Sepik Wetlands Management Initiative
In its work with 50 communities along the Sepik River – the longest river in New Guinea – the Sepik Wetlands Management Initiative has transformed the local economy and local treatment of wetlands. The sustainable harvest of crocodile eggs from nest sites along the river has become an important source of income for local residents. Previously, crocodile nest sites were being indiscriminately destroyed by wetland fires set for hunting, agriculture, or as part of land ownership disputes. The initiative instituted a program in which local crocodile egg collectors following specified conservation guidelines would receive a guaranteed return from a commercial crocodile egg retailer. The combination of egg collection and crocodile farming to produce high-quality skins has doubled the annual income in participating communities, all while raising the awareness of wetland values and stressing the cultural importance of crocodiles.
Sepik Wetlands Management Initiative (SWMI), based in Ambunti, East Sepik Province, was formed in 1998 to address fire-related wetlands degradation in the middle regions of the Sepik River. During dry seasons, local people were burning grassland for hunting, cultivation, or as part of landowner disputes, and in the process destroying vast areas of wetlands and nesting habitats for the New Guinea Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae) and Saltwater Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). By 1998, more than half of crocodile nesting sites surveyed had lost over half of their suitable nesting area; at a third of the sites, more than 80% of the vegetation had been lost. Since its establishment, SWMI has promoted crocodile and wetlands conservation work in the Sepik through various strategies. These have included raising community awareness of the importance of wetlands and wetland resources; the facilitation of a sustainable crocodile egg harvesting program between community members
and a commercial collector; increasing local awareness of and taking action on controlling the spread of invasive species; crocodile population monitoring; and developing community-driven wetlands and wetland resources management plans. The link between community participation in conservation and the viability of livelihood activities based on natural resource management has been at the centre of SWMI’s work.
Its four main objectives are developing a community-oriented, selfhelp approach to conserve local wetlands, and in particular herbaceous habitats; halting the degradation of locally-important wetland habitats, especially crocodile nesting areas, and rehabilitating sites where possible; enhancing the conservation of local biological diversity; and strengthening the sustainable utilization of local wetlands resources. SWMI’s multi-stakeholder approach to conservation has involved maintaining strong relationships with both government agencies and non-governmental actors. The latter category has included international conservation NGOs as well as the private sector. The Papua New Guinea Department of Environment and Conservation, Pacific Island Ministries, and the district-level government offices in Ambunti village have all played important roles in coordinating responses to ecosystem threats and strategies for conservation. The project has been funded and supported since 2005 by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) through its Sepik River Programme. SWMI has also partnered with Mainland Holdings Limited, a Papua New Guinea- based commercial crocodile egg collector.
The project does not have a guaranteed funding source, however, relying on grants to operate on a full-time basis. The seven staff members, made up of five men and two women, work on a voluntary basis for the majority of the time. The organisation consists of a chairman, vice-chairman, treasurer, secretary and three field officers. A technical advisory board comprises two community members – one representing village crocodile farmers, another on behalf of crocodile habitat landowners – representatives from WWF, the Papua New Guinea Department of Environment and Conservation, and a private expert.
The initiative’s main activities are centered on providing adequate information to change community members’ behavior, encouraging more sustainable harvesting of crocodiles and their eggs. A secondary focus has been on increasing awareness of the existence of invasive species and finding ways to minimize their expansion. SWMI’s work can be categorised into five program areas. Their management of natural resources has been underpinned by initial resource mapping and planning with local communities, using a Participatory Rural Appraisal framework. This process of engaging local people is reinforced by awareness campaigns on the importance of
wetlands and their resources, and actively involving communities in minimizing their impacts on their environment. A third area of work has been monitoring populations of crocodiles. This has been carried out by crocodile night counts, aerial crocodile nest counts, and tagging of crocodile individuals. Many of these monitoring activities involve local people, while aerial counts have been carried out in conjunction with government agencies. SWMI’s role in improving local livelihoods, meanwhile, has been based on its work with Mainland Holdings. The initiative oversees the relationship between this commercial collector and local people by facilitating the sustainable harvesting of crocodile eggs, and ensuring that payments are made according to a signed contract, or Tok Orait, between communities and Mainland Holdings. Finally, SWMI provides training on crocodile farming and crocodile egg harvesting techniques to improve the sustainability of these income generating activities. This has involved training on regulations to ensure that harvesting of crocodiles and their eggs do not deplete crocodile breeding stocks; other training has focused on improving the quality of crocodile skins from village farming pens, allowing farmers to generate higher profits. These work areas have involved approximately 50,000 people in the lower and upper Sepik regions. SWMI has engaged around 50 villages in these regions while conducting awareness raising, trainings, and monitoring activities. SWMI has also spent time with these communities conducting Participatory Rural Appraisal exercises. The populations of these villages range from an estimated 300 to 1,500 inhabitants.