A Tenderfoot Explorer in New Guinea

Reminiscences of an Expedition for Birds in the Primeval Forests of the Arfak Mountains

government coast village

A clearing at a Government Coast Village

Recently the American Museum of Natural History has undertaken the exploration of the animal-life of the South Sea Islands. Doctor Mayr has taken part in this project and during 1928 and 1929 studied fauna of the mountains of New Guinea, where he visited five different ranges, three in Dutch New Guinea (Arfak, Wandammen, and Cyclop Mountains) and two in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea (Saruwaged and Herzog Mountains). In the following article he describes his experiences during his collecting activities in the Arfak Mountains.THE EDITORS

I faced one of the biggest decisions of my life when, at the International Zoological Congress at Budapest in 1927, Lord Rothschild, of the Zoological Museum in Tring, the largest private collection in the world, asked me if I would undertake an expedition to New Guinea for him and Dr. L. C. Sanford, trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. I was barely twenty-three years old, had never been on an expedition before, and all that could be said in my favor was that I had had many years of experience in the study of European birds, and, what counts more, had the ambition and untiring enthusiasm of youth. My mind was therefore made up quickly. I said, “Yes” to Lord Rothschild’s proposition and started immediately with my preparations.

Anyone about to undertake an expedition should possess a thorough knowledge of the animal-life occurring in the region he plans to visit. Thus, before starting for the field, I went to several of the large European museums and worked through their New Guinea collections, with the result that when I arrived in New Guinea, I knew not only the name of every bird I might collect, but also whether it was rare, or desirable for my collection, and whether it showed any peculiarities of particular interest to science. Equipped with this knowledge, I departed from Europe feeling a good deal more confident than when I had agreed to the expedition.

After a pleasant journey through the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, I arrived in Java to make the final arrangements. The Zoological Museum, of the Department of Agriculture in Buitenzorg, Java, assisted me by the loan of two Javanese bird-skinners and one plant collector. These “mantris” were of invaluable service to me and proved themselves faithful and hardworking companions during the six months I stayed in Dutch New Guinea.

After a beautiful trip through the East Indian Archipelago, which gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with such interesting places as Bali, Celebes, and the Moluccas, I arrived on the 5th of April, 1928, in Manokwari, the capital of Dutch New Guinea. What a thrill I had when I saw the towering Arfak Mountains, rising abruptly to an altitude of 9000 feet on the other side of the Dorei Bay! The summits were hidden in clouds,—clouds that envelop the higher mountains of New Guinea for many weeks during the rainy periods of the year.

Manokwari, the largest settlement in northern Dutch New Guinea, has a white population of twelve, a fact that indicates somewhat the backwardness and wildness of the country. There are no railroads, no motor cars, not even horses and mules in this part of New Guinea. All the carrying is done by the natives.

In all tropical countries the mountains possess an animal-life strangely different from that which is to be found in the lowlands and hills. The lowland seems to be much more affected by the going and coming of forms from neighboring places, and we find many recent invaders, while the mountains are the homes or refuges of the primitive types and perhaps the original inhabitants of the wholes area. This is true of mankind as well as of animals. In the lowland of New Guinea we find the Melanesians—tribes that are related in culture and language to the Malayans in the West and the Polynesians in the East. In the mountains we find the Papuans, a very primitive type of mankind, in my opinion inferior in their culture to any other human race, including even the aboriginals Australia.

The same is true of the bird-life. In the lowland we find mostly species and genera which are distributed over wide parts of the Indo-Australian region, while in the mountains we find endemic genera with no close relatives anywhere. It is here in the mountains that we meet the choicest of the birds of paradise. It is in the mountains that we find the most beautiful parrots and some of the most peculiarly developed members of the honey suckers. To make a thorough investigation of these mountain forms in the different ranges of northern New Guinea was the main object of my expedition.

I did not spend much time in the lowland, and after I had bought the necessary provisions, I said “good-bye” to the small white colony in Manokwari and sailed the bay to Momi on the southeastern foot of the Arfak Mountains. For several months thereafter I did not speak a European word, using Malay in all my conversations until my return from exploring the Arfak Mountains. In Momi I sent out word to the surrounding villages asking for carriers, and with the help of the Malayan district officer I succeeded, after several days, in assembling a caravan of about fifty.

No one who has traveled in Africa can imagine the carrier difficulties in New Guinea. The race is small and, considering the roughness of the country and the bad condition of the bush-trails, the carriers refuse to take loads weighing more than thirty pounds. Only in exceptional cases could they be persuaded to take two man loads. It required a good deal of figuring to cut down the outfit into such small loads.

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