By NATHAN LATI
SAMUEL Kepuknai is a native of Kiunga’s Drimskai Village and a former aircraft maintenance engineer with the Talair airline company in the 1980s and was based in Goroka.
After the company ceased operations in the country, Kepuknai returned to his home village with hopes of working for the giant copper and gold mine at OkTedi.
Whilst in the village, he fell in love with the natural surroundings which he did miss for a long time. He forgot about applying for a new job or trying his luck with Ok Tedi mine for employment in his field of expertise.
He started his livelihood in the village by fixing outboard motors along the Fly River while based in Kiunga township. He started a company called Kiunga Outboard Motor Repair Shop which later led him to provide logistics for birdwatchers along the river.
As luck would have it, one day a German birdwatcher came around and asked Kepuknai to take him on a bird tour along the Fly using his outboard motor.
Little did he know that it was the beginning of a new chapter of his life into an unknown field that later he became accustomed to. He is now a renowned local expert in native bird species.
After that initial bird watching tour along the Fly, the German bird watcher did his own recommendation on the TripAdvisor website about Kepuknai as one of the local experts along the Fly River for bird watching armed with reliable logistical support on the ground.
The recommendation on the TripAdvisor website was the icing on the cake for Kepuknai who had no idea about birds yet but was a typical villager who liked to explore new things in his life.
Now he has more than 20 groups or nearly 300 individual bird watchers around the world who are booking through him for birdwatching tours in Western and other provinces in PNG as well. He has five identified sites in Kiunga as well as three in Tabubil area while others remain potentials to work on. The Fly River has about 180 species of plants and animals which are new to science.
Now he has no regrets of not going back to work to maintain his profession as an aircraft maintenance engineer or any other related work.
“I have an interest to learn new things and I’m learning a lot from all of these tourists from all over the world who come here from different backgrounds, cultures and traditions that interest me,” said Kepuknai.
His favourite groups are researchers and documentary groups because their expectations are not too stringent or serious but convenient to manage and he has flexibility to recommend the sites of his own choice knowing the kind of data and information the groups want for their research and documentary filming. He once starred in the BBC documentary Destination Unknown series on Papua New Guinea.
Out of his usual work with birdwatching, he has encountered several challenges but that has never deterred him from his interest in exploring nature and birdwatching. At one stage he had to decamp with his group for a documentary filming after realising that the birds could no longer come to the identified spot to perform for filming.
“I had to relocate them to a different site which was also unknown after the 12 Wired Birds of Paradise could no longer come over to the identified site to dance at the usual time.”
Luckily it was a well-managed relocation and the documentary team were able to film and complete their work, he added.
In reality, PNG is a challenging nation when it comes to tourism operations because most of the tourism products are located in the rural villages which requires an adventurer to reach and enjoy them.
For Kepuknai, one of the deterrents in his tourism business is the ever increasing prices of the support services and facilities in the tourism industry and tourists have complaints over the prices or sometimes have to cancel their trips to PNG.
“The drop in bookings are an indication of the national economic shifts and I have nothing to do with them but I’m struggling and hanging on to the business because the benefits my communities and I in the remote places receive are more than what money can do. The communities get a chance to meet and mingle with the outsiders in a while because of birdwatching and I’m satisfied with that.”
There is already an interest on the ground to promote the conservation of natural habitats for birds and exotic products. Some of the naturally wonders in the area include Hindenberg Wall, Star Mountains, Wawoi Falls, Strickland Gorge and Mount Bosave in the border areas of Southern Highlands. The West Sepik and Western border area is also an unexplored haven for exotic flora and fauna species.
With the new discoveries in the province’s unique flora and fauna species, it is obvious that the interest by tourists in the area for bird watching, nature tours and research is growing. Kepuknai is only a local doing what his interests lead him and he has limitations. He needs support from the Government and others in the industry so that a collaborative work can ease the challenges and promote tourism in the rural villages as a livelihood support for the people.
The bigger dream he has is to build capacity for the rural community so that everyone will have the same kind of attitudes and understanding to promote tourism while at the preserve natural habitats as the main focus.
This saves the people from engaging in logging in the area and keeping the natural habitat intact to sustain their livelihood in the long run. Also the database for all the bird species in PNG is likely to be one of Kepuknai’s major achievements after the book Niugini Birds which he has co-authored comes out.
While realising the tourism benefits to be endless, Kepuknai, encourages the communities and the resource owners to take ownership of the tourism products and their promotion. It is an eye opener to the Ok Tedi Landowners Trust Limited, a company that looks after mine royalties for the local landowners.
Now the landowner company is into ecotourism and they are planning to establish a lodge in Tabubil. The former chairman of the trust has had the idea for long time with the view of life after the mine. He lobbied and pressed for an interest in tourism for a long time during his term as chairman and now he is more than happy to support the birdwatching project as well as the eco-lodge.
The PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA) supports the projects through technical advice following an existing memorandum of understanding with the trust and working collaboratively with the landowners for ecotourism product developments in the province as well.
The recent visit to the area by PNGTPA officials for a product scoping has realised the tourism prospects in the area to be great. It is no surprise as Western has a vast landmass with undiscovered biodiversity, flora and fauna species that are not yet recorded in the science books.
The most notable comparison to the area could be Asia’s Mongolia being one of the inland and mountainous countries with frequent tourist arrivals. Tabubil in Western has something similar but the landscape features are definitely unique and different to offer tourists.
The Hindenburg Wall and Lake Wagbuin are natural wonders in the area but have remained largely explored by outsiders and the Ok Tedi Trust landowner company is investing in the prospective tourism interest in the province and Tabubil despite the many impediments.
And interestingly, Samuel Kepuknai the bird expert from Western is already there to guide any birdwatcher or nature lover to explore the wealth of the Star Mountains which is much more than just gold.
- Nathan Lati is a PNGTPA Product Development officer and raonraonpng blogger