National Geographic : 1951 Nov
New Guinea's Paradise of Birds BY E. THOMAS GILLIARD Assistant Curator of Birds, American Museum of Natural History ON a zoological expedition to New Guinea, we were told, we should be sure to take along a good supply of soccer balls. In the mountainous interior of this, the world's second largest island, a soccer ball would buy more food and hire more labor than all the financial resources of the Ameri can Museum of Natural History. Among the natives who live there, many of whom have never yet seen a white man, the cov eted American dollar is worthless. Other useful currency, we were advised, would be red powder paint, glass beads, stick tobacco, newspapers (any age), and shells, especially gold-lip oyster shells. With these we would be able to buy from the natives not only hours and weeks of muscle power but skilled help in finding the birds, insects, plants, and mammals we were seeking. To earn half a thimbleful of red beads, a native naturalist would search hours in the jungle for a rare bird specimen. To win a couple of gold-lip shells he would carry a heavy pack for two-and-a -half months. Our advisor, one of the few men in the world competent to supply the information we needed, was an Australian explorer named Ned Blood. He had spent a number of years collecting birds in the New Guinea heartland for the Taronga Zoological Park in Sydney. Besides hints on equipment, he told us that the best months for traveling in the mountains would be the cool, dry season from April through mid-August. Airlift to the Stone Age At 8 in the morning on April 17, 1950, Ned and I took off from Lae in a little twin-motor De Havilland for the mountains of New Guinea. Our engines strained under a pay load of 1,200 pounds of paraphernalia, in cluding guns and 5,000 rounds of ammunition, still and moving picture cameras, 15 gallons of embalming fluid, and 10 pounds of arsenic. This was the beginning of a trip which was to take me, with two companions who joined me later, into unexplored forests of the high heart of the island. Before it was finished, we would spend 103 days in the field collect ing more than 3,500 specimens of birds, mam mals, plants, and butterflies. Our special objects were certain rare moun tain birds, particularly the male of the ribbon tailed bird of paradise, Astrapia mayeri (page 677). This bird, with a brilliant green body and a slender white tail more than three feet long, is one of the most spectacular in the world. Until 1948 no live males had ever been seen outside central New Guinea, and specimens are still extremely rare. We flew that morning high over the great braided Markham River, heading generally northwest and inland toward the valley of the Wahgi River. This valley, about 75 miles long, has been farmed for many hundreds of years by the more than 75,000 Stone Age aborigines who live there. Only a compara tively few years ago their very existence was unknown to the outside world. New Guinea, 1,500 miles long and 400 miles wide, sits in the shape of a gawky vulture astride Australia's back, its ugly beak facing west and opened as if to devour the Celebes, Borneo, and Singapore. Its western, or head, half is governed by the Netherlands, its tail half by Australia. Running west to east, from beak to tail, is a spine of formidable mountain ranges. Despite work by a host of naturalists, scarcely more than the head, neck, and shoulders in the west and the ungainly tail in the southeast had been explored. The Girl Who Lived in Shangri La Many Americans became familiar with the shape of New Guinea during World War II, when the Japanese attacked it. I saw parts of it when serving with the U. S. Army. Later, in 1945, an American C-47 transport plane crashed in the central mountains. One of three survivors was a pretty WAC corporal, Margaret Hastings. Her story of weeks in a lofty "Shangri La" peopled with tall, pig raising tribesmen was spread around the world by radio, newspapers, and magazines. Actually, New Guinea's tribesmen of this area had been "discovered" more than a dec ade earlier by Michael Leahy, explorer-pros pector extraordinary, who in his search for gold roamed hundreds of miles through the mountainous interior and found the great Wahgi Valley. Later, in 1938-39, the Richard Archbold Snow Mountains expedition studied the interior around Mount Wilhelmina, farther west, for bird and mammal life.* Now, with luck, I was to push the exploration of this naturalist's mecca a step nearer completion. In our plane that morning we followed in an hour and 10 minutes the 250 tortuous trail miles Leahy traversed in making his initial discovery. The Wahgi rises on the eastern slopes of Mount Hagen, the wide-based * See "Unknown New Guinea," by Richard Arch bold, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, March, 1941.