This is one of the only photographs ever taken of a wild New Guinea singing dog, an exceptionally shy and rare animal from the highlands of New Guinea. The photograph was taken in August this year by Tom Hewitt, Director of Adventure Alternative Borneo, during a trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea.
The second largest island on Earth containing at least 8% of the world’s known terrestrial and aquatic species, New Guinea is divided into the independent Papua New Guinea and the Indonesian-controlled West Papua. The island's native dogs are almost impossible to find in the wild, and several recent expeditions to find individuals for captive breeding have turned up nothing, including one in the mid-90s where the team spent an entire month searching in the Eastern province highlands of Papua New Guinea. And according to Hewitt, who has been working in South-east Asia for the past ten years, the native dogs now prefer West Papua anyway, which makes locating them even harder because it is less populated, and the Singers are hidden from the locals in its vast, thickly forested areas.
The only other photograph we have of a wild New Guinea singing dog (Canis dingo hallstromi) was taken by Australian mammalogist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery in 1989 and published in his book The Mammals Of New Guinea. This, and Hewitt's recent shot, are crucial evidence that wild populations remain in existence.
Earlier this year, Hewitt was on a private expedition with a client who wanted to climb the second highest freestanding mountain between the Himalayas and the Andes - Gunung Mandala, the highest peak of New Guinea’s Star Mountains range. At approximately 4,750m high in a little-explored region of West Papua, this is not an easy task, and according to Hewitt, it’s been ten years since a successful climb to the peak has been confirmed. Plus just making it to the Star Mountains region, where wild New Guinea singing dogs live, is a significant challenge on its own.
“To understand why it is so rarely explored, you need to know the strange variables that have collided for this part of the world and made it so remote,” says Hewitt. “It is in the middle of the second biggest island in the world that has little or no road networks, and the island itself is very isolated, as it has been forever from even the most intrepid of explorers. A trek in Papua is really a dive into the unknown and without a reliable guide, all sorts of problems can arise. Fortunately I have a guide [whom] I have worked with before on a number of occasions.”
The trek to wild Singer territory begins either with a ten-day hike to the starting point village in West Papua, or a $5,500 U.S. return charter airflight. Then to get to the Star Mountains, you have to spend another ten days trekking over a 3,800m pass, which involves endless up and downs on narrow hunting trails with steep drop-offs while negotiating countless slippery logs. “West Papua … has a reputation for being dangerous and expensive - the former is not true but the latter is, but either way there are many other places in the region to visit that are more popular and accessible,” says Hewitt.
Considered one of the wettest places on Earth, the thick, mossy cloud forests and extensive swamps that make up this region are permanently damp and cold. Singers - so-called because of their unique vocalisations that are like “a wolf howl with overtones of whale song” - live mostly in these cloud forests or higher up, at elevations between 1.3km and 3km. The only other wild Canis species, including wolves, jackals and coyotes, that lives naturally at such a high altitude is the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf.
On their return trek, Hewitt and his group camped for four days within a gaping valley with 4km-high limestone peaks. Inside were many native animals and birds, including possums, tree kangaroos and cuscus, plus ancient cycad species and highland flowers and grasses. “The client and I had gone around some big boulders in the valley on the 'trail' and the guide and cook had stopped, which was unusual for them. The guide exclaimed 'dog' and he had to repeat it three times and point before we understood,” recalls Hewitt. “[the dog] was not scared, but seemed [as] genuinely curious [of us] as we were of it, and it certainly felt like a rare meeting for both sides. The guides and cook were also surprised.”
At the time, Hewitt had no idea what he was photographing, nor how special it was. When he got home, he contacted Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International (NGSDI) to let him know about the sighting. “I have had several folks contact me ... in the past claiming to have seen or photographed a Papua New Guinea highland wild dog, but in every prior instance there was either no photograph to support the claim, or the photos taken were of a hybridised New Guinea singing dog at lower elevations,” says Wendt. “The only place a pure New Guinea singing dog could possibly be found would be in the remote highlands where the natives rarely visit, and due to the lack of humans present, a domestic dog would not thrive. This is exactly where Tom and his team were when the dog was sighted and photographed.”
The average male Singer measures around 42 cm (17 inches) at the shoulder and they weigh around 11kg (25 pounds), and the females are slightly smaller. They have a very similar look to the Australian dingo (Canis lupus dingo), but are about one-third smaller, with shorter legs, broader skulls and high check bones. Janice Koler-Matznick from the New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society in the U.S., one of the world’s foremost experts on the animal, describes the dog's unusual flexibility in an in-press book excerpt: “One of the first things people notice about Singers is their physical grace and agility. They have very elastic joints and spine, and therefore move fluidly: more like a cat than a dog. They are adapted to being climbers and jumpers, not long distance trotters or runners.”
Singers have short, double coats coloured either golden red or black and tan, and they have white markings under the chin, paws and the tip of the tail, and sometimes on their face, chest and neck.
According to Hewitt and Wendt, the West Papuan locals rarely see wild Singers, and have not attempted to domesticate them, especially since these canny dogs go out of their way to avoid human contact. “If a New Guinea singing dog were to travel out of the mountains to civilisation, there is a much better chance it would be killed and eaten than become a native’s hunting dog,” says Wendt.
Little is known about the origin of the Singer, but it's thought that, like their closest relative, the Australian dingo, they were transported by people travelling between islands more than 4,000 years ago. A theory by Susan Bulmer, a New Zealand-based archaeozoologist who has worked extensively in New Guinea, suggests that an ancestral dog could have arrived in New Guinea as early as 10-20,000 years ago, when all kinds of animals were being brought back to the island. Once the land bridge connecting Australia and New Guinea had been flooded over, the two populations became distinct breeds - the Australian and New Guinea dingoes.
Genetic studies have placed the New Guinea singing dogs into a group of dogs with ancient origins, including the basenji, Afghan hound, Samoyed, saluki, Canaan dog, dingo, chow chow, Chinese Shar Pei, Akita, Alaskan malamute, Siberian husky and American Eskimo dog. It was first described in 1957 by Australian mammalogist and zoologist Ellis Le Geyt Troughton, based on a pair at Sydney's Taronga Zoo. This pair, from the Southern Highlands District of Papua New Guinea, was the first to be transported out of the country, and Troughton classified the dog as a new species, Canis hallstromi.
Since then, the taxonomic status of the New Guinea singing dog has been the subject of much controversy, and it has been reclassified several times over, some scientists suggesting it originated as a feral modern domestic dog (Canis familiaris), others suggesting it is a hybrid between the domestic dog and the Australian dingo. Over the past 50 years, it has been described as a species, a subspecies and a breed, but regardless, Koler-Matznick describes it as "an evolutionarily significant unit". If further research does see it reclassified as a species or subspecies, says Hewitt, that could see conservation efforts ramped up, particularly in New Guinea. At the moment, conservation efforts are concentrated in the U.S., where several zoos are breeding captive Singers.
“With the proper efforts, I would say the future could be good,” says Hewitt of the fate of the wild Singer population. “The highlands are vast and open and little populated. Previously nomadic tribes are now settled and growing more food in the village, so I presume hunting is less than it was, [which is] good news for the dogs and the dogs’ wild food. But it may be different in Papua New Guinea, and indeed both sides are so badly governed, that anything is possible in the longer term, especially as the mountains are very rich in vast amounts of valuable untapped minerals. Money talks, and if a price can be put on the value of these animals, then something can be done, I would hope.”
Here's a video of a very vocal female Singer at the San Diego Zoo:
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