Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo has helped villagers in Papua New Guinea secure permanent protection for 187,800 acres of pristine tropical forest in the country's first-ever national conservation area. The land is owned by villagers who decided to create the refuge for the sweet-faced Matschie's tree kangaroo, an endangered species that lives nowhere else.

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Keeping to itself for much of its life in the tropical treetops, the fuzzy-faced tree kangaroo doesn’t seem a likely vanguard for a revolution.

But so it is in Papua New Guinea, where conservation biologists from Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo worked with residents of some 35 native villages to seal the country’s first-ever conservation deal, preserving 187,800 acres of tropical forest stretching from the country’s northern coast to the interior mountains.

The owners of the property are indigenous people, who committed for the first time to managing their land as a national conservation area, off-limits to hunting, mining, logging or other development.

The conservation area protects a large, pristine swath of the Huon Peninsula, the only known habitat of the wild Matschie’s tree kangaroo, long hunted by the villagers as part of their subsistence economy. The small animal munches mostly tree leaves, flowers and ferns. Only about 3 feet high and weighing as much as a large sack of birdseed, it is one of 54 species of kangaroos, and can leap 60 feet to the ground from a tree without getting hurt.

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The idea for the conservation area grew in part from research by a zoo employee, Lisa Dabek, field conservation director at Woodland Park Zoo and director of its tree-kangaroo program.

Woodland Park Zoo and Dabek have a long-standing relationship with the roo. The zoo is a leader in captive breeding and reproductive research on the tree kangaroo, and is obtaining a male tree kangaroo from a zoo in Singapore for exhibit this spring.

Dabek learned in field research on the tree kangaroo and its habitat in 1996 that villagers were able to hunt fewer of the animals, and had to travel more to find them, because populations were declining.

“You would ask them, ‘How many can you get?’ and they would say, ‘There used to be plenty, plenty, eight a week, and now, not so much, two a week, and we have to go further,’ ” Dabek said.

She encouraged the villagers she met to hunt possums instead — they breed more often — and to consider creating a safe zone with no hunting or development, mining or logging. It could become a kind of kangaroo bank from which the animals would disperse, supplying the surrounding forests, where hunting would still be allowed.

As it turned out, the idea of conservation wasn’t entirely new to the villagers. Before the coming of missionaries, who altered their culture, there had been a tradition among the villagers of honoring taboo areas in the forests, where no hunting or other activities took place. While observed for cultural reasons, the practice had the effect of creating conservation areas.

Still, it took 12 years and the help of other partners, including Arlington, Va.-based Conservation International, to create the conservation area. The process was slow in part because this was the first time more than 35 indigenous villages had come together to protect their forest homeland and wildlife, using a law passed in 1978 allowing creation of conservation areas. The Papua New Guinea national government formally approved the conservation area in January.

Along the way, Dabek and others working on the project talked with villagers about their needs, and through those discussions they agreed to create a program to train more teachers for village schools and improve medical services in local clinics. Those efforts are to be paid for in part with a $1 million matching grant for which the Seattle zoo hopes to raise the money by 2010.

For the zoo, helping create the conservation area on the other side of the world is one part of an ongoing mission. The zoo partners in some 38 conservation projects in 50 countries in Asia, Africa and the Pacific Northwest.

Villagers will celebrate creation of the conservation area this Earth Day, and Dabek intends to join them. After 12 years of visits, she says she feels part of an extended family.

The reserve, she said, laid the groundwork for further conservation efforts, both in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in the world where she hopes this community-based approach can be a model. “It’s all about building relationships,” she said.

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or

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