Port Moresby Nature Park's pig-nosed turtle program continues despite pandemic

The pig-nosed turtle has enjoyed a resurgence in PNG.
The pig-nosed turtle has enjoyed a resurgence in PNG.

Leaving a comfortable zoo job in Australia, Michelle McGeorge moved with her partner to take up a 12-month position advising on the rejuvenation of a dilapidated park in Papua New Guinea.

A decade later, the pair have turned gardens once considered too dangerous to visit into one of the country's biggest ecological success stories.

Among Port Moresby Nature Park's extensive environmental accolades is a project with the University of Canberra to replenish depleted populations of pig-nosed turtles.

Michelle McGeorge moved with her partner to help restore a botanic gardens in Papua New Guinea.

Michelle McGeorge moved with her partner to help restore a botanic gardens in Papua New Guinea.

Hunted for their meat and depleted due to the increased population density in the city, the nature park linked up with Canberra to help bring up their numbers.

Under the leadership of UC professor Arthur Georges, an all-female team of scientists worked with communities in the Kikori catchment to build awareness of the turtles' plight.

Mr Georges now sits on an otherwise all-female PNG board which oversees the ongoing work.

"We took a bunch of eggs - well hatchlings by the time they got there - into the park and they proved it was possible to raise them for head starting purposes," Mr Georges said.

In 2016, the team handed the reigns of the education and rehabilitation program to a local group to continue the work to protect the threatened turtle.

Recently Port Moresby Nature Park celebrated the release of 27 pig-nosed turtles during what had been a tumultuous year for its owners and operators.

A project to restore Papua New Guinea's pig-nosed turtle population saw 27 of the species released into waterways recently.

A project to restore Papua New Guinea's pig-nosed turtle population saw 27 of the species released into waterways recently.

While COVID-19 didn't devastate PNG in terms of case numbers, the economic impact on the Pacific Island nation hit hard.

In April, PNG went into a two-month state of emergency which meant almost everything shut down.

"Back then I'd had discussions with the government around what would happen when I was forced to tell them we were closing," she said. "It was pretty dire."

"Only 8 per cent of our visitors are actually international visitors, the other 92 per cent are residents from Papua New Guinea but that does include quite a large expatriate community," she said.

"We lost the majority of the expatriates, particularly when you go back to March when all of the embassies were saying we had to return to our home countries."

Staff at the Port Moresby Nature Reserve are involved in the rescue and conservation of tree kangaroos.

Staff at the Port Moresby Nature Reserve are involved in the rescue and conservation of tree kangaroos.

Ms McGeorge said many PNG residents relied on public transport to visit the Nature Park, which was shut down under the state of emergency.

"We dropped 75 per cent for those two months and we'd already started the year on the back of a tough 2019 due to a temporary closure," she said.

Forced to stand down staff and unsure if they could afford to keep operating, the owners launched a GoFundMe page in May which has since raised more than $280,000.

Ms McGeorge said the money had gone towards paying wages, feeding the more than 550 animals that live at the park and continuing its wildlife rehabilitation.

With the ongoing support of Australian zoos, including a partnership with Zoos Victoria which has sent staff to Port Moresby for seven years and Perth Zoo which has gotten behind the plight to save the park, things might just turn around.

Ms McGeorge said they were determined to stay on as the animal advocacy work in PNG had already had a huge effect.

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"Coming out of zoos in Australia, the feeling here is that the impact is much bigger, so much of what we do here is a first for the country," she said.

"I run a frontline zoo where some of my customers hunt my animals and eat my animals, so when they turn around and say 'I'm no longer going to kill a snake' or 'I'll no longer eat native animals', you know that you're having a direct impact."

Professor Georges said COVID-19 had the potential to have devastating effects on the conservation work being done in PNG.

"It's quite a difficult operation to manage financially because it's not heavily government-funded. They rely on visitation and tourism to stay afloat," he said.

To donate to the park visit the link below:

This story Pig-nosed turtle population restored amid PNG park's pandemic problem first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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