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

"Nightline" travels to Papua New Guinea to see endangered species roam treetops.

ByABC News
December 15, 2009, 2:25 PM

Dec. 15, 2009— -- 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."