After arranging cover for his Gordonton practice – and Hamilton Zoo where he also works – the veterinarian packed his bags and was away, eager to renew his acquaintance with the Melanesian country where he was born.
“I was only a wee fella when I left, so I have very few memories. My parents had lived there for some years and my father would return throughout his life, but I never had. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the country I was born in.”
He was there for six days in early September, near Mt Hagen, the third largest city.
The farm he was sent to was part of a training college with a university status. In earlier years it had been one of the few dairy operations in the country. “They had their own milking and pasteurisation plants, but it hadn’t been functional in the last 10 years so everything had degenerated and it had converted to beef. They’d had on-going health issues that were not being dealt with, management problems – things were going backwards.”
There are very few vets in Papua New Guinea, he says. “I’ve heard of one in Port Moresby but he dealt with cats and dogs. There is virtually none of the skill base for large animal work, which is what I specialise in.”
Andrew visited the country with his son, who is a sociologist. “He absolutely loved it and was very interested in talking with locals. We met some truly wonderful people, they were hugely friendly and helpful. It was good to be able to do the job I’d been asked to do and to be effective.”
The country itself is not in a good way. “Sadly, over the last couple of decades things are getting worse. They’ve just had an election, and they were happy because only 35 political candidates were killed – that’s considered a good outcome. In the last election 105 died.”
Corruption is rife. “We were told of one province where there were more votes counted than the entire population. People buy villages. We went into town and there was a burnt-out shack on the side of road – that was where a rival politician lived who was murdered.”
He’d been told it was reasonably safe where he was going, but found that everybody lived behind a secure compound, with eight-foot-high razor-wire fences.
“The farm where I was based has a population of about 600 people. They had a continuous security system, with guards walking around the perimeters all the time. The only reason they had any livestock is because they are behind fences and guarded. There’s so much poverty.”
Yet the frustrating thing was Papua New Guinea is one of the richest countries on Earth. “It has the largest liquid natural gas deposits in the world, huge oil reserves, gold, silver, copper, diamonds – and the most amazing agricultural resources. It’s just absolutely corrupt. We were told about how 28 million kina (NZ$16 million) had been allocated to build a road. All of it disappeared.”
A New Zealand farmer would be astonished at the potential for dairy farming. “The highlands are a unique ecosystem, perfect growing conditions every day of the year, with hugely rich soil, very deep and fertile. The climatic conditions are typically 23, 25 degrees, all year round, and it rains every day.”
It’s not the first time he’s been overseas on a veterinary mission. He helped pregnancy-test cattle in Chile in 2012, and spent a month in Kyrgyzstan in 2008.
“This is one of the poorest parts of Asia, the people are entirely dependent on livestock for their survival. Yet there are very few vets, and the ones that are there are poorly trained.”
With a few others, he set up four veterinarian clinics, three of which are still operating.
He would love to go back to Papua New Guinea. “If I ever got the chance, I’d climb Mt Wilhelm, the highest mountain. I’d also look for some of the native wildlife, it’s one of the more fascinating countries on Earth in terms of fauna and flora.”
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