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.
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.