Everyone knows what a kangaroo is, but what exactly is a tree kangaroo? If you find yourself asking that question, there’s a good reason: tree kangaroos are incredibly rare. The Wondiwoi tree kangaroo is the rarest of them all. The animal was declared extinct by scientists in 1928 and hasn’t even been reported seen since.
Recently, the tree kangaroo wasn’t just spotted alive, but also documented in the form of photographs. This gives scientists a good foundation to build upon for reclassifying this species not as extinct, but as endangered or threatened.
What makes this story even more impressive is that it wasn’t a well trained researcher or even a team of scientists, but an amateur botanist named Michael Smith from the United Kingdom who made the discovery. The animal was seen while on an expedition into bamboo forests in the Wondiwoi Mountains of West Papua, Indonesia.
Tree kangaroos are almost monkey-like, but despite that, their name isn’t a misnomer. They are close relatives of kangaroos and wallabies, but with a few noteworthy variations. The tree kangaroo have stronger arms that allow themselves to easily maneuver around branches and tree trunks. There are 17 known species of tree kangaroo.
Smith, who works at a medical communications company, is a trained botanist who spends his vacations trekking through some of the more remote places on the planet looking for rare types of plants. The vacationing botanist heard about the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo and decided to hike into the remote West Papuan mountains to look for it as well as rhododendrons.
Smith was joined by Norman Terok, a student at the University of Papua in Manokwari, as well as a local hunter who helped guide the two.
The discovery of this tree kangaroo, once thought to be extinct, is an important and encouraging one, but tree kangaroos are in trouble. Excessive hunting, mining, logging, and palm oil plantations all have contributed to the decline of these animals.
“Knowing [the animal] still exists provides a great opportunity to gather more information, since we know virtually nothing about it, as well as to ensure its survival,” says Eldridge. Eldridge and Smith both hope that the discovery will help increase protections for the Wondiwoi Mountains.