Dingoes have had – if nothing else – a pretty poor run in Australia.
Vilified, demonised and implicated; the role of the dingo has often been as a target of fear and outrage - misplaced or not.
However, recent studies have shown that the strawberry blonde canine plays a levelling role in local environments, keeping smaller creatures in check from its spot at the apex of the natural food pyramid.
Despite this, all states and territories maintain some level of ‘wild dog’ control measures, typically including the use of poisoned baits (sometimes dropped from aircraft), foot-hold traps, large fences, guns or any combination thereof designed to keep numbers down.
The main purpose of wild dog control (which considers pure dingoes, dingo hybrids, and escaped domestic dogs as a single enemy) is to protect livestock for farmers, who lose millions of dollars nationwide each year to attacks and diseases related to the dogs.
In order to get a scope of the world of dingoes, dogs, baits and best practice – we spoke to University of New South Wales researcher Dr Mike Letnic.
He has recently conducted a study showing that the dingo has an integral role in the balance of ecosystems, and that there may be more moderate ways to achieve the results that wild dog culling seeks.
“Dingoes should not be poisoned if we want to halt the loss of mammal biodiversity in Australia,” Dr Letnic says.
The presence of dingoes helps to boost populations for many of the small native marsupials unique to this continent, while keeping down numbers of certain introduced species including foxes and cats.
“The removal of dingoes has very complex effects on ecosystems,” he said.
“Some species increase in numbers such as kangaroos and foxes, while other things decline.
“The complexity and the density of understory vegetation becomes sparser because kangaroos eat it, and small mammal numbers decline which we think is a combination of the reduction of vegetation cover and increased predation by foxes.”
Australia is home to a charming array of small marsupials, many of which exist nowhere else in the world.
It appears now, in forested areas particularly, that the dingo has played a guardian role for a range of tiny creatures normally victims of recently introduced characters such as the fox and cat.
“If one of our aims is to maintain biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, those animals are an integral part,” Dr Letnic said.
The recent studies add new information on how the subtle balance between predators and prey can actually maintain populations of both, and it is an area in which we humans could be performing much better.
“Australia has got the worst record of any country in the world with regards to the loss of species... about 20 species of mammal have become extinct from mainland Australia in the last 200 years,” he said.
“It’s a terrible record... I think we should do whatever we can to stop that, one way to do that is to maintain healthy ecosystems.”
The findings were made in a survey of several known dingo populations in New South Wales national parks.
The method for controlling their numbers in these areas is the use of ‘1080 poison’ (or sodium fluoroacetate) in baited meats, which has been employed to keep pest species down in Australia since the nineteen-fifties. The poison is produced in the USA, where it is embedded in livestock collars. Around 7 nations including Australia employ the painful and slow-acting poison, which has no antidote, to destroy pest populations.
Opposition to 1080 poison is widespread, as it can easily be ingested by animals not intended as part of the culling regime; family pets, work dogs, and natural predators eating animals that have themselves eaten the poison.
The location of the study allowed Dr Letnic to see the effects of a poisoning programme across various terrain and environments.
The role of the dingo as an apex predator in Australia reflects similar discoveries about top-level hunters overseas.
“The sort of effects we report here in Australia with dingoes are mirrored by studies with wolves in North America, and there’s very good evidence from Africa showing that removing lions and leopards leads to this imbalance of ecosystems,” Dr Letnic said.
“There’s a great example where when all the leopard and lions were removed from an area, baboon populations exploded.
“The baboons are hunters themselves, and have just decimated populations of smaller monkeys... they steal food from people, there’s now places were kids don’t go to school because they have to stay and protect crops by fending off the baboons,” he said.
“They’ve had these absolutely radical changes, and they came from removing the large predators.
“There are so many players in natural ecosystems, and it’s hard to predict exactly how every one will respond.
“Usually there are winners and losers, and side-effects as well... In large areas of Australia we have too many kangaroos and they are a hazard on the road, that’s largely a product of removing dingoes.
“So dingoes have impacts, and maybe we don’t want them everywhere. It’s certainly beneficial to have them for native ecosystems, but in some places we don’t want the side-effects either, much like the baboons in Africa,” he said.
A common argument says that dingoes have for several generations been inter-breeding with later-introduced dogs, and that there are hardly any remnants of the ‘pure’ dingo breed left.
Dr Letnic says this is far from accurate.
“Most hybrids, if you want to call them that, are basically dingoes. They look like dingoes, they act and behave like dingoes, but there are some dog genes.”
He says it is more a case of dogs becoming dingoes, rather than the other way around.
“There’s strong selection against being a dog, and there’s selection to be like a dingo.
“Probably because dogs are animals that have been bred by people to live around people, whereas dingoes are wild animals.
“Hybridisation is most prevalent in parts of eastern and southern Australia near big urban centres, but in remote areas they are largely pure dingoes,” he said.
“Our study covered that entire range.”
The UNSW researcher says that the definition of ‘wild dog’ and ‘dingo’ work to further confuse the issue for the public, and for dingoes may actually be the cause of some genetic confusion too.
“The way that dog genes actually enter populations of dingoes is through population reduction. If you’re baiting and trying to reduce the population, those are the places where dog genes have the greatest chance of becoming mixed in the population,” Dr Letnic said.
“You’re reducing the frequency of dingo genes... so there’s a higher likelihood of mating between dogs and dingoes and then of those hybrid animals surviving and contributing to future generations.”
Our choice of terminology may have an effect too.
“I think one of the hardest things is this name business... the word ‘dingo’ is being used less and less by governments, with preference to the phrase ‘wild dog’,” he said.
“There’s a perception [issue] out there too, I think it’s probably easier for governments to kill ‘wild dogs’ than it is to kill ‘dingoes’.
“The indigenous term perhaps carries with it some value, some sense that dingoes are an Australian animal whereas ‘wild dogs’ are some other animal that we’re not really sure of.
“It gives the impression that there’s wild Labradors running around out there.”
“I think that’s probably the biggest misconception,” Dr Letnic said.
As the weight of scientific knowledge on the intricate relationships in native ecosystems increases, it will hopefully be employed to take more targeted and rational approaches to maintaining the balance and removing the influence of non-native creatures.
There are already a range of techniques being employed which can be more effective than simple poisons, especially if the goal is not just to induce mass death and see what happens.
One of the more interesting of these alternative measures is the use of ‘guardian dogs’.
The guardians are dominant domestic animals or even trained dingoes, which bond with farmers and their stock, employing their territorial nature to patrol and control their wild counterparts.
For the dingo, at least in areas occupied by farmers’ livestock, it is likely that the widespread, non-specific and sporadically effective practice of distributing poisoned meat for dingoes to eat will continue.
It is hoped that many ecologically-minded parties such as Dr Letnic and his recent report will begin to bring balance and evidence-based approaches to the propagation of all Australian life; ancient and recent.