A visit to New Guinea offers one of the last chances to glimpse a passing world, which until relatively recently remained untarnished from the touch of western technology. The vast unexplored forests, swamps, and mountain ranges remain to this day one of the few places on earth that can still be described as truly wild. Any trip into the interior is an adventure fraught with the difficulties of travel but with the exciting reward and promise of encounters with unusual wildlife and charming people.
As a naturalist, my interest in New Guinea lies in the wealth of biodiversity on the island, which from a Southeast Asian perspective is unique in the archipelago. Lying to the east of Wallace’s Line, the fauna is distinctly Australasian in nature, with countless endemic species. In contrast to other large islands in Indonesia, the forests of New Guinea are also almost completely intact and pristine, and many other habitats remain relatively undisturbed by development. When I first flew over the island in 1994 I was awestruck by the vast size of the unbroken forests and lofty mountains which seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, and I have been captivated by the land ever since.
New Guinea is the second largest island in the world (after Greenland) and covers over 792,000 square kilometers. The interior of the island is composed of extremely rugged terrain, the prime feature being a central cordillera of mountains running east to west which have formed from the collision of the Australian and Pacific plates. In numerous places these mountains exceed 4000 meters in height, and Puncak Jaya, at 4884 meters, is the highest peak in all Southeast Asia and the locality of one of only three equatorial glaciers in the world.
The western half of the island is a province of Indonesia, and referred to under various names including Irian Jaya, Tanah Papua, or Propinsi Papua. Although this huge province occupies over 20% of the land area of Indonesia, it is home to only 1% of the population, and not surprisingly is also the least developed territory. There is an astonishing diversity of native cultures, with several hundred distinct languages being spoken.
Familiar Southeast Asian animals such as wild cats, monkeys, civets, and deer are completely absent (except where introduced), and all of the larger land mammals in New Guinea are marsupials, comprising a number of families including kangaroos, wallabies, cuscuses, possums, and bandicoots. Although some species are shared with northern Australia, many are unique to the island including tree kangaroos (Dendrolagus), and a number of Phalanger species. There are also two species of monotremes, or egg-laying mammals, the Short-beaked and Long-beaked Echidnas, the latter of which is endemic. Placental mammals include a huge diversity of native rats, mice, and bats, many of which are endemic to New Guinea. Giant fruit bats (Pteropus spp.) are often observed at dusk flying over the forest canopy in great numbers. Many species are hunted for food and have declined in numbers near populated areas. New discoveries are still being made, and it was only recently that an entirely new species of tree kangaroo, the Dingiso (Dendrolagus mbaiso) was found in the remote highlands of the interior.
New Guinea is famous for being home to some of the most beautiful and bizarre birds in the world. Of over 700 native species, an incredible 101 are endemic to the island. The list includes the glorious birds-of-paradise, bowerbirds, crowned pigeons, and a great assortment of parrots. The largest native land animal is the flightless cassowary, of which there are 3 species, which can reach up to 1.5 meters in height and have a nasty reputation. In contrast to islands to the west such as Borneo and Sumatra, New Guinea’s bird fauna is distinctly Australasian and has no woodpeckers, barbets, pheasants, trogons, or bulbuls.
With over 200 species of frogs recorded so far, it is a wonder that new species are still being discovered today, yet there are doubtless many more to be found. There is also a diverse assemblage of lizards including skinks, geckos, agamids (including the extraordinary Hypsilurus, shown below), and monitors, among which the Emerald Tree Monitor (Varanus prasinus) is perhaps most well known. Some species of snake such as the Death Adder (Acanthopsis antarcticus) and the Taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus) are extremely poisonous, whilst others such as the Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis) are highly sought after by collectors.
An astonishing diversity of insects occurs in the jungles of Papua, including many beautiful species. Some, such as the giant birdwing butterflies, are renowned for their value on the collector’s market and are now being reared in specialized nurseries. Many species of colorful native beetles including Scarabaeidae and Lucanidae are also collected and sold in souvenir shops.
In contrast with its largely Australasian fauna, the flora of New Guinea surprisingly has its closest affinities with Southeast Asia. Some families of plants that attract notable attention here include the orchids, of which the genera Dendrobium and Bulbophyllum are particularly diverse. An overwhelming diversity of Rhododendrons occurs throughout the mountainous areas with many new beautifully flowered species awaiting formal description.
Although less diverse than on Borneo or Sumatra, Nepenthes pitcher plants are nevertheless common in some areas and there are a handful of endemic species. A few such as N. klossii and N. paniculata grow in highland and ridge-top mossy forest, and others such as N. lamii extend into the alpine zone on the higher mountains. At least two species, N. treubiana and N. insignis occur on lowland limestone cliffs, but the latter is also frequently an epiphyte. Both N. neoguineensis and N. papuana have been found to grow on ultramafic hills, but they also occur elsewhere. There are doubtless undescribed species awaiting discovery in the vast network of mountains.
The naturalist and explorer J. L. Gressitt once wrote of the island:
New Guinea is a fantastic island, unique and fascinating. It is an area of incredible varieties of geomorphology, biota, peoples, languages, history, traditions, and cultures. Diversity is its prime characteristic, whatever the subject of interest. To a biogeographer it is tantalizing, as well as confusing or frustrating when trying to determine the history of its biota. To an ecologist, and to all biologists, it is a happy hunting ground of endless surprises and unanswered questions. To a conservationist it is like a dream come true, a “flash-back” of a few centuries, as well as a challenge for the future.
Mammals of New Guinea by Tim Flannery.
Birds of New Guinea by Bruce Beehler et. al.
The National Parks and Other Wild Places of Indonesia by Janet Cochrane.
Irian Jaya, Indonesian New Guinea, a Periplus Adventure Guide, by Kal Muller.
Biogeography and Ecology of New Guinea by J. L. Gressitt.
To view photos taken during my 2006 trip to West Papua, click here.