Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest

Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest

by Andrew L. Mack

ISBN: 9780989390309

Publisher Cassowary Conservation & Publishing, LLC

Published in Outdoors & Nature/Field Guides, Outdoors & Nature/Environment, Biographies & Memoirs/Memoirs, Outdoors & Nature

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Book Description

Andrew Mack immersed himself into a vast expanse of roadless, old growth rainforest of Papua New Guinea in 1987. He built a research station by hand and lived there for years studying the secretive and most dinosaur-like creature still roaming the planet: the cassowary.

The ensuing adventures of this unorthodox biologist—studying seeds dispersed by cassowaries in their droppings (pekpek), living among the indigenous Pawai’ia, traversing rugged jungles, fighting pests, struggling against unscrupulous oil speculators, and more—are woven into a compelling tale that spans two decades.

Sample Chapter

Introduction: Where? Why? My story

Wanem ples? Bilong wanem? Stori bilong mi

From inside the cockpit, I could sense the vastness of the rainforest sucking the alien drone of the plane’s engine out of the sky. This sound, this plane, and I did not belong here. Massive tectonic forces beneath New Guinea have folded and twisted the earth so violently that even the dense rainforest draped over them cannot conceal the sharp cliffs and ravines that make traversing the land on foot torturous. Like an insignificant gnat above some huge wrinkled beast, our slow flight over the treetops was of no consequence; were we to crash it would not register. Somewhere in there was the place I wanted to live. It was 1987 and I was looking for a spot where I could build a camp, and I intended to spend a few years focused on my research.

We’d been flying for half an hour and had seen no evidence of human beings other than a few tiny clearings, each containing a crude brown thatched hut. Not a single road, no bridges, nothing metallic or concrete marred the terrain; there were no power lines and certainly nothing so perverse as a billboard. In that expansive, unbroken forest canopy, anything more than a bit of thatch or an axe-cleared garden would have been obscene. Even in the sky through which we flew not a single vapor trail marked the passage of fellow humans above. From that vantage point, we seemed to be the only people in the world. We were flying transects over the third largest remaining tropical rainforest on the planet, one of the least-populated places on earth capable of sustaining agriculture.

Inside the forest lie dividing lines that are known and visible only to the indigenous. These lines mark boundaries between tribes, clans, and families. I was about to start my research in the country of the Pawai’ia, a semi-nomadic tribe of just a few thousand individuals with an enormous area to call home. It was a perfect place for my work and the Pawai’ia seemed an ideal group to work with and live among.

Much later, after living with them awhile, I learned that the Pawai’ia had a nickname for me—Andy Wee Seae. That in itself was not unusual. They liked to refer to my research assistants, particularly the pretty ones, by names that translated to such elegant phrases as “clouds in front of the full moon.” My Pawai’ia nickname, by contrast, means “Andy cassowary shit.” Cassowaries are large flightless birds that live in rainforests of New Guinea (one species can also be found in Australia). “Large” might seem an understatement to those familiar with the little brown birds that skulk in US gardens. Large in the case of cassowaries means fifty pounds for the smallest species and about a hundred and twenty for the largest—and when I say “largest,” I’m talking about birds that can look me straight in the eye, and I’m about six feet tall. These are among the few birds that can easily kill people. Although all birds are the living relatives of dinosaurs, when you look at a cassowary this ancestry is viscerally evident.

“Cassowary shit” might seem an odd and even slightly derogatory nickname. But it’s certainly accurate, given I spent about four years roaming the forests of the Pawai’ia searching for cassowary droppings. Each new dropping was either carefully examined and measured en situ or gleefully deposited in a plastic bag for more detailed sifting back at the research station—a couple of houses we built in the forest just so we could live there and study cassowaries over an extended period of time. To my Pawai’ia guides, my behavior was not only bizarre but also a waste of a perfectly good plastic bag—a Western commodity they could not easily obtain, as there was no store within days of walking and no money to spend even if they did walk for days. But I paid them well for what was probably one of the best jobs in the country—to leisurely roam the forests, making sure I did not get lost, and helping me carry my rucksack when it became weighed down with numbered plastic bags filled with the stuff that earned me my nickname.

Why dung? Why cassowaries? Why Pawai’ia country? Why even Papua New Guinea, for that matter? Good questions, all. To answer them, I’ll begin with the last, most general question, and then move on to specifics.

PNG, as everyone calls Papua New Guinea, is the eastern half of the island of New Guinea, split by a long past and a totally irrelevant colonial map. The western half of the island is now owned by Indonesia, which actually has no more legitimate claim to it than did the Dutch, who annexed that half of the island four hundred years ago. But the eastern half of the island, PNG, became an independent nation about thirty years ago, making it relatively young in the pantheon of former European colonies to gain independence.

The colonial mapmakers shaped the western boundary we see today, but inside PNG live over 800 tribal groups, each with its own culture and language. Not dialects, not varying accents (like Texas vs. Massachusetts), but full-blown languages. Many are as different as Spanish is from Chinese and Chinese is from Hindi. This small nation, roughly the size of California and home to roughly 30 percent of the world’s languages, has an incredibly complex culture. Even veteran travelers on their first arrival in PNG can get the sense of having travelled in both space and time. When I first arrived, I felt I had stepped through a portal to a different time. For some, this sensation becomes a compulsion and they either stay or keep coming back. Others seem to hate it and can’t wait to get out. Foreign visitors are rarely ambivalent about PNG.

Few countries are further from the beaten trail. There is not a single movie theater or fast food franchise in PNG. You won’t find McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. In my first year there, the country fired up its first television station to the tune of Sting’s “I Want My MTV,” because the network is called EMTV (it later had to stop using this theme song because apparently the station had never considered issues of copyright or royalties). EMTV broadcast for about four hours a day then; now it airs for about eighteen hours a day. Most parts of the country have no access to electricity, health care, roads, telephones, or police. A handful of hotels cater mostly to expatriate businessmen in the mining industry. Tourists are rare, numbering a few thousand per year. The tiny tropical island nation of Fiji might welcome more tourists in a good week than PNG sees in a year. This isn’t to say that PNG is free of Western influence. When I first arrived there in 1987, many people asked me, “What church are you with?” assuming that, like most whites who live there, I was a missionary. The country still remains a stronghold of American missionaries with anachronistic Victorian-era mentalities, whose goal is to “save” heathen souls from damnation. So whether you are interested in saving souls or saving rainforests, PNG is one of the best places to be.

For me, on that first day in the co-pilot’s seat of the Cessna, heading to the airstrip at Haia, was the culmination of a compulsion to dive ever deeper into rainforests. Starting from a bivouac on the summit of El Triunfo in Mexico when I was sixteen, through months in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru, and Borneo, my twenties were little more than a relentless drive to plunge ever deeper into pristine rainforest and ever further from the “normal” life of the USA. Flying in to Haia the first time in 1987, I was a 28-year-old biology grad student who thought he knew a bit about rainforests. I soon realized that I still had much to learn: about rainforests, about the coolest rainforest birds—cassowaries—and about PNG and its people. In the very long run I would learn some painful lessons about the nature of “big business” conservation. What I knew, as we banked and circled over green folds of the canopy, was that I was about as happy as I had ever been; A huge adventure lay ahead, but I had no way to predict how it would play out. It would be like a gourmand facing a feast of delicacies from around the world, none before tasted. Unlimited opportunity and new sensations spread before me, ready to be tasted, savored, and explored. It was wedding night with one’s fantasized perfect match. Ahead lay the prospect of years with virtually no interactions with anyone other than a few of the semi-nomads who carved out those little gardens. Every day I could pursue the research that interested me; whatever questions tantalized me I could explore. Any beast, from ant-mimicking spider to Harpy Eagle, I could pause to observe as long as I liked. Unnamed plants and animals no biologist had seen before would surround me. I was stepping into the world of past explorers, like my hero Alfred Russel Wallace, who was the first biologist to see so many species and spectacles (like birds of paradise displaying) any person now can see on their televisions. I knew how fortunate I was; I was living in the last few decades of a centuries-long era of biological exploration. The end of this era will come in my lifetime. Few others will experience what I felt as we looked for the little airstrip in the jungle. The future never looked better; my dreams were about to come true and my time in New Guinea would extend to a couple decades. I never imagined the politics, conflicts, and violence that would find me, even in such a remote place.


Excerpted from "Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest" by Andrew L. Mack. Copyright © 2014 by Andrew L. Mack. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Andrew L. Mack

Andrew L. Mack

Andrew L. Mack obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Miami Tropical Biology Program in 1995. He built a research station in a remote rainforest of New Guinea and lived there five years studying cassowaries, seed dispersal and rainforest ecology. He started a conservation training program for Papua New Guinean students and lived in PNG another ten years building the program. That program has evolved into the PNG Institute of Biological Research. Over the years he has joined and organized many biological expeditions across the region. He has worked for two of the largest international conservation organizations and two of the largest natural history museums in the United States.

View full Profile of Andrew L. Mack

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