Woodlark Island is a rare place on the planet today. Just a little bigger than New York City, this small island off the coast Papua New Guinea is still covered in rich tropical forest, an ecosystem shared for thousands of years between tribal peoples and a plethora of species, including at least 42 found no-where else. Yet, like many such wildernesses, Woodlark Island is now facing major changes: not the least of them is a plan to log half of the island.
“All [of] their machineries are on Woodlark. They have completed building [a] camp site at Wanum. They have extended their interest to cover over half of Woodlark Island,” said Simon Piyuwes, a medical doctor who was born and raised on the small island.
The company holding the Timber Authority is called Karridale Limited. Little information is available regarding the company—though various sources have called it a “Malaysian company.” Still, Karridale Limited has an office in Boroko, a suburb of Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. A few months ago the company was rumored to be planning to log 17,600 hectares of the island, or about 22 percent of the whole. Now, Piyuwes says that the company has extended its proposal to cover more than half the island “from Talpos Mountain all the way east,” although the company has not confirmed this.
“Woodlark is a beautiful and isolated Pacific island. Even the name of the island is lovely, recalling a bird with a melodious voice. Like many small tropical islands, Woodlark is a theatre of evolution unto itself, and the island’s lowland forests are home to rare, endangered, and endemic species,” Kristofer Helgen, a mammalogist with the Smithsonian Institution, told mongabay.com.
He added that “logging half of Woodlark’s forests would wipe out a huge percentage of the habitat available to Woodlark’s unique plants and animals.”
Biodiversity hotspot and undiscovered species
No one really knows how many species are found on Woodlark Island, also known as Muyua Island. Nor does any one know how many of these species are only found there. But to date, scientists have identified at least 42 endemic species, i.e. those found no-where else. The most well-known of these is the Woodlark cuscus (Phalanger lullulae). Cuscus are tree-dwelling marsupials found across Papua New Guinea, Australia, and neighboring islands.
Helgen describes the Woodlark cuscus as a “beautiful tree-living mammal that is unique among marsupials in its speckled dark brown, white, and orange coat—a pretty possum colored something like a calico cat.” Given its small range, the species is currently listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.
The other 41 described species to date include seven frogs, four reptiles, seven plants, four insects (two of which have yet to be named), and 19 land snails. There may also be at least a new rodent, a few more frogs, and a couple new snakes on the island that have yet to be confirmed. But even these are likely not the end of it. In fact, many of the scientists reached out to by mongabay were positive the island still held undiscovered species.
“Certainly there will be more undiscovered species on the island,” said Fred Kraus with the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Kraus, himself, has discovered four new amphibians and reptiles on Woodlark. He notes that the current estimate of over 40 species is “conservative.”
Bruce Beehler, who studies birds at the National Museum of Natural History, added that “any large tract of forest in the New Guinea region is unique and probably harbors hundreds of specialized and perhaps endemic species—mainly of invertebrates and lesser vertebrates.”
Despite being larger than all but two of the Galapagos Islands, Woodlark Island has never been adequately surveyed by biologists and is almost wholly unknown to the global public.
Loggers on shore
While little is known about the island’s biodiversity, Karridale Limited has already arrived on shore. A camp has been built and the company awaits one last hoop before it can begin logging.
“Their Timber Authority renewal [has] been approved by the National Forest Authority and now in the provincial forest board for review and final approval. As soon as it gets approved here at the provincial level, the cutting will begin,” Piyuwes says.
While Piyuwes now practices medicine on the mainland, he visits Woodlark whenever he can. But in his efforts to safeguard the island’s forests, Piyuwes has been frustrated by a lack of transparency by the company.
“There is literally zero information about the company on the island. No office in the province,” he said. “No environment permit, no compensation agreement, no [Memorandum of Agreement], no incorporated land group to receive payment if there is any.”
Following months of research, mongabay.com tracked down information about Karridale Limited to a page hosted by an online business directory for Papua New Guinea.
Danny Chiu, the company’s operation manager, confirmed that Karridale Limited was proposing to conduct logging operatioons on the island. But when asked if the logging will be clearcutting or selective, Chiu said, “This is a slow operation. We only take enough for the local market, and create jobs for the local people because logging is only a small part of what we are doing.”
While any industrial logging operations will leave a mark on the environment, selective logging with careful management would do far less harm to the island’s biodiversity—and its ecosystem services—than clear-cutting.
“If it is to be selectively logged, then best silvicultural practices should be employed—something that is rarely achieved by loggers in Papua New Guinea,” said Beehler.
Yet Chiu did not give any more specifics about the logging operations.
“Companies prefer to clear-cut because it is more cost-effective for them, leaving the ecological and social damages to be externalized to neighboring communities or the world at large,” said Kraus, who added that well-managed selective logging would probably not endanger most of the species on the island.
“[But],” he said. “Large-scale clear-cut logging would be a potential threat to many of these species because it is simply wholesale destruction of habitat with much more limited chances of recruitment of new seeds [for regrowth]. That’s no different from bulldozing a city and expecting the residents to get along just fine after that. If the habitat is destroyed, the animals (and plants) contained therein are simply exterminated; most of them would be unable to migrate elsewhere. And even if they did migrate, they probably wouldn’t survive in other forest tracts that are already full with their own animals.”
The island is now facing a dilemma that is playing itself out across many parts of the so-called developing world. Do locals extract their abundant natural resources for much-needed cash—and dreams of ‘development’—or attempt to maintain them for future generations? On the one hand, local communities want a better, more secure life. But on the other, extraction of natural resources can quickly degrade the very environment that they depend on, leaving them worse-off than before the company arrived.
“The general pattern from elsewhere in the tropics seems to be one of increased impoverishment because the forests that they rely on for a diversity of resources (hunting, home-building, etc.) would be gone,” said Kraus.
In the case of the Woodlark Islanders, they have depended almost exclusively on their island’s forests for thousands of years.
“There remains on the island something of a unique example of a regional social and ecological system that supported human and other life for 2,000 and more years,” F.H. Damon, an anthropologist, told mongabay.com in 2008. Damon spent more than 30 years studying the culture on the island. Today the people largely make a living off gardening, hunting, and pig herding.
These islanders, themselves, have cleared portions of their forest time-and-again, but never in a large-scale industrial capacity. For example from 2000 to 2012, the islanders have cleared 1,437 hectares according to Global Forest Watch, amounting to less than two percent of the island’s whole. During the same time 287 hectares of forest have grown back.
“Only sustainable logging by locals [is] acceptable not massive scavenging logging like [by] Karridale,” said Piyuwes, noting that Karridale Limited’s plan would be “bad for [the] environment and detrimental for rare species of flora and fauna on the island.”
It is difficult to poll the islanders’ for their views on the looming logging, which was green-lit by some of the tribes on the island. However in April, an elder on the island told mongabay.com that the logging had only been approved by a minority of the islanders.
Piyuwes said that information on the island remains scant at best, generally leaving the people in the dark.
“There is much confusion on the land marks which the Timber Authority involved. There is no proper document presentation at home. Only word of mouth which can easily be blown away by the wind of greed.”
Given this, Piyuwes is “calling on government, NGOs, public to banish such unidentified companies from operating…whilst we [are] trying…our best to return [our] land to customary ownership.”
In fact, for Piyuwes, the paramount issue is ensuring native rights for the Woodlark Islanders to decide their fate collectively. While the vast bulk of land in Papua New Guinea is communal, i.e. legally owned by the locals who reside there, Woodlark Island is different. Here, the land is technically still owned by the government, over 200 miles across the sea in Port Moresby. Woodlark Islanders have been fighting for decades to get the right to their forests, yet to no avail.
“Logging in Papua New Guinea is a tough issue,” said Allen Allison, a senior zoologist with the Hawaii Biological Survey. “Lawful logging should generally not drive species to extinction. If an area is logged and left alone the forest will regenerate. However, what has been happening in Papua New Guinea is that areas are successively re-logged over unlawfully short time intervals and the forest is eventually destroyed—and in many areas is replaced with oil palm.”
History repeats itself?
For Piyuwes, Karridale Limited’s plan to log half the island is a bit like deja vu.
In 2008, hundreds of locals, including Piyuwes, campaigned against a plan to convert 70 percent of Woodlark Island’s forest to a massive oil palm plantation by a company called Vitro Plant. After battling the company for several months, the Woodlark Islanders eventually defeated the plan, but it took steadfast opposition on the ground, media coverage abroad, and an international email campaign.
But even as the dust settled from that battle, few suspected that would be the end of the story. And they were right.
“Woodlark forest must be conserved and only allow sustainable logging by resource owners,” said Piyuwes.
But with loggers ready to go, with machinery and camps already set-up, and with little media attention this time around, it seems those who oppose the plans are increasingly fighting uphill. As for the endemic and still-undiscovered species, they may just be on their own.
An earlier article on this issue can be found here: Loggers plan to clear 20 percent of tropical island paradise