Intelligent mammals in Lumi, West Sepik

Little did the outside world know about Scotts Tree Kangaroos, until award winning Australian of the year, Tim Flannery discovered them in 1989.

But to the Wapei people in Lumi who live along the western end of the Torricelli Mountains, Sandaun, Scotts Tree Kangaroos have been their source of protein food for over many hundred years. The meat is a delicacy for them.

When Professor Tim Flannery discovered the Scotts Tree Kangaroo, he gave the scientific name Dendrolagus Scottae, while the Wapei people in Lumi identify the animal as the Tenkile, in their local Olo language.

The cold climate because of higher altitude and dense virgin forest with towering huge trees and canopy makes the environment suitable for the furry mammal to live a carefree life.

Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance
Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance

However the environment would present itself as all time conducive if humans do not disturb it by extensively cutting down trees for gardening, mining or logging projects, which is now a huge concern.

A proposed forestry development in the South West Wapei Forest Management Area (FMA) is nearing conclusion to come on stream. There are fears that this project will likely affect the habitat of the Tenkile.

Scotts Tree Kangaroos are mammals and they are black weighing around 9-12 kg.

“They have a distinct smell and live only in the Torricelli Mountains. Very little is known about their life history. Apart from Tim Flannery’s work in the early 1990’s we know nothing about them scientifically. Tenkile Conservation Alliance’s research helps us to understand the population only,” says Jim Thomas, Australian Volunteer and director of the Tenkile Conservation Alliance based in Lumi.

Jim and his wife Jean, who is the Capacity Building Officer are the only ex-patriots working with the local people promoting conservation of biodiversity in the Torricelli Mountains, using Tenkile as the flagship species.

And according to the non government organization’s website: “The Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) aims to save the critically endangered Tenkile Tree Kangaroo, or Scott’s Tree Kangaroo, (Dendrolagus scottae) and other tree kangaroos from becoming extinct because Scotts Tree Kangaroo is one of the most endangered mammal species in the world with as few as one hundred individuals remaining. So it is really now or never to save the Tenkile.”

Jim says there are several reasons why the animal can become extinct but mainly because of low population.

“The causes of this are over hunting from a nearby growing population, its restricted range also makes it vulnerable and potential habitat loss through logging and gardening, the low fecundity (reproduction rate) also makes it vulnerable to becoming extinct.”

It is imperative that saving the Scotts Tree Kangaroo or Tenkile involves local communities in Lumi and those concerned from outside starting now because the animal has many unique characteristics, when compared to other Tree Kangaroos. Among them is its intelligence level, which is said to be very much closer to humans.

“Tree Kangaroos are considered to be the most intelligent marsupials. One of the adaptations Tenkile has shown with the increase in hunting pressure from people is to run down (and) into landslide areas where people cannot go. This is probably the main reason why it still exists today,” says Jim Thomas.

Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance
Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance

The Australian Volunteer adds: “The main difference between Tenkile and other Tree Kangaroos is they have a distinct strong smell unlike no other animal. Local people know if you have eaten a Tenkile because you (they) can smell the smell on your skin for days.”

People in Lumi also revealed to me other amazing facts about Scotts Tree Kangaroos.

Each one climbs down trees in a forward position, security conscious of enemies like humans and on its way down the trunk, the animal stops, turns and faces upwards again, always vigilant of its enemies before continuing.

And you may be taken aback by this, a Tenkile knows who is a local or a foreigner by smell and if you’re a foreigner trespassing their territory, you could expect rocks being hurled at you.

Another interesting but sad fact the people told me was that, a Scotts Tree Kangaroo would shed tears, it would look at the hunter and then drop its head, if it knew that it was about to be killed by a hunter because there was no way to escape.

And if this is not yet very much heart throbbing then read on.

When anyone in one of the 18 Tenkile Villages (villages that have signed moratorium not to hunt Tenkile) in Lumi die and the “Garamut” is beaten, all Tenkile sob while the villagers mourn the death. The Tenkile remain on the branches of trees until after two days, and they will start moving around looking for leafy green trees and fruits to feed again.

The people further revealed to me that the Tenkile could be a danger to us if we were not able to shoot them dead on first attempt when hunting.

It is very amazing, they say that a Tenkile can catch an arrow shot at it and throws it back to kill you. They advised that hunters take refuge under the trunk of a tree as soon as possible. The people have not reported any latest incident, but hunting of Tenkile was now banned after a moratorium signed by 18 Tenkile villages in Lumi.

The villagers also say that when a Scotts Tree Kangaroo is running away from hunters, they gallop using their legs and tails downstream following rivers or creeks, and they jump over landslides.

The traditional Tenkile hunting technique used by the Wapei people was to make a thick and strong fence using bamboos and wood around the base of a tree before shooting it.

This is because a Tenkile is strong and has big claws. It can jump down on its back from as high as twenty metres, landing on its long strong tail, with a big crashing sound, and then gallop using its tail for several meters and dash away.

A Tenkile released to the wild. Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance

A Tenkile released to the wild. Picture Courtesy of Tenkile Conservation Alliance

I was in Lumi reporting for the National Broadcasting Corporation during the World Environment Day in June 2008 when thousands of Wapei people braved the early morning downpour that Friday to witness the opening of a new community learning center for the Tenkile Conservation Alliance. This was when a group of the local people revealed to me these unique and interesting facts about Tenkile.

The PNG Sustainable Development Program had supported the Tenkile Conservation Alliance by funding the new learning center.

The day was also significant for Tenkile Conservation Alliance and the Wapei people with the launch of a satellite telecommunication system funded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

“The highlight of the day to showcase the technology, was a call from Professor Tim Flannery and the Australian High Commissioner Chris Moraitis using Skype,” according to Tenkile Conservation Alliance Mid-Year Report, 2009.

I also thought a chat between the two Tenkile friends, Professor Tim Flannery and Casper Seiko, an elderly man from Wilbeite village lit up the learning centre with laughter in that drizzling afternoon.

Casper asked through Skype in Tok Pisin whether Professor Flannery would give him some money for the Tenkile photographs taken back in 1989, but Tim Flannery denied remembering anything about the deal.

Casper was a local pioneer in the discovery and conservation work of Tenkile back in 1989 with Tim Flannery, and he was taken to Australia by Professor Flannery during the initial discovery work.

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