Rare Tree Kangaroo Seen in New Guinea for the First Time in 90 Years

The Wondiwoi tree kangaroo is so rare and elusive that it disappeared for nearly a century and was assumed to be extinct. Now it has not only been spotted, but also photographed for the first time ever.

The unusual monkey-like kangaroo clambers through the trees of the montane forests of New Guinea. It had been seen there only once before by Western scientists, in 1928.

The Wondiwoi tree kangaroo had not been collected, seen, or reported since that first sighting. “It is one of the most poorly known mammals in the world,” says Mark Eldridge, a marsupial biologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Now an amateur botanist from the U.K. has led an expedition into near-impenetrable bamboo forests 5,000 feet high in the remote Wondiwoi Mountains of West Papua, Indonesia, to find it.

“Just showing that it still exists is amazing. It’s such a remote and difficult spot to access that I was uncertain we would ever know,” says Eldridge, who was not involved in the expedition.

Surprising Tree-Dwellers
Tree kangaroos are tropical marsupials that are close relatives of ground-dwelling kangaroos and wallabies. These medium-size kangaroos have muscly forearms to pull themselves up the trunks of trees and move around the branches using an odd mix of climbing and hopping.

Despite being little-known to the world at large, they are a surprisingly diverse group. There are 17 species and sub-species, two in the far north of Australia and the remainder on the huge island of New Guinea.

Michael Smith, 47, an amateur botanist from Farnham, England, led the expedition to find the rare species. Smith trained as a biologist at university and now works for a medical communications company, but spends vacations trekking in remote parts of Pakistan, Kurdistan, and Indonesia on the hunt for rare orchids, rhododendrons, and tulips. He hatched the expedition plan after hearing about the mysterious animal while scouring West Papuan mountains for rhododendrons in 2017.

With the aid of four Papuan porters, a local hunter acting as a guide, and Norman Terok, a student at the University of Papua in Manokwari who is a fellow natural history enthusiast, Smith trekked into the jungle on July 23, emerging a week later with news of the find.

He reached out to the world experts on tree kangaroos, including Eldridge and Roger Martin of James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, to confirm the find before going public.

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SOURCE: National Geographic, John Pickrell