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Interview: Ben Freeman and a Spine of Papua Biodiversity Pt. 2

Brendan McGarry: I’m guessing that you were working hard for a short period of time and that was about it – did you have any time for recreating or was it just eat, sleep, work?

Ben Freeman: We were pretty regimented due to the amount of work we had to do. It was a busy schedule, but we took a couple days off towards the end of the trip to let workers hike back to their villages for Sunday breaks — their day of rest, church time etc — and to do laundry, sleep etc.  So it was eat, sleep, work but on a given day the work came in patches; the nets were most active in the morning and much of the midday was usually fairly relaxed; we’d all stretch out if it was sunny and make little dens of ferns to sleep on (fern stay dry and make good bedding).

BM: Did you spend any time interacting with ‘locals’?

BF: Yup. All the time. Everything we did was thanks to the hard work of our workers and porters. PNG is famous for its linguistic diversity — over 700 languages spoken on the island — but everyone uses an English-based creole language called Tok Pisin to communicate. So we tried to learn Tok Pisin and tell stories of life in America while the local guys tried to teach us Tok Pisin and tell us stories about village life and hunting trips to the bush (the “bush” being the forest, or anywhere that is not a human-dominated landscape).

BM: What were your favorite species while you were there?  Avian or otherwise.

BF: The birds of paradise were of course fantastic; I think we saw a total of seven species. But among the many many exciting and wonderful birds, I think I was most taken with the Papuan Hornbill. We first encountered this lowland bird at the 900 m camp; I heard incredibly loud wingbeats and looked up into a small sky gap to see two large elongated dark shapes pass high overhead. I don’t think I’ve ever been so confused as to what type of bird I had just seen. I was considering eagles, cranes, all sorts of crazy possibilities, when Casti — one of the head CI fieldworkers — told us they were hornbills. Wow. We later were able to watch them closely in feeding trees, in groups of a dozen or more, and I remained captivated by them. So prehistoric; a huge bird with a wingbeat audible from hundreds of meters away…

BM: Give us an idea of the diversity – what is your take on the avifauna there and the general wealth of biodiversity.  New Guinea has a reputation.

BF: Tropical humid forests contain the majority of terrestrial vertebrate diversity on Earth, and this diversity is especially pronounced in tropical mountains, as the bird communities (and plants, and mammals etc etc) completely change as you change elevation. For example, the birds we observed at 2400 m were 100% different from the birds we observed at 200 m. This kind of diversity is emotionally exciting, perhaps especially to biologists, but also I think to most people. There are just so many species, and you consistently find new species at a given site, even after two or three full days. It’s a bit like being in a candy store — the candy store is emotionally exciting because of its tremendous diversity — different candies everywhere you look! It wouldn’t be as intriguing if the whole store was just full of tootsie rolls…So I think diversity in and of itself is stimulating, certainly to biologists, and PNG is certainly home to a huge amount of biodiversity.   It’s also the biggest expanse of tropical forest left in SE Asia. PNG’s forests have numerous threats — massive logging and mining projects run by foreign multinationals – but so much of it is so remote that it seems a promising place for conservation actions that also have strong social benefits, like the YUS project.

BM: Did you see evidence impacts from climate change or other human influences in the places you visited?

BF: We were told that people could now grow coconut palms at higher elevations than they could historically. If true, this would likely be a direct result of climate change. The human influences are pretty obvious — the areas around villages are mostly cut and serve as gardens to grow food. But they also plant coffee (often shade) and cacao (for chocolate) as cash crops. Imagine the difficulties in getting product to market though! carrying 40 kg bags of dried coffee beans 3 hours by hand to a place where a small plane can take it to a central processing location!  Perhaps the most interesting human impact on the landscape for me was the existence of large montane grasslands. These grasslands have existed for (likely) thousands of years, and are a result of repeated fires set by people. People like these grasslands, as they are a good home for wild pigs, which are hunted for meat. And, more generally, people worldwide like to live in an open landscape…

BM: What were some challenges of the work?

BF: It was obviously very remote. One big challenge was finding water, and enough of it. The local guys drank very little, but I need a gallon or so of drinking water per day when I’m working in a hot, humid environment. Plus water for cooking, washing dishes and at least a little bit of bathing. Finding water was surprisingly hard — at one field camp the nearest flowing water was 45 minutes hard walk downhill! We’ll just say we went easy on the bathing at this camp… Luckily the lowland field camps generally had small rivers nearby to bathe in daily.

BM: What’s next?  Where are you now? What’s in your future?

BF: I’m now starting a Ph.D program in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University. Alexa finished her Ph.D. in ecology at Virginia Tech in December 2009, she’s writing grants to get a post-doc studying reproductive physiology of birds. I’m hoping to study the diversity of tropical mountains for my dissertation (possibly in PNG, possibly in the Andes); why are elevational distributions so narrow in the tropics?

1 Comment so far

  1. Wendy

    Wow, could this be Ben Freeman of Seattle, Wa – son of Scott and relative of A. Leopold?

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