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Seen in the PNG Post-Courier of  Thursday 13 July 2000

Variarata is valuable - Scientist

A visiting scientist has declared that Variarata National Park at Sogeri, outside Port Moresby, is an extremely valuable resource for Papua New Guinea.  He praised the park for having an extraordinary variety of bird, animal and plant life.

Dr Jack Dumbacher, a researcher associated with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, said this while presenting a gift to the Office of Environment and Conservation at the National Museum and Art Gallery this week.  The gift of five laminated panels were illustrations of his research into the hooded pitohui (pitohudichrous) bird of the National Park.  The hooded pitohui is one of the world's poisonous birds.  The beautifully designed panels were produced by the Smithsonian Institution as a gift to the Variarata Park on behalf of the National Zoo in Washington, the Smithsonian and the PNG National Museum. John Geno, First Assistant Director of the Office of Environment and Conservation, accepted the educational panels of behalf on the department.

Dr Dumbacher has conducted research on the pitohui birds since 1989. It was during research for his PhD that he first found the pitohuis are poisonous.  Since then he has returned to PNG many times, spending a lot of that time living and working at Variarata.  "I have worked in many regions around the world yet Variarata National Park is one of the most fabulous places I've ever worked in," he said.  Dr Dumbacher, along with the Smithsonian's Scott Derrickson and the PNG National Museum's Dr Frank Bonaccorso, are studying the pitohuis' diet and habitat to find out where the pitohuis obtain their poison.

Early research suggests the pitohuis get their poison, called batrochotoxins, from what they eat.  They are also producing a detailed map of the national park, containing trail and vegetation information, with the help of a global positioning system on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. The team is working closely with OEC staff and locals.

Although toxic birds are new to Western science, Papua New Guineans have known for countless years that pitohuis are poisonous.  In some villages, pitohuis have not been eaten for so long, hunters remember only that it is taboo to eat them.  "As Western scientists and foreigners, we continue to rely heavily on local collaborators, hunters and naturalists," Dr Dumbacher said.  He will be in PNG until September.  Before their installation at the national park, the panels will be temporarily on display at the National Museum and Art Gallery.

(Note for early residents of the Sogeri / Iarowari district:  Varirata National Park, now very popular with "towns people" and tourists, is located along the ridge of the Sogeri Plateau, south of the Laloki River, and has magnificent views over the coastal plain with Port Moresby in the distance.  It  was opened in 1972.  The site of its "Welcome House" had previously been the Burns Philp pig farm.)

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