A decade-long biodiversity survey of the tropical island of New Guinea cites no less than 1, 060 new species of plants and animals discovered between 1998 and 2008. New Guinea’s rain forest is the third largest in the world and its extraordinary, biological riches face continuous threats from human development.
It is both wonderful and troubling when reports of the newest biodiversity survey makes the news; wonderful because, despite our being in the midst of a sixth mass extinction, sizable numbers of new species continue to be discovered in fairly remote pockets of the world…but troubling because, in nearly every such case, the newly identified species face continuous threats from over development, land use conversion, and habitat destruction.
The past year has seen two previous, decade-long inventories of biodiversity “hot spots” published: that of the African island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and the second one of Philippines Islands in the Western Pacific Ocean.
Now, we can add another island to the list: New Guinea, which is part of the Melanesian chain of islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean (and just due north of Australia). The island once belong to the same landmass as Australia, but broke off tens of millions of years ago, and became isolated geographically from Australia. This largely explains the unique flora and fauna of New Guinea (though several New Guinea species have related counterparts in Australia, such as Matschie’s tree kangaroo, Dendrolagus matschiei, which has adapted to living in the forest canopy).
A recently completed, biodiversity survey by the World Wildlife Fund (Final Frontier: Newly Discovered species of New Guinea , 1998 – 2008) cites 1,060 new species discovered on the island between 1998 and 2008.
The inventory of new species describes a remarkable 580 invertebrates (largely insects; the island is home to 200,000 species of insect), 134 amphibians, 43 reptiles, 71 species of fish, 12 mammals, and 2 birds. Among the mammals, the discovery of a unique snub-fin dolphin (of the genus Orcaella) stands out, while amongst the fish, an extremely rare 2.5 meter (about 7 and 1/2 feet) river shark is causing quite the stir.
Also discovered was 218 new plant species, nearly 100 of which are varieties of orchid.
“This report shows that New Guinea’s forests and rivers are among the richest and most biodiverse in the world. But it also shows us that unchecked human demand can push even the wealthiest environments to bankruptcy,” — Dr. Neil Stronach, WWF Western Melanesia’s Program Representative.
And more discoveries are being made all the time; more than 100 new specie have been discovered since the final year (2008) included in the WWF survey.
In a single 2009 expedition to the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea (featured on the BBC series Lost Land of the Volcano) found an estimated 40 new species, including the largest of the newly discovered fauna: a woolly giant rat, found only in the forest inside the crater of Mount Bosavi.
New Guinea, which is the largest tropical island on Earth, is divided between two countries: Papua New Guinea to the east, and Indonesia to the west. It is also home to the world’s third largest expanse of rain forest, following the Amazon and Congo rain forests. Its rivers and wetlands are considered to be the most pristine in all of the Asia-Pacific region. The rain forest is also the source of sustenance for hundreds of indigenous tribes (speaking some 1,100 languages) which, like the new species in this report, face numerous threats to their existence.
When you look at the numbers in comparison to its size, New Guinea seems all the more remarkable: possessing just 0.5 per cent of the Earth’s landmass, the island is home to between 6 and 8% of the world’s species, two thirds of which are found nowhere else.
“As close to the Garden of Eden as you’re going to find on Earth”– Dr Bruce Beehler, expedition leader, Foja Mountains, Papua, December 2005.
In a bit of good timing, 2011 has been designated the International Year of Forests, which one hopes will refocus the world’s conservation efforts on this critical, biological resource. And the reasons for doing so are not just a matter of saving endangered species, or indigenous cultures; wheresoever species are endangered, generally, their habitat is also being endangered, and this impacts larger spheres of concern, such as the global climate system.
The June WWF report asserts:
“Forests are home to 80% of all land-based species on Earth and 1.6 billion people rely on the resources that forests provide. They cover a third of all land area and are home to 300 million people worldwide. Forests absorb and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while emissions from deforestation are responsible for up to one-fifth of greenhouse gases. They play a fundamental role in regulating the climate and are critical in our fight against global warming.”
Unfortunately for many, New Guinea’s forests are facing the same pressures from deforestation and agricultural land use conversion (mostly from conversion to palm oil plantations, as in Madagascar) that most other rain-forested regions of the world face.
The report goes on to assert: “…since 1950, the world has lost half of its natural forest. That’s half of all global forests in less than a human lifetime. ”
Further, WWF’s new Living Forests Report, estimates that 230 million hectares of forest will be cleared or burned around the world by 2050 if no action is taken. The report advocates that policy makeers and private interests agree to and pursue the ZNDD (Zero Net Deforestation and Degradation) by 2020 plan — a new, global conservation plan being circulated amongst the world’s conservation policy makers (previously reported here on Planetsave.com).
The WWF has been active in the fight to preserve the world’s forests (both tropical and temperate) for decade now (see: the Forest Stewardship Council) and is working to redouble its efforts in New Guinea. The effort focuses on three key questions/challenges facing the world’s forests:
1] How do we meet the world’s demand for timber, paper and bioenergy while
protecting forests for wildlife?
2] Can carbon markets combat poverty and climate change at the same time?
3] As the world population grows, how can we produce enough food without
destroying more forests?
To address these critical questions and seek viable solutions, the WWF has inaugurated its Living Forests Campaign which seeks to preserve this and other biodiversity hot spots for many generations to come.
Additional image credits:
topographical map: (New Guinea) Sadalmelik
bottom photo: (Korowai tribesman)710928003
Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles and essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is also an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). Michael currently lives in Seattle, Washington.