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Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program: 20 Years of Awesome

Posted by: Alissa Wolken with Lisa Dabek PhD, TKCP Director and WPZ Senior Conservation Scientist
Video and photos by Ryan Hawk

As we reflect on 2016, one of our proudest milestones is a conservation program at the heart of the zoo’s mission to protect wild things and wild places. The Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Since its debut in 1996, the Papua New Guinea-based Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP) has transformed from a humble, Woodland Park Zoo supported field conservation project into one of the world's leading community-based conservation programs.

In September, high in the cloud forests of Papua New Guinea, the partners of this program came together to celebrate their hard work, community partnerships and commitment to conservation with a beautiful celebration called a sing-sing. Neighbors from all over the Yopno-Uruwa-Som area came together at Weskopkop village to reflect and celebrate their achievement with dancing, speeches, elaborate costumes and friendships that have spanned the Pacific for two decades. 

The stunning colors and artistry of the festivity, which lasted for three days (no sleep!) are a testament to the accomplishments of everyone involved in this program. 
We feel exactly like this when we think about TKCP.

To celebrate TKCP’s 20th anniversary of building community and saving the Matschie's tree kangaroo, we sat down to talk with the program's founder and WPZ's senior conservation scientist, Lisa Dabek (LD), to see what it takes to protect this diverse landscape. Dabek, who has a PhD in animal behavior and conservation biology, studies the Matschie’s tree kangaroo and works with the TKCP team to protect the species in partnership with the local people.

A tree 'roo looks on as folks gather under colorful umbrellas.

WPZ: What inspired you to begin researching tree kangaroos in the first place?

LD: Two key people that introduced me to the world of tree kangaroos were Judie Steenberg (retired WPZ lead zookeeper ) and Larry Collins (Curator at Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Wildlife Conservation). I started studying Matschie’s tree kangaroos at Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) in 1987 nearly 30 years ago! As part of my graduate studies at the University of Washington, I studied the behavioral development, mother-young interactions and the reproductive biology and behavior of female captive tree kangaroos. 

WPZ: Tell us about the Matschie’s tree kangaroo.

LD: The Matschie’s tree kangaroo belongs to the kangaroo or Macropod family. Matschie’s tree kangaroos live only on the Huon Peninsula of northeastern Papua New Guinea, in dense highelevation cloud forests. They have thick reddish fur to keep them warm in their cool, wet habitat and camouflage themselves among the reddish-brown moss growing on the trees. They mainly eat leaves, ferns, flowers, moss and tree bark. 

Matschie's tree kangaroo.

WPZ: How did TKCP get its start?

LD: I created the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program in 1996 in collaboration with the local communities in a very remote area of PNG’s Huon Peninsula called Yopno-Uruwa-Som or YUS. I wanted to apply the zoo-based knowledge of the endangered Matschie’s tree kangaroo to help the species survive in the wild in Papua New Guinea. My research began at Woodland Park Zoo, one of the first supporters of TKCP. Woodland Park Zoo has been our base of operations for the last 11 years, and the zoo is now partnering with our newly-established, non-governmental organization in PNG to run the program.

WPZ: In 2009, TKCP worked with local landowners to establish Papua New Guinea’s first national conservation area. How did this breakthrough come about?

 LD: TKCP uses a community-based approach to species and habitat protection, involving local landowners in decision-making and working with communities to address their needs. In PNG, more than 90% of the land is owned by indigenous clans. Land cannot be bought or sold; it is passed down from generation to generation. TKCP spent years meeting with the landowners and communities, building trust and a mutual understanding of wildlife conservation. The landowners in YUS chose to pledge portions of their clan lands to create the YUS Conservation Area so that future generations can depend upon their natural resources and carry on their cultural traditions. One of the greatest assets for protecting species and habitat is the leadership of local communities in managing resources sustainably. 

Dr. Lisa Dabek thanks the village and TKCP partners for 20 years of hard work during the sing-sing.

WPZ: What are the key elements that make TKCP successful?

LD: TKCP is successful because of the community-centered strategies we use to accomplish our mission of “ensuring sustainable health and prosperity for the living YUS landscape, biodiversity, people and culture.” Those strategies include:

 •Managing the YUS Conservation Area, including monthly YUS ranger patrols and establishing ecological monitoring
• Tree kangaroo research including studies on home range, habitat use and feeding ecology
• Land-use planning, in which landowners and communities zone their land and collectively define how their resources will be used
• Community needs, in which we address the community members’ needs for sustainable livelihoods as well as access to health and education
• Capacity building and training, including skills training and education as well as building partnerships to provide YUS communities with alternative opportunities 

Junior Rangers are the future and it is awesome.

WPZ: This year marks the 20th anniversary of TKCP. Can you reflect on the past 20 years?

LD: I never could have imagined we would be where we are. TKCP is actually involved in the first and only nationally recognized Conservation Area for the entire country. We are leading the conservation effort in PNG. The commitment of the YUS community and TKCP staff has been amazing.

WPZ: What have been some of the most memorable experiences?

LD: Every trip I take to PNG is memorable; having the opportunity to be with the community members in YUS whom I have worked with for so long is always significant to me. I also vividly remember the first time I saw a wild tree kangaroo! 

Late into the night, the sing-sing is still vibrant.

WPZ: What would you say is the biggest “aha” moment you’ve had?

LD: The decision by all of the YUS landowners to create a YUS Conservation Area. This was unprecedented for the country!

WPZ: TKCP is one of WPZ’s most comprehensive conservation programs. Why do you think conservation programs like TKCP are important in this day and age?

LD: If we do not focus on community-based conservation and sustainable living, we will not succeed in conserving endangered species. Conservation is ultimately about people!

WPZ: How can zoo guests and members be involved in TKCP?

LD: Lucky for us, zoo members and guests can directly support conservation in YUS by buying YUS Conservation Coffee at the ZooStores and through Caffe Vita! They can also visit to learn about other ways to get involved. Every visit to the zoo is a vote for conservation.

Danny Samandingke welcomes visitors to Weskopkop village for the celebration. Danny is Leadership Training and Outreach Senior Coordinator, TKCP.

WPZ: TKCP was awarded the Equator Prize in 2014 for its extraordinary community-based conservation initiatives and livelihoods development. This year, the @UNDP United Nations Development Program’s Equator Initiative published a case study on TKCP. Can you tell up about that?

LD: The case study is part of a growing series by the Equator Initiative that describes vetted and peer-reviewed best practices intended to inspire the policy dialogue needed to take local success to scale, improve the global knowledge base on local environment and development solutions, and serve as models for replication. We were incredibly honored to receive the Equator Prize in 2014 and we are thrilled the Equator Initiative chose to publish a case study on our program. We hope the study helps other conservation organizations incorporate more community-based initiatives into their programs to ensure sustainable health and prosperity for living landscapes, biodiversity, people and culture.

WPZ: What’s next for TKCP?

LD: We are very excited to have just received two new, five-year grants, one from the Global Environment Facility (through the United Nations Development Program) in close partnership with the Government of Papua New Guinea to strengthen the country’s protected areas efforts, and another through the Rainforest Trust to expand the 187,000-acre YUS Conservation Area to a 391,000-acre landscape-level protected area. The partnership serves as the national model for community-centered conservation, further protecting tree kangaroos and other endangered species, as well as growing our sustainable livelihoods projects, including YUS Conservation Coffee and cocoa. Above all, we will continue working in partnership with the communities of YUS and providing support for their leadership of conservation efforts.

The incredible beauty of  Papua New Guinea.

While we would love to invite each and every one of you to visit YUS area, please know that your support and visits to the zoo help make this benchmark possible, thank you.

Over two decades, TKCP has expanded to become a holistic, community-based program that responds not only to the needs of wildlife, but also to the local people and the ecosystems on which they depend.

Together with local landowners in 50 remote villages on PNG’s Huon Peninsula, TKCP has helped to create and manage the country’s first nationally-protected Conservation Area. The Yopno-Uruwa-Som (YUS) Conservation Area encompasses more than 180,000 acres stretching from coastal reefs to 13,000-foot mountain peaks, protecting ecosystems and habitat for the tree kangaroo and other rare and endangered species.

We are proud to support TKCP and can't wait to see what can be accomplished in 2017!


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