Indonesia New Guinea, which includes the provinces of Papua and West Papua, has four biogeographical zones, each with its distinctive biota. One of these zones, Doberai or Vogelkop (meaning bird’s head) Peninsula, lies in the province of West Papua and is connected to the rest of New Guinea by a rugged narrow and curving isthmus, with a number of isolated mountain ranges punctuating the lowlands. It has a complex and, in places, ancient geology that has resulted in considerable variation in the biophysical environment and natural resources.

The three species of long-beaked echidnas, the eastern long-beaked echidna Zaglossus bartoni, Attenborough’s long-beaked echidna Zaglossus attenboroughi and the western long-beaked echidna Zaglossus bruijnii are currently known to occur on the island of New Guinea. All three are threatened across their range and there is limited baseline information about their status, making even rudimentary decisions concerning their conservation problematic.

Plate 1 The western long-beaked echidna encountered near Bangun Mulia village.

The western long-beaked echidna is believed to be distributed throughout the Vogelkop Peninsula and potentially on the offshore islands of Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo, although its degree of persistence across this range is unknown. In particular, relatively little is known about the presence of the western long-beaked echidna on the Vogelkop Peninsula. Using local ecological knowledge, we aimed to verify whether the western long-beaked echidna Zaglossus bruijnii still occurs on the Vogelkop Peninsula.

In our survey in the village of Imbuan in Tambrau regency, one of the hunters we interviewed explained how they had accidentally caught an echidna in a trap intended for deer and wild pigs at a hunting ground near the village of Warmandi in Tambrauw Regency. The hunter described it as a flat, muddy, open area close to a stream (Plate 2). He had then taken the carcass, to Imbuan and we were able to confirm that it was a western long-beaked echidna.

Plate 2 Stream in Warmandi, where a western long-beaked echidna was accidentally trapped.

The villages of Tembuni, Araisum, Mogoi Baru and Bangun Mulia in Teluk Bintuni are adjacent to forest habitat that is potentially suitable for the western long-beaked echidna. We interviewed people informally, seeking to speak with those who were knowledgeable about local animals and plants, in particular active or retired hunters. Interviewees were asked to describe the species and its behaviour and signs, locations where they had seen it, and any other information they thought was pertinent.

Of the three individual echidnas we recorded in Teluk Bintuni regency, one individual (Plate 1) was caught by a hunter who found it near Wasian, adjacent to the river (Plate 4). Another individual, was found in a swamp forest close to the village of Bangun Mulia while they were checking their hunting traps (Plate 3). The typical habitat in which these three individuals were found was lowland forest close to small creeks flowing into the Sidua River. The sites were muddy, with numerous fallen and rotting trees and with the forest floor covered by scrub, forage and hollow logs, which are suitable for echidna burrows.

Plate 3 The western long-beaked echidna found near Wasian, closed to the small creek.

With the help of the local ecological knowledge of the people we interviewed, we were able to learn more about their beliefs and taboos surrounding echidnas. Examples include how people are not permitted to shout or use foul language while searching for echidnas in the forest, and that not all people are permitted to consume echidna meat. In particular, children under 10 years of age are forbidden to consume the meat as it is believed to have negative effects on their physical development.

Unfortunately, although anecdotal information from the interviewees suggests the species remains common, we were not able to secure any data on the abundance of this species in either Tambrau or Teluk Bintuni regencies. Detailed systematic surveys are required before any assertion about the status of this species can be made with confidence.

Plate 4 The river where the western long-beaked echidna was found.

All photos: Freddy Pattiselanno

The article Using local ecological knowledge to locate the western long-beaked echidna Zaglossus bruijnii on the Vogelkop Peninsula, West Papua, Indonesia is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Freddy Pattiselanno is an associate professor at the Faculty of Animal Science of University of Papua, working on wildlife hunting in Papua, particularly on factors affecting hunting, and investigating the contribution of wildlife to local livelihoods, including cultural aspects, food security and alternative income.