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Wednesday 30 March 2016 | Published in Regional


PAPUA NEW GUINEA – A common household pet could help remote villagers in Papua New Guinea survive food shortages and protect their endangered wildlife.

Villagers in PNG’s mountains and in the country’s west are being encouraged to raise guinea pigs as a protein source.

Missionary teacher Glenda Giles has been running a guinea pig breeding program at Tekin High School, high in Hindenburg Range of mountains in PNG’s far west, for the past three years.

“They don’t jump fences and they don’t dig holes in the ground, they’re quite gentle little creatures,” she said.

“They are herbivores so you can just feed them on grass and leaves and kau-kau (sweet potato) runners.

“Really, the only danger with them is that when a family has them they tend to fall in love with them and then they don’t want to eat them.”

The guinea pigs are sold for meat and at a cheaper price for breeding, with some chicken wire included to help families raise their own stock.

The idea is spreading to other areas of PNG, with missions, clinics and aid stations all purchasing guinea pigs to breed.

Sally Lloyd, a former resident of PNG’s Western Province, has bought some for her friends in villages there.

“The people out there have a really short supply of protein in their diet, which has obvious consequences of malnutrition and various other problems, so really the idea of guinea pigs is to introduce something that’s suitable to their lifestyle as a source of protein,” she said.

Lloyd said the animals bred easily and were easy to care for and feed.

But the hardest part was finding guinea pigs to buy.

“It’s extremely difficult – we started last year with some people’s spare pets,” Lloyd said.

“If I could bring in 100 at a time, we would be right.”

Many Papua New Guineans have relied on hunting native mammals and birds for their protein needs.

Wildlife Conservation Society zoologist Nathan Whitmore said raising guinea pigs could help reduce the pressure on vulnerable animals such as tree kangaroos and birds of paradise.

“If you can offset the protein requirement with another animal such as guinea pigs, that could be a boon for the local wildlife,” he said.

But Whitmore said wildlife surveys and monitoring would help researchers determine if introducing the guinea pigs actually helped native species.

“That is the hope, but there’s always the chance that they eat the guinea pig and also the tree kangaroo,” he said.

“We’re going to have to have that monitoring in place to understand whether or not you’re making a difference or simply people end up eating more meat.”

Whitmore said there was less concern that guinea pigs would become an invasive species in Papua New Guinea, because they were not well suited to its forests.

“Domestic animals like goats and pigs, both of those are highly invasive,” he said.

“By comparison, guinea pigs are kind of great because they’re adapted to grassland environments, so there’s little chance of them – when they escape a village – of going off into the forest and suddenly there’s a guinea pig problem.

“There’s always the potential for unintended consequences but guinea pigs are completely ill-adapted to living in the bush.”