It all started in 2012, when a client from Germany, Markus, came to me requesting to do a trek that was as remote as possible. Although originally from the UK, I have been working and travelling in South-East Asia for 15 years: for the last six years, I have been director of Adventure Alternative Borneo. Marcus and I decided to try and summit Gunung Mandala in the Star Mountains of West Papua, one of the second seven summits. Whilst I had seen some strange creatures in Papua on previous trips, I was not aware of the existence of these unique dogs before we spotted one.
On day nine of the extremely arduous trek, we were on our way back from the summit, retracing our steps through a huge limestone valley at 3,600 metres, criss-crossed with sink holes. Our guide stopped and pointed to a dog on the valley side to our right. By this point we had seen many unusual sights - the porters climbing trees to catch tree kangaroos, a live possum being used as a head warmer each morning - and the presence of a dog seemed a little strange, but not out of the Papua ordinary. Little did we know that we had just spotted one of the rarest canids in the world, a species that was feared to be extinct in the wild.
It was fortunate that my camera had a good zoom and still had battery life, and took a photo as we watched the creature for maybe 10 minutes. It was not frightened at all: it seemed as curious about us as us with it. I recall thinking how healthy it looked, with its thick coat of fur. Only later at camp did Markus remark that he had seen something about these singing dogs in Papua on National Geographic: this piqued my interest, to say the least, and we vowed to find out more information when we got back to the main city in five days’ time. That was when the fun really began.
After doing some research, we found out that, excitingly, there was only one known photo of a Highland Mountain Dog (a similar breed to the New Guinea Singing Dog, or NGSD) in the wild previously: and even this picture had its doubters. I was fortunate to contact one of two NGSD societies in the USA; this ultimately lead me to contact James Macintrye, the scientist that the second expedition took place with.
By this point, the photo had reached a number of people and groups, and there proceeded to be a heated debate online about the authenticity of the photo. Many people claimed I and the photograph were frauds, and that I was just using it to promote myself and my company. I guess showed the level of interest and rarity involved. When cropped the photo did look like it could have been photo shopped ironically and I am sure this did not help.
The photo was sent off for testing by a couple of experts, and the scientist involved was suitably convinced to start planning in earnest a return visit to Papua to try and get as close to where the photo was taken as possible. Whilst I had heard the dogs on a expedition the next year and found footprints, a photo was deemed a more significant starting point. This University of Papua (UNIPA) were keen to collaborate with us on the trip, and sent two of their senior team with us.
Logistically, the second expedition was going to be much tougher to pull off. Although it was extremely exciting and I felt very honoured to be involved in such a unique environmental and wildlife conservation opportunity, I knew it was going to be extremely challenging to organise. This time, we were going back to the valley in a helicopter and not on foot. We also needed to find guides and porters and cooks to take there.
On top of all of these logistics, we still had the pressure of getting precious DNA evidence. After all, this was what the second expedition was all about: without DNA proof, the second trip would be an expensive and moral failure - even if we got a thousand camera trap pictures!
It was only on the second week that we had a breakthrough with the camera traps in a very remote valley in the Lorentz National Park. Whilst these photos were extremely exciting to collect - checking the traps every couple of days was a bit like opening a Christmas stocking – they proved nothing without DNA proof. Without this positive DNA, it was impossible to say if the ones we saw were full blooded wild NGSD. We all knew that it would still be weeks before DNA sample results would be ready, and whether we could celebrate or not.
And celebrate we did. The samples came back, proving that there was indeed a wild population of these rare dogs. This find was announced several weeks ago, and the exciting piece of news that has gathered press attention from the scientific community, as the Highland Wild Dog is an incredibly important missing link canid crucial to science.
The next phase of the project will aim to live capture individuals, complete veterinary exams, collect further samples for testing, and carry out radio collaring. Watch this space!
Words: Tom Hewitt