By Jun Wen and Marc Appelhans
We recently conducted field work in Papua New Guinea (PNG) from October 30 to November 28, 2012, to primarily study Vitaceae and Melicope of Rutaceae. New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, situated in the southwestern Pacific Ocean just south of the equator immediately north of Australia. The island is the largest in the tropics and is close to Greenland in size. New Guinea is well-known for its rich biodiversity and its cultural diversity with nearly 1,000 languages (tongues). Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of New Guinea; the western portion of the island belongs to the Papua and West Papua provinces of Indonesia. Jun Wen collected in both provinces in Indonesia a few years ago.
On October 30, 2012, we flew from Singapore to the PNG capital of Port Moresby. We only spent a few hours at the Botanic Gardens in Port Moresby and then flew directly to Lae, which is the second largest city in PNG and the capital of Morobe province. Lae is located at the beginning of the PNG Highlands Highway, the mainland transport corridor from the coast to the Highlands region. It is also an important port city in PNG, and was initially developed during the gold rush of the 1920s and 30s. Gold was mined in several regions of the province.
Our field study was conducted in collaboration with colleagues at the Lae Botanic Gardens and the Papua New Guinea National Herbarium (LAE). Our host was Robert Kiapranis, the Director of the Botany Division of the Forest Research Institute (FRI). FRI is a government agency that conducts research on the sustainable management and wise resource utilization of forest resources. FRI also provides a scientific basis for the management of PNG’s forest resources through research activities.
Before going into the field we spent several days at both the LAE herbarium and the Lae Botanic Gardens natural forest area, where we collected plants. We were impressed with both the large number of herbarium specimens and the Botanic Gardens as a living gem in the city’s center.
The Lae Botanic Gardens occupy 38 hectares situated between the two major subdivisions of the city of Lae – Top Town and Eriku. The garden mostly consists of natural lowland rain forest with creeks running through. It also contains greenhouses for special Orchidaceae and Araceae collections. The Botanic Gardens is administered by the PNG’s FRI and has approximately 1,500-2,000 plant species. The landscape is dominated by many large buttressed trees, which are densely covered by epiphytes and climbers. The combination of a large size and rich diversity of lowland rain forest habitat in the middle of the city makes the garden perfectly suited for educational as well as research purposes. Michael Lovave, a horticultural botanist at LAE, mentioned that at least 41 species of palms are present in the garden although a complete inventory of plant species in the garden still has to be tackled.
Established in the 1940s the LAE herbarium quickly grew to be the largest plant specimen collection in PNG with about 300,000 specimens including 2,335 type specimens. Additionally there are 100,000 spirit collections. This herbarium has been an important repository of the New Guinean flora and is an essential facility for both research and conservation. In addition to PNG plants, the LAE herbarium holds a good representative plant collection from the neighboring regions, such as the Indonesian provinces of New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, western Indonesia, Malaysia and tropical Australia. Moreover, the LAE herbarium holds collections of a number of important collectors including L. J. Brass, L. Craven, J. R. Croft, R. D. Hoogland, R. Pullen, J. C. Saunders, R. Schodde, Wayne Takeuchi, and J. S. Womersley. The LAE herbarium ranks third or fourth in size in Southeast Asia, only next to the Herbarium Bogoriense (BO) in Indonesia and the Herbarium of the Singapore Botanic Gardens (SING) in Singapore. It is about the same size as the Herbarium of Forest Research Institute Malaysia (KEP) in Kepong of Malaysia.
The herbarium collections have been well curated under the stewardship of several botanists: Robert Kiapranis, the Director of the Herbarium, Kipiro Damas, a senior botanist, Michael Lovave, a horticultural botanist, Oliver Paul, a botanist, Wayne Takeuchi, a botanist from the United States who collected extensively in PNG, and Thomas Magun, a collections specialist. In recent years the LAE Herbarium has been involved in databasing and digitizing its collections. The herbarium is collaborating with the National Herbarium of New South Wales (NSW) on the project Plants of Papua New Guinea (http://www.pngplants.org). The project produces and updates the PNG plants database, an internet accessible herbarium plant collection database of plants from Papua New Guinea, which is an essential resource to botanical researchers, foresters, conservation biologists, as well as the general public.
New Guinea represents one of the world’s richest botanical hotspots with a high level of endemism. As we were primarily collecting Vitaceae and Melicope of Rutaceae, we focused on forest habitats in two provinces: Morobe and Eastern Highlands. In the areas we traveled, the forests are mainly tropical humid forests, with trees dominated by species from plant families such as Rubiaceae, Fagaceae, Lauraceae, Meliaceae, Annonaceae, Sapotaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Podocarpaceae and Fabaceae. We started to collect in the tropical lowland forests near Lae, in several nearby villages of Salamaua, Yalu, Oomsis, Gabensis, as well as the natural forests of the Lae Botanic Gardens. Then we collected in several mid-montane forest areas in Wau, Bulolo and adjacent areas. After some successful journeys in Morobe province, we spent a week in the Eastern Highlands province, primarily around Goroka, the capital of the province, and also the Mt. Michael area and Kainantu. We really enjoyed each day of our journey, but the days collecting in the Wau region were especially productive. It was pretty amazing to encounter and collect so many species of Melicope, Tetrastigma and Cissus growing in such a relatively small area. We look forward to seeing our phylogenetic results on these species in one region to figure out their assembly and diversification histories. The Mt. Michael region does not seem to be botanically that well-known. Mt. Michael harbors very rich montane forests, which seem to be very species rich. The forests above 2,000 meters are well preserved and pristine, but those below 2,000 meters near villages have been developed into gardens of bananas, sweet potatoes, and coffee plantations. Certainly, the Mt. Michael area deserves attention for conservation.
The Wau area of Morobe province is botanically well-known with many plant collections made by various collectors. We explored the areas around Mt. Kolorong and Mt. Kaindi. It was very heart-breaking to observe that the botanically well-known localities near Wau, such as the slopes and summit of Mt. Kaindi and the Edie Creek area, are only covered by remnant patchy forests because of the heavy mining in Mt. Kaindi. The mining activities are certainly the most direct threat to these rich forests. The mining has also brought in many people from outside into Mt. Kaindi and the population growth has led to development of numerous patchy gardens, which has destroyed the natural forests on the mountain slopes to the summit area. Mining seems to be a major threat to biodiversity in Morobe province.
Throughout our journey we used extensively the public transportation known as PMVs (public motor vehicles), which are mostly small buses or trucks. Prior to our trip we heard mixed messages on using PMVs by foreign travelers and expats. Nevertheless, we really enjoyed interacting with the locals in our travel throughout the Morobe and Eastern Highlands provinces. Indeed both of us are experienced travelers and were very careful. We also used the local banana boats to get to and travel back from Lae to Salamaua village. Overall it felt rewarding getting to know PNG by the use of public transportation instead of isolating ourselves in SUVs or rental trucks. Renting SUVs or trucks in Morobe province is also rather expensive. The price can be about US$200 to $400 per day, which is over the work budget for most botanists. Vehicle rental is especially expensive in the Lae area, which is perhaps the must-stop for botanists since the LAE herbarium is there. Lae was certainly our main transportation hub, as our botanical colleagues are there and the herbarium is available for drying collections and identifying plants. We were able to save some travel funds by renting vehicles more locally away from Lae, such as in Wau and Goroka, after getting there by PMV.
We were struck by the very expensive hotels and lodging in PNG. Initially we budgeted about $40 per person per day. Very average lodging with a simple room without air-conditioning ranges from $50 to $100 in Morobe and Eastern Highlands provinces. To keep costs down, we looked for places where we can stay and cook for ourselves, or at least boil some ramen noodles, which are readily available throughout PNG. We had so many ramen noodles on the trip that both of us agreed never to eat them again unless it is absolutely necessary on another botanical mission! After the first two weeks, we were able to travel much more cheaply by reducing the food cost, with the savings going into lodging and local guides. The latter was relatively expensive as well, depending upon where we were. Overall, we learned a lot about traveling in PNG on a botanist’s budget.
During our journey, we met wonderful colleagues, especially in Lae and Bulolo. The local folks in villages were also very friendly and helpful. We met several local villagers who had excellent knowledge about the plants surrounding them. One village chief/elder, Sam, in the village of Gabensis was especially resourceful. It was a real joy to meet and learn from him and his family on how they use and protect their forests. We met two chiefs on our trip and both have extensive knowledge on the forests. In PNG, tribal land ownership is well maintained and also protected by the law.
We usually obtained permission from land-owners and paid the appropriate fees before entering the forests. In general, we were very well received and guided by the villagers, who often offered us coconuts to drink and bananas or sweet potatoes (kaukau) as a snack. Kaukau is the most important crop in the country. After an exhausting hike to Mt. Michael, the freshly cooked kaukau was a very welcome reward and will stay in our memories for a long time. Another very common agricultural produce is betel nuts (fruits of the palm Areca catechu) which are sold at almost every street corner. A young woman who was waiting with us at the PMV stop together with her husband had six large bags of betel nuts. She explained that she makes a good profit transporting and selling betel nuts produced in the lowlands in the higher altitude areas. We often encountered signs saying “noken kaikai buai” (chewing betel nut is not allowed), but the omnipresent red spots on the roads and the red-colored teeth of many people are a clear indicator that these signs are largely ignored.
It was great to collect plants in Papua New Guinea, to see such a rich flora, and to get to learn about the fascinating culture. It was also heart-breaking to see numerous mining sites in Morobe province and the many short-lived gardens and coffee plantations near villages in areas where we traveled. Mt. Kaindi is a protected area, but the conservation management is at a minimum. New Guinea is home to the third largest rain forest in the world, only after the Amazon and Congo. More resources need to be invested in biodiversity conservation in PNG. Mining should be better regulated. It is a clear dilemma between biodiversity conservation and economic development. The people in Wau are pleased with the revived gold rush to town. Yet the mining companies should pay more attention to conservation, at least by setting aside sizable areas for conservation purposes.
In the context of conservation and public education, we see the special role the Lae Botanic Gardens can play. The excellent natural tropical lowland forests in an easily accessible urban setting make it an ideal conservation and education tool. During our talks with our colleagues, we learned that the Garden needs more support from the biodiversity community. We would like to call for support for an effort to inventory the natural forests in the Lae Botanic Gardens. If you are interested in donating toward this effort, feel free to contact Jun Wen by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.