Island of Secrets: In Search of a Mysterious Tree Kangaroo

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Nov. 7 2011 12:18 AM

The Geologist in the Jungle

One man's journey into the rainforest in search of a mysterious tree kangaroo.

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In July of 2011, John Lane, an explorer and geologist from California State University-Chico, mounted a biological research expedition to a remote wilderness region of New Britain, a volcanic island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The greater PNG region is a hotspot of biodiversity, but one that is highly threatened by oil palm plantations and other industries. Lane’s quest was to spur environmental conservation by finding a mysterious species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals on earth, which natives had witnessed but scientists believed did not exist on New Britain. So with the help of local Nakanai tribesmen, several scientific researchers and a few Cal State students, Lane set up a base camp in a caldera deep in the forest, from which to conduct biological research and search for the creature. This following is adapted from Matthew Power's account of the expedition, Island of Secrets, just published by The Atavist. The full ebook single is available for the Kindle and iPad/iPhone via The Atavist website.

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jungle fern and bully beef
Typical expedition fare: Gume, a variety of jungle fern, sauteed with "bully beef," tinned corn beef.

Photograph by Dylan van Winkel.

Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman brand biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” that managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.

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There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps of teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois. (In Tok Pisin, the lingua franca of Papua New Guinea’s 800-plus languages, young men are referred to as “bois,” and girls are called “meris.”) They were shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.

Kangaroo Raft
John Lane, the author, and Dylan van Winkel, on the hand-made raft used to cross the caldera lake to search for tree kangaroos in the Nakanai Mountains.

Photograph by Dylan van Winkel.

Lane was accompanied by three Cal State undergrads: Alan Rhoades, Emily Ramsey, and Heidi Rogers. I observed to Lane that a bunch of innocent Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation horror movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web strung between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 28 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled their way to some out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he had a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding inside his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah Wells, a British researcher working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology, had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers. 

The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State President Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s No. 1 party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s crime-ridden capital, to rendezvous with the students and escort them directly back to Northern California.

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