“When you’re a kid and you think of a very magical place, this is it,” says Lisa Dabek, picturing the lush Papua New Guinea cloud forest. Even the wildlife sounds like something out of a children’s book. “It’s kind of a hybrid of a kangaroo, a koala, a sloth, and a monkey. And a bear,” Dabek says, describing the elusive Matschie’s tree kangaroo.
Dabek is a National Geographic grantee and founder of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo. For almost 20 years she has dedicated her work to studying and preserving these animals, which are endangered by over-hunting and habitat loss. The indigenous people in the area of the Yopno, Uruwa, and Som Rivers (YUS) “hunt tree kangaroos for food—protein—and also for cultural use,” Dabek explains. But they are also playing an important role in revitalizing the species.
“New Guinea is unique in that over 90 percent of the land is owned by the local indigenous people. So we work with the YUS people to create this YUS Conservation Area, which serves as a wildlife bank. And so tree kangaroos are safe in the conservation area, and then the young can disperse into hunting areas.”
Researchers need to understand the animals’ behavior in order to establish an effective conservation area, but tree kangaroos are known as the “ghosts of the forest” for a reason, as they reside 100 feet up in the forest canopy and are incredibly difficult to observe. So Dabek is working with National Geographic’s Crittercam team to attach cameras to the mysterious critters to figure out how they spend their time.
From footage of a tree kangaroo mother cleaning her pouch while her baby joey rests inside, to seeing another eat an orchid species that was never before thought to be a part of the animals’ diet, the Crittercam is revealing far more than Dabek expected. “I think part of what was so exciting was that we were watching it with the National Geographic team, myself, and the Papua New Guinea landowners and research assistants … and it was this moment of all of us getting to see behavior that nobody had ever witnessed before. It was thrilling.”
Find out more about how these discoveries are protecting these charismatic creatures by checking out the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program.