for herpers planning to visit PNG

Karkar Island, Madang Province
herper's paradise or hell!!

At first glance Papua New Guinea must seem to be an herpetological wonderland, a place crawling with valuable pythons, Pacific boas and highly venomous elapids, a land festooned with amazing herps including both the longest lizard and the largest treefrog in the world, and little gems like the crocodile skinks. In some ways it is, except the words 'crawling' and 'festooned' are somewhat wide of the mark.

It can be remarkably difficult to find snakes or large lizards in PNG. Road-cruising, so often a highly productive method in Australia, S.Africa, the American Southwest and Mexico, can result in night after night of, well nothing!!

In the years that Mark O'Shea has been visiting PNG (since 1986) he has noticed a drop off in the number of pythons encountered on the roads at night, especially around the larger urban areas and along the few major highways which tend to be the only roads that have black-top surfaces on which snakes will linger. In the early 1990s a drive up the North Coast Highway out of Madang or along the Hiritano or Magi Highways, or the Sogeri Road, out of Port Moresby, could produce 3-4 pythons, but not today. Today the occasional road-killed carpet python is seen in the south, replaced in the north by an infrequent northern white-lipped python. And road-cruising can be dangerous, but more of that in a moment.

Occasionally we have seem herping trips to PNG advertised in newsletters or on websites. We smile when we see these because the advertising blurb often includes:

"From Port Moresby we will drive over the mountains to Lae, Morobe and Madang", or "into Gulf Province/Milne Bay Province" (take your pick).

No you won't!

It is true that 'roads' do exist over the Owen Stanley Mountains which eventually lead to Oro, Morobe, Madang and the Highlands, they have existed for decades and the most famous of them is called "The Kokoda Trail". Up and down this infamous track, in 1942, the Australians fought and eventually defeated the invading Japanese, on foot! It is certainly not a road.

Some of these routes may even appear as roads on Google Earth but that does not mean they are passable to motor vehicles. Most are single tracks over steep knife-edge karst limestone ridges and through muddy valleys that for part of the year become torrential rivers. Even the 'road' to Tapini is only passable with an extremely well equipped 4x4 vehicle, in the dry season, or rather two of them for safety reasons. It is true you can drive up the Hiritano Highway to Vaifa'a and Bereina, in the northwest, and on into Gulf Province as far as Malalaua, but you will have difficulty reaching the provincial capital Kerema (probably the only other provincial capital approachable by road from Port Moresby) but Alotau and Milne Bay Province to the southeast are separated from the end of the Magi Highway by hundreds of miles of impassable crocodile-infested swamp.

To get out of Port Moresby the usual method is to fly and there is a good but expensive air service to all provincial capitals and larger towns. But once there the problem of getting about raises its head again. Hire vehicles are available (but expensive) in some provincial capitals, like Madang, but there was only one hire car in the whole of Popendetta (provincial capital of Oro Province) when Mark visited in 2006 and that was both horrendously expensive and rather un-roadworthy. And driving can be dangerous around the major towns like Port Moresby, Lae, and all the way up the Highlands Highway. Armed gangs of bandits, known in PNG as raskals, patrol the roads, setting up road-blocks, robbing travelers or simply shooting out windscreens with home-made shotguns. Driving at night is therefore especially dangerous and stopping to get out is also risky.

Now we come to actual herping in the field.

It might come as a surprise, with PNG being such a large country (half of the second largest island on Earth) with such as small population (5.5-6.0M, but every scrap of land belongs to someone. The land is called customary land and vast swathes of seemingly uninhabited bush, great towering mountains, even offshore coral reefs, they all belong to someone, other than the state, and to go tromping around on them, splitting open logs, rolling rocks, without permission, is to invite retribution for trespass. Before conducting any sort of fieldwork in an area it is usually necessary to speak with the village elders and councillors to explain your purpose and ask their permission, and often necessary to engage people from the village as local guides. Infringements may be greeted by a confrontation with several men armed with bush-knives (machetes). In some areas, such as Oro, the villagers jealously protect access to their land, thinking all foreigners are there to collect WWII relics that are rightfully the property of the village. Be warned, this is not Australia, and justice may not be metred out in an Australian fashion either.

On the subject of collecting reptiles it is important to realise that PNG leans towards Australia, rather than Indonesia, and does not permit the commercial collection and exportation of its native wildlife. Papua New Guineans (Nationals) have a long established right to harvest wildlife for food, skins and ceremonial purposes but this right does not extend to non-Nationals. Whilst a Papuan hunter can shoot a Bird-of-Paradise and place its plumes in his ceremonial headdress, the mere possession of a fallen feather from the forest floor, is for a non-National, technically a wildlife crime in PNG.

Whilst it might be permissable for visitors to capture and photograph a wild reptile, before releasing it again, placing it in a cloth bag and leaving the location with it is not allowable since the obvious conclusion drawn would be that the person intends to take the specimen out of the country. This is completely illegal - PNG does not permit the commercial exportation of its wildlife even for personal non-commercial collections, and since many PNG species (pythons, boas, monitors) are also listed on CITES (Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) such an action would also be in breach of international law and bring about a prosecution in Australia, USA, EU etc.

Be aware that where ever you are herping someone knows you are there. Maybe the landowner, maybe a nosy passer-by, some one will know and word gets around. Some years ago a collector was quietly up in the Owen Stanley Mountains gathering pythons. The authorities in Port Moresby knew what he was up to even before he caught the flight back to the capital. Another herper, visiting Karkar Island without permission to collect specimens was tied to a coconut palm by the land-owner and threatened, with a bush-knife, with the loss of his genitalia. White guys in the bush do not go un-noticed!

And a final word on posting or shipping specimens home. DON'T!

The selfish, illegal and irresponsible actions of one person, trying to take (steal) wildlife from PNG could not only have a potentially serious affect on his/her future liberty (PNG's jails are not reputedly a lot of fun) but also impact on the future research projects of legitimate fieldworkers and plans of genuine wildlife visitors.

In short...

This website is not intended as a road map for potential wildlife smugglers
so please treat the information contained herein with respect.