AUSTRALIA’S chief scientific body the CSIRO, in collaboration with the Australian Department of Environment, has unveiled the a treasure trove of data on local plants and animals to the people of Papua New Guinea, to help manage conservation and tourism in the area made famous during the Second World War.
Focusing on the Kokoda Track and Owen Stanley Range, the data is based on specimens collected from the 1950s up until the present day, housed at CSIRO’s natural history collections in Canberra.
Over the past three decades, Australia has made spectacular, world leading advances in managing and mobilising its biodiversity data. The Kokoda project represents a huge investment in making PNG’s biodiversity available within PNG.
Mr Brendan Lepschi of the Australian National Herbarium said Papua New Guinea was a global hotspot for biodiversity.
“The data we are providing to the people of PNG is a ‘snapshot’ of biodiversity over time, which can help with understanding what grows and lives where and why, enabling better conservation management, especially given the increased human activity in the Kokoda area,” Mr Lepschi said.
Australian National Herbarium staff worked through the collections, making sure specimens were correctly identified, before capturing detailed information, in the Herbarium’s electronic specimen database.
“We began with the Ericaceae, a group that includes showy plants such as rhododendrons and is richly represented in the Kokoda area,” Mr Lepschi said.
“We then included information on birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians from CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection, as well as butterflies, dragonflies and beetles from CSIRO’s Australian National Insect Collection.
“We’d like to add other plant groups, including ferns, figs and umbrella trees.
“Making PNG collection data available in PNG is vitally important as it can provide decision makers with a sound basis for future work.”
Although data from PNG flora and fauna collections are becoming increasingly accessible in Australia, they are not available to researchers in PNG itself. The PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) has recently invested considerable resources through the Kokoda Initiative to develop a national biodiversity database, making repatriation of such data possible.
Mr James Sabi of CEPA said the project was very important for PNG.
“It brings together a great deal of biodiversity information from collections all over the world into one place, managed by PNG,” Mr Sabi said.
“It’s a substantial vote of confidence from the international community that PNG now has the systems and expertise to manage and provide access to this information, and will enable CEPA to make better biodiversity management decisions.”
There are special challenges in working with the Herbarium’s PNG collection. The flora is less well known than that of Australia, many species are undescribed and specimens are often fragile due to having large, soft leaves that become crisp and brittle when dry.
“Biological collections from 50 or 60 years ago tend to have less label data, including things now considered essential such as latitude and longitude. Identifying exactly where a plant was collected can be difficult due to the complex and changing geography of PNG villages,” Mr Lepschi said.
This work was funded by the Australian Department of the Environment to validate and provide biological collection data to the PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority for inclusion in the PNG National Biodiversity Information System.
The Australian National Herbarium is part of the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint venture between the Department of the Environment’s Parks Australia Division and CSIRO.