08 February, 2006

ARTICLE: In a world of their own, unknown wildlife yet to learn they should fear us

Deborah Smith Science Editor and Mark Forbes in Jakarta
Sydney Morning Herald
February 8 2006

THE first bird that Australian scientist, Kris Helgen, spotted flitting around the expedition's remote jungle camp was an exotic new species. The flowers were the size of dinner plates. And the frogs were unrecognisable.

But it was the fearlessness and abundance of the kangaroos and long-beaked echidnas in the pristine, mist-shrouded Foja Mountains of western New Guinea that impressed the

young researcher most.

Hunted to near extinction elsewhere on the island, the kangaroos are usually skittish and shy with people on the rare occasions they are spotted.

The team of 25 American, Australian and Indonesian scientists flew by helicopter last December into the midst of the large tract of uninhabited tropical forest. They unearthed a "lost world" brimming with new wildlife.

It took years to obtain permits, then persuade the local Kwerba and Papasena tribes to agree to escort the expedition into the mountains in the west of the Indonesian province of Papua.

Apart from the orange-faced honeyeater - the first new species of bird found on the island in more than 60 years - the team discovered dozens of new species of butterfly, frog and plants.

The team's scientific leader, Stephen Richards, of the South Australian Museum, yesterday spoke of his wonder at seeing dozens of a spectacularly crested new species of smoky honeyeater after reaching a summit. Tall trees were draped from ground to canopy with thick moss, dripping water from curtains of mist. Animals abounded, many remarkably docile as they had never encountered human hunters.

"Because there is no human presence at all, this area is like it was before people came to Papua New Guinea. It really is a garden of Eden," Mr Richards said.

A specialist in frogs, he has found at least 20 new species during his month-long stay - including one less than 14 millimetres long.

The researchers also became the first Western scientists to see a live, male Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise. The exotic bird had been first described in the late 19th century through specimens collected by indigenous hunters from an unknown location on New Guinea. Several subsequent expeditions had failed to find it.

Six species of kangaroos, including two tree kangaroos, were found to live in the forest. Most importantly, they included the golden-mantled tree kangaroo, a new mammal for Indonesia, and one which had only previously been found on a single mountain in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

The species was thought to be highly threatened. "But it seemed to be quite common here, so that was a very exciting find," Mr Helgen said.

Echidnas unperturbed by humans were found on three consecutive nights. "We simply picked them up and carried them back to camp."

The Kwerba and Papasena, the customary landowners of the forest, welcomed the team, from the non-profit organisation Conservation International, and served as guides and naturalists on the expedition into the vast jungle tract.

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