Dingo debate: pest or protected?

Nadia Isa

The dingo is a heavily discussed species among experts and laymen alike. There’s no scientific consensus as to whether the desert-red animal should be considered a native species; when and how it arrived in Australia; or if the dingo should be culled, contained or conserved.

Dingo expert and lecturer at the University of Sydney, Dr Tom Newsome, said fossil records show the dingo was definitely in Australia three to 5000 years ago, but genetic evidence suggests the species could have been around much longer.

“The theory is they were brought in by Asian seafarers and probably traded with the Aboriginal people,” Dr Newsome said.

“If they arrived much earlier, up to 10 to 18,000 years ago, there’s a possibility… that they might have actually walked in to Australia through a land bridge.”

But what ecological impact does the dingo actually have?

The dingo has certainly played a role as an apex predator, feeding on a variety of both native and introduced species such as kangaroos, feral cats and foxes. But in farming territory the dingo could prey on livestock, becoming a pest for the landowner.

Dingo advocate and president of Australian wildlife charity Aussie Ark, Tim Faulkner, acknowledged that the dingo does cause damage to agriculture.

But he said the role of the top order predator is very important in controlling large herbivores such as kangaroos.

“Those kangaroos, without dingoes, will get fundamentally out of control and eat themselves out of house and home,” he said.

Dr Tom Newsome with a dingo. Photo Graeme Finlayson

‘Spiritual guide’ for Aboriginal people

Gurrungutti man Graham Moore said the Aboriginal people have a strong history with the dingo.

For some, the dingo is a part of their “skin group” – a kinship encompassing roles, responsibilities and relationships.

Mr Moore said the dingo is akin to a “spiritual guide.”

“Part of who we are spiritually,” he said. “We know the stories. They are part of us.”

A recent symposium on the dingo at the Royal Zoological Society in New South Wales discussed whether the dingo qualifies for native status.

Some arguments against the recognition included the varying strains of dingo and how long the predator has been in Australia.

Linda Behrendoff is a Parks and Wildlife ranger and is researching the dingo population on World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, where dingoes are protected. She said dingoes play a huge role in the ecology of the island.

“There’s a lot of debate around dingoes and whether or not they are native species (but) how long do you have to be in a country to be considered native?” Ms Behrendoff said.

“There isn’t something else like a dingo,” Mr Faulkner said.

“If it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Mr Moore said the dingo is “absolutely” considered a native group among Aboriginal people and should be protected as a threatened species.

Dr Newsome agreed and recognised the cultural significance the animal had for the indigenous people.

“A lot of people don’t realise that they are deeply embedded into Aboriginal culture and society,” he said. “I consider them native.”

The expert said research confirms the dingo, even in hybrid forms, is “genetically, phenotypically, ecologically and behaviourally distinct” from all other Canis such as wolves, coyotes and jackals.

“I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that hybrid [dingoes] perform any different ecological roles to a dingo,” Dr Newsome said.

There is much debate about the dingo and its place in Australian fauna. Photo Australian Reptile Park

More research needed

Dr Newsome has called for more research into the different roles the dingo plays across Australia’s landscapes.

“We know a lot about what happens when we take dingoes out of the system,” he said.

“What happens when you put dingoes back into the system? Can we use dingoes as an ecological tool… by both regulating the number of herbivores and also the introduced mesopredators like the fox and the cat?”

Mr Moore would like to see Aboriginal people included in that research, while also considering the economic impact on farmers.

“Our conservation of our species, our people, our storyline,” he said.

He said the research could result in positive conservation of the dingo and its spiritual connection with indigenous peoples.

And while Mr Faulkner agreed, he wanted to see more action to protect the species.

“More action is needed, yes research is critical but, action, because we are losing the dingo,” he said.

Tim Faulkner says the dingo plays a really important role in Australian ecosystems. Photo Australian Reptile Park