In June 2021, 48 camera traps were installed at Kwiop, Jiwaka Province, deep in the Papua New Guinea highlands. The aim was to monitor wildlife in the newly declared Mt. Goplom conservation area, which protects 3,500 ha of mature montane forest in the Bismarcks, the highest mountain range in the country.
Two months after installation, the cameras were checked, their batteries replaced, and all memory cards changed, revealing the first glimpses of the seldom-seen wildlife at this remote site. The findings were just as wonderful as expected. The highlight, which got us most excited, came from a camera that was placed just in front of a spot that seemed to be frequently used by wild Dwarf Cassowaries (Casuarius bennetti). These are one of the flagship endemic species in Papua New Guinea, and the smallest of the three species of cassowaries in the country. Cassowaries are omnivorous but mainly feed on fruits. Their role in dispersing the seeds of native trees through their droppings is crucial for maintaining forest health. They are one of the most emblematic species in Papua New Guinea, fascinating ecologists and naturalists the world over.
The cassowary site was identified by hunters in June during the first community ranger survey. This survey evaluated the skills and traditional ecological knowledge of 15 candidates selected by their clans to build the community’s capacity to survey and protect the integrity of the forest. Direct work with hunters is part of the WCS programme in PNG, with support from the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme funded by the European Union and the Lukautim Graun Programme, funded by the USAID. The SWM Programme is helping transform hunters into custodians of their natural resources in culturally and environmentally sustainable ways while preventing marginalisation of any community members. Across the world, the best hunters make the best rangers because they understand both their natural and social environment. Skilled hunters from Kwiop, identified this prime spot to record the daily activities of the Dwarf Cassowaries. The site consists of two small ponds, each 1 m wide by 50 cm deep, where the cassowaries were suspected to come to drink, self-groom and bathe. We were not disappointed by the results!
The site yielded 249 videos of wild cassowaries (3.24 hours) that came to forage, drink, wash and sit in the pond. They also checked out the camera traps! In addition to Dwarf cassowaries, the camera captured other ground-dwelling birds, including the New Guinea Scrubfowl (Megapodius decallotus) and the Red-legged Brushturkey (Talegalla jobiensis), two species of megapodes, named for their disproportionately large feet. These birds are important for local people, who collect their large, protein-rich eggs.
Figure 1. Activity pattern of cassowaries throughout the day using the ponds for drinking, grooming or bathing as measured by the total (cumulative) minutes each hour of the day where cassowary activity was recorded. Sampling effort: 72 Total time observed: 194.6 min out of 248.7 minutes of videos captured in a 72 days sampling effort.
Based on size estimates, we think that three individuals, one adult and two juveniles, triggered most of the videos. However, an additional analysis will be required to confirm their total number, age and sex. Female cassowaries are larger than males, and are strictly territorial, only overlapping with one or more male territories (Campbell and al., 2012). This will help us estimate how many individual animals appear in our videos.
Figure 2. Photomontage, showing the size of an adult Dwarf Cassowary compared to a human 1.65m tall.
In addition to playing a crucial role in maintaining forest health, cassowaries are hugely valuable in PNG highlander culture. Their feathers are used for body decoration (bilas). Live cassowaries, captured at a young age in the forest, are given as high-status bride prices. Their meat is highly esteemed for special events. Thus, for both ecological and cultural reasons, protecting cassowaries and their habitats is critical. These first videos help the community to best manage their population locally.
Figure 3. The lower two pictures show the same Cassowary, whilst the upper images depict two other individuals.
This first footage of wild dwarf cassowaries in the recently formally declared community conservation area of Kwiop is a significant achievement for the SWM Programme in Papua New Guinea, and the next steps are no less exciting. As we continue to run the camera-trap survey, the plethora of data that will emerge will be fundamental to better understand the ecology, habits, and abundances of key species. These observations will help us move into a new phase of the study, in which we plan to fit several individuals with GPS tags to determine their home ranges. We are still a long way from reaching this stage, but every step we make, together with the community, gets us closer to our goal of understanding and conserving these spectacular birds.
Campbell, H. A., et al. "Prioritising the protection of habitat utilised by southern cassowaries Casuarius casuarius johnsonii." Endangered Species Research 17.1 (2012): 53-61.