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Experiencing diversity before it’s gone

Photo of a Baining fire dancer by Stuart L. Pimm By Stuart Pimm Rabaul, Papua New Guinea–A surreal monster pauses in the very heart of the fire, stomps its feet–sending showers of red hot embers into the air–then shakes its huge bird-beaked head, and dances towards us. For hours, Baining fire dancers dash through the fire as...


Photo of a Baining fire dancer by Stuart L. Pimm

By Stuart Pimm

Rabaul, Papua New Guinea–A surreal monster pauses in the very heart of the fire, stomps its feet–sending showers of red hot embers into the air–then shakes its huge bird-beaked head, and dances towards us. For hours, Baining fire dancers dash through the fire as acolytes pile on ever more fuel. It’s a warm, humid night. The drums beat an incessant rhythm.

The audience is small–members of National Geographic’s Grosvenor Council account for a third of it–and irrelevant. The dances are traditional, we’re here incidentally, though not accidentally.

My contribution to this National Geographic Expedition has been the diversity of nature–the birds of paradise on land and the corals and reef fishes underwater. Biodiversity is the total variety of life on Earth–and yes we count! Our cultural and linguistic diversity are extraordinary.

No place better concentrates our diversity than Papua New Guinea with its roughly 700 languages. And no better person to explain this than Chris Rainier, National Geographic Fellow and director of Enduring Voices, the other lecturer on this adventure.

This has been a diversity extravaganza–we’ve spent the last ten days exploring Papua New Guinea’s environments and cultures. Of course, I have to tell you some of what we’ve seen. Yes, to make you green with envy. Yes, to make you sign up for the next trip. (Disclosure: National Geographic Expeditions do not pay me a commission.) But most importantly, to point out that trips, such as this one, could be unique experiences. Only with luck and effort, might we share them with our grandchildren.

We assembled ten days ago in Cairns, in northern Queensland. I was first there 27 years ago with my six-week-old daughter. I put her in a pram, wrapped it up in a mosquito net and took her into the rain forest. She’s now working on her Ph.D on tropical orchids. Early experiences are so important.

Queensland’s premier at the time thought of the state as defined by mining and logging. Cairns is now a major center for ecotourism, an altogether cleaner, safer and more sustainable vision. Cairns gives me hope.


We do not linger here, taking flights to Port Moresby and then to the Central Highlands of New Guinea. The temperatures here are cool, it might even rain this afternoon, but binoculars in hand, I’m ready to head out.

This is “bird-of-paradise central”–there as many or more of these birds as anywhere else in New Guinea. (Only two species live elsewhere). The early specimens arrived in Europe without feet. So, went the argument, they must remain aloft forever and feed on dew.

There’s one here that was found new to science in 1939–a time when 95 percent of all birds were known. It’s black with three-foot-long white tail feathers. The scientist who first saw that must have thought he had been eating something more hallucinogenic than dew. No bird discovered since is anywhere near as spectacular.

It’s the first bird of paradise we see, flying across the road, its long tail streamers undulating behind it. In the days that follow, we’ll see a total of 11 species of bird of paradise–each seemingly more magnificent than the one before. They have exotic names to match their extraordinary appearances–“Princess Stephanie’s Astrapia,” the “King of Saxony,” or simply “Superb.”

When we add the last species to our list–“Twelve-wired”–displaying upside down on a tall tree in glorious yellow and black, someone counts the long thin plumes, “wires,” coming off the back and finds two missing. Poor bird! Since the quality of the plumage is what makes the males attractive to the opposite sex, this bird may indeed have a hard time of it.


The plainly named blue bird of paradise is resplendent black with two long tail streamers and a Duke blue back with frilly plumes.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm 

By the time we see this, we’ve moved to the lowlands of the Sepik River. Here Chris has arranged displays of a human kind. We visit villages by boat along the river, greeted as we go, by welcome ceremonies and some re-enactments of traditional rituals.


The welcome at this village along the Sepik River was a re-enactment of the celebration of victory over enemies.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm 


National Geographic Grosvenor Council member Angie Wells shares the memories she will take home to Georgia.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

Rabaul was a mixture of snorkeling on reefs to find just not one kind of clown fish–Nemos, we call them–but several, and the Mask Festival, where many cultures come to share their traditional dances.

And, of course, it gave time for reflection. National Geographic Expeditions allow adventurous souls into worlds that required extreme efforts to visit only a few decades ago. The highlands of New Guinea were unknown to outsiders until the 1930s–which is why some of the birds there were described only thereafter.

What we experience–the rich biological and cultural diversity–may simply not be here in a few decades time. Neither the traditions, nor the species may persist when challenged with the onslaught of industrial development.

We watched the birds of paradise, dodging vehicles making extensive road improvements for a liquid national gas project cutting a deep swath into the forest. And cultures need not be passed on from parents who remember their significance to children, unless there is an effort to explain their significance.

No other organization documents our world as does National Geographic. For lucky groups who travel with National Geographic Expeditions, we can experience it firsthand. If we are lucky, privileged grandchildren will share our experiences. If we are not, then we live at a remarkable cusp between not being able to experience diversity and not having it to experience.


Photo of road improvements by Stuart L. Pimm.

Stuart Pimm.jpg

Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”


 Earlier blog posts by Stuart Pimm>>



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Meet the Author

Stuart Pimm
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).