March 4, 2024

I am a British tourist, and I spend my holidays looking for species believed to be extinct. On my last trip to Papua New Guinea in 2022 I found a Louisiade pitta bird, which had been the focus of failed professional expeditions for years. It has not been seen alive since 1898.

We went around playing recordings of a related pitta, which sounds a bit like a chicken being strangled, until we receive a response. Imagine if you went around a haunted house and chains rattled and then you heard a ghost rattling them back – that’s what it was like.

The Louisiade pitta bird
The Louisiade pitta bird, which was believed to be extinct before being rediscovered by Michael Smith in 2022. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Smith

On another trip to Papua New Guinea I went looking for a small possum that was named Telefomin Cuscuswhich is believed to have become extinct after extensive bushfires in 1997.

I found one but unfortunately it was fried by a local family. I really wished they had found another source of protein, but you can’t blame people for needing food.

In total, I found several dozen of these species, most of which are plants. My favorite discovery was the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo, who looks a bit like a cuddly toy, while searching for rhododendrons in West Papua four years ago. It was only seen once – by the guy who shot it in 1928, and that specimen is now in the Natural History Museum in London.

It took two expeditions to find it, and many machete work through thorns and bamboo thickets that become overgrown almost as soon as you cut them. It was the last day and we saw the animal just before we had to pack up. I was relieved – I would have had quite a lot of explaining to do to my wife if I came back empty handed.

Telefomin Cuscus, a small possum
Telefomin Cuscos, a small possum, is believed to have become extinct following forest fires in Papua New Guinea in 1997. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Smith

My wife is very patient and supportive, but she might think it’s a bit of a crazy thing to do. She never comes with me on these trips – the furthest she’s ever gone with me is Devon, and that was enough of a trip for her.

I studied zoology at Oxford University and ended up working in medical communications. I do a lot of computer modeling in my day job, and now I’m creating computer models of lost species, trying to figure out the best place to look for them. You have to be pretty determined.

Michael Smith in Frensham Ponds, Surrey.
Michael Smith in Frensham Ponds, Surrey. He spends his vacations looking for species that are believed to be extinct. Photo: Urszula Soltys/The Guardian

I want these animals to be the poster children for critically endangered and ancient habitats. I’m trying to get evidence of something interesting – and in terms of getting people involved and excited about conservation, it seems to be effective. I appreciate not everyone even gets excited about the most amazing plants, but they do like cuddly animals and beautiful exotic birds. If you’re trying to find alternative jobs for hunters, you have to think “what would tourists want to see?”, and that’s what I’m trying to find.

It’s a race against time to get people involved in conservation and ecotourism, as they don’t have many other options. I try to build connections between traditional landowners and organizations elsewhere to set up ecotourism facilities. It’s a way to put food on people’s tables and pay them to conserve their forests, which is what most people want to do.

The Wondiwoi tree kangaroo in a tree
The Wondiwoi tree kangaroo, rediscovered by Michael Smith in West Papua. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Smith

It’s hard to know if things will change fast enough for anything to be left. In the 1990s, Papua New Guinea was just a big forest, with a few people. Now it is still 80% or 90% forest, but there is great pressure from people and investors who want to make palm oil. It is a form of development that brings money to the region, but also builds big roads that go up into the mountains.

My tips for people looking to get into this are all very basic: stay fit, travel light, study the terrain and brush up on your languages. Watch your porters and never try to rush conversations with local leaders.

Papuan forest, where the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo was discovered.
Papuan forest, where the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo was discovered. Michael Smith hopes getting more people involved in conservation will help prevent further deforestation. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Smith

I can move quickly with a small team of people with local knowledge, and try to avoid unwanted attention. I’ve had disastrous adventures in the past with everyone from gorilla poachers in Cameroon to secret policemen in Burma, so I don’t want a “traveling circus”.

As for the future, I don’t know. I’m self funded so I’m always short on cash. I read old reports about a mythical beast in northeast India, which I suspect is based on some kind of giant salamander – the world’s largest amphibian. It would be worth investigating.

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