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Birds of Paradise Lost in New Guinea?

Anyone who has seen the “Planet Earth” episode on jungles has witnessed the colorful plumes and remarkable displays of the Birds of Paradise.

But when you’re hiking (read: struggling) through the dense growth of Papua New Guinea’s rainforest, one of the world’s largest at over 100,000 square miles and home to 38 of the 43 Bird of Paradise species, it’s pretty difficult to catch a glimpse these magnificent birds.

You can’t help but hear them, though. Jungle life has a soundtrack, and the BOPs are the lead singers.

However, a new voice is about to join the New Guinea chorus, threatening to drown out the unique birds.

The threat is a man-made cacophony of gas drilling rigs and the planes, cars, and tractors needed to make them work. Papua New Guinea (PNG) sits on a rich reserve of shale, a source of natural gas, and ExxonMobil is willing to drop $15 billion to get their hands on it.

This means a couple things.

It means roads. A major highway is being built through the PNG highlands, cutting a swath through the pristine rainforest, right through the habitat of not just the Birds of Paradise, but a diverse array of other species as well, several of which can be found nowhere else on the planet.

In exchange for their land, the locals, whose cultural ceremonies often revolve around imitating the colorful appearance and erratic movements of the BOPs, are allowed to log along the shoulder of the road and sell what they cut down.

Rumored to be the world’s oldest agrarian society, these people are riding a cultural roller-coaster. Only a decade separated their first contact with modern culture in 1930 and their first experience with modern warfare, as a bloody struggle for the island raged during World War II. And now they are the newest gear in the oil machine.

It means fracking. More officially known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a controversial process that involves pumping a mix of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to literally fracture the shale and release the gas that it contains.

But it’s a dangerous practice.

Scientific American says it best, citing an April report that “showed that the 14 most active hydraulic fracturing companies… together used nearly 3 billion liters of fracking fluid, not including water. The products contained at least 29 chemicals that are known as possible human carcinogens.”

Stop. Read that again. 3 billion liters of fluids not including water, which is supposed to be the primary ingredient of frack soup.

Those 14 fracking sites weren’t located in the exotic rainforest of PNG, and the people at risk of exposure to those harmful chemicals are not a remote indigenous culture. Those drills are located on U.S. soil. And while I would be on the front lines in a battle to save the biodiversity of PNG, we are at risk here at home, and the fight to ban fracking needs to start here.