New Britain’s birds are among the least known to science. A group of researchers ventured into the island’s unforgiving wilderness to find out how these species were coping with the loss of their forest. They found that some had adapted – but many more need urgent protection before it’s too late.

By Fiona Dobson

Perched on the outer edge of the Malay Archipelago, and sheltered from the vast expanse of the Pacific only by the thin strip of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea’s New Britain boasts an impressive diversity of fauna and flora. The island’s volatile colonial and volcanic history have made it almost accustomed to upheaval. However, the most recent disturbance is to its forest landscape, with over 20% of its lowland forest being lost between 1989 and 2000. The culprits are palm oil plantations and industrial logging, which are threatening to turn New Britain’s rich biodiversity into a monoculture reflecting our consumerism – or worse, a barren, deforested wasteland.

New Britain and its satellite islands are of vital importance to 14 endemic bird species. And together with New Ireland, it forms an ‘Endemic Bird Area’ which is home to 38 restricted-range species. Despite the importance of this habitat and the ever-encroaching threat of its destruction, New Britain’s bird fauna is poorly understood and among the least known to science. A group of researchers ventured into this exotic and unforgiving wilderness to find out more, with the aim of updating the status of New Britain’s birds on the IUCN Red List.

The team battled oppressive heat and humidity, two weeks of torrential rain and flooding, and even a case of malaria

The expedition was by no means your average trip to a Pacific paradise island; the team had to battle oppressive heat and humidity, two weeks of torrential rain and flooding, and even a case of malaria. This is without even mentioning the difficulty of actually finding the birds during over 400 hours of surveys.

Rob Davis, a member of the research team, explained that they had to spend two weeks “becoming familiar with the birds,” some of which few people have ever laid eyes on. He also stated that Papua New Guinea “is arguably the hardest place to see birds well,” not just due to the nearly impenetrable forest, but the fact that many birds are very wary thanks to a history of being shot at with slingshots.

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