The sound of silence in West Papua’s forests
Last month, guest blogger Lynn Scott shared her experiences in search of West Papua’s magical birds of paradise. This time, she reveals the darker side of that country’s wider avian status.
The challenge with birding in West Papua is the horrifying paucity of [wild] birds.
You can hear them, but there is nothing like the full orchestral dawn chorus that you take for granted in Australia.
Most of West Papua’s birds are very shy and never show themselves for more than a few seconds before darting back into the safety of the dark forest.
Why? It’s not the pressure of hunting for display feathers (as is the case in Papua New Guinea) that has pushed the birds to the edge. From my observation, it is the pressure of hunting for food and fun, plus habitat loss.
A strong hint
Keen-eyed boys with sling shots are a strong hint of the attitude of the locals to birds. And then there are the big dollars that can be gained by selling bird of paradise (BOP) skins to unscrupulous collectors on the black market. Basically, the birds don’t stand a chance.
The jungle is the supermarket for most West Papuans and birds are one of the few sources of protein. The pressure from hunters is immense.
While the forest looks ‘wild’ it is anything but. Every piece of the forest is owned by a village, and you dare not set foot outside the territory of the village people you are staying with for fear of being kidnapped or held for ransom.
This is their forest, and for thousands of years slash and burn agriculture has sustained the highland villages. But those traditional land use patterns are changing fast.
Cleared and abandoned
Fifty years ago, when an area of forest was cleared and abandoned it would quickly regenerate and remain undisturbed for several hundred years.
Not anymore. Population pressure and the need for more food means the regrowth is slashed and burned many times in quick succession, preventing the forest from achieving the maturity of the past. When you walk the forest trails it is evident that the majority of trees are nothing like the scale of those in the ancient forest.
But the most devastating environmental impact is that of rapidly expanding palm oil plantations. Villages enticed by the prospect of [relative wealth] are understandably selling their land to the big foreign palm oil companies who strip the prime forest and replace it insidiously with a largely lifeless monoculture.
A sad reminder
Flying out over the Bird’s Head Peninsula of West Papua and seeing whole mountainsides covered with palm oil trees was a sad reminder that what we had witnessed in preceding days may not be there for future generations.
But when it is a choice between the forest and educating and feeding one’s family, the birds will come off second best.
Birding in West Papua is the hardest (physically and mentally) I have done. But the rewards far outweighed the hardships. Nowhere else could I have seen and experienced such incredible, awe-inspiringly beautiful birds. I would not have missed it for the world.
More tourists willing to pay for the privilege of seeing the birds of paradise offers hope for the survival of the incredible avian species of West Papua.
I would go back tomorrow, and I encourage others to do so before it is too late.
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