Papua New Guinea is still considered to be a wild frontier of impenetrable rainforests and unexplored waterways and valleys. Imagine what it would have been like for some of the earliest explorers, navigating the amazing coastlines and massive waterways which dominate this beautiful country.
While researching records of sawfish in PNG to provide a baseline for future research, I became immersed in the history of exploration and discovery of this country. The first documentation of sharks and rays in PNG was during the extremely ambitious Voyage Autour du Monde or Trip Around the World, on board the French vessel La Coquille (later renamed L’Astrolabe) between 1822 and 1825. No sawfish were recorded during the brief stop at New Ireland in PNG, but it paved the way for future exploration.
The oldest known records of sawfish in PNG come from the Ramu and Sepik Rivers and are based on specimens in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin. During my visit to this important biological collection in Berlin, I was humbled to examine parts from a juvenile largetooth sawfish collected in the late 1800s. This particular specimen was collected by the botanist Carl Adolf Georg Lauterbach (1864–1937) during one of two surveys he made to the Ramu River in 1896 and 1899.
Another dried rostrum from a largetooth sawfish examined was collected by the Austrian anthropologist Richard Thurnwald (1869–1954) in November 1909, possibly from the Sepik River. A third specimen, a whole juvenile largetooth sawfish, was collected by the German zoologist Theodore Josef Bürgers (1881–1954) who participated in the German Sepik Expedition (Kaiserin-August-Fluss Expedition) in 1912–1913.
An American expedition set out to duplicate, although on a smaller scale, the German Sepik Expedition in 1929. An American ichthyologist Albert William Herre (1868–1962) collected two largetooth sawfish rostra from the village of Korogu, some 215 miles from the sea. He also collected a green sawfish rostrum, possibly from the Sepik River mouth.
One could only imagine what exploration of this amazing place would have been more than 100 years ago. Prior to anthropogenic threats such as introduced fish, excessive logging, and mining which have altered the waterways and changed the ecosystems forever.