Papuan Singing dog
In Augst 2012 we received word of a potential sighting (and photo capture) of one of the rarest (if not the rarest) breeds of dog in the world – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD).
The sighting was made by Adventure Alternative Borneo director Tom Hewitt whilst on a trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian administered West Papua.
History of the New Guinea Singing Dog
The intense topography of Papua as a whole coupled with low-scale political troubles in the Western side of Papua has meant that little research has been done into the existence of NGSD in the area. The dogs themselves are believed a close relative of ancient dogs that were domesticated from Asian Wolves between 10-15,000 years ago and are related to the dingo of Australia.
The first live ‘Singers’ were caught in the Eastern province of the island in the 1950s and taken to Australia – nearly all of the Singers outside Papua are now descended from these four dogs. More recent expeditions have failed to locate any singers, including a month-long expedition to the Eastern province highlands in the mid-90s. In this case, the Singers were heard but never seen. The NGSD is considered an evolutionarily significant unit. New Guinea Singing Dogs are named for their distinctive and melodious howl, which is characterized by a sharp increase in pitch at the start and very high frequencies at the end.
The details of the Sighting
We invited Tom to offer his own account of the trip and the sighting…
A client approached me at the end of 2011 requesting a bespoke trip that was ‘beyond any usual tourist or trek route, ideally mountainous and not hot and humid’. For a long time, I had been looking at Mandala Mountain on the West Papua map. It is the 2nd highest free-standing peak in Oceania with very little information available about it. It seemed to fit the requirements.
At an unconfirmed 4,760 m (no one is really sure) Mandala Mountain is the highest peak in the Star Mountain range – one of the most remote and unexplored areas of the world and until 40 years ago Mandala mountain even had its own permanent glacier. Here the native flora and fauna species, including the secretive singing dogs have remained in virtual isolation and undisturbed for thousands of years.
The twelve-day tour included myself and the client, plus a trusted cook and guide that I had used before and seven local porters and guides from the starting village, itself an expensive one hour chartered plane ride from the capital of West Papua, Jayapura.
At the time of the sighting, we were in a dramatic, wide valley with 4,000m peaks and limestone walls with waterfalls on either side. We spent a total of four days camping in this valley and there was regular contact with a number of exciting animals: couscous, possums and even tree kangaroos were seen most days, as well as many unidentified ground-nesting birds living in the swamp grass. One species of bird of paradise was heard in the lower forest, but not seen. There were a few highland flowers and grasses and occasional groves of an ancient cycad species – primordial in every respect.
The guide and cook were 10 minutes ahead of us on day one of the return the trek, they had stopped I presumed, for us to catch up. When we reached them the guide proclaimed ‘dog’. This took me quite by surprise and it took three explanations by him for me to understand. But sure enough above us on the rocky outcrop in the bush, there was a dog – the guide seemed as bemused by it being there as we were. After initially being quite close to the guide, by the time we arrived, it had taken a position on the hillside above us; this is the position found in the photos. We watched it for around 15 minutes as it continued to watch us. It seemed as curious as we were but not particularly scared or nervous. What stood out was how healthy it looked upon closer examination with binoculars.
I had no in-depth knowledge of NGSD’s at the time of the expedition and the photos in question were merely one of a huge number taken. To my utmost regret I did not make any video footage, nor did I try to get any closer. But in the context of any trip to Papua at the time, this was no stranger than other events that happen daily – such as waking up one morning to see one of the porters using a tree kangaroo as a neck scarf to keep him warm.
There have been no previous confirmed reports of Singers in that general area. This can be easily explained by the fact that it is not an area the locals would ever go to, or at least not very often. There is much better hunting in the lower forests and hills. It is also very rarely visited by any other visitors.
When we returned from the trek, I searched for more information on the Singing Dogs of Papua and realized that I had possibly the only ever photo of one in the wild. The photos have since been disseminated amongst various experts including the American-based New Guinea Dog Conservation Society.
More recently, our native Papuan guide again reported seeing a wild dog. This time in the Mount Trikora area of West Papua. The photo that Tom took has been cropped to show the dog specifically and can be seen below.