Damned Dingo? Conserving Australia’s Wild Canid is a Controversial Issue

On the back of his dog trailer, Dingoman has a sign offering to sell you a pair of purebred dingo pups for a million bucks — payment now, delivery 2035. Seems a bit expensive? Read on, and it makes more sense: “These beautiful endangered species pups … will be available in 20 years when there are probably none left in the wild — due to ongoing government and local persecution.”

Two dingoes, a sandy-coloured male and an almost-white female, trot around as Dingoman explains how he poured his life savings into decking out a bus and the dog trailer. He plans to take the bus and his two canid companions around Victoria in the coming months. The trio will be travelling under the banner of the Ozwolf Dingo Foundation Inc, set up by Dingoman in 2012, to raise public awareness about dingo conservation.

“I believe that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “People meeting the dingo and saying ‘shit’, in the wild they should be doing their job.”

Amanda McDowell from the Australian Dingo Conservation Association also discourages people from keeping dingoes as pets and warns that out of their comfort zone they become highly unpredictable. “When they’re in season they can also become very aggressive and quite dangerous to strangers and the likes of kids or other pets … like any other top order predator in captivity, you’ve got to work to its needs and not yours,” she says.

Even if they do belong there, dingoes in the wild face numerous challenges. “The dingo has no safe place in this country,” says Dr Arian Wallach, director of the Dingo for Biodiversity Project and Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Compassionate Conservation, University of Technology Sydney.

Making dingoes’ natural habitats safe for them is Dingoman’s mission. “I think they’re being victimised,” he says. The first step is drawing public attention to their plight. Even his name, which he changed by deed poll 15 years ago, is designed to spark curiosity about dingo conservation. (For the record, he’s more than happy with Dingoman and says he’ll probably be buried that way, but it does make putting in a Medicare claim interesting.)

“As an apex predator they’ve got to be given the chance to prove that they’re a necessity, they’ve been around the Australian bush for a lot longer than we have,” Dingoman says.

The dingo’s ecological role

Dingoes are a ‘keystone species’, which means they play a crucial role in mainland Australia’s terrestrial ecosystems, and other species are dependent on them for survival.

“The ability of native animals in particular, but also plants, to thrive in this ecosystem, [which] has both native and introduced species, is largely affected by how we treat dingoes,” Dr Wallach says.

Research has shown dingoes keep certain other animals in check; they exert a balancing influence over the ecosystem and promote biodiversity. Among other things, they suppress foxes and regulate kangaroo numbers, which means small and medium native mammals are preyed upon less and have more vegetation available for cover.

The dingo’s positive ecological effect reaches across a range of different environments. “We’ve looked at [dingoes in] arid zones, we’ve looked at them in temperate, and in tropical zones, where you’ve got different fauna and different factors, and their effect is quite consistent,” says Dr Mathew Crowther, associate professor in the school of Biological Sciences at The University of Sydney.

The dingo’s relationship with the endangered dusky hopping mouse provides a striking example of its ability to protect other native species. In a study published last year, scientists found hopping mice were more abundant in areas where dingo activity was higher and concluded that the dingo gives refuge to its tiny rodent friend by suppressing feral cats.

Dingoman of Narbethong with his two dingoes, Spirit (front) and Mystic. Dingoman believes dingoes belong in the wild but are persecuted there so need advocates such as himself to raise awareness about their plight. In particular, he would like to see an end to the use of sodium fluoroacetate, known as 1080, which is banned in most states in the US and studies have shown is often taken up by native species.

The message that dingoes have the ability to protect other native species is crucial, says Dingoman: “We’re trying to get it to the government that it’s not just trying to save one species, because this one [the dingo] will save others if given the chance.”

But dingo conservation is a complex and controversial issue, with the dingo’s ecological value being only one piece of the puzzle.

Throughout Australia, the dingo’s conservation and protection status vary. In Victoria, they’re listed as a threatened species but are only ‘protected wildlife’ in certain areas. Dingoman believes rewilding dingoes in national parks, along with giving them more widespread protection, is essential for the species’ survival, and he is planning a breeding program to provide dingoes for future release.

Others are pushing for dingo rewilding, too, including a group of scientists who have put forward a proposal to allow dingoes back into Sturt National Park by altering the Dingo Fence, which runs from eastern Queensland to the South Australian coastline.

If this rewilding experiment goes ahead, it will be a victory for many dingo conservationists, and further opportunity to assess the dingo’s potential as an ecological restoration tool. However, the idea has met with opposition from scientists who argue dingoes may actively prey on some threatened species, and the debate carries on.

What, exactly, is a dingo? Not a simple question to answer

To further muddy the waters of the dingo conservation issue, even the definition of a dingo is contentious.

The dingo is neither dog nor subspecies of wolf; it’s a distinct form of canid with its own name, Canis dingo. The definition dilemma arises because dingoes and dogs can interbreed to produce dingo-dog hybrids.

So, the controversy that’s always hot on the dingo’s tail extends to what should be deemed worthy of conservation. Many argue that only purebred dingoes should be protected, while hybrids should continue to be classed as ‘wild dogs’, which are considered pests.

If a dingo’s value lies primarily in its effects on the ecosystem, hybridisation may not be a cause for concern. A study by Dr Crowther and his colleagues found interbreeding with dogs has little effect on dingo skull morphology, even in hybrids with a very small percentage of dingo genes. Skull dimensions are a key means of distinguishing dingoes from dogs, based on the most recent scientific description of the dingo published in 2014. Skull shape and size also determine what a carnivore can eat and are instrumental in the dingo’s position as an apex predator.

Dr Crowther explains it’s likely the dingo’s ‘wild’ genes are dominant and “when we talk about ecological role there’s probably no difference between a dingo and a dingo-dog hybrid”. On the flipside, he says, dogs with no dingo genes are extremely rare in the wild — they don’t have what it takes to survive.

For those who argue only genetically pure dingoes should be conserved, hybridisation is the biggest threat to the species, and wild populations could be extinct by 2050 according to some estimations.

A clash between carivores and graziers

Regardless of their stance on hybridisation, though, dingo advocates agree that conflict with graziers is a pressing concern. Understandably, farmers don’t want their livestock killed by predators of any description, and lethal control of offending animals may seem like the only option.

However, killing dingoes (and hybrids) disrupts pack structure, which can compound the livestock predation problem.

“Lethal methods are very costly, they’re very inefficient, and they can even be counterproductive,” Dr Wallach says. For instance, a study found that calf losses from predation were greater and occurred more frequently in areas where wild canids were poison baited, compared with non-baited areas.

Female dingo photographed in the Simpson Desert. Dr Arian Wallach believes learning to live with wild canids and using non-lethal control methods is not only good for the environment but also good for farmers: “I managed a ‘predator-friendly’ [cattle] station in South Australia … The major cause of preventable deaths in the cattle that we were managing was not dingoes at all but husbandry related issues, and husbandry related issues are things that we can actually fix.” Photo courtesy Dr Arian Wallach.

In contrast, non-lethal methods of predator control, such as the use of guardian dogs, are very effective at eliminating or reducing predation by dingoes, even for livestock more vulnerable to attack, such as sheep and chickens.

“Guardian animals are expensive when you start off, but they cut the losses right down, so they basically pay for themselves in a couple of years,” Dr Crowther says. Non-lethal control also has the benefit of leaving the dingo free to fulfil its apex predator role and regulate wild herbivores, which compete with stock for pasture.

The dingo’s mysterious past

Amid ongoing discussions about the dingo’s future, scientists are beginning to unravel the mystery of its past. Understanding the dingo’s history — and how it has affected Australia’s history — adds another dimension to the conservation debate, particularly in light of its cultural significance to Aboriginal people.

Archaeological evidence suggests the dingo arrived in Australia around 4000 years ago, in the mid-Holocene period, but its origins remain an enigma. Recent genetic studies, however, have provided a crucial clue: dingoes lack a gene required to digest starch.

“Starch is something that comes with cereal agriculture,” says Dr Melanie Fillios, an archaeologist from the University of New England. “You can give a domestic dog bread, and they will digest it just fine … but dingoes can’t.” So, it’s unlikely dingoes were brought here by agriculturalists.

Dr Fillios and her colleague narrowed down the groups of people who could have introduced the dingo to Australia, and Toalean hunter-gatherers from South Sulawesi in Indonesia came out on top. The next step, she says, is to search for archaeological dog remains from Southeast Asia to study their DNA and determine if they are the dingo’s ancestors.

It’s probable that soon after they arrived, dingoes formed a relationship with Aboriginal people, which could have influenced many aspects of Indigenous culture.

Dr Jane Balme, associate professor in the School of Social Sciences at The University of Western Australia, noticed an interesting shift in faunal remains at archaeological sites, which coincided with the dingo’s arrival. “From the mid-Holocene there seemed to be a change in the fauna that you find in a lot of archaeological sites in Australia and particularly with a move to a wider range of species and more smaller animals,” she says.

While working in the Kimberly, Dr Balme noted that even though both Aboriginal men and women keep dogs, it’s mostly the women who use dogs to hunt for goanna and other smaller animals. Observations by early explorers and anthropologists suggest a longstanding relationship between female hunters and dingoes, which led Dr Balme to hypothesise that the changes in fauna appearing in archaeological sites around the mid-Holocene were due to Aboriginal women using dingoes to flush out smaller game.

The dingo’s presence may have shaped Aboriginal societies in several ways. “For example, if women take dogs out with them when they go foraging they’re likely to encounter meat more often, which would improve their nutritional intake and if you improve your nutritional intake, you improve your fertility,” Dr Balme says. “Because it changed societies, it’s likely to have changed rituals and organisation.”

The dingo may have formed strong bonds with Aboriginal people, but doesn’t appear to have been domesticated by them. “Once they got here you don’t see much morphological change, which is normally associated with domestication,” Dr Balme says. So, it makes sense that interacting with dingoes feels very different to interacting with domestic dogs.

And its future?

Dr Balme and Dr Fillios both intend to continue digging away at the mystery of the dingo’s past, seeking knowledge that may also impact its future.

“By giving some antiquity to their time here and some importance to how they came and the role they might have played, I think that might help change people’s perceptions of them,” Dr Fillios says.

Not all dingoes are sandy-coloured like Spirit. In an updated description of the dingo published in 2014, researchers noted that museum specimens of dingoes, from animals that were unlikely to have interbred with domestic dogs, had a wide range of coat colours and colours combinations. This means coat colour is not a reliable means of distinguishing dingoes from dingo-dog hybrids — a myth that persists despite the updated description.

Dingoman agrees that changing perceptions is critical, especially those of the next generation. “It’ll be the little kids that are the ones to save them,” he says. Perhaps the opportunity to get up close to Dingoman’s two dingoes will instil in other children the same fascination and awe he felt for dingoes as a kid.

Despite the uncertainty plaguing the dingo’s future, Dingoman’s quest is one of hope: there is still time to give mainland Australia’s largest terrestrial predator a fair go, and learn to live harmoniously alongside it. There’s also time to learn from past mistakes, and the last line of the sign on the back of the dog trailer reads:

“What would a pair of Tasmanian Tigers be worth today. IT’S NOT TOO LATE!”


A version of this article was originally published in the 2016 spring issue of the Murrindindi Guide magazine under the title “Canis dingo”.

For more information on the Ozwolf Dingo Foundation Inc. got to:

www.ozwolf.com.au

To learn more about the role of dingoes in the wild and ‘predator-friendly’ farming methods go to:

www.dingobiodiversity.com