Direct from the jungle of Papua New Guinea, conservationist Jim Thomas, as well as Director Mark Hanlin, spoke to EFFA about the hope for humankind they found in the mountains ahead of the EFFA 2019 closing night screening of their documentary Into the Jungle.

Speaking with Conservationist Jim Thomas

Why was the Tenkile, a little-known tree kangaroo, so important for you to save from extinction?

The Tenkile became known to me in 1995, just after Tim Flannery described the animal and had released his second edition of the ‘Mammals of New Guinea’ – which included his recent discoveries and description of the Tenkile and Weimang tree kangaroos. I was working at Melbourne Zoo at the time and the Goodfellow’s tree kangaroos there had just bred. There was a joey in the females’ pouch & this event created much interest amongst the staff. Many of the keepers, myself included, gathered and read all that was then known about tree kangaroos. I was drawn to the plight of the Tenkile and Weimang tree kangaroos – because they were both new to science and literature & were both on the brink of extinction. Tim had discovered two new species of tree kangaroos, living in the Torricelli Mountain Range, Papua New Guinea (PNG), but both were critically endangered and had been hunted to the brink of extinction. His conclusions were that both would be gone soon and that he had recorded them as they were leaving. I became more & more drawn to these tree kangaroos, growing a determination to save them.

How did your understanding of the natural environment change after living with tribes in the Torricelli Mountains?

My knowledge of the natural world and living with the villages in the Torricelli’s gave me hope for people and the planet in general. The culture and traditional values of the people are still here, and Papua New Guinean’s are still truly connected to their land and the environment – people are happy, despite having very little. Seeing this first-hand gave me greater perspective, showing me how disconnected the West really is and how most people could change for the betterment of themselves and the planet.

In order to save the Tenkile you introduced those living in the Torricelli mountains to alternative food sources, worked with them to better protect and manage their environment, and helped provide clean water and sanitation. Do you think that a more holistic approach to all conservation is necessary to prevent species loss?

Yes, I think a more holistic and bottom-up approach is required for conservation world-wide. By empowering, training and employing land-owners and communities, people living on the land, real biodiversity protection and restoration can be achieved.

What implications may your work with the Tenkile have on other species throughout the world?

The work Jean and I have been doing with our staff and 50 villages, protecting the Torricelli Mountain Range – over 185,000 hectares containing beautiful tree kangaroos - since 2003 is a solid model for conservation and for other species around the globe. Our model has been replicated by other groups in Melanesia and the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA) is respected worldwide. I hope that our work and results inspire other conservationists to do the same. The world needs more people on the ground doing what we do. Flag waving, campaigning and petitions are important but are probably only one-tenth of what is required to save the remaining lungs, tropical rainforests, of the planet and have any chance of restoring and re-building them.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for others thinking of starting conservation projects - big or small? 

I hope that Into the Jungle gives people the confidence to do what we have done and perhaps become candidates to take over from Jean and myself in PNG with the Tenkile Conservation Alliance (TCA). My advice to conservationists is to live your dreams, cling onto hope and never give up.

How many Tenkile tree kangaroos are expected to be living in the Torricelli mountains now, as a result of your work?

Back in the 1990’s Tim Flannery estimated the population of Tenkile to be less than 100. In 2003 we established seven research sites within the determined distribution of the animal. Conducting point transect Distance Sampling (or scat counts), we soon thought that the Tenkile numbers were increasing. By 2013 our results indicated that the Tenkile population was great than 300. As of 2019, we think the number is higher than this, having a Tenkile being located near a village, outside the Conservation Area. This village has no living memory of the Tenkile being on their land. This was a real eye-opening moment for everyone at TCA.

What do you hope people will take away from seeing Into the Jungle and the Q & A afterwards?

I hope that people will take away ‘a want to do more for the planet’ from seeing Into the Jungle. I hope that people will become more connected to our environment and get behind projects like ours. I hope that people in Australia will become donors to TCA – as we are established as a Charity here. Please visit our website www.tenkile.com, join us on Facebook and Twitter @Tenkile and join the team.

What’s your next project?

Our next project will be REDD – Reduced Emissions from Deforestation & Degradation.

In conversation with Director Mark Hanlin

How did you first hear about Jim and Jean’s expedition and what made you want to create the documentary?

I met Jim 20 years ago but lost contact until he called me out of the blue and told me about the conservation work that he and Jean had been doing in PNG. It sounded intriguing so I made the trip up there and just thought this was a fantastic story and one people wouldn’t usually hear about. I intended to make a short film but the longer I was there, the more I thought the story deserved a feature length timeframe. 

What was your process for ensuring the Torricelli Mountain tribes depicted in the film were adequately represented?

Getting to know the locals and their stories was an integral part of developing a balanced narrative. Filming this documentary took four separate visits to PNG over 4 years and I spent a total of 6 months filming at TCA base in Lumi and in the villages. During those visits I met many villagers and filmed their lifestyle but ultimately it was mainly the project officers that worked with Jim and Jean who were the most articulate interviewees on camera. They distilled the sentiments of villagers that I believed an audience could best understand and appreciate. 

How do the tributes from Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall featured in Into the Jungle reinforce the message of the film?

With over 100 years’ experience in conservation work between them, both Sir David Attenborough and Jane Goodall recognise the unique work that Jim and Jean have developed over a long period of time which is a key factor to their success working with the PNG indigenous communities. We are extremely fortunate that people with such insight and perseverance in their own work agreed to be part of our story and that their interest alone generates a good deal of attention around the world. 

Hear firsthand from Jim and Jean Thomas as they return to Melbourne for this very special screening of Into the Jungle and following discussion, 6.45pm Friday 1 November at Palace Westgarth Cinema.

This session was made possible with the support of City of Darebin.