Tree Kangaroos: Meet These Never-Before-Seen Creatures in the Wild

Tree Kangaroos: Meet These Never-Before-Seen Creatures in the Wild
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Deep in the mysterious rainforests of Papua New Guinea, hundreds of feet in the air, lives one of the most beautiful and rare creatures on the planet: the tree kangaroo. Locals refer to these elusive animals as the "ghosts of the forest."

Papua New Guinea is one of the only places in the world where you can find tree kangaroos. The only way to get an up-close look at the fuzzy marsupials is to climb way, way up into a towering tree. No one knows why or when this rare breed of kangaroos moved into the trees.

About a hundred live in zoos around the world, but these kangaroo hybrids have become endangered. Approximately 10,000 exist in the wild. Our cameras captured tree kangaroos in their natural habitat for the first time ever.

We traveled by helicopter to a remote region of the cloud forest. After a greeting ceremony, which included locals dressed as tree kangaroos, we entered a forest as pristine a movie set. As one writer once remarked, you almost expect to be approached by a hobbit from J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings," in here.

Lisa Dabek, an American biologist who's dedicated her life to saving the tree kangaroo, was our guide. She said she first saw these creatures 20 years ago at the Woodland Park Zoo and was instantly hooked.

"I fell in love with them," she said. "They're beautiful and the more I learned about them, the more I wanted to help them."

But to help the tree kangaroos, first, you have to find them, which isn't an easy task. Dabek, whose research is funded by a National Geographic-Waitt grant, in addition to other funders such as Conservation International, went eight years without seeing one in the wild.

"For eight years we looked at their dung. That's it," she said. "It's so hard to find them."

But a few years ago, Dabek and her team finally managed to put radio collars on some tree kangaroos.

Led by locals, many of them hiking barefoot, we joined them on their journey, as they followed the signal of a female they named Trish.

We caught a glimpse of Trish, way up in the high branches, staring warily. She didn't seem too scared, but was very alert.

"She's watching us," Dabek said, "She's alerted and she's sort of wondering what we're going to do."

Scaring Tree Kangaroos Down From Treetops

Tree kangaroos spend most of their time in trees, but are adept on land. If startled, they'll leap down from the treetops, a move that factors into Dabek's plan.

"One guy will climb up closer to her and they'll make noise so she'll come down," Dabek told us. "She's going to try to figure out how to get away -- and what they do is to really get away from something, they leap down to the ground, and try to run away."

From treetops about 100 feet in the air, Trish jumped to the ground and appeared unscathed.

"They do that in the wild. ...When they land, they sort of stop for a second and that's when we get them," Dabek said.

Once Trish landed, men rushed in to grab her by the tail. For Dabek, as a conservationist, forcing an animal out of a tree and into a bag runs counter to her every instinct. But she said she believes the more we know about how these mysterious, endangered animals live, eat and breed, the easier it will be to protect them in the wild.

Next, men held Trish's ears to calm her and stop her from biting or clawing as Dabek measured the animal. They took off Trish's radio collar and for the first time ever, put on a tiny camera from National Geographic, called the "Crittercam."

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