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The Area: Forests of New Guinea

River and forest landscape, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea.

New Guinea in the tropical forest belt rel= © WWF

‘Paradox Island’

Lying a mere 4° south of the Equator2 , New Guinea is probably the only tropical island in the world to have a feature usually found at much higher latitudes - a glacier. Rising at more than 5,030 m, Puncak Jaya dominates the island, and is the highest point in the southwest Pacific.

Climate of extremes

In New Guinea you can be battered by violent rains, incapacitated by the intense heat and humidity, or get stranded in a snowstorm. Probably nowhere else in the world offers such a range of climates in just one place.

The island is subject to a northwest monsoon from December to March (rainy season) and a southeast monsoon from May to October (dry season). Average temperatures hover between 23-32 ºC but quickly fall at high altitudes. In the highlands, temperatures drops to 11 ºC and do not exceed 25 ºC.

Like any other tropical environment, New Guinea experiences varying amounts of rainfall. The island receives an average 2,500-3,000 mm of rain per year.

But this figure is meaningless when we look at specific parts of the island. For example, while some districts may receive around 9,000 mm per year, Port Moresby is a relative desert (less than 1,000 mm/year).

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‘A’ for amazing wildlife

Probably more than anything else, it is New Guinea’s fascinating and bizarre fauna that really puts the island on the world map.

Here, there are as many bird and plant species as nearby mega-diverse Australia - in just 1/10th the land area! The list of records goes on. More orchid species grace the soils of New Guinea than any other place on Earth. Almost all of the world's birds of paradise and tree kangaroos call the island their home. And where else but in New Guinea will you meet the world's largest pigeon, smallest parrot and longest lizard?

A disparate assortment of terrestrial ecoregions

It comes as no surprise that 5 of WWF’s 142 terrestrial ecoregions are in New Guinea. Ecosystems range from coastal mangroves, arid savannas, extensive lowland rainforests, lush montane forests, to the tallest mountains east of the Himalayas.
Matschie's tree kangaroo, one of Papua New Guinea's unique wildlife species. 
© Chris Martin Bahr / WWF
Matschie's tree kangaroo, one of Papua New Guinea's unique wildlife species.
© Chris Martin Bahr / WWF

Presenting the forests of New Guinea

And then we have the gem of New Guinea. Covering about 65% of the land area of the island (288,000 km2), the forests of New Guinea encompass mountainous and lowland areas of particularly high biodiversity.

Some of the world’s major rivers flow through these forests, including the Asmat and Mamberano rivers in the Indonesian province of Papua, and the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea.

Butterflies the size of birds?

In addition to an estimated 25,000 species of higher plants (vascular plants, which have specialized tissues for conducting water), these forests are also home to 760 bird species that are found nowhere else on Earth, tree kangaroos and other beautiful creatures such Queen Alexandra's birdwing (Ornithoptera alexandrae), with a wingspan that can reach 28 cm.

Forces of nature

Over thousands of years, these forests have withstood cyclones, earthquakes and landslides. Although humans share a long history with them, they have remained largely unchanged by virtue of customary use.

But now, industrial logging, conversion of forests for agriculture, and mining are casting a shadow over the future of the forests and other ecosystems of New Guinea. For how much longer can New Guinea’s island magic prevail?

New Guinea ecoregions map 
[click to enlarge] New Guinea ecoregions map

1 Jaya, Mount. 2006. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February  10,  2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
2 JICA. 2002. Country Profile on Environment – PNG. JICA Planning and Evaluation Department.