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Conservation in Papua New Guinea

A review by Donna Schulman

Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest, by Andrew L. Mack

Cassowary Conservation and Publishing, 2014

235 pages, $19.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14464

New Guinea looms large in birders’ imaginations. Bowerbirds, dense rain forests, birds of paradise, exotic feather headdresses, the shadow of violence in stories from the past—this southwest Pacific island is the traveling birder’s number-one bucket list destination and the armchair birder’s favorite television eye candy.

Andrew Mack first came to Papua New Guinea (PNG), the nation occupying the eastern part of the island, in 1987, a graduate student eager to find a location chock-full of cassowaries for his research. His goals expanded from developing a research project to building a rainforest research station and, ultimately, to creating a fully new approach to conservation.

Like a mythic hero, Mack overcame unexpected obstacles and attained what looked like success, only to be summarily expelled from paradise. Searching for Pekpek is his tale, a tale maybe not of epic proportions, but fascinating as a personal account of life in PNG from 1987 to 2007, and thought-provoking for the conservation insights and ideas that emerge from the author’s experience.

Pekpek is the word for excrement in Tok Pisin, the “bridge language” used to communicate with speakers of the island’s 800-plus languages. It’s a great word, flowing off the tongue more easily than “dung” or even “scat,” and I look forward to using it in the field. Mack wanted to study how cassowaries—large, flightless, mostly frugivorous birds—disperse seeds in the rain forest. This meant locating as much cassowary pekpek as he could. Not as easy as it sounds!

Screenshot 2015-07-26 14.18.45Alone at first, and then with Debra D. Wright—friend, colleague, then wife, then ex-wife, and colleague again—Mack worked from scratch, exploring areas that could be reached only by helicopter or truck, or by several days of trekking across steep and muddy terrain. The research station he and Wright built after completing their graduate degrees was in pristine forest a day’s hike from the nearest village of the Pawai’ia people. Formally, it was the Crater Mountain Biological Research Station. To the two scientists, it was Sera, home for the next four years.

The chapters on the cassowary project and the creation of the research station are wonderful reading. Mack writes in a relaxed, engaging style, not above using words like “schlep” to describe a trip across the mountains. He explains his research methodology in simple terms, offers brief but on-target portraits of the nationals and expatriates he meets along the way, and paints vivid pictures of villages, towns, canyons, rivers, and canopied rainforest mountainsides. Each of the 31 brief chapters tells a story that will make you want to get on the next plane to PNG—or to stay home in your nice, safe neighborhood (“Choosing the study area when malaria strikes”!). Mack’s ironic, slightly self-deprecating humor informs each chapter, and even when things go wrong really badly, you sense the underlying wonder that they are going wrong in such an incredible place.

The stories are presented in loose chronological order, with some chapters summarizing specific topics across the years (tropical illnesses, research methodology) and a few events told out of sequence for effect. This arrangement, cinematic in its careful use of flashbacks and wide-angle effects, makes perfect sense to me, but it may be a little unsettling to readers accustomed to more straightforward narrative structures.

The book’s tone changes once Mack and Wright have returned to the US after finishing their field work. Realizing that it was impossible to get New Guinea out of their system, they found a way back to PNG as agents of “Big Conservation,” the international organizations taking on the challenge of protecting the world’s natural environment and wildlife. This is where their story gets more complex. Working for Conservation International and then for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Mack came to realize that the only way to ensure lasting conservation in PNG, or in any other developing country, was capacity building: training “the nationals,” the people living in the island’s tribes, villages, and cities. And, more revolutionary, he realized that those people were “fully capable of doing both conservation and top-quality research without western supervision.”

BINbuttonThese ideas take on an overtly ideological color as Mack runs through the meetings, projects, trips, political obstacles, and financial challenges involved in creating a successful training center in Goroka, a city less crime-ridden than Port Moresby and closer to the research station. The narrative here becomes choppier and slightly repetitive as Mack condenses years of work, his own and that of his students, into less than a hundred pages.

Mack clearly takes great joy in describing the research his students are still conducting under the auspices of the non-profit PNG Institute of Biological Research (PNGIBR). And some of the adventurous feel of the first half of the book does pop up again occasionally, as in the story of transporting equipment in 38 large bags on the airplane ride from Philadelphia back to PNG. Seriously: This is a hilarious story the way Mack tells it.

Many of the later chapters focus on Mack’s frustration with organizations that make decisions about countries without visiting or that place their own growth ahead of their stated goals. This is good stuff, too. It’s just not as much fun as exploring the rain forest.

It’s honest, though. You can feel Mack stifling his anger to focus on the facts. Anyone who has worked off-site for a large non-profit or academic institution will recognize the organizational narcissism in the decisions made by the WCS. Not everyone will agree with the portrayal of Big Conservation or with Mack’s views on capacity building and national autonomy, but his experiences in PNG and the success of PNGIBR back him up convincingly. And the publication of this book by Mack’s own non-profit, Cassowary Conservation and Publishing, is a good opportunity to think through conservation initiatives and how we fund them.

You will notice that apart from the cassowaries, there are very few birds in Searching for Pekpek. Mack is a birder: He makes an appearance as a “wisecracking high school kid” in Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway. He mentions bird surveys he’s conducted in PNG and various ornithological projects undertaken by his students or other scientists at the research station.

But this book is not about birding. It is about the hard work (and fun) of studying birds and their environment, and it presents a carefully thought-out argument for changing our attitudes toward conservation. Anyone can write about birding. But only a few people can write with authenticity and passion about camping on the banks of the Wara Oo, connecting with the people of the Pawai’ia and Gimi tribes, identifying trees that don’t yet have names, what works and what doesn’t in preserving wilderness in Papua New Guinea, and, yes, the joys of searching for pekpek.

Screenshot 2015-08-18 14.44.12

Donna Schulman is a librarian, recently retired; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations; and a New York / New Jersey birder, sometimes distracted by dragonflies. She has reviewed over 150 books, at first on labor and women’s studies, and now on birds and nature. 

Recommended citation:

Schulman, D. 2015. Conservation in Papua New Guinea [a review of Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest, by Andrew L. Mack]. Birding 47 (4): 66.

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