Local knowledge, kastom and hard work leads to an unexpected find on Bougainville Island.

Bougainville Giant Rat Solomys salabrosus

Bougainville Giant Rat Solomys salabrosus Photographer: Tyrone Lavery © Australian Museum

Image: Tyrone Lavery
© Australian Museum

Part of the reason I am so fascinated by studying Melanesia’s mammals is that such precious little information is available from recent times. To learn what is already known of this region’s spectacular fauna, you’re immediately forced to delve into accounts made by naturalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the case of Bougainville, what has been documented of the island’s rats, bats and possums is largely thanks to Catholic missionary Father J.B. Poncelet and the Bougainvilleans he lived among at Buin on the southern end of the island.

Marist missionaries first arrived on Bougainville in 1901 from the Shortland Islands to the immediate south. Their initial venture was rather precarious, and in 1902 ‘local bush people’ killed two of the young men who were clearing a new mission site. However, by the time Father Poncelet arrived in 1914, the catholic mission had established a secure foothold. With a keen interest in natural history, Poncelet quickly established a relationship with the Australian Museum and began forwarding specimens, much to the delight of curator Ellis Le G. Troughton:

“The energetic and thorough methods of the collector may be gathered from the fact that several carefully tabulated collections of insects, fishes, reptiles, and mammals have already been received, of such numbers and variety that considerable time must elapse before the material can be thoroughly worked out. Particular attention has been devoted by Father Poncelet to the mammals, included in which are several rats not hitherto recorded from Bougainville, and species of large and small bats, to be dealt with in a following paper.”

Troughton had been awe struck by the most remarkable of Poncelet’s mammal specimens. It was a colossal rat, weighing over one kilogram in size, with a thick black tail bearing small teeth like a file, and sparse long black hair that formed a crest along the animal’s spine. He was compelled to describe it as Solomys (Unicomys) ponceleti in honour of Father Poncelet.

It had been approximately 100 years since Poncelet worked at Buin when myself and project leader Jeffrey Noro arrived to Bougainville via Buka. I was thrilled at the possibility of being the only mammalogist to have ventured to south Bougainville since. From the other side of Buka Passage we began our six hour journey to Kainake by boarding a Toyota Landcruiser. Approximately half way down the island the troupcarrier began to wind its way up into Bougainville’s central highlands. Here, we transited though the relicts of Panguna, once the world's largest open pit copper and gold mine. We paused to examine the remaining ‘skeletons’ - huge crumpling steel frames, broken machinery, and disused conveyor belts that arch across the roads like rusting dinosaurs.

After arriving at Kainake, we met with chief Joshua and almost immediately got to work. Over the next few days we set rat traps, camera traps, spotlighted and searched hollow trees. Our chief target was a species of giant rat known locally as kamare. Was kamare Poncelet’s giant rat or another, as yet unknown species? After four days hard slog we still had no idea. The team was perplexed and couldn’t believe we hadn’t caught anything yet. I was confused – giant rats are rare and are never easy to find. Our community leaders decided an impromptu meeting was vital – there must have been something we were doing wrong!

In the meeting, two things became very clear. First, with a big group of people, we were being very noisy when we went looking for the kamare. The first rule of hunting is that you should be very quiet in the bush. More importantly, we were constantly speaking about how we were on a mission to go and catch ourselves a kamare. This was against local kastom. If you want to find something, you don’t go talking about how you are hunting for it! With renewed vigour, Francis promptly stood up and said “I’m going to climb the galip tree!” Our group shadowed him out to the nearby garden where there stood a large nut tree (Canarium indicum) that had been struck by lightning. We watched in awe as he rapidly scaled the fig tree that was strangling it. From the top Francis shouted about the signs of kamare he could see everywhere, but after a thorough search it looked as though no rats were present. Our energy was quickly sapped by thoughts we had failed again.

Soon there was a flurry of activity as additional climbers scaled the tree and people scrambled about the debris at its base. Shouts in tok ples (local language) came from everywhere, and before I knew it the entire village was running and shouting sweeping me towards the tree in celebration. We had a kamare!

In Francis’ hand was a giant rat. It was not Poncelet’s but a smaller, no less impressive species (Solomys salebrosus) that is endemic to Bougainville and Choiseul. As far as I know, it is the first time the rodent has been documented on Bougainville since Father Poncelet’s work. It is an extremely important find. Confirmation of this endangered species in the Kainake area will add immense conservation value. Hopefully, it will also attract further support for the community’s own initiatives to save a beautiful patch of Bougainville’s lowland rainforest.

Tyrone Lavery, AMRI Expedition Fellowship

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