The classic image of the kangaroo, which along with the koala, is an iconic animal for Australia, is of a relatively tall creature with reddish or brown fur and huge hind legs that propel it along the ground with a giant hopping motion. There are, however, many different species of kangaroos, ranging from the 200-pound red kangaroo to the Guinea pig-sized musky-rat kangaroo. Some kangaroos have even taken to living in trees, an adaptation that unfortunately hasn’t saved the tree kangaroo from feeling the effects of habitat destruction.
You don’t find kangaroos that live in trees just anywhere. These endangered marsupials live almost exclusively in the high rainforests of Papua New Guinea north of Australia (some live in far northern Queensland). Weighing in at about 20 pounds as adults and up to four feet tall, the tree kangaroo isn’t tiny, but it is small when compared to its larger cousins on land. Its fur is truly unique in pattern and color, with a white or light yellowish face, brown fur on the top and golden fur on the belly, hands and feet, a dark stripe down the back, and a cowlick of sorts – a circular whorl of fur that goes out in all directions and can appear anywhere from the neck to the tail. Its feet and claws are adapted to climbing vertically into the tops of the rainforest, which is where tree kangaroos spend the vast majority of their time.
With heads that are more foreshortened than the better known red and grey kangaroos, the tree kangaroo’s appearance is completely endearing. But photos and zoo visits are the only ways most people will ever see these shy and skittish creatures. They run away if humans approach and they have every reason to be afraid. Their habitat is continuously shrinking due to logging, mining, oil exploration, and farming. The loss of its habitat makes tree kangaroos prone to be preyed on by dogs, and they have also been overhunted as bush meat.
A number of people and organizations have been working for years to try and save this charming animal, but none has worked harder than Dr. Lisa Dabek, senior conservation scientist and director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. This Program uses a community-based strategy to document the natural history and conservation status of tree kangaroos through scientific research and interviews with local landowners and villagers. The program identifies and maps critical habitat; expands health care for villagers including vaccinations and midwife training; improves schools through support of teachers and curriculum development; implements and maintains conservation education programs; and empowers local villages to manage natural resources by training Papua New Guinea university students and local landowners as field research assistants and conservation advocates.
Lisa Dabek came to the cause of tree kangaroo conservation by a somewhat circuitous route. Hooked on animals since childhood, she did projects on electric eels and beluga whales as an intern, and then switched to marine mammals at college and subsequently at the National Zoo. As a graduate student, Lisa studied tree kangaroo behavior, and her lifelong devotion to saving the little marsupials was on.
Asked why she pursues this particular field, Dr. Dabek said, “Tree kangaroos are absolutely fascinating animals, and that is what brought me to Papua New Guinea to study and conserve them. It is the local indigenous people that I work with that are so inspiring to me. The opportunity to work collaboratively with the local communities to make sure the tree kangaroos are protected and do not go extinct, while making sure there is support for these remote communities, is incredibly gratifying. I was raised to give back to the world in some way; this is a way that I can contribute to the world and help wildlife and people. As difficult and trying as the work is sometimes, there isn't a day that goes by that I do not feel lucky to be able to do the work I do.”
That kind of passion and dedication to her work is why Lisa Dabek was one of the nominees for the 2012 Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. Through her leadership, Dabek worked with 35 villages to pledge more than 180,000 acres of land to create Papua New Guinea’s first official Conservation Area. This paved the way for community-based management and the first long-term research opportunities in the region. Additionally, Dabek, in collaboration with the National Geographic Society, developed Crittercam© technology for arboreal mammals that allows scientists to record animal behavior through mounted video cameras and transmitters, thereby removing the influence of human observation on behavior.
If it’s up to Lisa Dabek, and conservationists like her, future generations will be able to experience the charm of a kangaroo that lives in trees for themselves.
More about global conservation initiatives supported by the Indianapolis Zoo.
Photo of Lisa Dabek by Bruce Beehler, Conservation International