A yellow-dog dingo with its head held low stands silent in the sand dunes. This scene is as Australian as the north-easter hitting Bennett’s Beach on a scorching summer day. Love them or loathe them, the Australian dingo is as iconic as the Great Barrier Reef. Yet the dingo is under grave threat. Paralleling attitudes to the wolf in Europe or tigers in India, we have generally thought dingoes should be eradicated for the good of everyone. However, attitudes are changing to these once-feared creatures at the top of the food chain – our top-order predators.
A body of evidence is growing showing there is a cost, both ecologically and economically, to removing top-order predators. Sometimes is easier to see the issue from afar. Few of us would question that wolves control deer numbers and stop them overgrazing pasture and damaging waterways. It makes perfect sense! Yet the exact parallel exists here in Australia. Dingoes also mostly eat large grazers – kangaroos and wallabies – and they increase where dingoes are culled. Crucially, cats and foxes can also breed up when dingoes are absent. More grazing and ‘meso-predators’ lead to fewer small mammals and reptiles. That’s right, having dingoes about means more small, rare creatures, not less.
Dingoes are highly territorial and hunt conservatively in packs led by a dominant female. Culling disrupts social structure resulting in more lone dingoes and more contact with domestic dogs. Some people say there are few pure dingoes left in NSW, however others disagree – and solid data is lacking. They vary in coat colour, and can be yellow, pale, black and tan or sable. Locally, our dingoes often have a dark snout – and this is common throughout the region and does not mean they are a hybrid. Regardless, hybrids actually do the same job in regulating the ecosystem as pure dingoes.
Are dingoes truly native?
Yes – Australian ecosystems have adapted to the dingo and by this definition they are. Many years ago, they replaced the Thylacine and have been here at least 4,000 years, with new whole genome research suggesting much longer. Their taxonomic name is Canis dingo and they are distinct in a number of ways. Not a wolf, not a dog, but our own, unique, canid.
Awareness of top-order predators means that alternate ways of protecting livestock are becoming more popular. Like many things, it’s actually ancient know-how with a modern revival. In Europe, Guardian Dogs have been used for centuries, being raised with the livestock and developing a strong bond with them – be it sheep, cattle or chickens. The first predator friendly farms are now appearing in the Great Lakes, perhaps heralding a new era of coexisting more peaceably with the dingo.
While lethal control may always be necessary but where dingoes are not bothering anyone, we should leave them to do their job. They are a lynchpin in the ecosystem – protector of the tiny chestnut mice, bettongs and the potoroos.
Next time you see their tracks in the sand, reflect on their silent guardianship of our precious, rare wildlife and hope that they’ve gone on up ahead to scare the daylights out of a feral cat or two.
Jill Madden | Myall Koala and Environment Group
Dr Martin Schulz | Wildlife Biologist
Please do not feed Dingoes
While people may think they’re helping dingoes by feeding them, they’re actually doing them a great disservice.
When dingoes are fed by humans, they can lose their inherent shyness and fear of people and the territory they are fed in then becomes worth defending, often aggressively.
Sometimes within days, they can become highly territorial and exhibit increased aggression to domestic pets and people.
Dingoes are naturally very lean animals and they’re also expert hunters, they’re not meant to look like a domestic pet and they are highly capable of looking after themselves
It's also an offence to feed dingoes.