We tend to think we know everything about the world around us and the creatures that we share this planet with. Yet there are always new things to discover and learn if we just open our eyes.
In 2018, a 47-year-old tourist and amateur explorer traveled to a remote island where he had been searching for rare rhododendrons. When he looked up, however, he spotted an even rarer animal that was believed to have gone extinct decades ago.
A Brit Abroad
In 2017, Michael Smith traveled from Farnham, England to West Papua, Indonesia. While in school, Smith studied biology and completed a degree in zoology. Today, however, he is the head of research and analytics for a medical communications agency.
An Amateur Botanist
While Smith works for a medical communications agency, he never lost his love of wildlife and exploring. So during his time off from work, the 47-year-old likes to travel to remote areas around the world in search of rare plants as an amateur botanist. So far, his passion has brought him all around the world including remote parts of Pakistan, Kurdistan, and Indonesia.
Hunting For Exotic Plants
While in those remote locations, Smith has hunted for rare orchids, rhododendrons, and tulips. During his trip to West Papua in 2017, Smith was hoping to find an exotic rhododendron species. Unfortunately, the amateur botanist never found what he was looking for.
Not a Complete Failure
“In 2017 all I returned with was a terrible case of Aussie flu which lasted months,” Smith told the Alton Post Gazette about the expedition. However, the trip wasn’t a complete waste. While in West Papua, Smith heard tales of a mysterious animal that lived in the trees on the island’s mountains.
The Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo
The mysterious animal is called the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo, which is a rare species of marsupial that is native to the island. However, for the past 90 years, the species has been considered extinct. According to experts, the first and last one ever seen was in 1928.
New Guinea Natives
According to experts, the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo was a monkey-like kangaroo that lived in the trees in the forests of New Guinea. They are related to classic kangaroos and wallabies, however, they had stronger forearms to climb up the trunks of trees. Once in the canopy, they climbed and hopped from branch to branch.
The Only Sighting
“It is one of the most poorly known mammals in the world,” Mark Eldridge, a marsupial biologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, told National Geographic. Ernst Mayr, a German evolutionary biologist, was the first and only Western scientist to ever see the mysterious mammal.
The Last Wondiwoi Tree Kangaroo
That sighting was during a 1928 expedition to the mountains of the Wondiwoi Peninsula in West Papua, which is the Indonesian state on the western half of the island of New Guinea. Mayr shot the creature and sent the pelt to the Natural History Museum in London. Since then, no other Wondiwoi tree kangaroos have ever been seen by westerners, collected, documented, or reported.
As a result, scientists have long believed that the species had gone extinct. However, locals from the island occasionally spoke about the creature. While reports of sightings were extremely rare, there were hints that the animal was still alive. When Smith heard the stories, he wanted to see for himself if they were really extinct.
Higher Than The Hunters
Smith believed there was a chance the rare tree kangaroos were still alive. He figured, that if they were still alive, they had avoided detection for the most part by living in trees that were higher up in the forest than hunters usually ventured. “The hunters only ever go up to about 1,300 meters (4,265 feet), when the forest starts getting really dense with bamboo thickets,” Smith told National Geographic.
A Second Expedition
Smith started planning an expedition the following year. In 2018, he flew from Gatwick to Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. From there, he flew to a town called Manokwari and traveled to the town of Wasior by ferry. Once there, he met up with a man named Martin, a local hunter who agreed to be Smith’s guide.
The Expedition Begins
He also recruited the help of four porters and Norman Terok, a student at the University of Papua who acted as an interpreter. Once they amassed enough food and supplies to last them two weeks, the group started their trek into the forest and up Mount Wondiwoi on July 23.
Traces of Tree Kangaroos
While traveling up the mountain, the bamboo thickets started getting extremely dense around 4,000 feet, which is where local hunters typically stop. In order to continue their ascent, the group had to cut a path with machetes. Once they ascended passed 4,900 feet, however, the group started finding traces of the tree kangaroos.
A Good Sign
As they continued to ascend, Smith and the group started seeing scratch marks on tree trunks and occasionally found dung from the tree kangaroos. “We could also smell the scent marks left by the kangaroos – a sort of foxy smell,” Smith told National Geographic.
The group climbed about 5,500 feet up the mountain. Despite finding traces of the tree kangaroos, they failed to find the elusive animal. During the days, Smith spent his time looking for rare orchids and rhododendrons. By the last day of the expedition, Smith still had not found any of the rare species.
The Last Day
“I was starting to think I was going to have to go back home to my long-suffering and much more sensible wife and explain why I had been back to the Wondiwoi mountains and not found anything,” Smith said. However, while on their descent down the mountain on July 31, Martin told Smith to look up.
A Groundbreaking Discovery
About 90 feet up in a tree was the fabled Wondiwoi tree kangaroo. Smith frantically grabbed his camera and started taking pictures. However, getting a clear, focused photo proved more difficult than Smith expected. “Luckily, after a while, the tree kangaroo stopped moving around and started peeking out at me. I was very relieved as I’m not sure what Ana would have said if I’d come back from a second expedition with nothing to show,” Smith said.
Smith’s Moby Dick
“I was thinking to myself I have to be careful here and not fool myself, but I went through my mental checklist of their features and realized, ‘Hang on, this has got to be the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo.’ I felt like Captain Ahab if he had got photos of Moby Dick,” Smith told the Daily Mail.
Smith reached out to experts on tree kangaroos to confirm that animal was actually the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo. When they saw the photos, they had no doubt that they were looking at the first photo of the species because of the color of its coat and the location of the sighting. For the first time in almost a century, there was proof the species wasn’t extinct. Smith now hopes to send a small dung sample to England to compare the DNA with the pelt that was collected in 1928. He also hopes his discovery will lead to greater protection to the area since a proposed gold mine in the area could make the species actually go extinct.
The Explorations Continue
Smith also plans to continue his explorations to see what other rare species he can find. “All this just shows that you can find interesting things if you simply go and look,” Smith told National Geographic. “On holidays over the years, I’ve discovered all kind of weird bits of archeology and ethnography. The general belief that there’s nothing more of interest to discover is quite mistaken.”