Papuan Dogs – the first companions of man

Published by: Thomas Schultze-Westrum

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A closer look at the highland strain from which the NGSD has descended to the modern world of pets, kennels and kennel clubs:

The discovery of the densely populated highlands of central New Guinea happened only in the 1930s. The wide valleys had been largely stripped of trees in pre-historic times. Only in higher altitudes original moss forest had remained to a larger extent; When I ascended the extinct volcano Mt. Bosavi ( 2.896 meters a.s.l.) our coastal dog Sobi accompanied the party: the jumble of countless roots and low strata of moss-covered shrubs and trees made it very difficult even for little Sobi to squeece through on her way and many times she vanished underground in caverns covered by layers of roots, ferns and other dense vegetation (photo). She was cheerful, though, in her never ending, exciting exploration…but no way any dog could live up there in the forest for longer periods of time without the company of people: it seems impossible!

In the wide, open highland valleys only some patches of forest remained on the bottom and on slopes (photos). And further clearing by ax and fire pushes the limits of forest even higher up. In the wake of this shifting cultivation by the highland Papuans – whose autochthonousagricultural system, on the other hand, was dated as being one of the most ancient such traditions on Earth (cf. the previous chapter) – both in Papua New Guinea and in the Dani region of West Papua, there remained vast areas of abandoned land, covered gradually by a growth of high secondary „alang – alang“ grass.

It is in these anthropogenic grasslands of the Southern Highlands District and in similiar environments further to the east and to the west – right into West Papua – that the highland strain of Papuan dogs found suitable environments for living independent of man – but why part of the population actually converted to a feral way of life remains nevertheless in the dark.

There are several reports referring to „tunnel“-like tracks leading over wide distances through the grassland territories of small packs of dogs (F30). Quite naturally, any larger size groups were not sustainable in this environment of rather narrow tracks through the stiff and high alang-alang. Food supply was limited as there is not much larger prey: rats, wallabies and other, smaller marsupials, feral piglets, reptiles, frogs, ground dwelling birds and their eggs, perhaps also some larger insects. In the Star Mountains a considerable amount of their food is vegetarian (nuts, fruit) or scavenged from other animals, such as leftovers of the harpy eagle’s prey (BINO 1996).

The feral dog populations extended further to the natural alpine shrublands and subsequent alpine grasslands in altitudes above 3.000 meters. Again, Barry Craig sent me this report (F29): „In the Star Mountains (central New Guinea) in 1965, we followed dog tracks through the alpine grasslands at 3.300 metres to get from one place to another, rather than try to cut our own trails. And at one stage (before I got up onto the plateau with the rest of the expedition) they shot a wild dog to eat, as they were running out of supplies while waiting for an airdrop of food. Prior to that, the dogs came close to the camp but after that they kept well away. Wisely.“

Feral animals in general are by no means more tame, but can be more easily tamed (again) than true wild individuals of ancestor species. When I was studying the free-ranging populations of goats on Greek islands, I had great difficulties in stalking with the camera the feral goats of Gioura in the Marine Park Northern Sporades, as they were extremely shy (SCHULTZE-WESTRUM 1962). And in the primeval forest of Divjake at the Albanian coast of the Adriatic Sea, it took me five days to get some camera shots of the mysterious cattle roaming unattended in this forest since times immemorial. It was worth the efforts,though, because since this small population became extinct before any reseach about their relationship and habits was undertaken.

It appeared to me then that these animals had some past experience of how man behaves and therefore were able to hide and keep their distance, but also to take their benefit – like those highland dogs did when coming near the camp site of Barry Craig. I wish to mention here also the experiences at Kiel in Germany, with the descendents of highland dogs; they became very tame, and equally so their parents at San Diego zoo being the direct descendents of the original pair at Sydney zoo (SCHULTZ 1968).

Back to the description of locations in the New Guinea highlands: Hallstrom’s pair was caught in the Lavani Valley of the Southern Highlands of PNG, on land owned by the Huli (or Huri) – Duna tribe. It is an area of extended anthropomorphic grasslands. Also covered by secondary vegetation (which indicates a relatively long human occupation) is the wider southern part of the Eipomek Valley, where W. Nelke collected 5 specimens in 1976, for the Kiel institute of research in domestic animals (Institut für Haustierkunde). The Eipo dogs were not feral, but acquired from the local people (VOTH 1988).

BRISBIN et al. (1994) reckon that there might be still „pure“ highland dogs to be found at Mt. Giluwe and Mt. Wilhelm in the central highlands of PNG. McIntyre, according to MATZNICK et al. 2000, investigated the region of Mt. Stolle in the western highlands of PNG in 1996. No feral dogs were observed, but tracks, scats and reports by locals indicated their occurrence. In the same area, between 1994 and 1996, BINO (1996) discovered prey remains and resting areas and collected scats for analysis (no results have been published so far). There are also further reports from Star Mountains (F29). During the Australian Carstensz Glaciers Expeditions of 1971 – 1973 (HOPE 1976) wild dogs „were often seen by expedition members, and were particularly common at high altitudes. Two dogs were seen climbing New Zealand Pass in the late afternoon at about 4.300 m, and tracks were seen in snow in the Pass amd on the Northwall. Faeces were widespread, and were seen up to 4.700 m on cliff ledges on the Carstensz Pyramid. Dogs were also seen in the Carstensz Meadow and near Lake Dugundugu. A dog was photographed at the latter locality during a snow storm. Dogs calls were often heard in the afternoon and at night, particularly on the Kemabu Plateau, and dogs moved down to the Carstensz Meadow to raid rubbish dumps at the Ertsberg Mine.“

When making enquiries at the PNG Wildlife Department in 1974 ,I was given this information: at the north-western ridge of Mt. Herbert (which is located north-west of Mt. Wilhelm) many dogs had been observed howling in chorus.

I have no ecological details about the location(s) on Mt. Scratchley, Northern Division of PNG where the 2 specimens now in the Queensland Museum were collected in 1889 and 1918 respectively, in an altitude of 2.300 meters a.s.l. (according to SCHULTZ 1968 – but 800 meters a.s.l. according to another source… ). VIS (1911) classifies them as „wild“ dogs. WOOD – JONES 1929 who examined their skulls, considers them as „a very definite race … sub-species of Canis familiaris“. These specimens may rather belong to the strain of Papuan dogs which is distributed also in the sub-montane region and studied by us in the foothills of Mt. Bosavi (cf. below). The short neck and other proportions of the Mt. Scratchley dogs do not match NGSD characteristics (KOLER-MATZNICK et al. 2003) but may be in accordance with the dogs we found at Bosavi. Unfortunately, BOESSNECK and MEYER – LEMPPENAU 1969 in their analysis of Bosavi skulls do not refer to the measurements taken by WOOD – JONES 1929 on the Mt. Skratchley specimens. It would be worth undertaking a wider comparative study in this respect. But because I can do the dog research only as a side line and without any institutional support, there is no possibility for me to approach this and related tasks.

A few more words about the great variability of coat colouration (cf. chapter C) in the early generations of captive highland dogs (F14), before the more uniform NGSD breed evolved by human selection, through breeders preferences and kennel club standards: most of the 31 individuals reared (up to 1968) in the Institut für Haustierkunde, Kiel, had a brown coat colouration in different shades and with white markings, on the feet and in the face, but sometimes also a white patch on the neck. 10 were black with white markings (SCHULTZ 1969). There is no evidence that the founder highland dogs (the Hallstrom pair) and their ancestors had been interbred with foreign dogs imported to New Guinea.This great variability of the native highland strain is similiar to that described for the dingo ( cf. the previous chapter). The reader also should note in this context the quote from AUSTEN 1950, referring to the Star Mountains, under „The coastal- lowland strain of Papuan dogs“, further below.

I wish to add some notes by government anthropologist E. W. R. CHINNERY (1928) who refers to dogs of the natives at the upper Waria River (which drains towards the north): These mountain dogs, he says, are short, stocky, densely coated, with short, bushy tails. They are quite different from the dogs of the lowlands.

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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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