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Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea (August 11, 1999)---Outstanding biological diversity makes the Sepik River area one of the most important uncontaminated freshwater wetland systems in the Asia-Pacific, according to a report released today by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The report, "The Sepik River: A Natural History" catalogues the extraordinary richness of the Sepik's forests, wetlands, wildlife and human communities.

It also warns that the 77,000 square-kilometer (30,800 square mile) river catchment is facing a number of threats to its integrity, including damage from invasive fish and weed species and industrial-scale logging and mining.

Papua New Guinea's largest river system, the Sepik catchment contains over 1,500 lakes, dozens of major tributaries and landforms that range from lowland swamps and tropical rainforests to frost-covered mountain peaks.

"Biologically, the region holds some of the most diverse and least described ecosystems on Earth," the report, by Phil Shearman, says.

Some of Papua New Guinea's rarest plants are to be found in the Sepik area where the vegetation in the catchment varies from mangrove forest to grassland to dense montane forest.

According to the report, some 55 percent of the region's plant life is endemic to the area.

The Sepik's tropical habitat has contributed to the richness of its fauna with possibly 120 of New Guinea's 200 mammal species to be found there.

The report states that the Torricelli Ranges in West Sepik Province are believed to have the highest rate of mammal endemism in the world. It also warns that endangered mammals such as the long-beaked echidna and various tree kangaroos continue to be threatened by hunting and habitat destruction.

The Sepik is similarly rich in bird life, according to the report. Of the 725 species of birds in New Guinea, at least 387 species have been recorded in the Sepik catchment.

In fact, the Upper Sepik is recognised as one of the areas of greatest bird diversity in Papua New Guinea with at least 165 resident forest species.

Culturally, the Sepik River area is unique in the world. Almost a third of the more than 700 languages spoken in PNG are found in the river basin and cultures vary dramatically between the Sepik hills area and the main river.

The people are closely linked to their land and continue to live a subsistence lifestyle that largely, stays in balance with the environment.

But, the report warns that there is the potential for major disruption to this careful balance through the arrival in recent years of invasive weeds and species, such as the Climbing Perch, as well as proposals for logging and mining in the river basin.

The major threat of large-scale logging comes from a Forest Management Agreement over the extensive April-Salumei area within the Sepik catchment.

The FMA has not been rescinded despite a PNG Government survey report that recommended against intensive logging because of the area's extraordinary biodiversity and high value for local people as undamaged forest.

Upstream on the Frieda-Sepik tributary, plans for a massive copper mine are being explored. If developed, there would be a high risk of downstream pollution and damage from chemicals, land clearing, infrastructure development and shipping.

Over the past year, WWF has begun work in the Sepik on a broad program of work with local people to help to achieve conservation and development for the area. From bases in Ambunti and Wewak, WWF is helping communities and government agencies to manage and conserve community-held land, forest and wetland resources.

Initially the WWF project, which has just passed its first year of operations, has been working closely with communities in the Ambunti District.

FOR MORE INFORMATION AND COPIES OF THE REPORT: Contact Elisabeth Mealey, WWF South Pacific Program Office, Suva: 67-9-315533.

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