MARY JO DILONARDO | WildArk
NAKANAI - For months, members of the Tuke community in Papua New Guinea had watched the destruction around their village in the Nakanai Mountains of New Britain.
Lush forests that had surrounded ancestral generations for centuries were being cleared to make room for palm oil plantations.
The community watched as trucks moved through the once-pristine area, laboring along muddy, newly created logging roads. Their valuable tropical hardwood was leaving the rain forest for distant lands.
The Tuke people worried that soon there would be little left of the forest they had tended for so long. In hopes of finding a solution, three members of the community set out on a three-day walk in August 2016 to ask for help.
"When our forest is gone we will have nothing left," said Thomas Telgonu, a Tuke community spokesperson.
The men met with local tourism expert Riccard Reimann, a Papua New Guinean who owns Baia Sport Fishing Lodge on the island of New Britain. After hearing their story, he studied the area and realised how integral it was to the country.
Determined to help the Tuke people protect their land, Reimann contacted his friends Mark and Sophie Hutchinson, from the not-for-profit WildArk, to see what they could do. The Hutchinsons immediately agreed to help.
WildArk works to protect species and ecosystems by embracing local partnerships and community engagement to create safe havens for biodiversity. Joining with the Tuke community and Reimann, WildArk created the Tuke Rainforest Conservancy to protect the people and forests of Tuke.
The area within the conservancy covers some 42,000 acres and includes rainforests, waterfalls, volcanoes and underground rivers. It teems with wildlife, from estuarine crocodiles and leatherback turtles to an array of bats and birds.
Thanks to the collaboration sparked by that fateful hike in 2016, these creatures and their habitat are now protected from logging and palm oil activities.
According to Conservation International, the location is "one of the last major tropical island wilderness areas in the world, and one of the least explored" on Earth.
In late 2018, a WildArk team visited the Tuke Rainforest Conservancy accompanied by plant ecophysiologist Joseph Holtum and scientist Terry Reardon, who has studied bacteria, fungi, insects and mammals, with a special interest in bats.
This team began preliminary research on the local biodiversity. According to WildArk, New Britain may be one of the most biologically significant places on the planet, with old-growth forests, deep sinkholes, mountain caves and hidden rivers.
Because the plants and animals are not well-known due to the area's remote location, the group plans to complete a full diversity study to learn more about the region's significance.
In order to protect the land, WildArk says it needs to support the people who have looked after the rainforests for many generations. Health care is one of the most urgent requirements of the Tuke people.
Pregnant women are in dire need. According to WildArk, expectant mothers must hike for 24 hours through dense, steep jungle with multiple river crossings to reach a hospital. Since many must make this trip while in labour, some die along the way.
WildArk wants to help build a medical facility in the village, and work to make sure there are trained medical staff available when people are in need of health care.
Tuke village has an elementary school that was built by German missionaries, but it rarely has teachers. Young would-be students who show up for class, often find no one there to provide the knowledge they want. Older children must take a three-day trek to reach a boarding school.
WildArk is providing funding for 27 students to attend boarding school, something many families have been unable to afford. The group's next mission is to raise funds for local teachers who can provide education in the Tuke village. The cost is $5 per hour for a teacher.
Education and health care go hand-in-hand with preserving the region's biodiversity, empowering the people of Tuke to protect their environment and their way of life.
"I want to see this area protected forever," Reimann says, "maintaining not just the rich ecosystem but as importantly the culture of the people.