In lush and colorful Papua New Guinea, there lives an elusive animal called the Matschie's tree kangaroo. Biologist Lisa Dabek has been fascinated by the tree 'roo since seeing her first one in a Seattle zoo more than twenty years ago.
The team is joined by author Sy Montgomery and photographer Nic Bishop, who are documenting the journey. The group has arrived at their destination and set up camp. They have seen signs that some tree kangaroos are nearby, in the forest, and are hoping to meet one soon.
LISA IS WASHING HER CLOTHES IN THE RIVER WHEN WE GET THE NEWS:
"TREE 'ROOST" CALLS HOLLY. "TWO OF them!"
One of the trackers has run back to camp to tell us. The two tree kangaroos are klostu us—and still up tree_ While Holly and Christine ready the medical equipment, the rest of us race after the tracker to see. We run past the tree kangaroo house, past the kunai, down trail—and then into the trackless bush Will the tree kangaroos still be there when we get there?
It takes us nearly an hour to reach the site. We see the long golden tail hanging down from the branches of saurauia —and then the animal to whom it Belongs: a gorgeous red End gold tree kangaroo sitting eighty feet above us, looking down with ears pricked forward. "l can't believe it!" Lisa says.
And then, in the tree right next to this tree kangaroo, we see another tail leading to another tree kangaroo.
And then, in the tree right next to this tree kangaroo, we see another tail leading to another tree kangaroo.
"Bigpela pikinini!" one of the trackers exclaims. "Pikinini" is Tok Pisin for child or baby. And “bigpela”? You guessed it- If this is her baby, it's big one.
"This is the miracle of doing work here," Lisa says. "They are so elusive. And then you finally find them. The whole field season is riding on these moments."
The men had left camp that morning feeling lucky. It was sunny and warm," Gabriel recalled. "A good day for the tree 'roos to come out and warm themselves." They changed their strategy: "For the first three days. we were traveling more than one kilometer each day to find tree 'roos. I had wanted our presence to drive them closer to camp. So we decided today to try closer—and it worked."
The men spread out. One tracker decided he would look for a plant that the tree kangaroos love to eat. It grows high on tree branches and is easy to spot. The underside is brown and the top green. He found one in a tree— but no tree kangaroo. He scanned the next tree over—the Saurauia—and there was the tail!
"Immediately," the tracker explained through Gabriel, "l barked like a dog because that would keep her up in the tree. Everyone else heard the barking and knew what happened. Everyone ran and admired the 'too. We all stood looking for about two minutes, And then someone noticed there was another tail."
We photograph and videotape and watch the two tree kangaroos for ten minutes. Now to get the animals down.
He found one in a tree— but no tree kangaroo.
The trackers have been thinking about this puzzle. Shortly after they spotted the animals, they began to cut sticks and brush to build low fence they call an "im" around the tree. If the tree kangaroo leaps down and starts to hop away; the "im" will slow him down.
One of the trackers takes off his tall rubber boots. Barefoot, he begins to climb a smaller tree next to the Saurauia. Within two minutes, he's as high as the tree kangaroo.
"Joel, do you see where she is?" asks Lisa. Joel has the 'roo in his binoculars. "She's still there," he assures.
But the tree kangaroo isn't happy to see a human approaching. She climbs another 30 feet up to get away. If she jumps, it's a 110-foot drop.
Suddenly, she leaps, her forearms outstretched. She drops 30 feet. She grabs a smaller tree on the way down. And now she begins to back down the tree.
She's almost to the ground when one of the trackers grabs her by the tail and puts her in the burlap bag.
Pikinini! Pikinini!" the men GIL The other tree kangaroo is 65 feet up in a decaspermum tree, and they don't want him to get away. The tree kangaroo lets go of the branch. Like an acrobat, he catches a vine with his front paws, turns himself around, and lands on the ground on his feet. One tracker holds the chest, another holds the back legs, and another man holds the front.
It's only now that we realize that the "baby" is a fully grown adult male. "Man na meri" the trackers say—this pair is no mother and baby, but a grown-up male and female on a tree kangaroo date, By 10:10 A.M., both tree kangaroos are in burlap bags, heading Back to camp.
The tree kangaroo lets go of the branch.
Twenty-five minutes later, we're all back in camp, where Holly and Christine have set up the exam table—a picnic table built from saplings lashed with vines.
They've laid out medical supplies and sample vials, measuring tools and data sheets. Each tree kangaroo will be given medicine to make it sleep while the team puts on the radio collar and conducts a health exam.
We want to find out as much as we can. Because so little is known about tree kangaroos, every detail is important.
First, while the animals are in their burlap bags, they are weighed. The female weighs 6.4 kilograms (about 24 pounds) with the bag. The scientists Will make sure to subtract the weight of the bag alone later. The male, with bag, weighs 8 kilograms.
"Let's measure the male's neck, to make sure the radio collar will fit on him," says Lisa. "But let's da the female first."
"With the female, we'll have the same priorities," Holly tells the group. "We'll measure the neck, put on the radio collar, insert the ID chip, pluck fur for more testing, check the pouch —see if she has a baby." We hope to find out as much as we can while the animal is asleep, but anesthesia can be dangerous. That's why we'll be carefully watching how often she breathes in and out and how fast her heart is beating during the procedure. We'll have to work fast. Everyone will help.
"Christine will call out pulse and respiration every five minutes," says Holly. "Is everybody ready?" "Do you have the radio collar?" Lisa asks Gabriel.
Gabriel is holding a leather collar much like one a dog might wear. Instead of metal tags, though, it has a little box of waterproof plastic. This contains a transmitter powered by a square battery and outfitted with an internal antenna.
Each radio collar also has a computer chip. Without knowing it, the tree kangaroos will be sending their position not only to the scientists tracking them on the ground, but also to satellites circling thousands of miles above Earth. At six A.M. and six P.M --times the 'roos are likely to be in the trees and the weather is likely to be less cloudy the satellites read the animals' exact position on the earth's surface. They download this information ta the chips in the collars, and this data can be transferred to a computer when the collar automatically falls off, after five months. The whole thing weighs less than half a pound.
"Do you have the screwdriver to put the collar on?" asks Lisa.
"Yes, yes," says Gabriel, holding the squirming bag on his lap. "We're ready!"
Meanwhile, Gabriel is putting on the collar.
But the tree kangaroo isn’t. Gabriel talks to the animal in the bag. "Wait, wait, come here," he says gently. And then, to two trackers: "Hold him!" Soon a pink nose pokes out through a hole in the bag. It's 10:55 AM. and Holly places the mask on the nose. A paw comes out through the hole. But within forty-five seconds, the tree kangaroo relaxes.
The anesthesia's working. She's asleep.
Out comes the kangaroo. 'Thermometer?" Holly requests.
The kangaroo's body temperature is similar to a person's: 97.1 degrees. "Respiration is thirty-two," says Christine. That means she's breathing thirty-two times a minute. That's healthy.
Holly leans forward to listen to the heart through her stethoscope. For five seconds, she counts the beats. She wants to calculate the beats per minute. "Heart rate is sixteen times twelve. You do the math," she tells Joel, who is recording everything on a data sheet.
Meanwhile, Gabriel is putting on the collar. "Make sure the collar is comfortable but snug," says Lisa. (Yesterday Christine discovered that Ombum had taken his off and left it on the floor of his cage.)
Holly puts in the microchip and Joel records its number; 029-274-864.
I'm going to do pouch check," says Holly. Meanwhile, the other scientists measure everything they can as fast as they can.
"Pouch is empty," says Holly. "Now for the vitamin-mineral shot."
"This is it," says Lisa. She calls an end to the exam. Because he was injured, Ombum's exam took much longer; but we don’t want to subject this tree kangaroo to the anesthesia any longer than necessary, for safety's sake. Holly removes the face mask and quickly checks the teeth. She's coming to. It's 1 1:06
"Put her in the bag," says Lisa. tail first, so she can sit." They name her Tess, in honor of my dog, a Border collie who died last year at age sixteen.
The new Tess rests in her bag on a tracker's lap while we prepare for the male.
11:20 A.M.: "Anesthetic machine? Gas ready? Radio collar?" Holly asks. "And is the other 'roo OK?"
The team works fast while the tree kangaroo is anesthetized.
Each collar allows scientists to track a tree kangaroo for several months.
Gabriel unties the top of the male's bag, and immediately, the burlap boils with movement.
"He's doing somersaults in the bag," Gabriel reports. It's all he and Joshua can do to hold the 'roo-“
Through the bag, the male grabs one man's glove and pulls it off. He bites another tracker on the finger. Now four men are struggling, "I've got his head here," says Gabriel, "but I can't get it out—but the nose is right here!"
Through the burlap, Holly delivers the anesthetic. "Oh, but he's tough!" says Gabriel.
Finally the bag stops wiggling. At 1 1:30 the male is lifted out of the bag and laid out on the table. The team goes to work.
"Seventeen times twelve is the heart rate," Holly tells Joel.
'Twenty-two point seven, circumference of neck," says Toby. "Here's the collar. Let's put it on." "Respiration is twenty," says Holly. "Now we'll take his temperature. Next the chip. And after that we'll go far the hair."
Everything is going like clockwork Then Christine warns, "Respiration slowing.”
"That's it. Let's pull the mask off," says Lisa.
It's 11:37 "His ears are twitching. Let's get him back in the bag," says Holly.
It's all over in just ten minutes. "Great work," says Lisa.
Noon. We're at the tree kangaroo house . The men have cut fern fronds and lined the two apartments inside with this soft, moist carpet. They've used ferns to screen the wall between the new pair and Ombum, so the animals won't upset each other. Ombum looks calm. Though his leg is no better, he is now taking banana leaves from Christine's hands.
We all sit quietly while one of the trackers opens the cage door. Tess climbs out of the bag and scurries up a perch. She regards us with interest, but no fear. Lisa has named the male Christopher in honor of my pig, who grew to 750 pounds and lived to age fourteen. The kangaroo Christopher rushes out of his bag and climbs to the highest perch.
Joel and Gabriel want to make sure the collars are working, so they have brought their radio receivers along to check. Each animal has its own frequency, almost like a phone number. If Joel wants to tune in to Tess, he dials up channel 151080. Christopher's channel is 150.050. Both collars work fine.
We're all delighted. One tracker is so enthusiastic, he wants to go out and hunt for more tree kangaroos this very afternoon. "But the hotel is full!" says Lisa. Since Christopher and Tess are healthy enough to return to the wild, they will be released tomorrow. For now, though, the cage has all the tree kangaroos it can hold. We all shake hands, hug, and smile. Everyone is beaming with a mixture of excitement, exhaustion—and relief.
"The first collared male Matschie's tree kangaroo: says Gabriel. "History!"
1. “close to” as said in a popular language spoken in New Guinea, called Tok Pisin2. The area where Lisa and her team have set up camp, named for the kind of grass it has3. Tree kangaroos love to eat the shoots of the flowering trees4. A tree kangaroo that has been examined earlier and is being treated for an injured leg.5. A fourteen foot by eighteen foot enclosure, the team has built using sticks, vines, and mosses, to keep the kangaroos comfortable.