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New Guinea has the world’s richest island flora – it needs greater protection than ever

The world’s most mountainous and largest tropical island, New Guinea, has the greatest plant diversity of any island in the world, 19% more than Madagascar, according to a new paper published in Nature.

The findings make it even more important to have many more designated protected areas in the region as illegal logging is a huge problem in this part of the world. In Papua New Guinea, of which New Guinea is a part of, protected areas cover less than 3% of the land, which includes 1% for state-owned national parks. Where they are managed, many are done so poorly that in some cases, communities are not even aware that they live in protected areas.

The island is home to some of the best-preserved ecosystems on the planet, from mangroves to tropical alpine grasslands and has fascinated naturalists for centuries. But until now there has been no attempt to catalogue its entire vascular plant diversity.

Ninety-nine botanists from 56 institutions in 19 countries examined more than 700,000 specimens, the earliest of which were collected by European travellers in the 1700s. It found 13,634 different species, 68% of which were endemic.

Among the samples were more than 2,800 species of orchid and 3,900 species of tree. “Part of the study’s beauty is its sheer scale and just the huge number of collaborators,” said Dr Rodrigo Cámara-Leret, biologist from the University of Zurich, who started the project in 2018. “There was already a sense of New Guinea community, but it was scattered, and this project kind of brought us all together.”

Cámara-Leret is encouraging researchers from around the world to build on this dataset, which will be vital for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s Red List. Large swathes of the island remain unexplored and some historical collections have yet to be looked at. Researchers estimate that 4,000 more plant species could be found in the next 50 years, with discoveries showing “no sign of levelling off”, according to the paper.

New Guinea’s topographical diversity, according to Cámara-Leret, “allows for different types of habitats, such as mangroves, swamp forests, lowland tropical forests and also montane forests, which have high levels of endemism…And then at the very top, just below the limit of plant growth, are these alpine grasslands … This habitat is basically unique to New Guinea in southeast Asia.”

The world’s third-largest rainforest extends across the island of New Guinea, from Indonesian-controlled West Papua into Papua New Guinea. Although almost all land in Papua New Guinea is legally controlled by indigenous groups, agricultural projects including palm oil have co-opted millions of hectares of land and forests, which have seriously damaging impacts on community lives and livelihoods.

The Papua New Guinean government plans to have 1.5 million hectares of plantations by 2030. A 2016 study commissioned by the World Bank identified the expansion of oil palm as the most significant threat to Papua New Guinea’s forest cover.

The Rimbunan Hijau Group (RHG, ‘Forever Green’ in Malay) is a Malaysian conglomerate with palm oil operations on tens of thousands of hectares in Papua New Guinea. Global Witness discovered that RHG since 2008 has deforested more than 20,000 hectares at its plantations in the province of East New Britain, with the intention of planting an eventual 31,000 hectares of palm oil.

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