Friday, November 28, 2014

Book Review: Searching for Pekpek by Andrew Mack


In 1987 Andrew Mack walked into the rainforest of New Guinea in pursuit of cassowaries and adventure. He ended up building a research station a three day hike from the nearest road and living there for years. Because these huge birds are so hard to observe, his research focused on their droppings and how they disperse the seeds of rainforest trees. Indeed a new species of mahogany, named in his honor, was first found in cassowary droppings.

His research expanded to many topics and as he and his colleagues developed conservation and research programs with the field station at their core. But despite the remote location, it was still accessible to miners who moved in and disturbed the delicate social and ecological balance of the forest with devastating consequences. His story gives an inside view of how international conservation organizations operate and why they often fail so miserably in places like New Guinea.




Who would travel far away from home, to a place where s/he doesn't speak the language, and endure all sorts of hardships, all to study "pekpek".  (For the uninitiated, of which I was one before I opened this book, "pekpek" is the New Guinean word for *ahem* animal droppings.)  Specifically, the droppings of this particular bird:

(This picture of a southern cassowary is from Wikipedia.)

Andrew L. Mack, Ph.D., that's who.  Searching for Pekpek: Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rain Forest, is an autobiographical account of Mack's years in New Guinea, studying seed dispersal of the large birds.

The book is also a critique of 'Big Conservation".  You know those mailers you get, showing colorful pictures of far away places, and asking for money to help "save" this or that species or piece of ground?  Now, doubtless they do some good.  After all, most folks doing field studies receive grants from these organizations.  But, like in any big business, politics comes into play.  And there are always costs associated with getting donations and staff.

After my last camping trip (tents on hard ground, the whole nine yards), I said the only way I would go camping again was if there was a tent painted on the side of a motel.  Yet Mack and Debra Wright went to New Guinea, traveled days from civilization, hauling supplies, and had to build their own shelter.  Such is the dedication of true pioneers!

The group provided employment to the local population, and the early days of the language barrier reminded me of a trip to my mother's birthplace in Switzerland, and wondering what in the world I would do when the shopkeeper informed me she did not speak English.  Yikes!  There were tribal and family loyalties to be considered.

Then a mining company comes in an offers the New Guineans more money for mineral rights on their land.  What is a poor person to do?  Of course, there was no talk about how this would destroy habitat of the animals or deplete the soil, making it near useless for farming.

Normally, non-fiction books take me a little longer to read than novels of the same length.  Not so with Searching for Pekpek. The photos of nature are amazing; the pictures of people touching.  Mack's account reads like a compelling thriller that had me alternately mad as all get out and shouting for joy.  The writing, the telling of this story, is educational, entertaining and compelling.

If you are concerned about Mother Earth and Mother Nature, you need to read this book.  It is also a 'coffee table'-worthy publication, having both a beautiful cover and a title that will start conversations.  In my opinion, even if you don't particularly care for non-fiction books, you will like Searching for Pekpek - the book, maybe not the 'activity'.  (Certainly the New Guineans got a lot of humor out of a white man paying to investigate bird droppings!

Searching for Pekpek will be an excellent addition to your library, and a wonderful gift for family and friends who are interested in animals and/or conservation.



“I began serious bird watching around age 12.  While still in high school, my passion led to an offer to join an expedition to Mexico. I took a night and weekend job as a busboy to save for the trip.  This grand adventure at 16 included the company of several friends, including Mark Robbins and Steve Hilty (now both top experts on South American birds). I became hooked on tropical forests for life.  

After high school I went to the University of Arizona, mainly for its proximity to Mexico, and made several field trips to Mexico with Mark Robbins, Ted Parker, Kenn Kaufmann and other young bird enthusiasts (all successful ornithologists, though Ted died in a plane crash in Ecuador about 20 years ago).

After that first year, I dropped out to work and save money for a longer trip to Central and South America, which I took when I was 19-20.  Falling in love with Costa Rica, I stayed there for about 5 months, joining a sea turtle project in Tortuguero before moving on to Peru and joining Ted in Madre de Dios.  I was fully hooked on field research.

On a trip to the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia (to look at specimens of birds I had seen in Latin America),  I happened to meet the curator, Frank Gill, at a time when he needed help moving the entire bird collection to a different building.  I volunteered and moved to Philly.  I guess I made a good impression and Frank hired me as collections manager.

I got to know the collection really well, an astounding assemblage of around 165,000 bird specimens.  It was a great job an allowed field work in Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Borneo.

But without a degree I knew I would never get to do my own research, so around 1982 I went back to college, getting a Bachelor's at the University of Delaware.  From there I went to the University of Miami for PhD studies in their tropical biology program.

In my first year at Miami I got a call “out of the blue” asking if I would like to go to Papua New Guinea, and that is where Searching for Pekpek:  Cassowaries and Conservation in the New Guinea Rainforest begins.

After spending half a year in PNG during 1987, I went back to Miami for a year, but returned to the rain forests I so enjoyed newly married to Debra D. Wright, also working on a Ph.D. in tropical biology at the University of Miami.  Deb and I went out to a jungle village called Haia, hiked about 10 hours to a place called Wara Sera, and built a research station there.  We spent about 5 months on the initial construction, all done with hand tools and wood cut by axe from the surrounding forest.
The years 1990-1993 were fully occupied studying cassowaries around Wara Sera.  I particularly studied seed dispersal, what happens to seeds after they are moved and defecated by a cassowary.  Deb studied what the cassowaries eat and why they select their diet.  

Eventually we had to return to the States; I finished my PhD in 1995 and soon took a job with Conservation International.  Working with CI, I led expeditions and conducted field training courses in New Guinea until 1999.

In 1999 Deb and I moved back to PNG fulltime to be co-directors of the Wildlife Conservation Society PNG country program.  We mentored many students and increased our field training efforts.  We developed a small campus with many staff and student interns, all doing field research on various subjects.  Deb and I divorced, but kept working together for the sake of our program.

Unfortunately, WCS (for no known reason known to me) closed our program abruptly in 2007. I had to leave PNG and took an endowed position as a conservation biologist with the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.  I left Carnegie so I would be free to focus on my research and conservation issues in New Guinea, and to write.

The team we had mentored in PNG formed the PNG Institute of Biological Research -  a fully national conservation and research organization.

I became executive director of the IPCA (IndoPacific Conservation Alliance) and Scientific Director of Green Capacity in order to continue to work with colleagues in New Guinea.  I've made my home in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, remarried to Lydia C. Mack, an owner of a small tree farm.


(Disclosure:  I received a print copy of Searching for Pekpek from the author, Andrew Mack, in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)

1 comment:

  1. Well, you know what they say. It's a sh**ty job, but someone has to do it! ;-)
    Actually, it sounds like a wonderful book, and I am always concerned with conservation. Thank you for sharing the information.