Tree-Kangaroos, Possums and Penis Gourds--On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea

By Tim Flannery

Atlantic Monthly. 326 pp. $25

A naturalist may love the animals he studies, but that doesn't mean he's above eating them. Tim Flannery remembers the first specimen he bagged in Papua New Guinea--at a local food market: "I paid my five kina to an old man, blind in one eye and with his shotgun resting behind him, and at one stroke collected my first specimen in New Guinea and solved the riddle of what to curry for tomorrow's dinner" (a species of wallaby, as it turned out).

The Australian-born Flannery has had to work a little harder for most of the specimens he's acquired over the years of pioneering fieldwork chronicled in "Throwim Way Leg." New Guinea, Flannery's outdoor laboratory of choice, is a vast, haphazardly explored island lying northwest of the author's homeland and divided politically into Papua New Guinea and, under Indonesian control, Irian Jaya. Flannery, with his gift for pithy scientific description, describes the island as "Australia's bow wave. As . . . Australia has drifted northward it has accumulated islands and fragments of other continents along its leading edge. Like debris swept together by a broom, these have built up into a long, chaotic pile of landforms."

The same accidents of geology explain why New Guinea, so close to Southeast Asia, has Australian flora and fauna--kangaroos rather than Asian tigers and elephants. "New Guinea's kangaroos, however, live in the trees." The island's topography is so rough that people "in adjacent valleys [are] as isolated from each other as people living on different continents." No wonder it harbors about a thousand languages, one-sixth of the global total.

A nightmare for highway engineers, such terrain is a naturalist's dream, jungle-rich and ripe with animal life. Since childhood Flannery had been fascinated by the place. He decided, launching a scientific career, to write a handbook on New Guinea's mammals. "In my naivety, I imagined when I set out on this quest that the world was fully documented, and that the great age of exploration had ended in the nineteenth century. . . . My greatest discovery in New Guinea, perhaps, was finding out just how wrong I was."

It took Flannery 15 expeditions to put together that handbook and in the process he brought to light some 20 species previously unknown to Western science (he's only in his forties now--imagine what he might do in the second half of his career). "Little did I imagine," he writes in a style that wouldn't be out of place in the 19th-century annals of exploration, "that I was to live among largely uncontacted peoples, to whom, just a few years before, cannibalism had been not a rumour but a way of life. . . . Had someone intimated to me that I was to discover what is arguably the world's largest rat, name four kinds of tree-kangaroos, or stumble on a cave full of the bones of long extinct and entirely unknown marsupial giants, I would have scoffed in disbelief. Yet I did."

"Throwim Way Leg" tells the story, in a disarmingly wry and unpretentious way, of how Flannery made his great discoveries. In New Guinea pidgin, the book's title means "to go on a journey. It describes the action of thrusting out your leg to take the first step of what can be a long march." Often Flannery's marches take him through uncharted miles of beautiful but pestilential jungle, trying for a glimpse of a species like the dingiso, a gentle, black-and-white tree kangaroo whose discovery, he notes, "was the high point of my career as a biologist."

Sometimes the journey begins at home. At one point a misidentified specimen in the Australian Museum puts Flannery on the trail of a fruit bat believed extinct for more than a millennium. The clues lead to Luplupwintem, a vast cave where a nesting population had been spotted (and almost wiped out by some overenthusiastic locals recently armed with a shotgun--not the only incursion of Western technology, alas). Flannery's team attempts to net a specimen: "In order to set the net we had to climb two large moss-covered trees that overhung the rim of this enormous cave, which plunges down vertically for several hundred metres. It was a fifteen-metre climb to the canopy, and we first had to cut a clearing for the net with bush-knives. Then we each had to manipulate a seven-metre pole, with mist-net attached, into place, and fasten it to the trees. All the while the light was fading, and the vines I had used to ascend the tree were becoming smooth with wear." Never fear: They get their bat, who's not pleased. "We looked in amazement at the indignant face. . . . In our grasp was an animal once thought to have become extinct at the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago. We hugged each other with joy--after eight years of field work together in western Papua New Guinea we had rediscovered Bulmer's Fruit-bat!"

All of this makes for great reading--the thrill of the unknown, rare enough these days, combined with a scientist's true passion for his work and for the creatures he studies (even when he has to do them in and ship their pelts and parts back to the Australian Museum for study). Just as impressive is his sensitivity to the native New Guineans, whom he recognizes as a source of invaluable knowledge about the animals he seeks. Another scientist might have left it at that; Flannery gets to know the men who host and hunt for him--he learned pidgin and can find his way around some of the dialects--and their personalities and stories fill this book.

Affectionate but unsentimental, he's as keen a humanist as he is a naturalist; "Throwim Way Leg" becomes a plea on behalf of the island's native peoples as well as its wildlife, both of which are under threat, especially in the Indonesian half of the island, from mining concerns and from the intrusion of an alien and unsympathetic culture. Typical of Flannery to dedicate the book to Jim-Bob Moffett, CEO of the American company that runs a vast copper mine in Irian Jaya, and "all the other CEOs of mining companies with interest in Melanesia, in the hope that, through reading it, they will understand a little better the people whose lives they so profoundly change." After reading "Throwim Way Leg," one fervently hopes that the Jim-Bob Moffetts of the world listen to Flannery and leave this fascinating island in peace.

Jennifer Howard, who writes the Paperbacks column for Book World and is completing a novel.