To say dingoes are disliked is an understatement. Over the years they’ve become Australia’s Public Enemy Number One, for reasons ranging from the famous Azaria Chamberlain case to the mauling death of a child on Fraser Island.

But there’s one person who would like to see them reintroduced, arguing that dingoes – wild dogs which probably originated from Asia – have a vital role to play in Australia’s ecosystem. Professor Chris Johnson of James Cook University, author of Australia’s Mammal Extinctions: a 50,000 year history, suggests that dingoes can protect Australia’s native mammals from being killed by introduced pests.

“Where you have dingoes you tend to find foxes and cats are rare or absent,” says Johnson. “Or they do less damage, because their behaviour is checked.”

Top dog

The dingo is a ‘top predator’, meaning they’re at the apex of the food chain and can control the predators below them. Introduced into Australia by Asian seafarers around 4,000 years ago, the dingo is descended from the white-footed wolf of South-East Asia and is a superb hunter. While the majority of their diet comes from kangaroos and wallabies, Johnson says there’s evidence that dingoes also prey on feral foxes and cats. These introduced have done enormous damage to Australia’s ecology, contributing to the destruction of 18 native mammal species since European colonisation.

“There’s a dramatic example from the Tanami desert,” says Johnson, saying the desert used to be home to a species of hare-wallaby, the mala. “The last population was surviving in the presence of dingoes. The Conservation Commission [of the Northern Territory] decided to poison dingoes to give the mala a chance to increase.”

Within weeks foxes and cats moved in and ate the last mala.

“The places in Australia where dingoes have been most effectively eradicated have seen the most mammal extinctions,” he continues.

Unfortunately, dingoes don’t just eat foxes and cats. They’re also bad news for livestock, preying on sheep, goats and calves with deadly efficiency. As a result, dingoes are trapped, shot and poisoned with baits dropped from the air. In Queensland alone, $30 million per annum is spent on baiting dingoes with poisoned meat. And the world’s longest fence, running from South Australia to central Queensland, was constructed specifically to keep the dingoes out.

So it’s not surprising that when Johnson proposed his theory late in 2006, farmers were outraged. A typical response came from Stephen Tully, Sheep and Wool President of rural lobby group AgForce. Speaking to the ABC, Tully said: “This is a classic example of someone being in an office for too long. If you go down to the outskirts of Brisbane, biodiversity isn’t that flash and there is an abundance of dingoes, feral cats and foxes all living together. So that argument can quite easily be blown out of the water.”

Johnson says he’s never argued that dingoes should be introduced around sheep. “I explicitly said we don’t need to reintroduce dingoes to conserve them and you can’t do it in sheep country, so I’m not quite sure what he was upset about.” He adds it’s very difficult to raise the topic. “You’ve only got to mention the word ‘dingo’ and these entrenched attitudes rear their heads.”

The cost

But dingoes do damage livestock other than sheep. One of Australia’s experts on dingo control is senior zoologist Lee Allen, from the Robert Wicks Pest Animal Research Centre in Queensland. “The cost of trying to prevent that damage is in the many millions of dollars,” he says. “In Queensland the cost of wild dog control is $30 million per annum.”

He says the threat is not only from dingo attacks. In Queensland, cattle farmers lose about $6 million from hydatid disease. “Wild dogs are the primary host and it cases the beef cattle to be downgraded to pet food,” says Allen. He also says that hydatids, a tapeworm parasite that creates dangerous cysts inside its hosts, infects far more people than is recognised. “We’re not used to thinking about, and looking for, parasite infections, so most gets discovered during autopsy.”

Then there are attacks on humans and pet animals, which Allen says happen regularly. “Mostly they go unreported.”

But Johnson argues the baiting aggravates the problem of dingo aggression, because when stable packs are destroyed, it creates an opportunity for ‘rogue’ males to migrate into an area. “There’s some evidence that if they’re left alone, stable dingo populations don’t hunt cattle,” he says.

Allen agrees. “Back in the 1990s I compared baiting and dingo control with no control on the same properties,” he says. “The wild dogs that recolonise after baiting were far more likely to bait livestock.”

He suggests it’s because the dingoes that remain alive are the aggressive male juveniles, without the experience to bring down a kangaroo alone. As a result, they go for livestock, which is easier to kill. This doesn’t necessarily make Allen in favour of dingo repopulation.

“There’s a basic incompatibility between livestock and dingoes,” he says, “unless you say there’s no more livestock production or get a method that’s effective to exclude the dogs.”

Johnson calls for more research. “The ideal research program is a big experiment on a large scale which looked at the effects of relaxing control on dingoes in some areas and comparing it to places where they poison.”

Allen says some research is being done with satellite transmitters. “We’ve been monitoring dogs for several months now, so we know how their activity changes and how they disperse.”

But if dingoes keep getting killed, where does that leave the problem of feral foxes and cats? “Ideally what we’d like to have is a bait to kill foxes that won’t kill dingoes, for state forests and national parks,” says Allen. “That would be great, if you could cull foxes and cats and leave dingoes. There is research into it.”

But until such time as we can work out a way to co-exist, it’s the dingoes getting the poison.

Felicity Carter

This article originally appeared in Bark! magazine, 2007.

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