MT Bosavi, home to a host of newly discovered wildlife in, could hardly be more remote – so how did the scientists find their way there, asks Patrick Barkham, writing in The Guardian newspaper on Sept 8.
Barkham writes: “One name has always been on the lips of scientists who have spent their careers studying PNG’s tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea: Mt Bosavi.
“Biologists had long harboured a hunch that this extinct volcano, its enormous crater filled with rainforest, could contain a treasure trove of undiscovered species.
“Animals unable to move beyond the 1,000m crater walls were thought likely to have evolved in distinct ways after thousands of years in isolation.”
Western scientists, however, had been unable to get inside the volcano in the inaccessible Southern Highlands – until this year, when an expedition led by Dr George McGavin from Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History was filmed by the BBC. “Imagine the Swiss Alps covered in jungle,” says the series’ producer Steve Greenwood, who was charged with sorting the formidable logistics of their mission.
Barkham wrote that Greenwood and a researcher first flew by helicopter to the nearest village, Fogomaya, about 30km or a four-day trek from the crater. With the help of a translator, Greenwood asked tribal elders permission to explore the volcano.
They also established a base camp near the village. Elders, trackers and boatmen were among 25 local people employed by the international team of 25 scientists and filmmakers, who also required a cook, a medic and a climbing expert to help them scale trees.
Concerned not to eat the village out of food, the scientists employed local people to plant sweet potatoes and a spinach-like crop in preparation for their expedition in January, reducing the amount of corned beef and rice flown in via helicopters, the only means of transport to the village.
The Kasua hunters had some knowledge of the crater – although even they judged it too inaccessible to visit regularly – and they helped guide an advance party, including the climbing expert, up the mountain and into the crater. The forward team found a recent landslip that could be flattened out, where they could land a helicopter from base camp.
Even though they chose the dry season, conditions often prevented the helicopter’s entry into the crater. Scientists and crew would spend two weeks in the crater before being taken.
“It’s challenging, but we all realised we were so lucky to be in a place before the impact of humans became obvious, says Greenwood.” And the results were spectacular, with more than 40 previously unidentified species discovered in just five weeks of exploration, including 16 new kinds of frog, three new fish and a giant rat.