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Expedition to Find the New Guinea Singing Dog: The Rarest Dog in the World

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New Guinea Singing Dog

The second-ever photo of a wild New Guinea Singing Dog, cropped to focus in on the dog. Copyright: Tom Hewitt

Late last year, I wrote about one of the only photographs ever taken in the wild of arguably the rarest dog in the world - the New Guinea Singing Dog. The first was taken by Australian mammalogist and palaeontologist, Tim Flannery, in 1989, and the second was taken by Tom Hewitt, Director of Adventure Alternative Borneo, in August 2012. Almost impossible to find because they are both extremely clever and shy, wild New Guinea Singing Dogs have so far eluded every expedition to find them, including one that stretched over a month 20 years ago in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. And now that Hewitt has spotted one in the remote Star Mountains region of West Papua, it’s become apparent that the wild population has made the vast, dense forests of West Papua their home. This makes them even more elusive than we thought.

With Hewitt's photo in hand, a team of researchers will be heading to the base of Mount Mandala in the Star Mountains region next year. First they will attempt to find traces of the wild population and non-invasively obtain tissue sample. Once they have genotypic verification, they will return to the area to try and capture a New Guinea Singing Dog, also called a Highland Wild Dog, and eventually infuse their wild bloodlines into the inbred captive populations.

Heading up the expedition is James 'Mac' McIntyre, a field zoologist and Director of the Southwest Pacific Research Foundation who, upon seeing Hewitt's photo, raised enough funding to take a team to West Papua. I chatted to Mac about his plans for finding the world's most elusive dog.

Can you tell me how you originally got involved with New Guinea Singing Dogs (NGSD)?

I've been conducting independent field studies since the early 90s. Some of my research has taken me to the South Pacific, specifically the Republic of Vanuatu, where I documented intersexual pigs, hairless pigs, and dwarf pigs on various islands throughout the archipelago. In 1996, Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin Jr. , New Guinea Singing Dog expert and considered the Father of NGSDs' here in the States, asked me if I would consider “piggy-backing” my Vanuatu research with a trip to Papua New Guinea. I spent a month, isolated, atop Mt. Stolle in PNG’s Sandaun Province documenting the status and conservation needs of the New Guinea Singing Dog. Although I never saw a dog, I was able to document their existence in this mountain range through tracks, feces, vocalisations and personal data from villagers living in the vicinity.

captive new guinea singing dog

A captive new guinea singing dog letting out one of the 'songs' they're known for. Credit: R G Daniel (flickr.com/photos/rgdaniel)

What was your reaction when you saw the photograph last year?

When I first saw the photograph taken by wilderness adventure guide, Tom Hewett, and then learned exactly how far away they were from the nearest village (four days' walk), I became very excited and optimistic. Because of the secretive shy nature of these canids and the fact that they are not a pack animal; they are rarely seen and only once ever before photographed. We had been searching in areas where we thought Highland Wild Dogs (NGSDs) would be as well in areas where locals had said they had been observed, but now we had an actual recent sighting and the coordinates to take us right back to the spot.

How familiar are you with the West Guinea region you'll be working in? I imagine it's going to be quite a challenge to navigate!

Although I have never been to the Papua Province, Indonesia, the location the dog was observed is in the same mountain range, (Star Mountains, that dissects the entire Island of Papua), that I had spent four weeks in during my trip to study these dogs in 1996. One of the reasons that these dogs are survivors is because they have isolated themselves in the higher elevation of the uninhabited mountain ranges that cut across the Island of Papua. Traveling through these moist alpine cloud forests was the roughest terrain I have ever had to navigate. Travel guide, Tom Hewett, mentioned to me that his four-day trek to Mount Mandala - the trip in which he photographed the Highland Wild Dog - was so arduous that he was hoping he never had to return there.

New Guinea Singing Dog

A captive New Guinea Singing Dog, or Highland Wild Dog. Credit: Eric Smith (flickr.com/photos/audioeric)

What do you hope to achieve with the initial phase next year, and what are your plans following that?

Even though the dog, photographed August 2012, had the phenotype, or the physical 'look', of a NGSD, science always requires definitive proof. We need see if the genotype, or the genetic make-up, matches that of pure NGSDs. To achieve this we need to examine the dog’s DNA, which I hope to gather from various types of non-invasive hair-trapping techniques. The tissue samples collected will be compared against those that are known to be pure NGSDs from the captive population, which numbers to approximately 200 individuals throughout the world. Should the DNA prove positive for Highland Wild Dogs, Phase Two of this study will entail a return trip to capture individuals with hopes that eventually their DNA can be infused into the badly compromised, inbred captive population.

What local myths about the Singing Dogs are you aware of from the New Guinea people? What is their general attitude towards the animal and its conservation?

The Highland Wild Dog has been woven into the fabric of Papuan culture for thousands of years. It seems each village has a unique story about the elusive wild dog and its importance to their people. Villagers readily differentiate their village dogs from the wild dog although they do witness to occasional hybridisations. A man who is lucky enough to have the jawbone of a wild dog hanging over his doorway certainly has earned bragging rights in that village. It is hard to convince people about conservation when many of them do not know where their next meal is coming from. Long-term projects providing villagers with alternatives (chicken and rabbit husbandry) to hunting of endangered animals are secondary goals of this project.

Why is the New Guinea Singing Dog so special? Why should we be trying to save its dwindling wild population?

The Highland Wild Dog of the Island of Papua is considered by many to be the rarest dog on the planet. NGSDs exhibit many unique behaviors found nowhere else in any other breeds of dogs. NGSDs are considered [to be the] link between the first dog - wolf - and today’s domestic breeds. Isolation has kept them pure, but encroaching villagers, accompanied by their domestic village dogs, threatens their continued genetic purity. Little is known about the captive needs and behaviors of NGSDs, but nothing is known about their natural history in the wild. No scientific estimates of the wild population can legitimately be made. Education, scientific captive management, and habitat and species protection are just some of the measures that need to be taken if the NGSD is to survive.

UPDATE:

new guinea singing dog pup

A New Guinea Singing Dog pup. Credit: David Cook

Lara Shepherd from the Te Papa Museum of New Zealand has contacted me to pass on a story from her father, Mike Shepherd, who spent time in New Guinea in the 1960s:

"I need to correct the impression that no photos of New Guinea wild mountain dogs were taken before 1989. We saw and heard many of the wild dogs above 3000 metres during our 'Australian Star Mountains Expedition' in 1965. I enclose a photo of a young dog we had to shoot and eat after airdrops failed and we were very hungry. The location was Dokfuma Plateau and the photo was taken on 3 April 1965 by David Cook. We sometimes used the well-worn paths made by the dogs along the alpine/subalpine ridges." - Mike Shepherd

It looks like prior to when researchers started seeking out these wild dogs, say more than 30 years ago, people with incredible stories such as the one above were encountering them in the Star Mountains region. So it's a good bet that there are more photos of the wild NGSD out there, taken prior to Tim Flannery's in 1989, possibly from the New Guinea Campaign period during World War II. If anyone has any stories or photos, we'd love to hear about them!

Read previous post: First Photo of Rare, Wild New Guinea Singing Dog in 23 Years

And speaking of the world's most elusive animals, it's just been reported that the Australia's rarest parrot, the night parrot (Pezoporus occidentals), has likely been photographed in the wild for the first time ever.

 

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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