Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park

CORONAVIRUS closures now threatens the future of Papua New Guinea's only animal rescue centre, the Port Moresby Nature Park, which may not survive the impact of shutdowns, writes Lyanne Togiba for The Guardian newspaper.
Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park Threat to Port Moresby Nature Park

A Matschie’s tree kangaroo at the Port Moresby Nature Park

Lyanne Togiba

From the heat and dust of the city's noisy, crowded streets, the Port Moresby Nature Park is an oasis, for the city's residents as well as the animals it keeps.
Home to more than 500 creatures and spread over 30 verdant acres, the park has spent years rescuing injured, orphaned or trafficked animals from across the country, and protected and nurtured native species, including the endangered pig-nosed turtle, and the magnificent riflebird.
But the future of the park, and the lives of the animals it cares for, are threatened by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The coronavirus lockdowns of PNG's capital have slashed visitor numbers by three-quarters, jeopardising the park's ability to continue running and keep the animals fed and safe.
The park has been forced to retrench some staff and move others to live onsite in makeshift accommodation to help stop Covid spread and care for the animals.
On top of their normal operating costs, the park has been covering living costs for their employees, but food supplies are drying up for both humans and animals and employees are having to find creative ways to modify animal diets.
"The park is the only rescue centre for the whole country," chief executive Michelle McGeorge said. 
"So when injured animals, orphaned or baby animals are brought to us, we rehabilitate and release them back into the wild while the particularly young animals or injured ones that come to us can't be released into the wild so we look after them."
The park is also an integral part of its community - it employs dozens of workers from neighbouring suburbs, and buys its supplies from local stores. It is one of the few places for school excursions in Port Moresby.
"And with the potential closure," McGeorge said, "it means children won't have the opportunity to develop [their interest in] sciences. Apart from what they learn in the classroom, many of the schools in Port Moresby, their teaching is literally what the teacher draws on the boards, whereas here the kids can dig for worms and get really hands on, and see the animals."
PNG, the most populous nation in Melanesia, stands on the threshold of a potentially devastating wave of Covid infections.
While border closures and domestic shutdowns have kept official infection numbers very low by global standards - just 507 cases and five deaths - there are fears the country's fragile health system could quickly be overwhelmed by an unconstrained outbreak. Limited testing means the virus is almost certainly far more widespread.
Port Moresby Nature Park is one of the only places in the world that breeds the endangered pig-nosed turtle, endemic only to PNG and northern Australia, and which faces extinction due to overhunting, illegal trade and its demand as a traditional Chinese medicine.
"When a turtle hatches out of an egg, it only has a 1% chance that it will survive to adulthood," McGeorge said.
"We took 45 eggs, hatched them at the park, gave them a safe environment to grow for five years and released them back into the wild so instead of having a 1% chance of survival … it would now have a 30% chance of survival."
The park also managed to hand-rear a magnificent rifle bird, according to records, the first time that had been achieved.
Formerly the city's botanic gardens, the park was established as a charity in 2012, and is largely reliant on visitor admissions for its revenue, supplemented by some government support.
"Pre-Covid, we had 140,000 visitors a year, 92% of whom were residents of PNG, while the remaining 8% were international arrivals. From an international tourism perspective, we were having the most international visitors to the country, averaging one in seven arrivals visiting the park."
There were school groups on the day The Guardian visited, but only two other visitors.
Unlike other businesses that can be shuttered and reopened, zoos continue to have operational costs: food for animals, electricity and water that have to be maintained.
If the park was forced to close, animals would face an uncertain future released into the wild, or would have to be euthanised. The zoo's program rescuing trafficked or abandoned animals would cease.
"Right now, we don't want to be thinking about what would happen to the animals if the park closes," McGeorge said, "but rather if we can find support and that people can be able to give us just a little bit to keep us going."
Lyanne Togiba is a senior reporter with Papua New Guinea's public broadcaster, NBC, based in Port Moresby


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