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Issue #1677      March 18, 2015

Save Woodlark Island’s forests

“This island is biologically and culturally unique and it’s now in real danger. It’s vital that the world watch Woodlark Island very carefully.” William Laurance, director of scientific organisation ALERT [Alliance of Leading Environmental Scientists and Thinkers].

The biggest threat to the Woodlark Cuscus is the clearance of its rainforest home.

Woodlark Island (also known as Muyua Island) is a small, unspoilt tropical island paradise located off the east coast of Papua New Guinea. The 6,000 inhabitants of Woodlark live in harmony with the ancient rainforests of their island home, a biodiverse ecosystem shared for thousands of years between tribal peoples and a myriad of rare, endangered and endemic animal species.

However, the pristine forests of Woodlark Island are now under threat from a Malaysian logging company, Karridale Limited, which wants to clear at least a quarter of the island’s forests against the wishes of the majority of islanders who reject the project.

Many locals feel overwhelmed and deeply concerned about the future of their home. They and wildlife researchers fear that the project will inevitably lead to the extinction of numerous animal species that rely on the island’s rainforest as their habitat.

The destruction of Woodlark Island’s forests would be a crime against the natural world. These rainforests are home to countless wildlife, to date scientists have identified at least 42 species found only in the rainforests on Woodlark Island. More than 40 endemic plant and animal species would lose much of their habitat and are at risk, including seven frogs, four reptiles, four insects, 19 land snails and the Woodlark Cuscus, as well as seven plants. Scientists and environmentalists also believe that there are other as yet unknown species inhabiting the island awaiting discovery.

The Woodlark Cuscus is a tree-dwelling marsupial that inhabits primary and secondary tropical forests with a preference for the dry lowland forest. Since it makes up the eastern half of Woodlark Island, there is a higher prominence of the Woodlark Cuscus here compared to the dense rainforests of the western half of the Island.

Before 1987, there were only eight specimens of Woodlark Cuscuses identified so it was believed that the species was in fact on the brink of extinction. Later observations in 1987 showed that they are abundant on the eastern half of Woodlark Island and on nearby Alcester Island. However, they were still considered vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of their restricted range. It is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. While the Woodlark Cuscus is hunted by the locals, it plays only a small part in their diet and this does not impact on population numbers on the islands. The biggest threat to the Woodlark Cuscus is the clearance of its rainforest home. While it is not known how massive this project will be, it will have adverse effects on the native forests and wildlife on the island.

Simon Piyuwes, a local medical doctor who is leading the struggle against the destruction of his island home says, “I’m so exhausted and depressed at the thought of losing Woodlark’s nature to plunderers.” Simon Piyuwes is hoping for outside support, as in 2008 when a palm oil company wanted to clear the island’s forests for a plantation. With international backing, the locals managed to convince the company to abandon the project.

Karridale Ltd wants to clear at least 17,600 hectares of forest – around one quarter of the island, but locals fear that the company has its eye on more than half of the island’s forests. Time is running out for them, however, as the Malaysian company has set up logging camps and is ready to start felling the island’s trees for lumber and patio furniture.

A leading elder of Woodlark’s Malasi Clan says only a minority of the islander community approved the project, while the general population was kept in the dark until very late. The company’s permits are dubious at best.

It’s not too late to stop the project, as the response to a planned gold mine on Woodlark has shown: Governor Titus Philemon criticised the “dismal and half-hearted” efforts by government agencies to inform the islanders about the environmental impact of the three planned open-pit mines and put a stop to the project until the peoples’ concerns are addressed.

Scientists express grave concerns

“Woodlark Island is a biological jewel – home to at least 42 species that occur nowhere else on Earth,” said William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Australia and director of ALERT.

The leading scientific group is concerned that a tropical island rich with unique wild animal species and Indigenous peoples could be overrun by industrial logging. The Malaysian logging company, Karridale Limited, plans to log a large swath of the island. Estimates of the extent of planned logging range from 20 to over 50 percent of the island.

“The customary land owners on Woodlark Island are extremely nervous, they rely on the forest and land for their livelihoods and fear they could lose control over large swaths of the island,” said Laurance.

“The company is being elusive about its plans and doesn’t appear to have consulted adequately with the local communities,” said Professor Corey Bradshaw at the University of Adelaide.

“There’s been many conflicts between logging corporations and indigenous groups in Papua New Guinea,” said Dr Erik Meijaard, who studies logging in the Asia-Pacific region.

“For nature conservation, a plan this ambitious sets off alarm bells,” said Professor Stuart Pimm from Duke University in the USA. “This island is jam-packed with unique species, many of which have tiny geographic ranges and so are highly vulnerable to major disturbances.

“The devil is in the details,” said Pimm. “Careful, small-scale logging is one thing, but many Malaysian logging corporations are known for aggressive, large-scale logging.”

Large-scale logging of Woodlark’s forests will destroy this unique lowland rainforest and a huge percentage of the habitat available to the island’s unique plants and animals and will endanger the island’s precious flora and fauna. These intact rainforests, the wildlife that inhabit them and the land rights of the Indigenous people should be protected from this logging project. It should not be allowed to go ahead.

On their own, the 6,000 inhabitants of Woodlark Island do not have the means to alone avert the destruction of their home. They need our support. Please take up the cause of the Woodlark Islanders and help to put a stop to this destructive project. Your input can greatly assist the people to save their island’s rainforests, the Woodlark Cuscus and other threatened wildlife. And these efforts will also contribute to highlighting rainforest destruction and help in saving the world’s precious remaining rainforests.

What to do:

Please raise this issue and publicise it by write letters to the newspapers expressing your concerns.

Please sign and share these petitions to help save the forests and rare animals of Woodlark Island from logging companies.

Sign the petition.

Sources – Rainforest Rescue, EcoInternet and ALERT

Next article – Culture & Life – Climate change and a Red prom

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