Photo of wild New Guinea singing dog, cropped to focus on dog. Copyright: Tom Hewitt
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
Original photograph showing New Guinea singing dog in the distance. Copyright: Tom Hewitt
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
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
Captive New Guinea singing dog 'singing'. Credit: whatadqr on Flickr
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.
A captive New Guinea singing dog, looking very similar to the Australian dingo. Credit: San Diego Shooter on Flickr
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.
Captive New Guinea singing dog pup. Credit: San Diego Shooter on Flickr
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:
Thanks to Mongabay.com for the tip. Read more about the trip at Tom Hewitt’s blog.
Order my new book, Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals, here.
About the Author:
Becky Crew is a Sydney-based science writer, award-winning blogger and
former online editor of COSMOS magazine. She is the author of 'Zombie
Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' (NewSouth Press). Follow
on Twitter @BecCrew.