Scientists in Australia say fieldwork and international research collaboration in Papua New Guinea are in jeopardy after four members of an archaeological expedition were kidnapped in the highlands region of the country last month. The hostages were later released, but researchers say that the incident could increase the cost of security and risk assessments, and that universities will probably be less willing to send staff to potentially dangerous locations abroad in future.
The four individuals — Jemina Haro, Cathy Alex and Teppsy Beni from Papua New Guinea and Bryce Barker, who is a New Zealand citizen based in Australia — were taken hostage at gunpoint by armed bandits in mid-February while doing archaeological fieldwork. After a complex set of negotiations involving police, security personnel and government officials from Papua New Guinea, Australia and New Zealand, one of the hostages was released on 22 February, and the other three were eventually set free on 26 February. The bandits had reportedly been active in the area for some time, and had conducted armed attacks and robberies in nearby villages. The highlands of Papua New Guinea are known for violence and civil unrest, with numerous countries warning against travel to the area.
Papua New Guinea is an important location for research in many disciplines, including archaeology, palaeontology, geology and the life sciences, and the incident is causing concern among scientists who had intended to carry out fieldwork in the country. Palaeontologist Gavin Prideaux at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, postponed a planned 2022 field trip to fossil sites in Papua New Guinea because of political unrest during the national elections. That fieldwork was supposed to go ahead this year, but Prideaux is uncertain about what the kidnapping will mean for his approval to travel in the region. He’s planning to talk to colleagues in Papua New Guinea to assess the threat of kidnapping.
Michael Westaway, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, is concerned the hostage incident could make universities and funding organizations reluctant to support research in Papua New Guinea. Security is already a high priority for researchers travelling to the area, but “something like this hasn’t happened before so that’s a bit of a shock to the system”.
The kidnapping could affect a project he’s involved in with colleagues at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby. They have been working on the Papuan coast studying an extinct group of hominins called the Denisovans, and are seeking funding for further research in the area, including training local students in archaeology and palaeoanthropology. The project is to be led by Jason Kariwiga, a PhD student from Papua New Guinea who is currently based at the University of Queensland. “There’s this great cohort of Papuan students coming through and it’s a really exciting time for archaeology in Papua New Guinea,” Westaway says.
The project is planned for a less isolated part of the highlands than the region where the hostages were taken. “It’s a different situation, but I still think universities are such risk-averse places that they will have a lot of concern for this event,” Westaway says.
He has contacted security companies to enquire about the cost of personnel to accompany the fieldwork teams and to monitor their safety on a daily basis. “We now need to factor these sort of things in,” he says. “If we don’t, I can imagine the university would probably feel uncomfortable about supporting a team like that going into that sort of region.”
Nature contacted several Australian universities that send researchers to Papua New Guinea. The University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba — the institution at which one of the kidnapped scientists, archaeologist Bryce Barker, is based — said in a statement to Nature that it hadn’t changed its fieldwork policy after the incident. The university “examines each research trip on a case-by-case basis and will continue with that approach”, it said.
The Australian National University in Canberra, which is home to the Pacific Institute — a hub for research in the Pacific region, including Papua New Guinea — says it uses advice and warnings from the Australian government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) when making decisions about trips abroad for research. “If DFAT advises against travel to a particular country, travel is only permitted under exceptional circumstances,” says a spokesperson for the university.
The department currently advises Australians to exercise a high degree of caution when travelling to Papua New Guinea, and to reconsider travel to certain areas, including some highland regions. It lists kidnapping among the potential risks for visitors.