We quickly moved over to inspect what the hunter described as a “Payangko feeding hole”. Immediately the hunters agreed that this is where an Attenborough’s echidna had recently been feeding. I was skeptical at first, but upon inspection the feeding marks looked like classic echidna nose pokes. When echidnas feed they probe their long beak into the ground, leaving a deep conical imprint in soft soil or leaf litter. Sometimes this print even provides an outline of the top the echidnas head. The drawings below demonstrate the various imprints typically left by long beaked echidnas.
There were three good examples of these ‘nose pokes’ in the soil in relatively close proximity, and a fourth nearby in a large termite mound. The location of the fourth nose poke was quite interesting because while the short beak echidna commonly feeds on termites, this has not been documented in long beaked echidnas. However, the termite mound looked a little old – so it is possible that it was feeding on invertebrates other then termites. Echidnas commonly spend their days in a burrow or under a log and feed in the evenings, so we decided to come back to this location the following night to see if we could find the animal while it was active.
Leaving the nose pokes, we then followed a mountain ridge south until we reached the site where the last documented Attenborough’s echidna had been killed and eaten. Ben showed us where the strange animal was snared and the coals from the fire where it was eaten. He described taste and the anatomy in detail, leaving me with little doubt that he had consumed the creature.
I was amazed that the site was only 166 m above sea level because Attenborough’s echidna was thought to only exist in the highest peaks of the Cyclops Mountains. This finding is very encouraging as it slightly extends the known distribution of the species.
When we arrived back to our base we received news that the Ormu tribe was willing to let us visit, but that we would have to make a donation to the church of about $300. I very much wanted to go to Ormu as it appeared to be the easiest place from which to climb to the top of the Cyclops Mountains, but I did not think a rather large forced donation to the church was the best way to start a conservation partnership. I asked Yahoda’s brother to return to Ormu to explain that we were doing and re-negotiate.
In the meantime we gathered all the camping equipment and made our way back to the site where we has seen the echidna tracks. That night we sat silently in the darkness waiting and listing for a small spiny mammal foraging in the earth. We did the same the following night at the site where the echidna had been eaten. Twice I heard an animal moving in the dark and quickly aimed my light in the direction of the moving vegetation. The first creature was a small terrified bandicoot, and the second, an irritable fruit bat. I also came across many strange invertebrates that I had never seen before such as this enormous spider (I would be grateful if someone could identify it for me) but alas, no echidnas.
When we returned to our base Yahoda’s brother told me that the Ormu tribe had now decided to let us visit, but that we would have to pay $600 instead of $300! I laughed, and started packing for Dormena. From Dormena it would be a long hike from the central mountains to the higher peaks, but I thought it would still be possible. I also wanted to go there to see if we could track down the old man who had a story to tell about the echidna.
When I got to Dormena I asked for the old man, who was named David Abusay. The villagers told me that he was not around. When I asked when he would be back they said he was dead. They then brought his younger brother to tell me the story of the echidna. He told me that in 1920 his brother had caught an echidna, and that this was the last time that one had been used for their traditional peace ceremony. He explained that if there is conflict between two people or two families, eating an Attenborough’s echidna together would bring peace. I also heard a slightly different story from another old person who said if someone had done something wrong in the village they would have to either pay a fine or find an echidna – and most people ended up paying the fine. The second story indicates that they have been rare for some time. It was wonderful to hear that the species was culturally significant, but unfortunate that the echidna had to be consumed during the peace process.
When I enquired about climbing to the higher peaks it sparked a major discussion leading to a village meeting that continued late into the evening. At 11pm the village chief finally came to the house where I was waiting. Nothing was said for the longest time, but the outcome was clear. He finally told me that we could not go into the hills above their village because foreigners never go there and they were also worried about the safety of our guide Yahoda, as the mountains were a very wet confusing and dangerous place. There was also a concern that we might anger the mountain and cause a landslide. They told me this happened many years ago when some people ventured into the hills behind the next village.
I was very disappointed as I was determine to get to the site where Pieter van Royen found the type specimen, but at the same time I was happy that these local customs were reducing pressure on what is likely to be the echidna’s key habitat. I knew at this point that I was not going to be able to climb the mountains from the North side and would have to go back to Jayapura and go through the long permission process again to climb the southeast part of the mountain range that was owned by a very different tribe with a different language and traditions.
On our way back to Jayapura I studied the southern slops of the Cyclops Mountains. I also re-read all of Van Royan’s field notes and was able to identify the exact place his journey had begun some 46 years earlier. I then got permission for the Forestry Department, police, military, and the head of the Santani tribe to climb the south-east slope to the peak called Rafini. This time the Forestry Department decided to send two rangers with us as no one from the department had ever been to the top of Rafini.
We cut through thick vegetation following what used to be a major path called the Salt Route. In the days before motorboats people used to commonly follow this path from Santani to Ormu to trade for the much needed salt. A few hours into our hike I noticed some rustling in the tress and waited patiently hoping for a sighting of a cassowary or a tree kangaroo, but out came Wandi – the man that would ultimately guide us to the mysterious peaks. On the second day at 769 m above sea level we came across perfect echidna nose pokes. This time the imprints were very fresh. We decided it was a good place to camp because there was the possibility of seeing the echidna – It was also getting dark, we had completely lost the salt route, and there appeared to be cliffs in every direction. We decided the following morning we would attempt to find the Salt Route again, follow it to the mountain ridge and then head straight for the top of Rafini. I slept soundly that night with no idea of what difficulties lay ahead…
To be continued…