Contributing Monkie Jennifer Buonantony
Published on November 24, 2008
I once stood a few feet away from one of the last wild dingoes in Australia. I was visiting the World Heritage site, Frasier Island — or as the Aborigines named it, K’gari, meaning “paradise”. It is one of the world’s most notable eco-tourism sites and is the largest sand island featuring rainforests, crystal clear lakes, dessert dunes, and a 75-mile beach. It’s famous for its array of rare plants and animals, and is home to some of the last remaining purebred dingoes.
In 2004, these dingoes were listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. Today, conservationists in Australia are pushing for a national campaign to give the dingo formal protection as a threatened species. A campaign that could not have come soon enough, as the already few populations of purebred dingoes continue to dwindle closer to extinction.
The dingo (aka “Australia’s wild dog”) is the largest native carnivorous mammal in the country and plays a vital role in maintaining the balance within its vast ecosystems. Dingoes are agile hunters whose game includes kangaroos, sheep, and deer, and smaller animals like rabbits, rodents, birds, and lizards, as well eating fruits and plants. Their hunting is vital in keeping populations of their prey in check. Dingoes communicate with howls and hunt cooperatively like wolves, but they prefer to travel independently or in small family groups or pairs rather than large packs. Dingoes are distinguished from dogs and wolves by white markings on their chest, feet, and tail, and their color ranges from sandy yellow, to red, and even black.
These hunters traveled rapidly across the nation and eventually occupied the entire continent. However, as the domestic animal grazing industry in Australia grew, the presence of dingoes as a predator of domestic stock (most notably sheep) shifted the public to view them as pests rather than key hunters in their ecosystems. A national effort to control dingo populations began – much like that of wolves in the U.S. – and dingoes were now targets for trapping, shooting, poisoning, and exclusion fencing. A Dingo Fence, which became the largest manmade structure at the time of its construction, was erected to keep dingoes out of fertile southern Australia. As dingoes are still found in this region today, the fence was only somewhat effective – obviously a wise use of financial means and manpower!
As a result of these tactics and the interbreeding of dingoes that came into contact with dogs, the extinction of the purebred species is believed inevitable. It’s thought that more than a third of all dingoes on the continent are hybrids, or dingo/domestic or wild dog crosses — hybrids that are forcing the purebred dingo to disappear.
The main problem conservationists face in the fight to protect purebred dingoes is a lack of country-wide protection and public understanding of the animal’s importance. Although domestic dogs are prohibited and dingoes are considered protected within most federal national parks, World Heritage sites and Aborginal reserves, much of the country still considers dingoes pests to be slaughtered. Despite the fact that dingoes generally do not attack humans. Because the rules vary so widely within the country, it is hard to uphold the ban on killing dingoes. Even sites which are now protected, like Frasier Island, once saw the culling of 65 dingoes after a dingo attack caused the death of a child tourist — a large blow to conservationists when you consider that only 200 purebreds were estimated to inhabit the island at the time.
The Human Society International is one group campaigning on the dingo’s behalf and has nominated the purebred dingo for Australia’s Heritage Register, which is usually reserved for places and not animals. But so far, the Federal Government has ignored the call of conservation groups to pass a national standard of protection.
While this purebred creature that only a few years ago I observed from a few feet away could soon be eradicated, the memory of it will never leave my mind. The dingo and I stared at each other for a moment before he fled into the paradise that is Fraser Island. For now, it is the dingoes’ home, but if a unified stance is not taken, Australia will soon be inhabited by a bunch of dingo hybrids that are not so eco-friendly.