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More serious threats loom. Though wholesale massacre of birds for the plume trade is long stanched, a black market still thrives. Vast palm oil plantations are swallowing up thousands of acres of bird of paradise habitat, as is large-scale industrial logging. Oil prospecting and mining are encroaching on New Guinea's wildest forests. Meanwhile, human populations continue to grow. Land ownership is fragmented among local clans, and their leaders disagree about which lands should be protected.

David Mitchell of Conservation International studies the Goldie's bird of paradise, a rare species with a fiery fan of plumes and a strident call that lives only on two islands off the southeastern tip of New Guinea. By enlisting local villagers to record where the birds display and what they eat, Mitchell hopes not only to glean data but also to encourage protection of the birds' habitat. The strategy seems to be working.

"I had come to cut down some trees and plant yam vines," says Ambrose Joseph, one of Mitchell's recruits. "Then I saw the birds land there, so I left the trees alone."

Mitchell is encouraged, but not sanguine. "Just because some elders become interested in forest protection won't stop others from turning the next patch into a garden," he says. "You have to keep coming back, keep telling the story and getting the next generation committed, or you lose momentum."

Meanwhile, in the dim light of the rain forest, a male bird of paradise again struts before an audience of coy females. For millions of years these exceptional birds have danced to perpetuate their kind. They'll keep dancing for as long as the forest offers them a stage.

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