Published on 1st April 2013
When VSA volunteers Jenny and John Spencer set off on a field trip last week, they didn’t expect to re-write history.
You may have noticed that this article was published on April the first. VSA volunteers work alongside local partners to discover and build sustainable change for people in the Pacific and Timor-Leste. Jokes aside, we are serious about what we do – working with our partners, responding to locally-identified need and making a real difference in people’s lives. To find out what we do do in PNG, read more here.
Jenny and John are both working with the Wide Bay Conservation Association in Kokopo, Papua New Guinea. PNG is a diverse country where poor education, urban migration and a lack of primary healthcare are all significant challenges to development. The WBCA works on a wide variety of community issues in East Pomio, including traditional land rights, family violence and health.
Jenny and John are both usually based in the office of the Wide Bay Conservation Association in Kokopo. Last week, they were invited to accompany a group of WBCA staff on a field trip into the highlands to visit a community developing an eco-tourism venture.
Another guest on the field trip was Professor April Tahi, a New Zealand-born biologist flown in to assess an unknown bird species featuring as a key attraction for the eco-tourism village.
The WBCA contingent’s high hopes were exceeded when Professor Tahi was able to confirm that this bird was in fact a genus of the species raphus cucullatus, or dodo.
This rediscovery is surprising, but not entirely unprecedented. It is not the first time that a species previously thought to have died out has been uncovered. In December 2012 the Papuan Singing Dog was rediscovered and recorded by a group trekking in a remote area of PNG.
The dodo was thought to be unique to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and was widely held to have been driven to extinction in the 1660s. Small, flightless and with a large beak and few feathers, it has featured in popular culture since its discovery in 1598, from the book “Alice in Wonderland” to the film “Ice Age”. It was not suited to migration, but evidently at some point in history, dodos left Mauritius and made their way to the Pacific.
“Species travel vast distances around the globe by various means,” said Professor Tahi. “By analysing the bird’s DNA we may be able to tell when this group departed from its place of origin and began breeding and developing in this new location.”
DNA samples will be sent to a private laboratory in Sydney to begin the long process of analysis.
“I expect there will be a lot of people wanting to come and look at this bird,” said Jenny Spencer. “It’s amazing!”
“Being part of this discovery was something very special,” added her husband, John, who also admitted that the bird itself wasn’t very attractive. “People should come for the dodo and stay for the rest of the PNG experience.”
Jenny and John are among 169 VSA volunteers who have worked with partner organisations in PNG since 1970, and are among the 85-100 volunteers working and sharing skills with partner organisations across the wider Pacific.