First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

Is this the first ever photograph of a New Guinea Singing Dog in the wild?

Photo from the trail, cropped to show dog

We had word of some very exciting wildlife news at Adventure Alternative HQ recently. It was 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 trek in the remote Star Mountains of Western New Guinea Island. These elusive dogs have most probably never been photographed in the wild before, so this is potentially huge in the NGSD world.

Tom, who has been living and working in SE Asia for the last ten years, is now based in Sabah and Sarawak from where he runs Adventure Alternative Borneo – the company that came into existence after a chance meeting 3 years ago with Adventure Alternative founder Gavin Bate. Along with a rainforest camp called Lupa Masa next to World Heritage Mt Kinabalu Park in Sabah, Adventure Alternative is also providing assistance to new community tourism and reforestation project based around 6 Penan villages in the remote interior of Sarawak. With financial support provided by Moving Mountains Trust, Adventure Alternative’s partner charity, the villages aim to plant 15,000-20,000 new hardwood saplings per year on previously logged and burnt forest.

Every year or so, Tom leads expeditions to New Guinea, an island shared between the independent Papua New Guinea and Indonesian controlled West Papua.  New Guinea is a truly remarkable destination as these facts and figures testify:

  • It is the 2nd largest island on earth, covering 785,753 sq km.
  • Although this landmass covers less than 0.5% of the world’s surface, it is estimated to contain up to 8% of the world’s known land and sea species, with countless still unknown and waiting to be discovered.
  • In terms of size of continuous rainforest it is exceeded only by the Amazon and the Congo.
  • And whilst only 1% of the world’s population call New Guinea home, the number of native languages spoken, account for over one sixth of all languages on earth – that is over 1,100 distinct dialects!

The Main Photo in Question

The photo taken from the trail of the dog on the hillside above

The same photo again (hence the slightly low resolution)
Now cropped closely to the dog its self

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 it’s 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 1 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 4 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 1 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 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.

Here are some more photos that were captured on the trip:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua, Mt Trikora, on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. At 4,750 m Trikora is also in an area that the New Guinea Singing Dogs have been seen by the locals. The scheduled climb will either begin or end with the annual Baliem Valley tribal highlands festival – this is when all the various highlands tribes come together for a big party in Wamena. For all of the trip information, click here.

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 NGSG 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 4 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 future and the ethical dilemma faced.

The latest consensus from the experts regarding the photos is that “all of the photos have been examined forensically and there is no indication that they have been tampered with or are fakes. No layering is present. We also have had these photos examined by a PHD in Tropical Biology who is currently involved in rainforest research and conservation in New Guinea and his conclusion of the photos are that the plant life is consistent with the Star Mountain Range of the New Guinea Highlands”.

There are some people that may well question why there is a need to capture a wild animal and take it from its natural habitat. We asked Tom Wendt, founder of New Guinea Singing Dog International to explain further:
There are a couple of reasons why actually capturing a Singer is important. You first need to know that the NGSD is genetically nearly identical to the AU Dingo and the first descendant of the wolf. Although it’s yet to be proven, I believe that before the end of the Ice Age (when PNG and AU were land locked) the AU and PNG Dingo/NGSD were the same being.

The first good reason follows the same theme as the Australian version. Hybridization of both versions threatens their survival in their pure form. There was a day when the NGSD lived everywhere on PNG in a pure form. It was us humans who started the decline of numbers by bringing in domestic dog breeds. The hybridized NGSD or Village Dogs are man-made. This is the main reason that the NGSD could only be found these days in the place where you found one.

Both halves of the island’s governments are in such disarray, there is virtually no interest in setting up and funding some type of sanctuary for the NGSD that would serve to keep it in it’s pure form.

The other threat to the NGSD’s survival is that the natives are known to kill and eat a ‘Singer’ before preserving it. This is especially true in the highlands as the unhybridized versions are supreme hunters. In AU most provinces encourage the hunting and elimination of Dingoes as they are a threat to livestock. The same holds true in PNG.

The goal is to have a healthy population of NGSD’s here available to go back into the wild or to a sanctuary or preserve designed to keep the Singers alive in their pure form. Until the day comes that sanctuaries can be setup in PNG to keep the Highland Wild Dog from going extinct, we are the best option for their survival. With the population here being from a very limited gene pool the fear is that inbreeding will render the captive NGSD’s defective.

The Basenji (Africa’s wild dog) went through some severe health issues years ago and actually got to the point where inbreeding defects had threatened their very survival here. It was a group of folks passionate about the breed (not the experts) who raised the funds for the expeditions that captured new bloodlines and saved the Basenji from going extinct”.

Options for following up this significant and rare sighting are still being considered. Including return expeditions subject to funding and permissions.

More Information:
YouTube video about New Guinea Singing Dogs
For updates on the story, follow us on our Facebook page.
Further photos from the expedition on the Adventure Alternative Borneo Facebook page.
In 2013, Adventure Alternative will be offering the chance to climb the 3rd highest mountain in Papua – Mt Trikora on the 100th anniversary of the first ever summit expedition. For all of the trip information, click here.

Scientific American have written a great article on the sighting, with more extensive information on the NGSD to visit, click here.

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11 thoughts on “First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog?

  1. This is definetly not the first picture of a wild New Guiena dingo. That was taken by Dr. Tim Flannery in about 1989 at Dokfuma in the Papua New Guinea part of the Star Moutnains. It was published in his book The Mammals Of New Guinea. At the request of the IUCN Canid Specialist Group I have established a panel that is doing a formal assesment of the number in the wild population using secondary estimates since there has never been a systematic study and direct population estimate for the wild NGD. At this time we have a first rough estimate of perhaps 2,000 (or 1,000 breeding pairs). This will go into a formal report next year and the CSG will then decide what conservation status to designate the NGD. We anticipate due to their restricted range they will likely be given a “Vulnerable” status like the Australian dingo. As for hybridization being a current threat to the wild NGD, we believe this to be exaggerated. There are very few domestic dogs taken anywhere into NGD range, and all of the reports of natives who did take a dog in say the NGDs were very aggressive toward the domestic dog. In captivity NGDs are very territorial and have high aggression toward unfamiliar dogs so we anticipate the same behavior in the wild population. Therefore, unlike the case of the AU dingo, genetic introgression from domestic dog to wild NGD is unlikely to be anywhere near significant. There have been wild NGD puppies occassionally captured and incorporated into the village dog population. However, the 12 Highland native village dogs we have tested for NGD markers did not have any and came out just domestic dog, so genetic intorgressiion from NGD into domestic dogs is also probably not significant. The main danger is transmission of diseases like distemper and parvo from domestic dogs to NGDs, as there are no endemic canid diseases in New Guinea the NGDs have little resistance to those brought in by domestic dogs. It would be irresponsible to capture any wild NGD without first doing a systematic scientific study of them in the wild, in order to determine their natural behaviors and the status of the local population. In today’s economy and given the competitive nature of funding for field research on canids, getting the funding for such a study is problematic. The New Guiena Singing Dog Conservation Society, Papua New Guinea, is working on this, and planning to use trail cameras supplied by the NGSDCS USA to survey wild NGDs in several areas of Papua New Guinea. An observational field study will then be done in one of the places they verify wild NGDs. Scats and hairs will be collected to sutdy their DNA. The NGD is a genetically unique subspecies of dog, the most ancient evolutionarly line still maintaining genetic integrity, and they deserve to be studied properly.

  2. In response to Janice Koler-Matznicks comments. The title “First Ever Photo of a Wild Singing Dog ?” has a question mark after it. It’s not a statement but asks the question. Tom and the Adventure Alternative team have already been made aware of the 1989 photo and have reached out to Tim Flannery for comment. Just like Tim’s photo back in 1989, Tom’s photo is of an alleged NGSD. The good news is that like Tim’s photo, Tom’s was taken at a very remote and high altitude which makes the chances that these photos are of a hybridized NGSD almost nil. Fyi, the photos have been authenticated and the fauna in them have been examined as well and are consistent with the location where they were taken.

    To sum up the rest of your post, we believe that your 2000 Highland Wild Dogs still thriving is a grossly exaggerated. Two alleged photographs along with a sighting or two in 23yrs screams nearly extinct as well. I also cannot agree with your theory that a pure Highland Wild Dog would show aggression towards a domestic dog or hybrid. Especially if that meeting was during mating season. The good news is that the Irian Jaya or Western half of PNG (where our efforts are being focused) is much less populated than the Eastern Province where you are currently operating.

    As you must be extremely busy, you may have missed an email from me asking that you take on the role of co-science advisor in this effort. Your experience and credentials with New Guinea Singing Dogs is second only to Dr Brisbin who has also offered to assist.

    With funding and cost being the issue, any field study and/or additional research will be placed on the back burner for now. The immediate goal is to get some trail cams setup in some locations recommended by the locals along with the actual sighting location. By next year we hope to have footage and be ready to send over an exploration team.

    We are in a unique position here with both Tom and Adventure Alternative teams desire to assist in this effort. They have both the expertise and the willingness to help us accomplish the goal of adding new bloodlines to the North American NGSD population.

    Lastly, you also have a Board member James (Mac) McIntyre who back in the mid 90’s was sent over to PNG by Dr Brisbin to try and bring back new bloodlines. He is greatly respected and has vast exploration experience. We would like to include Mac in this effort as I am certain Mac and Tom would work well together. I have hesitated to include him in this effort until we heard back from you so please take the time to respond Janice. My private email addy is tomcue2@hotmail.com

  3. Congrats to Tom on an exciting and momentous photo!! It has been over 20 years since we’ve seen a photo of a wild NGSD! I am so thrilled to see they really still do exist in the wild! I live with two NGSDs in the U.S. and they are so special to me; they are truly amazing canids and deserve protection in their wild state.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful photo. I guess I better get a second job and start saving for the trek in 2013!!

  4. NGSD in the wild are still around but far from any human settlements or hunting areas, its diffircult to get an accurate estimate of the pure bloodline population and work needs to be done. Just heard many stories from local people from very remote parts of PNG Highlands telling me about this special “Wild Dog”… Iam looking for it and we are determined (3 Musketters) to protect it from commercial interest who want to do breeding and selling the pups. If we do get an estimate and the ranges in PNG, all commercial interest from overseas will be barred through Govt Policy and legislation from coming to PNG and sneaking off into the remote mountains and jungles to look for our own original native dog. Be warned those that are out there trying to commercialise on the NGSD.

  5. In response to Tribal Chief Kenn Mondiai,

    I am saddened to read your letter. Contrary to what you have been told, we are not trying to commercialize the Highland Wild Dog of PNG. We are simply a group of people who feel that the future well being of the Highland Wild Dog here in the states should not rest alone with Zoos and other commercial facilities.

    Regarding Adventure Alternative and Mr. Tom Hewitt, you once again have been mislead. This organization has done plenty of wonderful humanitarian work over the years. Mr. Hewitt spotted and photographed the NGSD on the Irian Jaya side of the island has agreed to join in the effort with nothing to be gained other than to assist.

    The NGSDCS USA was asked to be part of this effort but declined. Considering just how rarely the Wild dog has been seen over the past 20+ years, I can only conclude that the USA branch of your organization is not interested in any collaborative effort which is why we had branched off and formed our own organization to begin with. Our website clearly defines our mission which is very much the same as the NGSDCS http://www.newguineasingingdoginternational.com/

    We wish you well and are hopeful that you, Mike, and Win will succeed in your goal. We have read about your efforts and respect you. By that same token we realize how difficult a task this will be and feel that having another organization involved could only be a positive thing. We would hope you agree with this.

  6. Mr. Mondiai, I like your reference to the 3 musketeers! It sounds like you have a true sense of adventure! I totally agree that the singing dogs in New Guinea belong in New Guinea. As a budding conservation biologist, with a keen interest in canids, I am a firm supporter of maintaining biodiversity in our planet’s landscapes and in the animals that inhabit them. I hope you didn’t think I’d like to visit in order to snatch a singer! Far from it, I would love to see one in the wild, where they belong, and to experience the wild beauty of your land.

    The New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society (NGSDCS) was formed, I believe, in order to maintain a population of singing dogs outside of New Guinea as there was no certainty about the viability of the population of wild singers left in New Guinea at that time. A second mission of the NGSDCS was to help fund a study in New Guinea to ascertain the present population.

    I am so glad to read that you are hearing from those that live in the Highlands that they are aware of singers in various areas. I wish you luck and blessings in your work.

  7. Pingback: First photo of rare, wild New Guinea singing dog in 23 years - About-Dogs.co

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  9. The picture is now featuring on the National Geographic online news, amongst other places;
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/12/121213-singing-dog-sighting-new-guinea-rare-animals-science/
    With reference to comments made in various places, questioning the picture’s authenticity, we can again assure all concerned that the photo is absolutely genuine.
    Of course we are however, not able to confirm the exact genetic nature of the dog from Tom Hewitt’s remote observations.
    We would underline that we have absolutely no motivation to mislead any party in this affair and indeed much to lose in doing so. We hope that making this photo public only serves to assist and excite others who have the best interests of the natural environment at heart.
    Adventure Alternative

  10. Pingback: Rare Singing Dog Photographed | TheFridaypost

  11. Pingback: Rare Singing Dog Photographed in New Guinea? | marshmallownipples

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