The Secret Lives of Matschie’s tree-kangaroos

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A group of Papua New Guinean men stare up into the rainforest canopy expectantly. Following their gaze high into the mossy branches, an animal that looks a little like a plush toy teddy bear looks down. It is an endangered Matschie’s tree-kangaroo, found only on Papua New Guinea’s Huon Peninsula.

As the group waits below, one man slowly climbs up the tall trunk of the tree. As he inches closer, the tree kangaroo suddenly leaps to the ground. Amazingly, the animal pops right up and without missing a beat, scrambling to escape. But it is not fast enough. Soon it has been surrounded and captured.

In the past, a scene like this might spell the end for tree kangaroos hunted for food. Today, local people are using their bush skills not to hunt these animals, but to help gather invaluable data on their behavior and ecology – information vital to conservation efforts for the species. The local hunters are working with researchers Lisa Dabek and Daniel Solomon Okena from the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP), Rainforest Trust’s partner in PNG.

    • The cloud forest of the YUS Conservation Area. Photo by Ryan Hawk

Matschie’s tree-kangaroos are found exclusively in the lush rainforests of the Huon Peninsula – a hotspot of rare and endemic wildlife along Papua New Guinea’s northeast coast. These endearingly cute and furry kangaroos feed on leaves, fruits and mosses found at elevations ranging between 3,000 and 10,000 feet.

Having evolved for life in the dense tree canopy of the Huon Peninsula’s mountainous cloud forests they are supremely adapted to their environment. Sharp claws help Matschie’s tree-kangaroos with climbing and a long tail acts as a counterweight for balance. Meanwhile, thick chestnut-colored fur insulates against the damp and camouflages against predators.

However, their uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings makes finding and observing them 70 – 100 feet high in the canopy extremely difficult from the ground. But researchers have come up with an innovative solution.

In collaboration with the National Geographic Society, TKCP has conducted ground-breaking research on their behavior through the use of National Geographic Crittercams ©. Crittercams are attached to the tree kangaroo using a small collar, enabling the animal to film its behavior over the course of up to five days.

Video footage is allowing researchers to glimpse into the hidden worlds of these elusive animals as they forage in the dense cloud forest canopy. Already, Dabek and Okena have gleaned valuable insights into behaviors, distribution patterns and the many different species of plants they eat – mosses, ferns and over 90 vascular plants in the canopy. This information is proving invaluable for making decisions regarding the ecological composition and size of new protected areas based on the needs of the species.

In addition to being extremely useful scientifically, this research is also highly community-driven and supported. Spread across 50 remote villages on the Huon Peninsula, over 12,000 indigenous people live in the community conservation area. Under Papua New Guinea’s unique land tenure system, indigenous clans own and control more than 90% of all land in the country.

Rainforest Trust is working with TKCP, local communities and government partners in the Yopno-Uruwa-Som (YUS) watershed of the Huon Peninsula to expand the existing YUS Conservation Area by 195,759 acres. This first-ever Community Conservation Area will help ensure a lasting future for the Matschie’s tree-kangaroo while serving as a model that can then be replicated by other indigenous groups to protect key biodiversity areas across PNG.

“We are incredibly grateful for the support from the Rainforest Trust which is enabling us to expand habitat protection in YUS to the landscape-level as a Community Conservation Area”, said Lisa Dabek, Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program Founder and Director. “This added protection will further help in our efforts to conserve the Matschie’s tree kangaroo, and will actively involve local communities in sustainable management of the YUS landscape.”

Learn how you can help protect Matschie’s tree kangaroos and their rainforest habitats in PNG.