Tenkile Tree-kangaroo (Flannery et al, 1996: 124-125)


Dendrolagus scottae
(Flannery and Seri, 1990)

Everyone knows if you have killed a tenkile. They call smell it on your hands for at least a week. There is no way to wash off the scent of tenkile...

-- Peter, an Olo hunter of Wilbeitei describing the musty odour of Tenkile, February 1990.

TENKILE is a large, black, aromatic tree-kangaroo which is restricted to a small area on the summit of the Torricelli Mountains in northwestern Papua New Guinea. It is rather similar in appearance to Doria's Tree-kangaroo (Deudrolagus doriatius doriarius), but its blackish colour, longer tail, narrower jaws and heavier premolars set it apart.

The northern slopes of the Torricelli Mountains are steep and abrupt. Today, these slopes are the last refuge of Tenkile. The southern slopes, however, extend gently towards the Sepik Plain, and here there are extensive, flat, fertile areas lying between about 600 and 900 metres elevation. These areas were always well-populated, but today they support a very dense concentration of people. This largely Catholic area has seen a trebling of its population since the Second World War. Large villages are now situated only about four hours' walk from Tenkile's habitat, and human hunting pressure is intense.

The difficulties facing Tenkile are compounded by the abandonment of many traditional practices and beliefs among the Olo. The termination of warfare means that intertribal boundaries are no longer such dangerous places to visit and hunters can spend days there with impunity (in earlier times, only fleeting, secretive visits were made). Belief in forest masolai has also broken down, and people now feel free to hunt in areas where previously no-one would enter for fear of the spirits. Sweipini, one of the most important of these refuges, lost its status as a sacred place in 1990. Within a few months, many tree-kangaroos had been killed there. I visited Sweipini a few months afterwards, accompanied by Kaspar Seiko, a village elder and the only man previously allowed to visit the area. He commented sadly that the Tenkile were now all gone. The only signs I could find were a few old scratches on tree trunks.

I undertook a study of Tenkile between 1990 and 1992. An important component of that study was radio-tracking. This proved to be very difficult, for the habitat of the remaining Tenkile is very steep, wet and covered in dense, sometimes almost impenetrable, mossy scrub. Because of high hunting pressure, Tenkile is also extremely wary. During our radio-tracking work we saw a Tenkile only once. At other times all we heard was a crash as a tracked animal fled down a gully, or else we tracked it to a tree but could not sight it.

We discovered that Tenlcile subsists principally upon leaves. Some of its favourite foods include the leaves of a weak, scrambling vine of the genus Scaveola. It also favours the leaves of some epiphytes such as ferns. One animal kept in captivity liked variety in its diet, taking just a few leaves from many different kinds of plants (including many epiphytes and vines) before moving on.

We could discover very little about social structure, except that the only animals likely to be found together are a mother and her young. It seems possible that high levels of hunting pressure have selected for less sociability in this species than in Fiwo (the Mt Menawa form of Deudrolagus scottae). After all, it is far snore likely a hunter will spot two or three individuals together in a tree, rather than one. Once spotted, of course, there is little chance of escape.

One curious feature of Tenkile's behaviour, well known to local hunters, is that it is much easier to find in April-May. This is the wet season, when it migrates out of the steep, inaccessible gullies and up onto the ridgetops and mountain summits, where it is more easily located.

There is no doubt that Tenkile has declined dramatically over the past 50 years. Old men recalled having hunted it on the lower northern slopes in areas that today are adjacent to gardens. The total present-clay population may be little more than a few hundred. If it is not protected soon it may be lost, just as the Golden-mantled Tree-kangaroo (Dendrolagus goodfellowi pulcherrimus) disappeared from this area more than 60 years ago.

page 124 - 125

Extracts from Tree Kangaroos: A Curious Natural History, Melbourne: Reed Books Australia.
© Copyright by Timothy Fridtjof Flannery, Roger Martin, Alexandra Szalay. Illustrations Copyright by Peter Schouten, 1996.
HTML version produced with permission for Papuaweb, 2004.