Researchers say slaughter of wild dogs comes down to misinformation as some graziers consider how to co-exist with native dingoes
Wild dogs and dingoes are still seen as synonymous in outback Australia, though studies indicate most wild dogs are actually pure dingoes. Photograph: Robin Smith/Getty Images
Angus Emmott counted 19 dogs strung up by their tails on four trees within 50 metres of the main tourist road between Winton and Lark Quarry in western Queensland, their golden coats set off against a clear blue sky.
Last week, the grazier received test results confirming the animals he spotted hanging on a single evening in May 2021 were pure dingo, not wild dog hybrids.
Dr Kylie Cairns, a specialist in conservation genetics at the University of New South Wales, said the results for the dogs’ DNA samples were a 99.99% dingo match – the highest available for the modelling.
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While scientific, Indigenous and agricultural knowledge are increasingly converging towards the need to protect dingoes for their ecological and cultural value, Cairns says the dogs’ slaughter comes down to a matter of wording.
The government-endorsed National Wild Dog Action Plan defines wild dogs as “all wild-living dogs, which include: dingoes, feral dogs and their hybrids.”
The plan, a livestock industry-driven initiative, provides a framework for landholders to participate in a range of control measures “emphasising humane, safe and effective management techniques”.
A spokesperson from the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions told Guardian Australia it provides wild dog best-practice management information to land managers that is “underpinned by scientific evidence,” including “trapping, ground shooting, ground baiting, aerial baiting, canid pest ejectors, exclusion and cluster fencing and guardian animals”.
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On Monday, Australia’s minister for the environment, Sussan Ley, and the minister for agriculture, David Littleproud, announced $800,000 to extend the national feral animal coordinators program to June 2023, including the National Wild Dog Management Coordinator project, in partnership with Australian Wool Innovation.
Cairns’ research shows dingo cross dog hybridisation is much less common than previously thought.
Tests of 5,039 wild dog DNA samples from across Australia found 64% were pure dingos and a further 20% were more than 75% dingo.
“That’s quite a strong result for telling us that feral dogs are not an established pest population in the wild in Australia,” Cairns said.
The results don’t surprise Sonya Takau, a Jirrbal rainforest Aboriginal woman, who knows “a domestic dog can’t survive in the bush”.
“We have a saying amongst our mob, if it looks like a dingo and it acts like a dingo, it is a dingo.”
Cairns said “hybridisation has been used as justification for lethal control” but she believed protecting pure dingoes from mixing with wild dogs was not the primary reason for the killing of the animals.
“I think livestock predation has always been the primary justification, but hybridisation was a convenient alternative reason,” Cairns said.
Greg Mifsud is a wildlife ecologist employed as national wild dog management coordinator by the Centre for Invasive Species Solutions. He says the killing of a native species like the dingo is not a concern.
“Management is based around managing the impacts, so regardless of what the dog might be, if it’s causing impact to either agriculture or even a biodiversity asset, such as an endangered species, then we need to control it,” Mifsud said.
However, Barry Traill, a conservationist, says graziers are increasingly seeing the benefits of “simply doing nothing” to the dingoes.
Traill says the dingo has an important role in the food chain as the apex predator in keeping the ecosystem in balance by, for example, reducing the impact of feral goats and kangaroos on vegetation.
This in turn means healthier coverage of vegetation and grass, which benefit the livestock.
Traill says that as a medium-sized dog weighing only around 15kg, dingoes are not designed to attack cattle.
He says that while sheep and goats are vulnerable, more resources need to be employed for non-lethal methods of protection such as fences and guard animals.
Despite growing up in an environment where “everyone used to carry a rifle and would shoot at every dingo they saw,” Emmott is one of the graziers learning to live with dingoes.
He believes the use of poisons, such as the common 1080 bait, only make the dingo problem worse as they destroy the animals’ natural hierarchal structure.
By killing the alpha male and females, Emmott believes it makes young dingoes more likely to harm livestock, “a bit like a mob of teenagers gathering down at the beach and creating mayhem and havoc”.
However, he says public perception in the outback remains a problem.
“People cop a lot of flack, they wouldn’t be game to go down to the pub if they admitted they’re not killing dingoes, because there’s a lot of peer group pressure to conform to the way we’ve always done. But the way we’ve always done it isn’t working,” Emmott said.
In a bid to change public perception, Emmott was one of the creators of a lobby group, Landholders for Dingoes, established two years ago to spread and normalise their message.
Takau last year created Dingo Culture, a First Nations initiative to protect the culturally significant totem species.
When Takau sees dingoes hung up on trees “my heart breaks”.
“As an Aboriginal person, we see them as our family,” she said.
“When I’m driving along and I see a dingo I pull over, because it’s an honour to see that’s one of my ancestors there. It could be my grandmother, it could be my grandfather, could be any one of our old people.”
Takau says the current situation allowing the indiscriminate killing of dingoes could see the dingoes go the way of the thylacine.
She understands farmers have to make a living, but science is also showing dingoes and farmers can co-exist.
“This is where Aboriginal knowledge and western science works well together. When you combine the two, there’s solutions there.”
Littleproud and Ley said pest and species coordinators exist to bring stakeholders together “to coordinate best practice management of threats and to facilitate the best overall environmental outcome”.
“The stakeholders include landholders, community groups and First Nations’ people,” the ministers said in a joint statement.
Link to the online article by the Guardian Newspaper: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/apr/06/most-wild-dogs-killed-across-rural-australia-are-pure-dingoes-dna-research-says