Defender of New Guinea's hidden life


He came for the insects, now he’s a champion for the people of New Guinea. Jo Chandler meets Vojtech Novotny. 


Novotny pulls no punches in challenging conservationists. – Mayeta Clark

On a beach overlooking the luminous waters of Nagada Harbour, beneath colossal mango trees, lie the ramshackle headquarters of the Papua New Guinea Binatang Research Centre. Here, in sweaty proximity, crews of European and Papua New Guinean scientists huddle over their latest haul of forest specimens.

In the herbarium, botanists compare fresh cuttings of fruits and leaves with dried ones filed between yellowed pages of scrounged newsprint. Next door, huddled over laptops, biologists plot data on shifting bird and frog populations.

But in the main laboratory it's it’s all about bugs, or “binatang” in PNG’s lingua franca. Glass showcases filled with flamboyant swallowtail butterflies are crowded alongside more soberly attired geometer moths. Jammed between them, busy ranks of young researchers are cataloguing freshly captured butterflies and beetles, larvae and leafhoppers, fruit flies and fig wasps.

Navigating a path through this clutter is the director, Vojtech Novotny. Pale-skinned, 50, wearing a ponytail limp with sweat and wild red whiskers, he’s something of an exotic species himself. Hailing from the hills between Bohemia and Moravia in the Czech Republic, he spends six months a year trading life as an academic at the University of South Bohemia, for these digs. His wilted tropical fatigues and sandals have seen some serious jungle miles. Few outsiders know this landscape, its creatures and people as intimately.

“The greatest terra incognita that still remains for the naturalist to explore.”

Novotny’s work has put PNG on the map as a global laboratory for understanding the interactions between insects and the forests they live in. “He’s got a huge legacy in PNG and globally,” enthuses colleague Nigel Stork, a beetle ecologist at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

Sauntering through the main lab, Novotny lingers at a bench where two young men process the catch from a lowland rainforest not far from their own village. Byron Siki and Dominic Rinan are paraecologists, home-grown experts whose native knowledge of the forests is being augmented with scientific training. They come from Wanang on the lower reaches of the Ramu River, only about 100 kilometres distant as the hornbill flies.

The New Guinea Binatang Research Centre: a humble-looking outfit with a global reputation for its research into the biodiversity of PNG’s insects. – Mayeta Clark

The forest of Wanang is in good shape thanks to a decision by villagers to put aside 10,000 pristine hectares for conservation. But elsewhere on the river, villagers have sold their trees to loggers who are stripping away 100,000 hectares of neighbouring jungle. This is the more common story. Conservationists are alarmed at the destruction of PNG’s forests, the third largest remaining area of tropical canopy after the Amazon and Congo basins.

In precise, Czech-inflected English, Novotny explains: “Wanang village had logging offers like the others. But its people took a different path.”

Novotny’s centre established a field station at Wanang about 10 years ago. It employed villagers as camp crews and forest guides, as well as training some paraecologists such as Siki and Rinan, or supporting them through Masters and PhD studies. It’s a template for the kind of healthy symbiotic relationship to which many forest dwellers and conservationists aspire.

But it’s not the kind of endeavor Novotny imagined being part of when he arrived in Papua New Guinea 20 years ago. He came for the adventure and the insects.

The nation is home to some 5% of global biodiversity, but its seven million strong human population is also extraordinarily diverse. One thousand languages are spoken here. “Isolation is a magnificent generator of diversity,” human and otherwise, Novotny reflects.

What he has seen here changed him. Today he is more interested in the country’s people than in the insects. He has become dismayed with the priorities and strategies of the international green agenda, admonishing it for “a very misleading rhetoric, where they promise economic change as a direct outcome of conservation, but at the same time they are not bringing it”.

Without meaningful support, the initiative and determination of communities such as Wanang to preserve their forest treasure is, he fears, doomed.

New Guinea has long fascinated naturalists and adventurers. On a beach, only a few kilometres from Novotny’s laboratory is the site where, 145 years ago, Count Nikolai Nikolaievich Miklukho-Maklai waded ashore, waved off his compatriots and set up camp.

Maklai was inspired by British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who, in parallel to Darwin, lit upon the theory of evolution through natural selection. After spending three months exploring what is now part of West Papua, Wallace described New Guinea as “the greatest terra incognita that still remains for the naturalist to explore”.

Novotny was also irresistibly drawn to the island. Fascinated by insects since the age of 10, he dreamt of an adventurous life chasing down more sublime varieties than those found in the tamed forests of his homeland. Twenty years of trudging in the footsteps of his heroes have made Novotny a member of a rare breed. Few scientists today venture as wide and deep into remote landscapes as Wallace or Maklai. “Novotony’s research has shifted everything. He expanded what we can do and where we can do it ,” says Stork.

The dazzling moth collection at Binatang is emblematic of the extreme biodiversity of PNG’s forests. – Tim Laman / National Geographic Creative

Like his heroes, Novotny has also paid the price of doing business in the lowland tropics, repeatedly enduring what he calls “malaria intermezzos”.

The paths taken by Novotny and Maklai share another resonating chord. Maklai wrote letters to Australian newspapers and petitioned powerful players about his concerns that European influences were corrupting New Guinea, and that its people and resources were being exploited.

Novotny writes papers challenging his fellow naturalists and conservationists over their largely futile efforts to preserve PNG’s forests, accusing them of romanticising forest people, and ignoring their hardships. He wants the complex human imperatives that lead to forest loss to be recognised, and suggests hard-currency strategies to tackle them. His insights are shaped by his engagement with forest dwellers trying to make conservation pay in villages such as Wanang and Ohu, another lowlands community where he has worked intermittently for two decades.

Ohu is only 15 kilometres inland from the Binatang headquarters and the provincial coastal capital of Madang, but the trip takes 40 bone-shaking minutes aboard Novotny’s troop carrier.

Some 25 years ago the people of Ohu set aside a 300 hectare corner of forest to nurture a butterfly habitat. They hoped it might lure tourists into visiting Madang. They cultivated flowers with nectar to attract the adult butterflies, and vines where they could lay their eggs.

“We wanted to preserve the land, we didn’t want the logging to come down and spoil our species in here, especially the bird of paradise,” recalls elder Jerry Kasom, one of the clan leaders who instigated the conservation zone. A well-travelled merchant seaman, he has seen much environmental destruction first-hand, particularly in South America. He supported tourism as an alternative way of bringing services and jobs to the village and its rapidly growing population.

And so the butterflies came to Ohu, but the tourists? Not so much. The community did not have the resources to secure the buses and roads that the butterfly fanciers also required.

The problem is expressed plainly in the Lonely Planet travel guide’s directions to Ohu’s butterfly site. It suggests visitors ride one of the crowded, dilapidated minibuses to the nearest drop-off, and then set out on a 70-minute walk into the forest. They should achieve this before dawn if they hope to also glimpse the birds of paradise in their ritual display. Even for tourists intrepid enough to find their way to Madang, it’s a big ask.

It is also symptomatic of the hurdles faced by forest communities across PNG.

Ohu’s experiment clings on today, thanks to an adventure-hungry young Czech naturalist who dreamed of Wallace’s New Guinea.

Science requires pristine forest, but science can’t pay to preserve it.

Novotny arrived in Madang, aged 30, in 1995 on a six-month posting with the Christensen Research Institute, a private American enterprise. This grew into a two-year stint of well-resourced scientific and cultural exploration. During this time all the practical difficulties of working in the remote field were someone else’s problem.

When Christensen decided to pull out of PNG in 1997, Novotny was shocked. “It was the only functioning station for terrestrial research in the country,” he says. With his French friend and colleague Yves Basset, Novotny then set up Binatang, securing start-up funding from the US National Science Foundation, then tackling the complex practicalities of doing business in PNG.

At Ohu, as they would later do at Wanang, the Binatang teams employed local people and set up a bush laboratory. Data pulled out of the forest became the basis of several major papers.

These included one in Nature, investigating the grazing habits of insects in tropical forests – they are much less picky and able to forage on a wider variety of plants than previously assumed – and another in Science, questioning why tropical forests harbour so many species of herbivorous insects. As one might imagine, the insect population reflects the multitude of plant species. But, notes Stork: “While we tend to make assumptions, Novotny goes out and tests them.”

Fieldwork became a mainstay of income around Ohu and later Wanang, but it’s a fragile relationship – science requires pristine forest, but science can’t pay to preserve it. Nevertheless, the centre has capitalised on its relationships with the surrounding people and its prize location. It is within striking distance of field sites from the shores of Madang Lagoon to the top of Mt Wilhelm – PNG’s highest peak, at 4,500 metres. Survey teams can traverse a range of jungle environments in two (exhausting) days, from the shores of the Bismarck Sea, the realm of the King bird of paradise, to the mountain peak, the territory of Stephanie’s astrapia and the Black sicklebill. “This is something that can’t be done
in many other tropical countries,” says Novotny.

Novotny documented 370 caterpillar species over 75,000 square kilometres, the size of Ireland. – Tim Laman / National Geographic Creative

Binatang’s toehold in one of the planet’s biodiversity hotspots saw its reputation grow. It was chosen to partner France’s National Museum of Natural History in an epic 2012 expedition involving 200 researchers over three months. (Novotny was co-leader of the PNG project.) The expedition formed part of the Our Planet Reviewed program that aims to collate an inventory of unknown plant and animal species. The Binatang team also spent three years working their way across 75,000 square kilometres of rainforest and marshland (the size of Ireland) on the Sepik River, digging in for three months at a time in eight villages, studying the range of butterflies and moths.

It was an ambitious project much in the Wallace tradition, inspired by the naturalist’s “unputdownable” book The Malay Archipelago (1863). Novotny’s own expedition was “a fairly interesting study logistically,” he recalls, with characteristic understatement. It involved hair-raising flights on to grass runways, paddling crocodile-infested rivers in dugout canoes, and one angry arrow fired at his team (it missed).

His account is partly captured in his own book Notebooks from New Guinea, originally published in Czech in 2009 and since translated into English. “It’s cleverly constructed, whimsical with a dry sense of humour, but clever and thoughtful. It typifies what he’s like as a person,” observes Stork.

The scientific purpose of Novotny’s expedition was to try to penetrate the hidden world of jungle insects. More than half of all described species are insects (and half are beetles). Yet it’s estimated that 80% of insect species remain to be identified. Finding them is a vexed issue. Scientists can’t measure what lives in every square kilometre of the Earth. So they sample a particular area and scale up. But how representative are the tested areas? And how consistent is the picture across a landscape?

Answering these questions is crucial for determining how best to safeguard rare species from logging. One approach is to measure the number of insect species that feed on a particular type of tree. Then you measure how many species of tree live in the forest. If there are 100 insect species for one species of tree, and 100 species of tree in the forest, you estimate 10,000 insect species.

That’s the type of analysis Novotny’s team carried out based at the eight villages spaced 150 kilometres apart across the Sepik basin. Within each study site, they selected strategic tree species and collected every caterpillar and what they were munching on: foliage, fruit or wood. They reared the caterpillars in bags and once the moths emerged, identified some 370 species (caterpillars are hard to sort into species).

“He does extremely careful work, builds up the picture as he goes along. He couldn’t do it without his big team. He takes people from local villages as well as students from the city and builds them up,” notes Stork who has visited Novotny in the field.

Their key finding was that although the species diversity in each of the eight study sites was extremely high – so-called alpha diversity – that pattern remained similar across a 500-kilometre area. So long as the altitude, climate and soil conditions stayed similar, the number and types of species – so called beta diversity – changed little.

Until then no such data had been collected for lowland tropical rainforests anywhere. These findings, published in Nature in 2007, had implications for conservation in PNG. They provided hope that as forests continue to fall, some carefully sited reservations could protect a substantial number of species, says Novotny. It is even possible that, with some money and creative effort, the PNG has the capacity to retain significant biodiversity despite the bulldozers.

Meanwhile, the scale of the threat remains. A 2008 analysis of satellite images from 1972 to 2002 showed PNG’s forests were vanishing at a rate that would wipe out 50% of the total forest area by 2021.

His frustration is that the world can’t seem to see the people for the trees.

An updated satellite analysis is due for publication by early next year but all evidence suggests deforestation continues apace. PNG’s thriving logging trade was valued in 2012 at $306 million – with almost one third of the logs coming out of illegally leased sites. International concern about the vulnerability of PNG’s forests has spiked with revelations that more than five million hectares have been swept up in foreign land grabs, most of them sly logging enterprises dressed up as plantation agriculture. The deals were exposed by a 2013 PNG Commission of Inquiry as almost entirely illegal and without landowner consent, but there’s been no action to shut them down.

Novotny is trying to find ways to preserve the forests. But he also sees communities desperate for basic services. He sees how profoundly aspirations in PNG have changed, particularly in the younger Facebook connected generation. And he is aware that land lease deals raise complex questions around justice, economy, culture and land rights. His frustration is that the world can’t seem to see the people for the trees.

In the Ohu conservation area, near Madang, villagers have chosen to reject logging. Forest dweller Pius Isa collects cordyline plants for his garden. – Mayeta Clark

“When I first came to PNG, the forests here didn’t seem to be under any serious threat compared to other parts of Asia and the Amazon,” Novotny reflects. “Since then the situation has really changed.” He’s witnessed “the tidal wave” of logging, which has swept across the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, push into New Guinea, “the last large area of rainforest”.

But that is not the only threat to forests. PNG is on track to double its population to 15 million in 23 years. More than 80% of its people are rural folk sustained by their garden crops. To feed their children, villagers make deeper and deeper incursions into wild country.

Land conversion to agriculture, whether it is small-scale garden crops or mega oil palm, cocoa and coffee plantations, is a more insidious threat to biodiversity than foreign logging, says Novotny. “Lots of people will not agree with me. But we have to do a sort of triage, look at where we can achieve the best effect with the limited resources we have.”

He believes the humid tropics will be less affected than other landscapes by climate change, though he nominates altitudinal changes – where species migrate up to cooler spots on the mountainside – as a concern. “But to me this is really secondary to the more important habitat change being caused by population growth, forestry and agriculture,” he says.

In a 2010 paper in the journal Biotropica (“Why forest dwellers prefer loggers to conservationists”) Novotny proposed a scheme of conservation royalties that would make conserving forests as lucrative as cutting them down. This echoes the mechanism proposed by the United Nations REDD schemes (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) but rather than pricing the canopy as a carbon sink, the payment recognises forest dwellers as caretakers of biodiversity. “We need to protect it for its own sake,” he says.

Sitting on the deck of the Binatang centre, he puts it plainly: “If remote communities have a choice between logging development and no development, they will choose logging.”

Even more appealing are the small oil palm enterprises that can deliver better health, better incomes, more education, and preserve communities (at least in the short to medium term). The risk is that the plantation momentum can quickly build, “which will get us to the same situation as Borneo, in which everything that can be converted is converted to oil palm”.

Slash and burn agriculture in action: the forest is cut down to make way for a food garden to feed a growing population. Modern agricultural methods could save PNG’s forests, says Novotny. – Mayeta Clark

Novotny argues the most powerful action conservation groups can take to save PNG’s biodiversity is to invest in modern agriculture, to help farmers improve yields and use land more efficiently, thereby preserving forests. In case the wider world doesn’t engage in this strategy – and he’s not optimistic – Novotny is incubating Plan B at the Binatang centre. He’s training young people from forest communities, building up a small, indigenous army of scientists. Novotny’s main objective is for this cadre to help build PNG’s scientific capacity, so that local voices, with intimate knowledge of country and culture, can go on to study sustainable agriculture, manage forests, and inform policy at the highest level.

Nurturing this expertise has now become his central mission. It’s a more profound, lasting legacy than anything he might deliver in a journal paper. What’s the use of a breakthrough insight into the ecology of PNG’s forests if the nation is unable to make use of that information? “How the story of forest biodiversity on PNG will end is still in front of us,” he says. “There is no trajectory that is already set that can’t be changed. But decision time is approaching.

Subscriber Exclusive The remainder of this article is exclusive to Cosmos subscribers

To continue reading this article, please subscribe for unlimited access or log in
Contrib jochandler.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Jo Chandler is an award-winning freelance journalist and author.
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles