Our member in the spotlight this week is Grace Nugi, a student intern with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Papua New Guinea. Grace won the best student presentation at SCBO 2018 for her Presentation: “More dead than alive: vulturine parrot use in Kerowagi, Papua New Guinea” (abstract below). Let’s meet Grace!
What first motivated you to pursue a career in conservation?
During my freshman year in 2009, PNG had a large number of mining explorations and logging licenses being issued. I thought our country would reach a place where the extractive industries will have destroyed our environment – an environment that provided for 80 per cent of our nation’s people. I wanted to work in a field that could actually provide solutions, so I pursued Marine Biology in my undergrad, minoring in Environmental Science. Upon graduating, I was offered an internship with the Wildlife Conservation Society PNG Program which changed my path and interest from Marine Biology to terrestrial birds and mammals traditional ecological knowledge. Working with WCS for four years led me to see that conservation, especially in PNG, is not just about protecting areas or species, it ultimately meant taking care of our people who heavily rely on the natural ecosystem services and ensuring there is enough to provide for the generations to come.
Your presentation focused on the use of Vulturine Parrot feathers in traditional headdresses in Papua New Guinea, and the implications for the sustainability of that species. Are conservation and cultural practice now in conflict in PNG? What do you think can or should be done to ensure the sustainability of both?
The Vulturine Parrot is one of many species under threat of over harvesting in PNG. Our cultural practices involving wildlife primarily involve animals as both a meat source and traditional ornamentation. Additionally, there are species that are tied to each cultural tribe and treated as totems. Conservation and cultural practices are in conflict because although most of the species used for cultural practices especially as ornamentation are listed as protected species, there is no actual monitoring or enforcement in place. Although we have 3 main laws in place (i.e. the National Parks Act, Conservation Areas Act and Fauna (Protection and Control) Act), they all lack the provisions needed to deal with the issues of sustainable use, and do not cater for the protection and sustainable use of our biodiversity. The conflict is, there is no compliance and monitoring and if a species (in this case all the species) provides a daily meal or fulfils a cultural purpose, how can we prosecute the majority of Papua New Guineans who rely on these species for cultural identity and food?
Additionally, our country is trying to boost its tourism industry with festivals and shows that see thousands of traditional dancers with hundreds of thousands of dead fauna encouraged as an attraction for a growing industry. I think a fine line needs to be drawn where authorities need to put bag limits and prosecute any traders and hunters of the highly threatened species. This would have to start by revisiting our Acts in place by revising our Protected Species List with one of the principles being balancing cultural and subsistence use and sustainability.
What has been the most interesting or inspiring thing that you have learned from your research so far?
I think I was inspired by the fact that our people have been practicing conservation and sustainable practices since the beginning of time. Conservation of resources from the land to the sea, so the principles of conservation is not foreign to us. For example, my study showed that even though huge numbers of Vulturine Parrots and other species like the Birds of Paradise, Tree Kangaroos, Possums and Cuscus are killed for traditional embellishments, they are preserved up to an average of 27 years and passed on from generation to generation, so there is a low turnover rate.
Aside from your research, you have been a cultural ambassador for PNG, and a vocal advocate for women’s education. Why do you think it’s so important for Pacific Islanders, and women in particular to get involved in conservation?
Traditionally, our women tilled the land, they knew what and when to plant or gather from the forest and the seas. They knew how much was either enough or too much and they knew how to save for future needs. These have been instinctive as well as learnt and are the fundamentals for conservation. However, women in the Pacific Islands still do not have an equal say in many decision making processes, especially in this era where our resources are at risk of exploitation. Equality in all respects is still a struggle that may seem tedious. But that’s where education comes in and with that comes involvement. Although our men may seem to be in the driver’s seat, our women are the ones who are on the ground actually doing things, and that’s where and why I think it is very important that our women must be involved in conservation.
What was your favourite thing about SCBO 2018 in Wellington?
Apart from the amazing Te Papa museum as a venue and the catering, and the whale who visited the harbor (which I missed), I was amazed at all the student presentations I attended, especially hearing about the new methods students are using in their projects.
Finally, what are your plans after you graduate? What’s your dream job?
At this stage,I hope to return to work alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society who have an ongoing project aimed at reducing deforestation and reduce communities’ dependence on wild meat along the Bismarck Forest Corridor situated near my hometown, Chimbu Province. My dream job, although it may be a long shot, is to one day be the Jacinda Arden of PNG.
Grace’s SCBO 2018 Abstract:
More dead than alive: vulturine parrot use in Kerowagi, Papua New Guinea
Grace Nugi, Whitmore N.
The cultural use of wildlife in Papua New Guinea (PNG) remains prevalent. The Highlands cultures of PNG are renowned for their elaborate headdresses which comprise up to 12 species of birds. In particular, the Vulturine Parrot (Psittrichas fulgidus) (IUCN: Vulnerable) is highly sought after for use in headdresses because of its red feathers. However, it is unclear how much of a threat the cultural use of these feathers represents. In order to quantify the potential impact of harvesting, we surveyed 170 adults in Kerowagi district, Chimbu Province, a locality well known for their use of Vulturine Parrot feathers. Of the survey participants, 59 % owned headdresses. Participants on average owned 2.8 (± 1.6 SD) headdresses with each containing an average of 2.8 (± 0.19 SD) Vulturine Parrots. Using a bootstrap methodology, we established a mean estimate of 7.9 Vulturine Parrots per owner. Extrapolating for the adult population of Kerowagi district suggests that over 430,000 Vulturine Parrots could be present within existing headdresses. Within our sample we measured an annual turnover rate of 1%. This suggests around 4,3oo Vulturine Parrots would need to be harvested as replacement headdress parts for Kerowagi district alone. This is equivalent to ~10 % of the estimated wild population. Given that Vulturine Parrots are traded into Kerowagi from remote lowland regions, we suggest that the most practical conservation intervention is to prolong the lifespan of the existing headdresses.