New Guinea

New Guinea

By Rhett Butler

New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, is home to one of the last great expanses of tropical rainforest as well as some of the world's most traditional forest dwellers, some of whom have had little or no contact with the outside world (44 groups in Indonesian Papua are estimated remain uncontacted). The island is also rich with natural resources including timber, minerals, and offshore fisheries and energy deposits.

Today New Guinea is divided into two parts: the independent country of Papua New Guinea (eastern half), and the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (the western half formerly known as Irian Jaya).

Papua New Guinea has seen more widespread development than the Indonesian part of the island, although the average citizen remains poor. Most Papuans are part of the informal economy, living off subsistent activities. The dominant industries are extraction-based (logging, mining, and increasingly, industrial agriculture).

Quick Facts on New Guinea

  • Population: 7.1 million
  • First human habitation: 40,000-60,000 years before present
  • Languages: 1073 (826 PNG, 257 Indonesian Papua, 12 overlapping)
  • European colonization: First contact came in the 16th century; first European claim was in 1828 when the Netherlands claimed the western half of the island as Netherlands New Guinea; Germany and Britain established claims shortly thereafter. For the first half of the 20th century Australia and the Dutch ruled the two halves of New Guinea.
  • Indonesian Colonization/Independence: The Dutch handed Papua over to the U.N. in 1962, Indonesia grabbed the territory in 1963. Australia granted independence to the half it controlled in 1975.
  • Land area: 786,000 sq km (303,500 sq mi)
  • Length: more than 1600 km
  • Highest point: Puncak Jaya (4,884 meters - 16,023 feet) in Papua
  • Biomes/ecosystems: glacial (permanent equatorial glaciers), alpine tundra, savanna, montane and lowland rainforest, mangroves, wetlands, lake and river ecosystems, seagrasses, and coral reefs
  • Biodiversity: Despite covering less than 0.5 percent of Earth's surface, New Guinea is estimated to contain 5-10 percent of global biodiversity. New Guinea's species are characteristic of Australia rather than Asia due to its historical links to the Australian land mass (when sea levels fall, New Guinea is connected to Australia).

Environmental issues in New Guinea

New Guinea's rainforests are being logged, cleared, and converted at a rapid rate due to timber extraction, subsistence agriculture, and expansion of industrial agriculture. Between 1972 and 2002 PNG lost more than 5 million hectares of forest, trailing only Brazil and Indonesia among tropical countries. Papua also lost an extensive area.

Water pollution from mining is also a concern in New Guinea.

New Guinea environmental news

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Photos of New Guinea wildlife


Golden-neck Cassowary (Casuarius unappendiculatus)
One of the largest birds in the world, the Golden-neck Cassowary is found in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea. The species is famous for its powerful kick which it uses for defense.


Mother Matschie's Tree-kangaroo grooming its joey (Dendrolagus matschiei)


Victoria Crowned Pigeon (Goura victoria)


New Guinea Crocodile Skink (Tribolonotus gracilis)




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Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2009

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