Located in the southwestern Pacific, occupying the eastern half of New Guinea and its offshore islands, Papua New Guinea is a nation of vast cultural and biological diversity. It’s one of the most linguistically variegated countries in the world, with 850 known languages spoken across its 400,000 square kilometers. With such a mix of life and landscapes, you are probably wondering, are there dangerous animals in Papua New Guinea?
With fantastic beaches, vibrant coral reefs, active volcanoes, and dense rainforests, there are few places like Papua New Guinea, where cultural exploration is always guaranteed. Yet, among the friendly natives and tight-knit tribal communities, the island country of “a million different journeys” also plays host to a number of dangerous creatures.
Our guide looks at just some of the deadly animals that call Papau New Guinea home, from the swamp monsters to the critters in every backyard. There might be very few large predators, but there are some poisonous pests that you should definitely look out for. Let’s get into it.
Second-only in size to the ostrich, the cassowary is a large, flightless bird, native to the tropical forests and beaches of New Guinea, northeastern Australia, and the Aru Islands. Closely related to emus, the cassowary is slightly shorter than their ratite counterparts, but they’re the second heaviest bird in the world, after their cousin, the ostrich, and they can be dangerous.
Their dagger-like claws can easily pierce human skin and they’ve been compared to dinosaurs with their large statures and formidable talons. They’re not overtly aggressive and attacks are rare but they have proved deadly when provoked or caught off guard. Hundred of attacks have been reported in the last few decades, mostly from domesticated cassowary against keepers, often involving food and sometimes when protecting their young. Out of all these attacks, two deaths have been recorded as a result of kicking and clawing.
There are three species of cassowary, all of which can be found in the tropical jungles of Papua New Guinea. The north cassowary, also known as the one-wattled, single-wattled, or golden-necked cassowary, is most common in northern New Guinea. It can weigh up to 25 kilograms with a wingspan of two meters. The striking bird has glossy black plumage, a tall, brown helmet, and a vivid blue neck. Although occurring mainly in rainforests, they can dwell in woodlands, melaleuca swamps, mangroves, and even on beaches.
Crocodiles are the only large predator to call Papua New Guinea home, but they’re a formidable force to contend with nonetheless. The New Guinea crocodile inhabits the northern mountain ridge of the island and is a small species, rarely encountered by humans. Saltwater crocodiles, on the other hand, are endemic to the western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and Australia and they dwell in fresh and saltwater across Papua New Guinea.
Saltwater crocodiles are aggressive by nature and can grow to seven meters in length, weighing more than 1,200 kg and often using their force to overpower prey. Thrashing and snapping their jaws, they can take down turtles, large birds, and even buffalo. In fact, saltwater crocodiles have the strongest bite of a living creature ever measured, with 3,700 pounds per square inch, or 16,500 newtons, of bite force. That’s more than the bite force of hyenas, lions and tigers combined and enough to bite through steel.
Crocodiles can pose a threat to humans as they’re easily provoked and tend to dwell near human settlements, favoring estuaries over the remote rainforests. The Sepik River is the longest on New Guinea, flowing through the Sandaun and East Sepik provinces in Papua New Guinea. The river is home to one of the world’s largest populations of freshwater and saltwater crocodiles, but both species are threatened by mining, logging, and agriculture.
Deadly crocodile attacks are a recurring problem in Papua New Guinea, especially in the northernmost province of Manus. Divers off Lou Island have been dragged under by the beasts, and seventy-five attacks were recorded between 1958 and 2014 across the country, sixty-five of which were fatal. Saltwater crocodiles have been deemed the most aggressive species and you don’t want to do anything to provoke them. Avoid swimming in river mouths, deep pools, mangrove shores, or down estuaries. You should also seek local advice before camping, fishing, or boating anywhere in Papua New Guinea.
One of the most dangerous snakes in the world, let alone Papua New Guinea, the venomous taipan is endemic to northern and eastern Australia and across the island of New Guinea. Otherwise known as the common taipan, this snake is incredibly fast and agile, able to strike prey instantly and with great accuracy, often snapping its jaws several times to deliver multiple punctures and venom to the same area.
Taipans have the longest fangs of all venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea and Australia, reaching 13 mm, and sometimes more, in length. Venom from a coastal taipan can cause neurotoxic, hemolytic, and coagulopathic reactions, with the potential of paralysis and death in less than 30 minutes.
More than 1,000 deaths are caused by snake bites in Papua New Guinea every year, most of which are delivered by the Papuan Taipan. In some parts of the country, there are more than 60 taipans per hectare and remote villagers are most at risk of deadly attacks with limited access to medical care, despite the availability of antivenom.
Papuan taipans are large but relatively slim in relation to their length. They resemble eastern brown snakes, with an unstriking red-brown color, but can be distinguished by their larger heads, narrow necks, and lighter faces. Their venom is adapted to kill warm-blooded species and they’re the third most venomous snake in the world.
Should you or someone you know receive a suspected snake bite of any kind, stay calm and rest the affected limb below heart level. Wrap a large bandage or piece of clothing above the bite site, and try to secure a splint underneath the tourniquet to keep the limb as rigid as possible while transporting the victim to a hospital. Antivenom is widely available in Papua New Guinea and is the only life-saving treatment for a taipan bite.
Of the more than 900 species of spider that have been discovered worldwide, its estimated that 100 different species live in Papua New Guinea’s jungles, and for arachnophobes, they could be the most terrifying creature you come across. They might be better known as exotic pets in the western hemisphere, but Papua New Guinea boasts rife populations of tarantula, and among them, is one of the biggest species in the world.
The Papuan giant tarantula is endemic to New Guinea and northern Australia. Sightings are very rare, but the spider has been compared to the size of a small dog, growing to be almost 12 inches in length.
The Kokoda Track, which runs for 60 miles through treacherous terrain across the Owen Stanley mountain range in Papua New Guinea, is known for its exotic biodiversity. The trail was once the site of a series of World War II battles between Australia and Japan. Soldiers who fought the Kokoda Track Campaign reported seeing large, fishing-net-like cobwebs covering the rainforest floor of this region. One or two men even expressed their horror when coming across giant jet black spiders, some with a thorax and abdomen the size of a puppy.
Tarantulas are deadly to all of the insects and creepy crawlies upon which they prey, and thanks to their size, the giant tarantula can feast on small birds and even possum. However, tarantulas have never been known to kill anybody. Their 1.5-inch fangs are more than capable of puncturing human skin, but the bite would feel somewhat like a painful wasp sting and cause only localized swelling.
Infections from spider bites are the biggest killers. If you suspect to have been bitten by something in Papua New Guinea or are suffering from an open wound of any kind, it’s imperative to keep the site clean and seek medical treatment if redness, swelling, and irritation persist longer than a day or two. Still, if you come across an elusive giant tarantula in the wild, your main concern will probably be it frightening you half to death.
Banded Sea Krait
Officially Laticauda clubrina, but also known as the yellow-lipped sea krait, the banded sea krait is one of the deadliest creatures in all the world’s oceans. Dwelling in coral reefs in the Indian and western Pacific, this snake hails from Papua New Guinea and its venom is 10 times more potent than that of a rattlesnake.
Victims of a bite can suffer convulsions, paralysis, cardiac arrests, and even death. Sea snakes are generally retired creatures and try to avoid humans, but if you catch one unaware in open water, there is little to protect you from an attack.
The snake gets its name from the dark, vertical bands that streak across its luminescent white body. Unlike many sea snakes, the banded sea krait spends much of its life on land, coming ashore to nest and occasionally drinking fresh water. Sea kraits are adapted to hunting on coral reefs, but they digest food, rest, and shed their skin on land.
Their paddle-like tail makes them even better hunters and swimmers, and they can hold their breath for up to eight hours. However, all sea snakes need air to breathe and must return to the surface periodically to do so. Banded sea kraits feed on eels and small fish, trapping them in small crevices in the reef and paralyzing prey with their venom before swallowing them whole.
Banded sea snakes have been known to bite humans, mainly fishermen who accidentally capture them in their nets. In 2018, a 23-year-old man died from a banded sea krait bite on a fish trawling boat off the coast of northeast Australia. Still, fatalities are rare. Despite their potent venom, sea snakes are docile, although you wouldn’t want to aggravate one.
Crocodile Monitor Lizard
Monitor lizards are found all over the world and there are around 80 recognized species globally, most of which are native to Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Papua New Guinea is home to a number of these species, with some of the closest relatives to Indonesia’s formidable Komodo dragons found in its jungles.
The Varanus Salvadori, also known as the crocodile monitor or Papuan monitor, is one of New Guinea’s endemic species and the largest to hail from the island. It’s also one of the longest lizards in the world, reaching nearly 100 inches in length in some instances. That’s around two and a half meters.
They dwell in a range of habitats across New Guinea, Papua, and Papua New Guinea, from the treetop canopies of tropical rainforests to rivers, mangroves, and even beaches. They boast dark bodies with rings and yellow spots. Their bulbous snouts are their most defining features, much blunter than any other monitor in New Guinea. Their tails are banded, long, and whip-like for thrashing at prey too. Their tails are generally more than twice as long as their bodies.
Crocodile monitors weigh 20 kg on average and can live from 12 to 20 years. Like most monitors, they actually carry venom glands that release poison into their prey upon biting. It can be deadly to birds, other reptiles, and even deers and dogs, but the venom from a monitor lizard is generally not potent enough to poison a human. However, their bites are much more dangerous and can cause severe pain.
Crocodile monitors have long, sharp and serrated teeth, adapted to fast-moving prey. A bite from a small monitor is enough to cause serious damage to human flesh. The mouth of a monitor can also carry 50 different types of bacteria that can condemn any wound to deadly infection. Crocodile monitors are aggressive by nature and can be even quicker to bite compared to other monitors. You should always keep your distance if you come across a large lizard in the wild.
It’s not only sea snakes that you have to look out for in Papua New Guinea’s waters. Found across the coasts of Asia and Oceania, from northern Australia and Papua New Guinea to the Philippines and Vietnam, box jellyfish are one of the ocean’s most formidable predators.
Despite assumptions that jellyfish are docile creatures, box jellyfish actively hunt their prey, which varies from crustaceans and worms to small fish and other jellyfish, swimming at speeds of up to five miles per hour. They don’t target humans directly and aren’t aggressive by nature, but their tentacles can reach up to three meters long and deliver painful, and sometimes lethal, lesions to their victims.
Each tentacle boasts around 5,000 stinging cells, triggered by animals and human skin. The cells produce extremely potent and fast-acting venom that is designed to stun or kill prey to prevent damage to the delicate tentacles. You might expect this title to belong to a crawling critter or slimy snake, but some scientists have even crowned the box jellyfish the most venomous animal in the world, with toxins that attack the heart, nervous system, and skin, sometimes causing death in minutes.
Since jellyfish are exclusively aquatic, their venom is even more dangerous to humans. The overpowering pain from a sting can put victims into instant shock, causing them to drown before reaching shore or seeking help. You can survive a box jellyfish sting, but instant medical care is required and multiple stings prove fatal on most occasions.
There are no official records for Papua New Guinea, but 80 people have died from box jellyfish stings in Australia since records began. Deep waters carry the most risk. If you suffer a sting, shout for help and try to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Is it safe to swim in Papua New Guinea?
Papua New Guinea is home to a wide variety of marine and semi-aquatic animals than can pose a threat to humans. Visitors should avoid swimming alone, far offshore, at river mouths, or along drop-offs to deeper water where sharks, sea snakes, and box jellyfish all dwell. Crocodiles inhabit rivers, coastal estuaries, and mangrove shores too. The sea can also have strong undercurrents and swimming at night is not advised.