The forests of northwestern Papua New Guinea are home to a group of wide-eyed and reclusive marsupials known as tree kangaroos. As their name suggests, they spend a lot of their lives in the canopy and depend on the forest for survival.
For more than a decade, conservationists and scientists have been working to protect a 1,850-square-kilometer (714-square-mile) area of broadleaf tropical forest in and around the Torricelli Mountains where these animals thrive. But the recent construction of what appears to be a logging road has proponents of the proposed Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area worried. And now, satellite imagery has shown a surge in recent tree cover loss since Aug. 1.
“Yes, the logging continues — they are relentless,” Jim Thomas, CEO of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA), said of the recent deforestation along what would be the northern border of the conservation area in an email. The TCA takes its name from one of the tree kangaroo species that haunts the region. Also known as the Scott’s tree kangaroo, the tenkile (Dendrolagus scottae) is critically endangered, as is the weimang, or golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus), which also lives in the Torricellis.
The satellite data come from the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland. After months of sporadic activity in this part of PNG’s Sandaun province, the characteristic pink smudges of GLAD alerts appeared in August, indicating likely tree cover loss captured in 30-meter by 30-meter (roughly 100-foot by 100-foot) patches. More than 1,100 GLAD alerts appeared between Aug. 1 and Sept. 26 in the proposed conservation area, according to Global Forest Watch, with the largest concentration occurring in the northern portion most recently targeted for logging.
More broadly, the area within the proposed boundaries experienced significant loss of its intact forest landscapes between 2000 and 2013. One of the goals of gazetting the conservation area was to preserve the still-significant tracts of intact forest left, along with the habitat it provides for tree kangaroos and the untold numbers of other species living there.
Found only on the island of New Guinea, which PNG shares with Indonesia, and the extreme northern tropics of Australia, tree kangaroo numbers have been hit hard by the twin threats of hunting and habitat loss, mostly due to logging and forest clearance for agriculture. Australian zoologist Tim Flannery says he thought he was chronicling the species’ last days on earth even as he described them for science for the first time in the 1980s.
But the people of the Torricellis, who once hunted tree kangaroos, are today among their most important defenders. Thomas and several local members of the TCA staff told Mongabay the tree kangaroos are symbols of their culture, and they said many in the communities see the future access to the clean water, wood and medicine that the forest provides as intertwined with the preservation of tree kangaroo habitat.
Since the early 2000s, the TCA has worked with around 50 communities to preserve the area. At the same time, the organization has also invested in improving the lives of the people living in the Torricellis. TCA brought water tanks and solar power to villages, and Thomas says fish farming and rabbit rearing now provide the protein in residents’ diets that would otherwise have come from animals they could hunt in the forest.
Signs indicate that tree kangaroo numbers around these communities are on the rise. And the TCA’s most recent proposal for the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area, submitted to the national government in 2019, included signatures of support from male and female leaders from all 50 communities where TCA works.
So when crews began building a road that threatened to pierce the heart of the proposed conservation in May 2021, the communities pushed back. They said they had not been consulted about its construction, and they raised concerns about its potential to open up new areas to destructive logging.
The road’s purpose is still not clear. Information gathered by the communities suggested it would be 53 kilometers (33 miles) long, connecting the mountains with the coast. Construction stopped in June to allow for government representatives to meet with members of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance. Thomas said the government of Papua New Guinea is insisting that it — and not outside logging companies from countries like Malaysia and China that are active in PNG’s timber sector — is funding the construction. But to his mind, it’s clear that accessing the high-value tropical hardwood trees that remain is driving the project. Police, he said, have been dispatched to the area to protect road crews.
“I’ve only ever seen this tactic with logging,” Thomas added.
Meanwhile, progress toward official recognition of the Torricelli Mountain Range Conservation Area has stalled. A former environment minister came out in support of gazetting the area in 2019. But his replacement has been silent on the matter, even as the road seems destined to continue and parts of the forest fall as evidenced by the recent GLAD alerts and satellite imagery.
Thomas knows that even the government’s designation of the conservation area won’t inoculate it against logging and other potentially destructive incursions. He pointed to the 4-year-old Managlas Conservation Area in Oro province, where logging remains a problem.
“At the end of the day the area is being protected by the people,” Thomas said, “[and] whether the area is gazetted by the PNG Government won’t make much of a difference if there are resources to extract.”