Book Review: Searching for pekpek. Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea rainforest.

IMG_6511I see James Cameron’s Pandora in my mind’s eye, but behind the scenes – the internal conversations, the private moments, sickness, death, frustrations and many tiny victories – all the little moments that go into informing a great script.

It was a feat to relocate from a jungle of concrete, steel and glass to the forest – with jungle of trees that seem to stretch all the way to the end of the earth, covered with man eating vines, giant waterfalls, steep mountains, misty valleys, flash floods, pre-historical birds, and humans so at home in their environment they seem to possess supernatural powers.

Instead of Jake Sully among the 7 foot tall Naavi you have Andy and Deb among the 5 foot Pawaia.  Roaming the jungle, living, seeing and learning by searching for  “pekpek”.

In the pages of this book lies the proof that we are each built for our respective environment. It is perfectly Ok if in another life you find yourself a Pawaia in a forest or an urban warrior on the streets of New York.

In the pages of this book is also the narration of a life calling. The noblest calling – to defend Mother Nature in this tiny blue marble we call home. Many are called but few are brave enough to walk the path.

In the Avatar of Pandora, the story ends with the hometree burning to the ground, in Papua New Guinea, there is hope for a future because of dedicated people who with brutal honesty share their personal experiences – setting the foundation for greater exploits for science.   And cautioning against capitalists who come dressed in sheep skin.

I was briefly a student in the capacity building course before the program was dismantled. The training program taught me more than my four years of university.  Andy and Deb were mentors and role models.   Conservation was like a religion to them, a conviction that permeated their whole being (as is apparent in this book) – and they were building disciples. Disciples armed with a science knowledge to ensure sustainable management of resources for the forest people.

Much of what has become the basis of my consciousness for nature protection was absorbed from Andy and Deb and the countless visitors they brought to the program and the conversations and importantly, the paper discussions.

In retrospect, their model for building local manpower is working.  Regardless of whose payroll the ex-students are being paid from now, the conservation principles received from Deb and Andy lives on. They have built a cohort of biologists and conservationists who are capable of driving conservation into the future.

The first chapters of the book sounds so romantic – the stuff of adventure tales immortalized around dinner tables. At the turning of the pages, it becomes apparent that this accomplishment was at a great cost. Disease, rascals, “sanguma”, death, estrangement from relationships – a hefty price was paid in the name of conservation.

So what, after all of this?

Indeed, humans have short memory. The only remaining physical evidence of the dream of  a field station may be the metal frames of the proposed research centre and the iron cast oven slowly rotting in the jungle, which are now probably “tumbuna” story among the locals. But for some of us who have walked part of the way, no matter how brief, the place will forever be an altar of sacrifice – where tears, sweat and blood were shed for a cause. It is a sacred site for pondering life and the purpose for being alive at a time such as now when reckless plunder of the earth seems more fashionable than protecting it.

The best gift any generation can leave for the future is telling their story so the future can learn and make better choices.  Andrew Mack has done just that with his book.

The documentation of conservation history in Papua New Guinea in this book is priceless. The lessons to learn from it is universal. I would recommend this book as a reading for any student in the field of conservation in PNG or anywhere else in the world.

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