I am a British tourist, and I spend my holidays searching for species that are believed to be extinct. On my last trip to Papua New Guinea in 2022, I found a Louisiade pitta bird, which had been the focus of failed professional expeditions for years. It hadn’t been seen alive since 1898.
We went around playing recordings of a related pitta, which sounds a bit like a chicken being strangled, until we received a reply. Imagine if you went around a haunted house rattling chains and then you heard a ghost rattling them back – that is what it was like.
On another trip to Papua New Guinea, I went looking for a little possum called Telefomin cuscus, which was believed to have gone extinct after extensive forest fires in 1997.
I found one, but unfortunately it was being barbecued by a local family. I really wished they had found another source of protein, but you can’t blame people for needing food.
In total, I have found a couple of dozen of these species, most of which are plants. My favourite discovery was the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo, which looks a bit like a cuddly toy, while looking for rhododendrons in West Papua four years ago. It had only been seen once – by the guy who shot it in 1928, and that specimen is now in the Natural History Museum in London.
It took two expeditions to find it, and a lot of machete work through thorns and bamboo thickets that become overgrown almost as soon as you cut them. It was the last day and we saw the animal just before we needed to pack up. I was relieved – I would have had quite a lot of explaining to do to my wife if I came back empty-handed.
My wife is very patient and supportive, but she might think it’s a bit of crazy thing to do. She never comes with me on these trips – the furthest she’s ever gone with me is Devon, and that was a trip enough for her.
I studied zoology at the University of Oxford, and ended up working in medical communications. I do a lot of computer modelling in my day job, and now I’m creating computer models of lost species, trying to work out the best place to look for them. You have to be fairly determined.
I want these animals to be the poster children for seriously threatened and ancient habitats. I’m trying to get evidence of something interesting – and in terms of getting people involved and excited about conservation, it seems to be effective. I appreciate not everybody gets excited even about the most amazing plants, but they do like cuddly animals and beautiful exotic birds. If you are trying to find alternative jobs for hunters, you’ve got to think “what will tourists want to see?”, and that is what I set out to find.
It’s a race against time to get people involved in conservation and ecotourism, as they don’t have many other options. I try to build connections between traditional landowners and organisations elsewhere to set up ecotourism facilities. That’s a way of putting food on people’s tables, and paying them to conserve their forests, which is what most people want to do.
It’s hard to know if things will change fast enough for there to be anything left. In the 1990s, Papua New Guinea was just a big forest, with a few people. Now it’s still 80% or 90% forest, but there is huge pressure from people and investors who want to make palm oil. That’s a form of development which brings money to the region, but also builds major roads going up into the mountains.
My tips for people who want to get into this are all very basic: keep fit, travel light, study the terrain and brush up your languages. Look after your porters and never try to rush discussions with local leaders.
I can move fast with a small team of people with local knowledge, and try to avoid unwanted attention. I’ve had misadventures in the past with everyone from gorilla poachers in Cameroon to secret policemen in Burma, so I don’t want a “travelling circus”.
As for the future, I don’t know. I’m self-funded so I’m always short of cash. I’ve read old reports about a mythical beast in north-east India, which I suspect are based on some kind of giant salamander – the world’s largest amphibian. That would be worth investigating.