Dingoes Are Both Pest And Icon. Now There’s A New Reason To Love Them.

2020-04-22

BY JANUARY, when the world turned its attention to Australia’s bush-fire crisis, Murray Ings had been battling blazes near his home in the hills of northern New South Wales for months. A third-generation forestry worker and volunteer firefighter, Ings worked shifts of up to 16 hours, sometimes through the night, in apocalyptic conditions. It got so hot, the sand in the soil melted to glass, causing the ground to shine. “That’s a furnace,” says Ings. But what he remembers most vividly is the “haunting, piercing” screams of dying animals. “It’s the worst sound you can ever hear,” he says.

With the fires now extinguished, parts of the native forest on Ings’s property resemble a wasteland. “In areas, we’ve lost the whole lot: all the trees, all the animals,” he says. That’s just on his 500 hectares. Across south-east Australia, some 19 million hectares burned. The federal government has set out a multi-million-dollar restoration programme. It is a huge task that could take decades – even if major fires don’t erupt again.

However, amid efforts to restore Australia’s native fauna, one animal is expected to continue dying. Dingoes, a type of semi-wild, primitive dog, are widely considered pests, the threat they pose to livestock trumping their status as a native species. Yet there is mounting evidence that these apex predators play a key role in maintaining ecological balance. They might even be as central to restoring the bush as wolves have been in rewilding Yellowstone national park in the US. But for that to happen, Australians will need to put an end to centuries of bad blood with their native canid.

It was thought that people brought the ancestors of the dingo to Australia from South-East Asia around 5000 years ago, although new evidence hints at a different origin story (see “What is a dingo?”). Regardless of how and when they arrived, dingoes were quickly integrated into Aboriginal communities, reared from pups to be pets, to help with hunting and to act as guards. On reaching maturity, however, these “camp dingoes” are thought to have gone into the bush to breed.

This mutually beneficial relationship between people and predators ended abruptly with the mass arrival of European settlers in 1788. Dingoes were the most obvious threat to their livestock, being one of just two large, land carnivores in Australia. The other, the thylacine, was confined to Tasmania by that time and was eventually hunted to extinction, as far as we know. “Dingoes were painted as a villain quite early on,” says ecologist Thomas Newsome at the University of Sydney. In the 1880s, a barrier known as the “dingo fence” was built along some 5600 kilometres to protect the south-eastern corner of the continent. It is still maintained today, at an annual cost of A$10 million (£5 million). As a pest control effort, it is without parallel, says Newsome.

More recently, the dingo’s public image has become inextricably intertwined with one of the most sensational episodes in Australia’s recent history: the death of baby Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru in 1980. After 30 years and four inquests, a coroner eventually ruled that she had been taken from her cot by a dingo. This, and a few other attacks by dingoes, casts a long shadow, in which anti-dingo attitudes can thrive, says Newsome. Mike Letnic, a conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales, likens the “culture wars” over dingoes to that over badgers and foxes in the UK. “It’s fraught with all sorts of things: scientific uncertainty, lots of politics, history,” he says. “It’s deeply intertwined.”

Attitudes towards the dingo are certainly mixed. The vast majority of Australians, living on a sliver of highly urbanised coastline, may have romantic notions of it as an iconic national species. But in rural communities, anti-dingo sentiment still runs deep. Most countries with apex predators have reached an equilibrium between conservation concerns and farmers’ interests – albeit often an uneasy one, as with the recent return of wolves to continental Europe. Australia has never come close.

“Across Australia, the killing of dingoes is permitted, and in some states it is mandated under pest controllaws”

Across Australia, the killing of dingoes is permitted – and in some states mandated under pest control laws – in the name of exterminating “wild dogs” that roam the bush, preying on livestock and native animals. In legislation, the term wild dogs is applied equally to dingoes, feral domestic dogs and hybrids of the two. The fact that dingoes and domestic dogs can interbreed and produce fertile offspring only complicates matters. Even biologists can’t agree on how to classify dingoes. Six years ago, Letnic co-authored a paper arguing they should have their own species name: Canis dingo. So far, this has been contested or ignored, with dingoes generally being considered a subspecies of domestic dog or wolf.

There is no doubt that wild dogs, dingoes included, are a problem for farmers. Since 2014, the National Wild Dog Action Plan – a joint government and industry effort, funded by meat, wool and livestock bodies – has led the response, in coordination with state and territory-specific strategies. The plan estimates that wild dogs cost the agricultural sector A$89 million annually. Its coordinator, Greg Mifsud, describes the dingo as “simply a wild-living dog, a predator that attacks, maims and kills”. However, he adds, the plan acknowledges the environmental and cultural significance of dingoes and only controls them where they “pose a risk or impact upon agricultural, biodiversity and social assets”.

In practice, however, even where pest control policies aim to conserve dingoes, little distinction is made between them and feral domestic dogs. A good balance hasn’t been struck, says Kylie Cairns at the University of New South Wales. “The biggest threat to dingoes is lethal control,” she says. “How are you supposed to conserve an animal when you also consider it a pest species that must be eradicated?”

Poison rain

Of particular concern is aerial baiting. The practice, which entails dropping meat laced with a controversial poison called 1080, is central to most wild dog control programmes, even in some national parks and state forests. This scattergun approach takes a huge toll on non-targeted species. What’s more, there is little evidence that it is effective at protecting livestock from dingoes in the long run. In the short term, however, baiting can decrease dingo pack size by as much as 90 per cent and fracture their social structures.

Dingoes are too adaptable and widely dispersed to be in danger of outright extinction. However, entire populations have already been eradicated from some regions, especially those dependent on farming; and there is a high risk of local extinction in others, especially in the south east.

Mifsud says claims that wild dog control isn’t targeted are “simply untrue”. In fact, he argues that control is protecting dingo populations by limiting opportunities for cross-breeding with feral domestic dogs. Cairns doesn’t buy this. “It’s not helping the conservation of dingoes, to kill other dingoes,” she says. The presence of any domestic dog genes in dingoes, making them hybrids, has been “weaponised” against these animals, she says. “I think that lens has been really dangerous, because it means that we have a negative view of anything that isn’t strictly ‘pure’. And there’s no real ecological or biological reason why that necessarily needs to be happening.”

Besides, Cairns’s recent research with Letnic suggests the issue of hybridisation has been overstated. Analysing the DNA of 783 wild dogs killed by pest control in eastern New South Wales, they found only five animals were feral domestic dogs with no dingo DNA. The majority were more than 75 per cent dingo, “indicating that they need those genes to live in the wild”, says Cairns. Moreover, one in four was “pure” dingo – suggesting that lethal control programmes are putting the genetic integrity of dingoes at risk. “We do have populations that are of really high conservation value, but we’re making no concessions to protect them,” says Cairns.

Those vulnerable packs will soon be dealt another blow by the bush-fire recovery programme. Of the federal government’s A$50 million package, up to A$7 million has been earmarked for emergency interventions, including pest control. With habitats under pressure after the fires, vulnerable native species are at even greater threat from predation and competition from invasive pests such as feral cats and foxes. But dingoes will also suffer in the drive against those pests. In New South Wales, the plan is to drop 1 million poisoned baits over vast swathes of burned and unburned bush in the coming year, as part of the biggest feral animal cull the state has seen. The state government’s strategy says “strict approvals and evidence-based guidelines are in place to mitigate the risks to native species and domestic animals”. But the target area includes known hotspots of pure dingoes, says Cairns.

This isn’t just a conservation issue. Growing evidence indicates that by removing dingoes, entire ecosystems become unbalanced. Comparing conditions on either side of the dingo fence, Letnic has found that the absence of these predators is linked to a dramatic rise in shrubs that cause trouble for farmers. In other research he found that dingoes control the number of kangaroos, which has a positive effect at all ecological levels, right down to the health of the soil. Kangaroos compete with cattle for grass, so this could benefit farmers too. And there is some evidence that dingoes keep feral cats and foxes in check.

Ecological balance

The science is highly contested, however. “The potential ecological benefits of dingoes remain speculative,” says Mifsud. Letnic believes the response to dingo management needs to be more nuanced. “Dingoes are of value; they are also a pest. They can be both,” he says. However, he and other conservationists know it will be difficult to persuade people that dingoes should be preserved and encouraged to thrive. “We’re talking about many generational legacies of this human-wildlife conflict – it’s not going to disappear overnight,” says ecologist Corey Bradshaw at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Newsome believes that what is needed is a positive story about dingoes – like the one told about wolves in Yellowstone. Their reintroduction 25 years ago has had a transformative effect on that park’s ecosystem, increasing elk and deer populations, stabilising plant life and riverbanks, and boosting the economy by $35 million annually through ecotourism. As a mid-size, highly adaptable canid, the dingo is more analogous to the coyote than the larger wolf. Nevertheless, Newsome believes dingoes could play a similar role in ecological restoration. He has even come up with a plan to test this idea. He proposes realigning the existing dingo-proof fence to reintroduce dingoes to an area of Sturt national park, in north-western New South Wales, and then documenting their role in ecological change. He predicts that foxes and cats would suffer, kangaroo numbers would be better regulated, vegetation would return and soil quality would improve. As a result, populations of native insects, reptiles, birds and mammals would bounce back. “I feel like that’s a story that will help garner both ecological knowledge about the role of the dingo, but also what it can do if we were to stop controlling it,” he says.

When Newsome published a proposal for his idea in 2015, he acknowledged that it would be a challenge. He was right. The plan encountered resistance at state and federal government level, and nobody would finance it. “It’s too politically charged,” he says. “You can get lots of money to work on how to control dingoes. In terms of studying them for an ecological role, it’s a bit harder.”

Given the ecological damage done by last summer’s fires, this seems like a missed opportunity. What’s more, the ongoing eradication of dingoes may well be storing up trouble for the future. Bradshaw points out that Australia’s mammalian extinction rate is the highest in the world, with 34 species lost in the past 250 years, at a steady rate of one to two per decade. It is perfectly plausible that the dingo could go the same way, he says, “probably not anytime soon, but we’re not doing it any favours. And by proxy, we’re not doing our already degraded environments many favours either.”

Although attitudes are starting to change, there is clearly a long way to go. “There are a lot of dingo [proponents] around, but we get persecuted, because we speak up about them,” says Ings. From high up on his mountain in dingo country, his view differs from many landowners. “There’s no other native animal that has been so persecuted,” he says. “It’s wrong – especially given how important they are to the ecosystem.”

newscientist.com, 22 April 2020
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