A model for community conservation

Tavolo Wildlife Management Area: Papua New Guinea

Tavolo River in Tavolo Wildlife Management Area Papua New Guinea

Tucked away on the marshy southeast coast of the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea is the Tavolo Wildlife Management Area (WMA). The Tavolo WMA is owned by the Lote tribe of East New Britain which consists of communities of Mukus, Lausus and Tavolo. These villagers share a common language and oral history.

In contrast to the widespread logging that was occurring in the immediate areas around them, the Tavolo communities chose to enter into conservation, to trial an alternative land management strategy in order to safeguard the flora and fauna, waterways and forest resources on their customary land.

View images of Tavolo

Wildlife Management Areas are established under Papua New Guinea’s Fauna (Protection and Control) Act 1966, which allows customary landowners to manage the use of resources within a Protected Area (PA) which is also under customary ownership. WMAs fall under category VI of the IUCN PA categories regarding areas managed mainly for the sustainable use of natural resources. The intended target for conservation within a WMA can be a species, an area of cultural or historical significance or an area of special landscape significance.

Management of the WMAs is also the responsibility of the customary landowners and resource users. Ideally, Land Use and Management Plans guide activities and conservation efforts within a WMA. For many PNG communities with established WMAs, there is a serious lack of capacity to support the plans or for the communities to manage such WMAs. The success of any WMA very much depends on the capacity of the Management Committee to mobilize support to effectively manage the PA for its biodiversity value as well as its resource or cultural value. In this context, the Tavolo story is simply quite astounding.

Tavolo WMA was established in 1997 by members from three Tavolo communities of Mukus, Lausus and Tavolo. The communities allocated for protection an area of 2, 000 hectares, which covers areas of primary tropical lowland rainforests, waterways, estuaries, gardening land, settlement land and coral reefs. They have established rules to govern these areas and penalties for any infringement of these rules.

While the exact biodiversity value has not yet been established, due to lack of resources, the Tavolo WMA exists in a pristine state whilst the surrounding coastal regions in the Pomio district have been extensively logged and these logged areas are slowly being converted into oil palm plantations. The hinterland of the WMA remains untouched because of the surrounding rugged terrain which includes over 400 hectares of undisturbed rainforest.
Tavolo WMA is situated on the southern end of the Nakanai Range, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty on the island of New Britain and has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in recognition of its natural beauty and for the global significance its extensive sub terrain cave systems. The northern part of the Nakanai Range Mountains is dominated by a group of spectacular volcanoes. It is bounded on the east by the Kol Mountains and to the west by the Kapiura-Ania Divide, which separates the Nakanai Range from the Whiteman Range.

The region receives an annual rainfall of over 5,000 mm, making it one of the wettest areas in PNG. It is sparsely inhabited with an estimated population of about 20 people per km2. Village settlements are found on the inland flood plains as well as the coastal plains. Tavolo villages are very remote. They are accessible by a coastal boat which takes two days from Kokopo, the provincial capital of East New Britain Province. The main access to Tavolo is from the township of Kimbe in the West New Britain Province during drier months of the year. The rough logging tracks connect the south coast of New Britain to Kimbe, cutting through very picturesque mountain ranges and deep valleys. Government services in Tavolo are limited, with at least one day of travel required to reach the nearest school, health centre and government station. Cash income in this area is very low due to limited road access and is mainly derived from the local sale of fresh food, betel nut and traditional pandanus mats. With limited health services available in this region, maternal and child mortality is very high, even by PNG standards.

Conservation activities have become the main vehicle of community engagement, community development and community services in the area. In 2006, the Wildlife Management Committee under the leadership of their chairman Peter Kikele, raised funds to build a community resource centre. In 2008 with support from Mama Graun Conservation Trust Fund, the community installed solar electricity in the resource centre, increasing its functionality as community members can now have their meetings and other organized activities there in the evenings as well as during the day. The resource centre is also used as accommodation for visitors, thus generating cash income for the WMA and its communities. In 2009 the community, with the leadership of the WMA committee, developed a WMA Management Plan to guide their conservation and community development activities. The implementation of this plan has begun and among the initial projects to be implemented under this plan is the construction of an aid post (funded by Seacology and supported by Sam Moko, a forest campaigner with GreenPeace) to service the three communities and their neighbouring villages. The aid post was funded in exchange for the community setting aside an additional 980 acres of marine area as a ‘no-take’ zone - 980 acres of marine areas is a small price for the people of Tavolo to pay for a much-needed aid post.

Another noteworthy aspect of the Tavolo WMA story is the partnerships that have been formed with outside organizations and individuals. One notable partnership for Tavolo is with FORCET, a PNG based NGO that supports sustainable harvest of timber. The community set aside a further 2,000 hectares of forest where they can sustainably harvest timber under the Forest Stewardship Certification Programme. Under this programme, the communities developed a business plan for the forest production area and a land use plan for the 2000 hectares of forest production area as well as the WMA. As part of the sustainable forestry programme, FORCET trained local community members to monitor their forest for biodiversity and forest regeneration after timber harvest. The sustainable timber harvest programme will start in 2011 and will provide much needed cash income for these isolated communities.

So why is the Tavolo community conservation such a success story? There are two individuals who are key drivers for conservation effort in Tavolo. One is Peter Kikele, Chairman of the Management Committee. He organizes and mobilizes his community members so that they remain informed and connected to the outside world at all times through education and participation. Peter is seen and heard door-knocking at every organization office that can support his community efforts in conservation and community development. He is committed to ensure that the future of his children is secured through conservation of natural resources and sustainable and culturally-relevant development. Alongside Peter, is the Tavolo chief, William Apehawa who takes the lead in supporting Peter’s conservation leadership but at the same time ensuring that Tavolo people remain grounded in their culture. Supporting these two conservation champions are the individual members of the WMA committee and all the community members. It is uncommon to find a community that is so supportive of conservation and collectively maintains focus through activities that ensure that their local environment is protected whilst at the same time promoting sustainable development.

The idiom below is a vision statement that can be found in the Tavolo WMA management plan:


To conserve and protect our natural resources and to promote a sustainable way of life that is culturally appropriate, environmentally friendly, just, encourages equal participation, self reliance and total respect of human rights in Lote Society.”

On my departure after my very first visit to Tavolo in 2008, chief Apehawa gave me a traditional shield with the following words

Lote people are known warriors on this coast and they defended their territory from their enemies with these shields. I am presenting you this shield so you too can help us defend Lote territory from new types of enemies; large scale logging and oil palm development.

The vision statement and chief Apehawa’s parting words to me sum up what community conservation should be all about. It is about people, and how they relate to their land. It is about communities making a commitment and sharing a common vision and taking a lead to protect their land for the future of their children. When this commitment is made, shared and understood by enough people, successful biodiversity conservation follows.

The Tavolo people are now in the process of resurveying the boundary of the WMA so they can expand the PA from 2,000 hectares to 32,000 hectares. The process of expanding this area has many bureaucratic obstacles, however Peter and the Tavolo communities know that their commitment to conservation, and investment in partnerships will ensure that the expansion takes place. A large proportion of this new expanded area will include the marine area immediately offshore from the villages and a larger tract of primary forest in the hinterland. Also in the pipeline are plans to carry out extensive biodiversity surveys for the terrestrial and the marine areas of the WMA in order to conclusively ascertain the biodiversity value of Tavolo WMA.

By Jane Mogina, Executive Director of Mama Graun Conservation Trust Fund, an organization that provides sustainable funding to support biodiversity protection and related sustainable development to 40% of Papua New Guinea’s protected areas and their communities. In addition to PNG, Mama Graun currently provides sustainable funding to five high biodiversity priority sites in the Solomon Islands. Jane is a Member of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas.

Work area: 
Social Policy
Protected Areas
North America
Go to top