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Alumnus works to conserve biodiversity in Papua New Guinea

Southern Crowned Pigeon
July 13, 2011

After receiving his undergraduate degree, Bill Thomas took some time off to see the world and discovered a passion for wild lands and a desire to protect them.

Thomas came to believe that the key to conservation is the relationship between traditional peoples and biodiversity, a realization that led him to Arizona State University’s cultural anthropology doctoral program.

He studied with sociocultural anthropologist Jim Eder, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and professor emeritus Lyle Steadman, the first anthropologist to contact and work with the Hewa, an indigenous people of Papua New Guinea.

Steadman introduced Thomas to the culture and arranged for him to travel to their Pacific island nation for his master’s research.

“I experienced the wilderness that is the homeland of the Hewa, and it has drawn me back year after year,” enthused Thomas, who obtained his doctorate from ASU in 1999.

Now, Thomas is a leader in protecting and promoting biodiversity in Papua New Guinea. He is also the director of the New Jersey School of Conservation, the environmental field campus for Montclair State University, where each year 7,000 students, ranging from middle-school to graduate level, engage in environmental education and research opportunities.

As he has done for several years, Thomas will spend his summer in Papua New Guinea’s Central Range conducting ethno-ecological research and learning from the Hewa, who farm the area’s lower mountain forests.

Thomas' reputation as an effective proponent of biodiversity conservation has led to incredible opportunities.

In 2008, Thomas was part of a team of researchers that discovered and documented over 50 new species in Papua New Guinea. Coordinated by Conservation International, Papua New Guinea’s Institute for Biological Research and A Rocha International, the expedition covered the Nakanai and Muller Mountains and the upper Strickland Basin. The team logged new finds of spiders, frogs and geckos, illustrating the locale’s rich biodiversity and pristine environment.

Conservation International tapped Thomas to partner on the Forest Stewards initiative, a bio-cultural conservation project that acknowledges the connection between tradition and biodiversity. It teams Papua New Guinea’s most remote societies with external institutions to encourage communities to participate in resource conservation decisions and compensate them for preserving their cultures and languages, as well as globally significant forests.

Thomas finds working with the local naturalists the most rewarding aspect of his efforts. “The look in their eyes when they see that I ‘get it’ and the joy they have in representing their community are wonderful,” he said.

A member of the Explorers Club, Thomas was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for his development of best practices regarding the use of indigenous knowledge to predict the impact of human activity on biodiversity. Using birds – a recognized indicator of biodiversity – he created a methodology for gathering data that makes traditional knowledge accessible to western scientists, encouraging cross-cultural discussion and collaboration.

Thomas calls this the foundation of his conservation work in Papua New Guinea and hopes it will become the basis for participation of indigenous people in the conservation of their lands. He seems to be getting his wish. This summer he will test 70 new teachers, or forest stewards, to expand the Forest Stewards initiative throughout the Laigaip River drainage. This will spread the project from the Hewa lowlands to the highlands of Mt. Kaijende, near the source of the river, and bring four new ethnic/language groups into the program.