Friend or Foe: the Fraser Island Dingo

PHOTO CAPTION: Dingo mum with two pups. Both pups later died. Vice President of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program Jennifer Parkhurst says pup mortality rates on Fraser Island are as high as 90 percent. Photo by Jennifer Parkhurst.

They are hungry. Scraps and rubbish are left around the burnt remnants of the campfire, practically an invitation. The golden brown predator turns his muzzle to his companion as if to say “What a feast to be had tonight!” Then the humans begin shooing them away. Perhaps the juvenile is curious about the humans and this is misinterpreted as an act of aggression. Or perhaps the elder one knows he won’t find food again this easily and doesn’t take kindly to having it taken away. If one of them displays aggressive behaviour it’s all over. One dingo growls at a human and yet another family member is lost from the pack.

“It’s easier to blame the dingo for an incident then it is to blame a person or a person’s behaviour,” says Jennifer Parkhurst, who has worked with the dingoes on Fraser Island six days a week for six years. She’s found that dingo persecution is a problem at the popular tourist destination. She says her passion to save the dingoes on Fraser led to her becoming Vice President with the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program.

“It kind of became my mission to do whatever I could to protect them.”

For decades Australia has tried to balance what is good for the community, and what is good for dingo conservation. A common perception of dingoes is they are dangerous, unpredictable and aggressive. On Fraser Island, dingoes are becoming habituated to human presence due to the tourist increase, relying on human food sources like rubbish and handouts left by visitors. This leads to management issues like food conditioning.

Veterinarian and President of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program, Dr Ian Gunn, advocates for better welfare conditions for the dingoes and speaks of them sympathetically.

“On one of my visits to Fraser Island I saw more dingoes sitting around the tent waiting or looking for food, than I saw on the rest of the island.”

Ian’s Death of the Fraser Island Dingo 2011 report detailed the stomach examinations of 90 deceased dingoes, showing a severe lack of traditional food sources.

“The main avenue I feel really strongly about is that within Fraser Island itself, the dingoes have been hassled and really have been starved to death because there is no natural food supply there on the island,” he says. No wonder the dingoes are beginning to get too friendly with tourists.

The management of dingoes on Fraser Island is controversial. With the public under the impression that these dogs are dangerous, authorities are forced to apply strict policies. Before it was banned in 2013, dingo management used the technique of hazing to control the animals. That is what Jennifer explains as “forcing dingoes away from people or food sources by hitting them with a projectile from a slingshot or a 22 rifle”. Now management sticks to traditional culling, but continues to use 1080 poison, which causes a slow and horrible death. The poison is still widely used in Australia even though it has been banned in several other countries. Ear tagging is useful to track and manage the dingo, but the tag weighs down the ears and Jennifer says the tags impair the dingoes’ ability to hunt.

Many of the management tactics are unacceptable, Jennifer says. “It’s definitely inhumane, if we treated our domestic pets like that, the RSPCA would be all over us. Hazing has been shown to be ineffective. Aversive conditioning – that is putting collars on dingoes and giving them a zap if they exhibit the allegedly inappropriate behaviour – has been condemned by the RSPCA, yet it is allowed on Fraser Island.”

Ian agrees that Fraser’s dingo management raises welfare issues.

Benjamin Allen, Dingo ecologist at The University of Queensland, says that managing dingoes by destroying trouble makers doesn’t have a negative conservat impact.

“We wanted to see if [humane destruction] is going to affect the demographic and population size, and it doesn’t. The reason why it doesn’t is because they hardly kill any, and the ones that they do kill are the ones that are not really producing or contributing to the gene pool anyway,” he states. However Jennifer says there are possibly only about 17 mating pairs left on the island. She blames the mortality rate of infant pups of up to 90 percent or higher on persecution.

Dingoes are very social animals and each member has a part to play in their social structure, especially when it comes to rearing. Removing a member from the family group can cause social disarray, says Jennifer.

“It can interrupt that family group to the point where it even has to separate or disperse, so we really need to think carefully about how we manage the dingoes.”

A dingo family in social disarray could have major effect on the next generation of pups, which could be the end for that group.

Dingoes have had a reputation for being dangerous for far too long, Ian says. The claim is “ridiculous.” Jennifer Parkhurst’s studies with dingos in their natural state have given her a unique appreciation of the dingo especially their fascinating ways of communicating and interacting with each other.

“It’s the most awesome experience I’ve ever encountered in my entire life,” she says. “They let me watch them mate, they let me help them raise their young, they assigned me a role and they actually integrated me into their packs.”

Jennifer’s experiences brought back the idea that Australians are dog lovers at heart, and she still doesn’t understand why so many of the public are anti-dingo.

“They used to greet me by rubbing my nose, they let me go on hunting forays with them, I never ever encountered an aggressive dingo, they were always accepting.”

Ian takes us down a historical route to discover the dingo’s past with humans. For up to 5,000 years the Aboriginals shared their community with the dingo, Ian says.

“In those circumstances, you never, never ever heard of any recorded incidents of those dingoes attacking indigenous people within those communities, and that goes back thousands of years.”

Certainly native Australians found dingoes to be an endearing part of their cultural lifestyle and almost like wild pets.

“Dingoes are thought still to be very close to humans: they are what we would be if we were not what we are”, writes Deborah Bird Rose, author of Dingo Makes us Human, an ethnography exploring the culture of the Yarralin people in the Northern Territory. Deborah tells a story of the European stockman who shot dogs in Yarralin country. He had been warned not to shoot them, yet he continued to ignore the advice of the Aboriginals. The stockman was effectively destroying members of the indigenous people’s family.

Taking a step towards fixing dingo conservation and away from persecution is proving difficult. Ideas like feeding stations and the relocation of problematic individuals have been shot down as ineffective or unwise. As their numbers dwindle it’s time to really look at the methods of dingo management. Maybe it’s us, the humans, who are at fault in most dingo incidents, so on your next visit to Fraser Island, pack up your rubbish safely and don’t leave any inviting scraps.

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