PAPUA NEW GUINEA 2008

Moro & Paua
Southern Highlands Province
14-22 May 2008


Maps showing the roads and fieldwork locations around Lake Kutubu and Moro, Southern Highlands Province, PNG.
click to enlarge map

Southern Highlands Province is the largest of the five highlands provinces. I had previously visited the province in 2000, whilst making the film Green Blood, as part of the 2nd Series of O'Shea's Big Adventure. On that occasion I had been to Tari in the northwest. On this occasion David Williams and I would fly into Moro, located on the northern shore of Lake Kutubu, in the south of the province.

We had been commissioned to conduct an herpetological survey for Oil Search Limited, a large oil and natural gas company operating in PNG, and the World Wildlife Fund, the main subject of the survey being the protected Boelen's* python (Morelia boeleni).

The tok pisin name for the Boelen's python is papa graun moran (father ground python) and it is closely associated with customs and traditions in several areas of the highlands, yet in other areas it is still killed and eaten on sight.

Achieving lengths in excess of 3.0m and occurring between 1,000-2,000m altitude, Boelen's python is the only truly montane python species in the world and OSL were anxious to know whether their operations were likely to have an affect on its local survival.

Boelen's python, Morelia boeleni, specimen from Woitape,Central Province.
Boelen's python, Morelia boeleni, specimen from Tari, Southern Highlands Province.

Population densities are likely to be low and the species may easily be threatened by over-collecting, hunting for food or habitat destruction. It is completely protected within Papua New Guinea, it may not even be possessed in whole or part by a non-National. David and I were invited to conduct the initial stages of this survey in an attempt to determine whether drilling and prospecting operations were an additional threat to its survival in Southern Highlands Province.

* K.W.J.Boelen MD was the government surgeon at Enarotali, Dutch New Guinea (now Papua Province of Indonesia), who collected the specimen described by Leo D. Brongersma of the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, Leiden, in 1953. Brongersma saw fit to name the species in his honour.

We flew into the town of Moro, on the northern shore of Lake Kutubu, on a Oil Search charter flight from Port Moresby. As it was my first visit to this oil and gas company's instalations there were several inductions to go through relating to health and safety around drill sites, well-heads and roads.

Northern Lake Kutubu from the air... and from the left eastern bank from the shore.

 

An OSL charter flight coming into land at Moro.

Lake Kutubu is located below the altitude of the Boelen's python so, together with WWF-Moro representative Felix Kinginapi and driver Philip Kayabe, we headed to the oil and gas production facilities, drill-heads and camps on the steep ridges to the north and northwest of Moro.

From Moro we could venture along the southwestern shore of Lake Kutubu to Soro.

Soro village, edge of Lake Kutubu, near Moro.

 

Mark O'Shea at Soro. Canoe and paddle at Soro.
Felix Kinginapi & driver Philip Kayabe at Soro.

We also drove the OSL company road to the north, to Paua village and NW Paua. On the way back from this journey Dave thought he say a Loria forest snake (Toxicocalamus loriae) skitter off the road. Unfortunately an intensive search failed to find the elusive elapid.

The excellent OSL company road to Paua. The siesmic camp on the Paua road.
OSL employees at the seismic camp.
NW Paua wellhead.

Although we could drive to some of the locations on company excellent roads, we also planned to use helicopters to reach the more remote camps along the pipeline, where pythons had previously been sited, because no other form of access was possible due to the inpenetrable and precipitous landscape.

The Southern Highlands habitat consists of steep gorges with fast-flowing rivers flowing through a densely overgrown karst limestone landscape. Many of the drill-heads and camps are so remote and isolated that they are inaccessible by any other means except helicopter. Often the weather cuts them off from the outside world for days, even weeks on end.

We also needed cold weather clothes, the climate up here was quite different from that in the coastal provinces - New Guinea may be tropical but there is snow on some of the higher peaks and cold fogs and rain are common-place.

Because our quest was to search for a python than occured at altitude we based ourselves at Hegigio at a much higher elevation than Moro. We made the journey from Moro to Hegigio, via Iagifu and Agogo, a couple of times during our short stay.