Enhancing conservation and cultural knowledge through orchids of Papua New Guinea

A collaborative project undertaken at the University of Canberra by Jasmyn Lynch

Project Team:

Jasmyn Lynch, University of Canberra, Australia & Jim Thomas, Tenkile Conservation Alliance, Papua New Guinea


With globally declining biodiversity and increasing human populations and pressures on resources, it is imperative that we improve our approaches to biodiversity conservation and management. This is particularly important in biodiverse developing countries such as Papua New Guinea (PNG) which are known for extremely high biological and cultural diversity yet under intense development pressure for their natural resources. Orchids are an exemplar of the immense but little studied plant diversity of PNG. There are over 3000 orchid species in PNG, although many endemic orchids may have already become extinct. As in many countries, orchids in PNG have socio-cultural importance, being ‘farmed’ or collected by some communities for their aesthetic, utilitarian (e.g. medicinal) or cultural values.

Most of PNG is under traditional land tenure, so community awareness and participation in conservation initiatives is imperative. Integrated, small-scale community-focused and community-backed projects are increasingly being shown to yield positive, enduring outcomes by conserving highly threatened, culturally important taxa while also addressing some of the social needs of local communities. Flagship species and taxonomic groups are prized local assets which provide the opportunity for researchers and practitioners to work directly at the local level to enhance engagement, awareness, and education on conservation and resource management. Orchids have great potential as a flagship group of plants in PNG due to their diversity, socio-cultural values and meeting the characteristics of flagship taxa of comprising iconic species with great potential to increase public awareness, gain financial support and contribute to wider conservation goals.

Early European collecting of orchids in PNG can be traced back to the late 1800s - early 1900s. The earliest known botanist in the study region of the Torricelli Mountains was Rudolf Schlechter in 1902 and 1909 but there have been relatively few scientific collections from this region. Much of the past research has focused on finding and describing new species.

In this project, a transdisciplinary approach was adopted to evaluate scientific, historical and cultural knowledge on the distribution, ecology, local Indigenous values and uses, and past and present cultivation of local wild orchids. Village representatives from across the study area were interviewed. This included 84 interviews with a total of 104 male participants (from 40 villages) and 90 female participants (from 38 villages). A geographic representation across the study region, across local language groups and with both men and women ensured that a broad representation of the diversity of perspectives and knowledge was achieved.

The interviews showed that orchids are valued by local people for cultural, spiritual, medicinal and aesthetic purposes. Nevertheless, there is high variability in knowledge of plant and orchid use across the region and amongst people within villages. Furthermore, it was apparent that some of the traditional knowledge and practices are rapidly being lost and that there are “layers” of knowledge. More intensive, sustained collaborative research and demonstrated community benefit will be needed to access and exchange appropriate detailed information for the community, for younger people in the villages, and for scientific outcomes and enhanced ethno-botanical knowledge.

The Torricelli Mountains region has been proposed for designation as a legally protected area. In conjunction with development of the administrative and governance arrangements underlying formal protected area designation, there is also a need for focused engagement with local communities about the local biota, including its identification, ecology and abundance. Botanically, orchids are often not clearly differentiated from other plants by most local people and so orchids may be confused with pitcher plants, vines, epiphytes, or other “flowers”. The perception that there are “plenty” of orchids “everywhere” needs further assessment and reporting, along with increased ecological and conservation awareness to prevent over-collection and habitat destruction. Nevertheless, some local people maintain detailed awareness and knowledge of local plants and orchids, and there could be substantial conservation gains from targeted training of local people and greater resourcing of collaborative scientific efforts.


Figures 1-9: Examples of orchids (and epiphytic plants) in the study region villages, PNG (photos by Jasmyn Lynch)