It’s the time of the year again when we celebrate our independence as a nation by donning our traditional bilas and proudly displaying our cultural identity as Papua New Guineans. Bilas is our cultural fingerprint whether we are from the Islands or the Highlands. Behind every bilas outfit are species of plants and animals – and a relationship which intertwines nature and culture in PNG. This is the story of a modern-day quest to understand one of those species.
Have you ever wondered what kind of bird species with the rich red feathers forms the centre piece of this Highlands traditional head-dress (bilas)?
The bird species is known as the Vulturine Parrot or Pesquet's Parrot – scientifically referred to as Psittrichas fulgidus. Due to demands for its vivid crimson and black feathers for traditional ‘bilas’ over the years, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classified it as Vulnerable which means it has a moderate chance of becoming extinct.
Use of the Vulturine Parrots’ feathers for traditional head-dresses is common within certain cultural groups in the Eastern Highlands, Chimbu and the Western Highlands provinces of the Highlands region in Papua New Guinea.
In 2012, the Goroka based conservation NGO Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) carried out a project on the ‘Interaction between Culture and Nature” supported by The Christensen Fund. The project enabled WCS to document the cultural use of wildlife in traditional costumes in PNG using traditional ecological knowledge, biological research, and social science in order to better understand issues around the sustainability of wildlife used in traditional adornments.
As a result of this study WCS identified the Vulturine Parrot as a priority species both in terms of its risk of extinction and importance in Highlands’ culture. As a result 2014 WCS Goroka recruited a UPNG’s honours student Grace Nugi (pictured above) as a research intern to conduct a study on the customary use of the Vulturine Parrot’s in the Highlands.
Her study was conducted in Mingende of Kerowagi district in Simbu province and was aimed at finding out the proportion of population in Simbu who own the headdresses, the number of Vulturine Parrots hunted to create the bilas, and how often the outfits were being replaced.
“Use of this bird’s feathers are compulsory in our traditional bilas,” said Nugi who, herself, hails from Kerowagi in Simbu province. Consequently, she is particularly aware of the cultural importance of the bird’s feathers.
“Both culture and wildlife are interlinked and important. We cannot preserve one without the other, and preserving this species will mean preserving an important aspect of our culture. Using it sustainably will mean future generations can keep the culture alive,” she adds.
An earlier WCS study recommended a simple conservation measure which could be used to reduce the number of Vulturine Parrots being taken from the wild each year: protecting the bilas already in use.
Nugi is confident that by properly protecting existing bilas the lifespan of each item could be increased by around 5 years – which could reduce the number of birds killed in the wild by as much as 25%. Such a solution is comparatively cheap and involves protecting bilas with plastic bags and mothballs to prevent month, mouse and fungal damage. Nugi delivered such bilas protection kits during her survey work in Kerowagi.
Nugi recently returned from attending one of India’s largest Student Conference on Conservation Science (SCCS) in Bangalore. The conference was held in Bengaluru from 8th - 11th September. She shared her research titled ‘The Customary Use of Vulturine Parrots (Psittrichas fulgidus) and its Implications for Conservation in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea’ to the rest of the world.
She was awarded the ‘Best Student Presenter’ along with two other PhD students from Africa and India.
“This achievement made me appreciate this study because of its cultural and ecological importance for conservation in PNG,” said Nugi.
Early this year, she won a student scholarship which saw her off to present her preliminary findings at the SCCS in Australia from the 19th – 29th January.
Nugi hopes to complete her research write up by the end of this year in order to graduate with a Bachelor of Science honors degree from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG).