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Bay Watchers: One of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world, Kimbe Bay in Papua New Guinea is home to more than 860 species of fish and 400 species of hard coral. The bay may soon be the first Marine Protected Area in the country in recognition of its incredibly rich marine life.

A puppet show in the village school when he was nine changed Somei Jonda's life.

The youngster identified with Leni and Niko, the naughty boy characters who were always getting into trouble. 'We used to look forward to those shows, to see what they'd been up to,' says Jonda, laughing as he remembers the popular show conducted in pidgin. 'The puppets used to dynamite the local reefs. Leni and Niko were not above using poisonous derris root to stun the fish either.'

At 26, Jonda is now responsible for the conservation element of today's puppet show scripts as the resident ecologist and education officer at marine NGO Mahonia Na Dari ('guardian of the sea' in the local Bakovi language) in Kimbe Bay on the island of New Britain, part of Papua New Guinea. 'It's getting harder to find bad things for those puppets to do as the marine conservation message has been drummed into a generation of young people--and the worst practices have all but disappeared,' he says.

A small but effective NGO, Mahonia focuses on the young. 'The children are receptive and easy to reach through the school system,' says Cecilie Benjamin, one of the founders of the educational charity. 'People have to eat, and with the population in the Kimbe Bay area set to double in a single generation, there will be greater pressures than ever on marine resources. Our key message is to use those resources in a sustainable way.'


For more than 20 years, the NGO has been running its Marine Environmental Education Programmes or MEEPs. Four different MEEPs target children and their teachers from the youngest of primary school children to secondary school leavers.

Naomi Longa from Kimbe Secondary School attended a MEEP in 2012. 'I most enjoyed going out to the reef and seeing corals and other marine life in the wild for the first time,' says the 24-year-old. 'Taking what we had learned on the MEEP into a local primary school to teach the young kids about how the terrestrial and marine environments are linked was inspiring.' Longa is now studying Environmental Sciences at the University of Papua New Guinea and hopes to work in marine conservation after she graduates. She also volunteers to raise awareness of turtle conservation with the general public.

Aspiring marine biologist Liz Maiya Metta, a 2015 MEEP graduate, echoes what Longa says, adding: 'I now understand that whatever activity I do on land affects life in the sea. It gives me a different view towards conservation of the environment around me. Throwing plastics, dropping cans, any non-biodegradable rubbish anywhere just shows that I'm ignorant. The programme helps me to be careful of the little things I do in life.'

Participation in the intensive secondary school student programme that Longa and Metta attended is voluntary, yet massively oversubscribed. The 20 highly motivated teenagers who take part each year must give up ten weekends to attend, and then take the conservation messages from the programme back to their schools and village communities. The volunteer teachers who accompany them benefit from lesson ideas and plans, and an education in topics not covered in basic teacher training. The curriculum covers marine biology, ecology and climate change.

The children are also exposed to the underwater environment, many for the first time, as they learn to snorkel and conduct basic coral reef surveys. 'We are trying to create the marine conservation ambassadors of the future and have them return to their schools all fired up,' says Somei.

There are other benefits for the youngsters--potential employers see attendance at a MEEP as a very positive thing. Mahonia's educational programmes reach more than 10,000 local children and their teachers every year. Funding sources for the MEEPs include the Governor of West New Britain--whose office contributed to a 15-seater bus for the students--and the UN Development Programme.

Mahonia is also currently involved in designing a textbook for the PNG primary school curriculum, covering marine conservation and resource management, funded by USAID. 'It's far, far better to develop such things inside a Coral Triangle country than outside,' says Cecilie Benjamin, referring to the countries bordering the world's centre of marine diversity--Indonesia, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Philippines, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. The educational programmes are vitally important in getting a conservation message across to local people but they are not the whole story. Science and research also play a major role.


Max Benjamin is Cecilie's husband and co-founder of Mahonia. The couple learned to dive in the early 1970s and, like everyone at the time, made a trip to the Red Sea; then considered the mecca of all diving.

'It was obvious to us that what we had at home was far superior in many ways, but it was not until the late eighties that the scientists started to visit and confirmed that what we had here in Kimbe was both special and warranted protection,' says Max, as a cloud of sparrow-sized black, yellow and blue butterflies waft languidly past us at Walindi Plantation Resort.

In 1993, the Nature Conservancy conducted the first Rapid Ecological Assessment (RE A) of Kimbe Bay coral reefs over a ten-day period. The Benjamins accommodated the scientists at Walindi Plantation, the dive resort that they had set up in 1983 and provided the logistical support to get the teams out into the bay.

That survey documented for the first time that Kimbe Bay contained some of the most diverse coral reefs in the world. Papua New Guinea is home to almost five per cent of the world's total marine biodiversity, and virtually all of the hard coral species found in the Indo-Pacific region are to be seen in the spectacular waters of the bay.

Since 1996, scientists from Australia's James Cook University (JCU) have been conducting annual surveys of the bay's fish, coral, and coral reef invertebrates. Mahonia Na Dari was opened in 1997, and with the agreement of the local villages, a Local Marine Managed Area (LMMA) was established, consisting of four inshore reefs which were to be closed to fishing and the collection of marine life. The reefs were legally gazetted as protected areas in 1999.

Dr Maya Srinivasan, a coral reef ecologist at JCU's College of Science and Engineering was the first of many PhD students to work on the reefs of Kimbe Bay. She spent eight months there each year between 1998 and 2001, conducting her research on the arrival of reef fish larvae on reefs, both spatially and over time. She continues to do research in Kimbe Bay on a regular basis. 'The data from our annual surveys show that marine reserves have a positive effect on a few shallow-water surgeonfish species that are targeted by local fishermen, with two to three times more fish on reserve reefs compared to fished reefs,' she says. Srinivasan has been followed by 25 other PhD students. These reefs are now the most studied in Papua New Guinea.

Thanks to these annual surveys, we know that the bay is home to more than 860 species of fish, which is more than the Hawaiian Islands and the entire Caribbean combined. At least 413 species of hard coral live here, making the coral community in Kimbe Bay one of the most diverse of any single location in the world. Human population pressure has been relatively low; these are some of the most pristine reefs in the Coral Triangle region. Some reef researchers believe that the area is where coral first evolved, spreading outwards from this region into the Indo-Pacific.


Currently, the law doesn't designate 'protected areas' but a bill is going through parliament that would allow the creation of protected areas of land and sea. Kimbe Bay will be the only Marine Protected Area (MP A), extending roughly the length of the bay, some 140kms by 70kms out from the shore. Mount Wilhelm, Papua New Guinea's highest mountain, and the East Sepik wetlands are the other two areas that have been identified by the UN Global Environment Fund as being globally important.

Patrol boats will be needed as the principal means of enforcement for the MPA, but penalties for infringements and the practicalities of the regime have yet to be agreed with stakeholders. Coastal villagers have effectively been the custodians of the near-shore reefs for thousands of years, resulting in a largely managed and sustainable use of the reef's resources. Locally-managed areas will now be incorporated into the much larger MPA.

Workers at Walindi are looking forward to being involved in the development and implementation of the new MPA. After all, its dive boats are out on the water every day with guests and its staff have been informally keeping an eye on things for years. Recently Josie, a dive manager on FeBrina (a liveaboard dive boat based at Walindi), spotted some young men on a turtle nesting beach at Lilua Island and, concerned that eggs were being taken from nests for illegal sale, approached. 'Much to our delight the young men were actually helping the turtle hatchlings to reach the water and were checking on the wellbeing of the nests. The two young men had been through the Mahonia programme,' she says. Through their continued support of Mahonia Na Dari, Max and Cecilie Benjamin have built a legacy of which to be proud.

by Louise Murray

* Geographical Location: Oceania

* Latitude/longitude: 6[degrees]0 0"S, 147[degrees]0 0"E

* Land area: 462,840 sq km (178,704 sq mi)

* Highest point: Mt Wilhelm 4,509m (14,793 ft)

* Population: 8 million

* Urban population: 15 per cent

* Population without electricity: 5.6 million

* Literacy level: 64 per cent

* Life expectancy: Male 65.1, Female 69.7 years

* Official Languages: Tok Pisin, English, and Hiri Motu. 839 other indigenous languages (12 per cent of world's total)

* Ethnic Groups: >1,000, the majority are Melanesian peoples


* 1906

Control of Papua handed from Britain to Australia

* 1941-1945

Occupied by Japan, during New Guinea campaign 200,000 Japanese die

* 1951

Australia sets up 28-member Legislative Council, the judiciary and civil service

* 1972

Renamed Papua New Guinea, first elections held. Michael Somare elected Chief Minister

* 1975

Independence from Australia

* 1984

First Ok Tedi open pit copper and gold mining operation opens

* 1989

Secessionist rebellion on Bougainville begins nine years of violence, with 20,000 lives lost

* 1998

Permanent ceasefire in Bougainville

* 2001

Australia builds an asylum-seeker detention centre on Manus Island

* 2007

Climate change refugees migrate from the Carteret Islands due to climate change-induced sea-level rise

* 2013

Repeal of the Sorcery Act. Witchcraft no longer accepted as a defence for murder

* 2018

The biggest earthquake in 100 years hits remote southern highlands in March


* Extraordinary as Papua New Guinea's marine environment is, it is matched by the biological riches on land. Its flora and fauna have evolved in isolation ever since the land bridge connecting it to Australia was flooded by rising sea levels 12,000 years ago. Ten per cent of the planet's vertebrates and seven per cent of its high plants are found here, thanks to the enormous diversity of ecosystems, from vast coastal wetlands and the world's largest mangroves; to alpine meadows at over 4,000 metres. Forests abound, from rainforest to cloud forest, with coniferous and southern beech forests in between.

The country's geographical position, and the lack of large predators, results in a unique mixture of fauna native to both Australia and Asia. The country's flag bears a Raggiana bird of paradise, one of the 76 species of birds found only here. Flightless cassowaries reach 1.8 metres tall and six of the world's ten species of tree kangaroos roam the canopy, using their tails to climb. Ancient, egg-laying mammals, or 'monotremes', are represented by the long-beaked echidnas.

The country is far from fully explored. As recently as 2009, a team of scientists and filmmakers from the BBC discovered a new species of giant woolly rat, the size of a domestic cat, during an expedition to the extinct volcano of Mt Bosavi, along with 40 other previously unknown species of frogs, spiders and insects. The animals were tame, having never been hunted. According to the World Wildlife Fund, in the decade between 1998 and 2008, 12 new mammal species, two birds, a 2.5-metre river shark, a dolphin and a blue-eyed spotted cuscus were among more than 1,000 new species identified in Papua New Guinea. Risks to the natural diversity include habitat loss due to unregulated logging, mining, climate-induced sea level rise and other human activities.


* After elections in 2017, following a campaign marred by violence and numerous allegations of bribery and vote rigging, the incumbent People's National Congress party secured only 27 seats. It was able to form a disparate and unstable coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Peter O'Neill, which will rule for a second five-year term. Despite adopting a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy, multiple local interest groups have never been consolidated into broader interest parties and no party has ever achieved a majority in the 111-seat parliament.

The fractured nature of the political system reflects the hyperlocal nature of politics--loyalty is less to a party than to the clan or linguistic group. The key local word is wantok, meaning people who share a common language, of which there are more than 800. MPs frequently alter allegiance if it suits their wantok group. Cronyism and corruption is rife. Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, which ranks 180 countries for perceived levels of public sector corruption, puts the country at 135.

Papua New Guinea ratified the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which encourages the participation of women in public life. In 2017, more women than ever ran for office -167 out of 3,332 candidates--but for the first time in 25 years, no woman secured a seat in parliament. Papua New Guinea now joins Yemen, Qatar, Micronesia and Vanuatu, as one of five countries in the world without a woman in the national legislature.

O'Neill's fragile coalition has much to do. Confidence in the rule of law must be restored, and improvements in the land tenure system, fundamental infrastructure and effective governance require action. Recovering copper and gold commodity prices will help the government's financial situation, but good relations need to be maintained with its former colonial power, Australia, which is a major source of aid.


* Papua New Guinea, the equatorial country to the north of Australia, occupies the eastern half of New Guinea, the world's second largest island (after Greenland), in the western Pacific Ocean. Three large islands stretch offshore to the east of the main landmass into the Bismarck Sea--New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville along with almost 600 other smaller islands and archipelagos. The New Guinea highlands or Cordillera Central range of mountains are still rising following the relatively recent collision between the Australian and Pacific plates. The range runs from west to east, bisecting the country. Many peaks exceed 4,000 metres with the highest being Mount Wilhelm at 4,509m. Deep river valleys run to the sea to the north and the south.

The Sepik is the country's longest river which flows 700 miles north to the Bismark Sea. Navigable for most of its length, it forms an important transport route from the coast to villages in the hinterland. Swampy seasonal floodplains up to 50 miles wide and over 1,500 lakes border the main channel. Because there are no major settlements or mining activity this is a largely unspoilt river system. On the south coast, one of the world's most pristine wetlands, the Transf ly, straddles the border between Papua New Guinea and Indonesian Papua and covers more than ten million hectares.

Several active volcanos sit atop the Pacific 'Ring of Fire'of subduction plates. The region is prone to powerful earthquakes and mudslides. Of the country's 67 volcanoes, two are currently erupting, at Kadovar Island, and Bagana on Bougainville. Tsunami alerts are triggered frequently. In 1998, over 2,000 people were killed on the north coast when a 7.0 earthquake caused a 15m tsunami wave to hit the island.


* Walindi Plantation Resort/FeBrina liveaboard:

* Mahonia Na Dari NGO:

* Air Niugini (flights to Port Moresby from Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Bali, Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney):
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Title Annotation:SPOTLIGHT ON... Papua New Guinea
Comment:Bay Watchers: One of the most biodiverse marine environments in the world, Kimbe Bay in Papua New Guinea is home to more than 860 species of fish and 400 species of hard coral.
Author:Murray, Louise
Article Type:Geographic overview
Geographic Code:8PAPU
Date:Jun 1, 2018
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