Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18


A. Personal introduction

The island of New Guinea has long remained the last unexplored tropical wilderness on Earth – „a country,“ wrote Alfred Russel Wallace less than 140 years ago, „which no naturalist had ever resided in before, a country which contained more strange and beautiful natural objects than any other part of the globe.“ (WALLACE 1869). Well into the 1930s explorers had only the sketchiest knowledge of what lay behind the coastline. From the decks of passing ships, the spine of the island appeared to be an unbroken cordilliera which ascended into a region of perennial snow – the highest mountain range between the Andes and the Himalayas. Only some meandering, wide river valleys opened gateways further into the interior.

New Guinea became known as the land of stone age tribes and birds of paradise, itself an enormous bird-shaped island perched above the Cape York Peninsula of Australia. Its head almost touching the Equator and its tail dipping down into the Coral Sea. Head and tail were estimated to be as far apart as London and Istanbul, and the belly and folded wings were as wide as France or Spain (SOUTER 1963).

New Guinea was still the world’s Last Unknown when I first travelled from Genoa to Sydney in 1959 – almost half a century ago,- on boad the m.s. „Oranje“ of the Stoomvaart Maatshappij Nederland. In those days the planet was still felt being large and diverse in its pristine landscapes and autonomous cultures. The onward sea voyage took 28 days, and my first flight ever, in a roaring QANTAS Superconstellation aircraft, took another 8 hours from Sydney to Port Moresby, the capital of the then Australian- administered eastern half of New Guinea. When the plane descended in the early morning haze, I spotted my first Papuan village in the open Eucayptus forest, with light blue smoke hanging over the thatched roofs.

Since then I have made 20 longer jouneys into the wilderness of the island, including the western half – former Dutch New Guinea, nowadays Indonesian – occupied. Zoological and anthropological exploration, but above all conservation work was my occupation over almost three years in total in the field. The last journey, in 2003 took me to the Raja Ampat Archipelago and to the Gulf of Berau in West Papua.

These extensive jouneys and long stays in villages along the coast, in the foothills and the central highlands gave me an unique opportunity to study native domestic dogs, their regional differentiation and their behaviour. It became soon clear that there existed several distinct varieties of indigenous dogs: they reflected in their appearence both ecological adaptations and cultural history. But it also became evident how much those traditional dogs were endangered by cross-breeding with more recently introduced European dogs. So I collected sample material (BOESSNECK and MEYER-LEMPPENAU 1968) and took  photographs. From the 1966 expedition together with my wife Susanne we even brought a female dog from the Papuan Gulf back to our home near Munich.Two years later I added a male, but sadly it turned out to be sterile (cf. chapter F„Sobi and Nerumu“).

I always had dogs around me, from early childhood days. And again now while writing this book on the island of Thassos in the northern Aegean Sea, my faithful companion is a little dog which I found abandoned on our village square two years ago.

My fascination about Papuan dogs began with the first eight-months expedition to eastern New Guinea of 1959, in the company of nature film pioneer Eugen Schuhmacher. While stopping over at Sydney we had the privilege to meet Sir Edward Hallstrom, founder of Taronga Park Zoo. Sir Edward showed us „his dogs“, the first captured pair of „wild“ dogs from the highlands of New Guinea which was named after him Canis hallstromi, by the curator at the Australian Museum Sydney, Ellis Troughton two years earlier, in 1957. This breed became the only better known Papuan dog: it is being promoted in recent years by the members of the „New Guinea Singing Dog Conservation Society“and the „New Guinea Singing Dog Club of America“.

The other, equally authentic varieties of Papuan dogs, however, were never systematically studied, not even noticed.

So I am presenting herewith the first comprehensive survey and photographic documentation of New Guinea dogs.

I am much indepted to Dr. Barry Craig, Curator of Foreign Ethnography at the South Australian Museum for his unpublished observations in the field.

Kazaviti on Thassos Island

in the northern Aegean Sea

14 September, 2006

Thomas Schultze-Westrum

B. Scientific introduction


When Ellis Troughton described scientifically the first central highland dogs brought to Taronga Park Zoo, he presented them as a new species of wild dog, Canis hallstromi (TROUGHTON 1957). Some relationship with the (feral) Australian Dingo was noted, but no link populations in lower regions of New Guinea indicated. The wild population of Hallstrom’s Dog was said to be confined to isolated regions in the New Guinea central mountains, with a possibility of a wider distribution on the island at earlier times ( F1).

Despite of receiving much public attention, the origin and scientific status of Hallstrom’s Dog or- as it was named by USA breeders – the New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD) are wrapped in mystery and contradiction. Hallstrom’s Dog according to published references came out of nowhere and had no closer kinship to any domestic dogs: it was promoted as a mysterious wild species that roamed the jungles of the New Guinea central cordilliera and only occasionally was tamed by native tribal people.(F1, F2, F4, F7, F9, F10). Just one quote: „The New Guinea Singing Dog (NGSD) is a wild dog indigenous to the mountains of New Guinea“ (BRISBIN et al. 2001).

By such statements the impression was created as if this dog had never been a domesticated animal that was introduced by man to its present habitat. The opinions of those scientists which considered this dog as an imported ancient domestic stock that had (partly) returned to wild living again (hence classified „feral“) were largely ignored by those promoters believing that the „Singers“ could be more efficiently preserved from extinction if presented as a wild species in its own right (F3, F6, F7)

This manipulation does not make sense, though, in several ways:

  • No animal population can be both wild and feral. It is in fact either the one or the other of these two options. Vage wordings should never conceal the actual scientific evidence, out of what so ever reason (F3, F5, F7, F11, F12).
  • Why should a domesticated dog with an ancient history be less worthwile preserving as compared with a truely wild species?
  • In research papers and Internet web sites the intention becomes evident to point to various characteristics of the highland dogs which they have in common with wild canids, but are absent in ordinary domestic dogs. For instance: the only once a year regular estrus cycle – which is recorded, however, also from other primitive domestic dogs (cf. chapter C). On the other hand some characteristics which are symptoms of domestication are only marginally noted. For instance the frequent appearance of aberrant white fur patches.
  • How can a wild dog species exist in a region which was reached without the assistence of man by only two placental mammalian taxonomic orders: the volatile bats and rodents? (The other native furried animals of New Guinea belong to the order Marsupialia.) Early immigrants brought also the domestic pig to New Guinea; it became feral as well.
  • And how can the original status of the dingo be defined without any evidence of more or less related dogs on the route from South-East Asia to Australia via New Guinea?

In scientific name-giving (nomenclature) there is equal confusion. In recent publications I noted: Canis hallstromi; Canis lupus hallstromi; Canis lupus dingo; Canis lupus familiaris hallstromi (F8).

Always correctly given is the name of the genus only: Canis. The species‘ name comes second; it should refer to the wild ancestor, the wolf Canis lupus. But J. Clutton-Brock (in MASON 1984) pointed to the fact that Linnaeus in his Systema Naturae of 1758 allocated a distinctive species name for the domestic dog: Canis familiaris. Because breeds of dogs throughout the world are „sufficiently interfertile and sufficiently similiar in their basic characteristics“. The third term in the Linnaean system should provide means to define distinctive geographical sub-species. For instance Canis lupus „pallipes“ for the Indian wolf or Canis lupus „arabs“ for the western Asiatic wolf.

This approach gets us nowhere in clarifying the taxonomic status of dogs, however. So I rather retain the species name lupus also for the domesticated descendents of the wolf and widen the use of the third (sub-species) specification to include indication of domesticated status. Accordingly, domesticated dogs are referred to as Canis lupus familiaris.

In the case of the dingo, this name instead of familiaris is frequently applied.

A forth name can be added by the connecting formula „forma“(f.) for domestic animals: in accordance one can correctly say: Canis lupus familiaris f. papuensis, for the endemic/regional group of dogs which inhabits New Guinea – both Papuan dogs in human custody and feral populations.

There is no provision in the Linnean nomenclature (=taxonomic) system to specify breeds in any way by scientific name appendixes. So it is more convenient and helpful for further classification to add for each separate breed the vernacular (English) name.

As there exist several endemic strains of dogs on New Guinea, the one population that is confined to regions in the central highlands should not be given an isolated status and named the „New Guinea Singing Dog“. Besides, the vocalizations of the other varieties have never been studied , but I can confirm from observations in the field that the voice repertoire as given for the NGSD is not noticeably different from that of other endemic Papuan dogs (cf. chapter E).

I shall use the vernacular name „(New Guinea or Papuan) highland dog“ for the strain originally described as Canis hallstromi and meanwhile known as the NGSD.

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This entry was posted on November 11, 2010 at 21:05 and is filed under Gulf of Papua, Papuan Dogs, Rare breeds, Zoological Research.

7 Responses to “Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man”

  1. Janice Koler-Matznick sagt:

    I just wanted to let people interested in primitive and aboriginal dogs know that there are now Facebook sites dedicated to them: ‎The INDog Project for the Indian village dogs, Village Dogs and Primitive Pariahs World Wide, and African aboriginal dogs. There is also a web site for the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society:

    Contrary to the statements made in the good Dr. Schultze-Westrum’s major contribution to the knowledge about Papuan dogs, the New Guinea singing dog has never been selected in captivity to any „breed“ standard. In fact, after an initial short false start with United Kennel Club, we started the NGSD Conservation Society with its own stud book and no more Singers were registered with UKC. As soon as we had genetic proof they are dingoes, we had them removed from the UKC which does not register AU dingoes. I wrote the standard (required by UKC) after surveying all owners of Singers and having them measure their specimens. All variation in the unavoidably inbred population was included in the written standard/description. The only selection that has gone on is against badly kinked tails as if continued or bred together this can result in problems in the spine. We facilitated the establishment of the NGSDCS Papua New Guinea, a recognized non-profit group in Papua, and have tried for a decade to get field work done on wild Singers, sending equipment, but so far due to lack of major funding not much has been accomplished there. We are still doing what we can but we are a tiny group.

  2. Thomas Schultze-Westrum sagt:

    Hi, many thanks indeed for your encouragement. I am still working on the assemly of papers and notes In the Name of Conservation,
    Keep in touch!

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