting-edge conservation. YUS is a living landscape where human well-being is the result of environmental protection. The YUS people have created a place where wildlife can thrive, where the vision is one of sustainability and where people benefit from looking after the land and sea that supports them.

The YUS project also shows how successful conservation can be when motivated local people find like-minded partners.

Woodland Park Zoo has supported YUS for nearly 20 years. CI has been a partner for nearly a decade. A five-year grant from the German government provided a critical foundation. A US$ 1 million grant from CI’s Global Conservation Fund, matched by Woodland Park Zoo, funds an endowment which helps to ensure that YUS works in perpetuity. In 2012, YUS even hit the international coffee market as its premium beans were purchased for the first time by Seattle-based roaster Caffe Vita, a relationship which still nets the YUS growers a significant price increase.

woman with bag of coffee, Papua New Guinea

Woman holds a bag of coffee grown on Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula. Since 2012, Seattle’s Caffe Vita has been purchasing coffee beans from the region, ensuring that shade-grown coffee can be a viable economic alternative to deforestation. (© Zachary Wells)

Since 2012, Seattle’s Caffe Vita has been purchasing coffee beans from the region, ensuring that shade-grown and conservation compatible coffee can bring meaningful economic benefits for local landowners.

Before joining CI, I was privileged to work in YUS for four years as part of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program, named after YUS’s most iconic animal, the Matschie’s tree kangaroo.

The tree kangaroo is a special species for YUS. Its fur makes up part of the YUS traditional costume during celebrations called sing-sings. The Matchie’s is endangered, mainly due to pressures from hunting, a complex and important cultural practice in YUS. The guarantee of its long-term survival is what prompted YUS landowners to create this protected landscape.

A YUS sing-sing is a mix of dance party, ceremony and religious experience. People use tree kangaroo tails as headbands and birds-of-paradise feathers in headdresses. They beat drums and sing songs while their feet stamp out a rhythm which stretches back for generations. If flying into YUS on a small plane and landing on a grass airstrip is an eye-opening, heart-pounding experience, witnessing a sing-sing from night through to morning is life-changing.

In the end it’s really this persistence of local culture and the desire to hang on to things that are important which keeps the YUS Conservation Area alive. And it’s the existence of the conservation area which guarantees the survival of the YUS way of life.

The Equator Prize has done well in recognizing YUS. And the YUS landowners and their partners have done well for the world.


Tree ferns in the morning mist in Papua New Guinea. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Tree ferns in the morning mist in Papua New Guinea. (© Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier)

Zachary Wells is the senior manager for responsible mining and energy in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business. The other CI-related project among this year’s Equator Prize winners is the Northern Rangelands Trust in Kenya. CI Indigenous Fellow Beatrice Lempaira is a member of this network of community conservancies. Read more about her work or learn more about each of the Equator Prize winners.


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