November 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Bait and switch

By Dyani Lewis
Lumping dingoes in with “wild dogs” means the native animals are being deliberately culled

It’s a bright but chilly spring day outside the Taronga Institute of Science & Learning, an airy and modern conservation hub embedded in the northern perimeter of Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. Inside, a day-long event, which some have traversed the country to attend, is underway. The title is “The Dingo Dilemma: Cull, Contain or Conserve”.

Twenty years on from the first dingo symposium, the event is a chance to take stock of the changes in how we view and manage Australia’s largest land-based predator. It is being held on National Threatened Species Day, a day declared in 1996, on the 60th anniversary of the death of Benjamin, the last living Tasmanian tiger. Millennia before it was hunted to extinction to protect sheep in Tasmania, the thylacine, as it is more officially known, was the largest predator on the mainland. That all changed about 2000 years ago, and there’s decent evidence to suggest that the arrival of the roughly thylacine-sized dingo played a part in its demise. But that fact, like so many others about the dingo, is disputed.

Seated on a tidy row of chairs, the first batch of presenters faces a full auditorium: researchers, farmers, people dressed in polar fleeces emblazoned with dingo emblems, others with “PestSmart” stitched neatly on their shirts. The morning’s talks focus on technicalities: genetic ancestry plots, skull-shape analyses, arguments over the dingo’s correct scientific nomenclature.

The symposium is a rare opportunity to hear from government employees, usually kept on short leashes by their departments’ media teams. Peter Fleming, a scientist with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, says that from where he stands, arguments about whether to cull, contain or conserve dingoes foment because of false dichotomies between those on the side of conservation and those on the side of control. “The legislation doesn’t worry about any dilemmas,” he says. It caters for all, and conservation – far from being ignored – is the default.

His assertions mollify no one. Sheep farmers say lacklustre efforts from the government to control dingo packs threaten their livestock and their livelihoods. Meanwhile, conservationists want the killing to stop. Dingoes, they say, could stop Australia’s small-mammal extinction crisis in its tracks by thinning the ranks of kangaroos that nibble away vegetation, which exposes small mammals to feral cats and foxes. They are incensed that the government is putting dollars into baiting rather than into pursuing predator-friendly methods, such as using guardian animals to protect livestock, that are taking off in North America.

For years, the dingo was almost universally reviled. European colonialists laid arsenic and then strychnine to keep them away from livestock. By the post-myxomatosis 1950s, any residual value the dingo might have had in keeping rabbit numbers down fell away. A 5500-kilometre-long fence originally built to keep rabbits off pastoral lands in Australia’s south-east morphed into what it is today: a dingo barrier, the longest fence on earth, and a visible reminder of the enmity that many farmers hold for “wild dogs”.

As morning tea approaches, the first remarks from the audience – from a man named Hans, who introduces himself as someone who has “a passionate interest” in dingoes – skate straight past the detail.

“I have a problem with the term ‘wild dog’,” he says, to whisper-shouts of “yes!” and tentative claps from around the room. It’s clearly hit a nerve, and the response betrays the pro-dingo slant among attendees.

The name “dingo” comes from the Dharawal language. It was presumably applied to animals that once padded over traditional lands visible across the harbour from the zoo. “Wild dog”, at least in Australia, is more recent and far more loaded. To some, it’s nothing more than a useful catch-all; a linguistic bucket into which all disputed scientific permutations of Canis + lupus + familiaris + dingo that refer to wild-living canines, along with feral domestic dogs and hybrids of the two, can be dumped.

To others, it signals deceit.

“The word games that they play are just amazing,” says John Marsh, a lanky, self-described “dingo advocate” whom I meet early in the day. Marsh owns four dingoes and looks after six more as a keeper at Potoroo Palace, a wildlife sanctuary in the Bega Valley, in south-eastern New South Wales. By “they” he’s making a pointed reference to anyone involved in dingo control: farmers, trappers and the government.

Federally, dingoes are a protected native animal. But state legislation trumps federal laws. In New South Wales, wild dogs are a declared pest in 10 out of 11 local land service areas. Everywhere bar Sydney, landowners – government included – are obliged to bait and trap wild dogs, even in national parks, so they don’t kill livestock on neighbouring properties. This includes dingoes.

Marsh says that whenever the public catches wind of a koala or kangaroo cull, there’s an outcry. But killing dingoes flies under the radar because the authorities hide it within their catch-all terminology. “The general public unfortunately fall for it hook, line and sinker,” he says.

Any lingering doubts about the intent behind the term “wild dog” soon slip away. “In my experience,” says Warren Schofield, “these terms refer to the same animal.” Schofield is a sheep farmer. He also spent eight years as a “dogger”, trapping and killing dingoes for government and private landowners. In a room that’s been buzzing with pro-dingo fervour, he’s got few allies. (“I wasn’t sure if I was coming to be lynched,” he later confides to me.) But on terminology, he’s frank. “It’s not politically correct to kill dingoes,” he concedes. “As a trapper, I was often asked: how do you tell the difference between a dingo and a wild dog? My response was simple: wild dogs are the ones you catch and kill – dingoes are the ones that are still out there.”

The tactic of terminology has worked in favour of those calling for of culls. “It’s been very effective,” Professor Chris Dickman, an ecologist from the University of Sydney and the symposium’s organiser, tells me later. “When you look at every bit of legislation Australia-wide, they talk about wild dogs and never mention dingoes.”

Lily van Eeden, who has just completed a PhD with Dickman, has run some of the numbers. In an online survey, which she presents to the symposium, she asked Australians what they know about dingo control. Less than one in three were aware that dingoes are killed in Australia. Even fewer – just one in five – realised that “wild dog management” includes dingoes.

David Pollock runs Wooleen Station, a pastoral lease that sits astride the Murchison River, eight hours’ drive north of Perth. Twelve years ago, Pollock traded his sheep for cattle and gave dingoes free reign over the 1500-square-kilometre property. When visitors stay at his homestead, he inevitably gets the question of whether he’s got dingoes or wild dogs on his property, with the assumption that the law regards them differently. “The simple asking of this question exposes the trickery to which Australians have been subjected in regards to the dingo,” he says.

The question of what makes a bona fide dingo is partly a holdover from the first dingo symposium, in 1999. Back then, scientists feared that pure dingoes were a dying breed, their ranks diluted by repeated hybridisation with modern dogs. Today, it is generally acknowledged to be a moot point.

In Western Australia, Pollock says, a study of dogs killed found fewer than 3 per cent had less than 80 per cent dingo ancestry. “Being 80 per cent dingo means that those dogs look like a dingo, act like a dingo, and at the end of the day might as well be a bloody dingo,” he says.

While neither sheep farmer nor dingo conservationist seems to think a distinction between a “pure” and “hybrid” dingo is important, and “wild dog” describes neither, or both, depending on who you talk to, dingo management hinges on such definitions.

At Wooleen, whatever they’re called, they’ve changed the landscape. Pollock says the feral goats have gone and most of the kangaroos have too. Shrubs and grasses now blanket the red dust that was stripped bare by decades of overuse. Cattle graze, and streams once cloudy with topsoil run clear.

Dyani Lewis

Dyani Lewis is a Melbourne-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Nature, UnDark, Guardian Australia and elsewhere.

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