Our South Coast correspondent Susan Cruttenden visited some Dingoes and people who love Canis Dingo for this report on the indigenous Australian species that — since colonial introduction of introduced stock — has been demonised, shot and poisoned. The dingo in fact offers vital ecosystem services as apex predator, keeping feral animals in check and native grazing numbers balanced.
DINGOES HAVE BEEN recognised again as a separate species, distinct from domestic dogs Canis Domesticus which implied domestication, or Canis Lupus Dingo, in reference to a shared history with wolves.
Now scientists have accepted the fact that dingoes have been in Australia for at least 4,000 years, over which time there has been a strong genetic link between pure-breds, a line that is only now being broken by in-breeding.
Lyn Watson from the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre is hopeful that resurrection of the scientific name Canis Dingo will make it easier to entitle dingoes to be protected as a native Australian animal.
The dingo is listed as
threatened or vulnerable
Dingoes are not dogs and although capable of breeding with dogs they are anatomically and behaviourally different. They have medium build with lean bodies and bushy, bottle-shaped tails. Dingoes come in various colours varying from sandy-yellow to red-ginger; with a small percentage of black and tan or pure white.
Variations in physical form exist within the natural population and seem to be dependent on local habitats and food sources. For instance, Fraser Island and coastal dingoes tend to be long and lean, while alpine varieties are often stockier, with thick double coats.
Dingoes mainly eat meat, but will also devour fish, eggs and carrion. They have been described as “opportunistic hunters”. This and their strength and stamina have enabled them to survive for thousands of years and in many different environments as Australia’s apex predator.
Features of an apex predator, near ‘threatened’ status and rarely seen
Some of their distinguishing features are:
- Flexible limbs and hips and the ability to turn their heads almost 180 degrees. They are extremely agile.
- Broad triangular-shaped heads and a skull which is the broadest part of a dingo’s body. (If the head will fit
through an opening the rest of the body will pass through it and not get stuck.)
- Large canine teeth with slight gaps between, and very strong jaws.
- Ears which move independently of one another and can rotate to almost face the back of the head.
- Senses of sight, smell and hearing that are acute and discriminating. Dingoes are excellent runners, jumpers and climbers. They have been tracked at 60 km/hr and known to travel 40 kilometres in one day.
These physical traits make the dingo an excellent survivor, predator and escape artist, but are also responsible for making the dingo so unpopular with sheep graziers when he is alone or part of a pack of domestic dogs that attack a flock. This belief that all wild dogs are dingoes to be killed has led to a dramatic decrease in dingo numbers, leading to recent a CSIRO analysis describing the dingo as “near threatened”.
Life cycle and Dreamtime place
The life cycle of the dingo in the wild is also different from that of dogs. They breed once a year between March and June. The gestation period is nine weeks with the resultant litter usually between 4–6 pups. The young are reared in a hollow log, rock shelter or wombat burrow and while weaned at about two months may stay with the pack longer. Only the most dominant members of an established dingo pack will breed, while the role of the other members is to help with the feeding of the pups and to be a respectful and subordinate member of the group.
According to John Marsh (on left), an animal carer at Potoroo Palace, and expert on dingoes, the destruction of family groups through habitat destruction or poisoning accounts for such a great loss of dingoes that they are now rarely seen in the wild on the South Coast of NSW, or in other regions where they once were common.
Dingoes are mainly territorial but when the alpha male or female is killed or when their habitat is destroyed, the kinship bond is broken and members of a dingo family group are free to roam and inter-breed, breaking the genetic purity of the breed.
Dingoes have been living with Aboriginal people for thousands of years, and will always hold a significant place in the culture of many Aboriginal communities. They feature in Dreamtime stories and ceremonies; on cave paintings and rock carvings; and in the paintings of some modern day artists such as Cheryl Davison. Aboriginal children often treat dingoes as pets when pups are young, and because they are territorial they make excellent guard dogs.
If you live in a suburban home and are considering keeping a dingo as a pet you should be warned that, although intelligent and good-looking, they can be destructive when left alone, need lots of attention, large fenced spaces, and regular exercise. Owners in NSW are required to get a special permit to own a dingo.
Dave and Katrina’s dog Tango was a pure white dingo. Trina described him as “amazing the way he would play with her children”; loved company; was affectionate; and got along well with their other dog, a Newfoundland. Tango didn’t bark, but would howl at the moon or when he was lonely. He could however be very destructive and killed chooks when he had a chance. He received only basic training, and most of the time she said wryly: “Tango did what Tango wanted to do”. He was very protective of his family who were very fond of him.
Hybrid dogs may be hard to distinguish in appearance from the strong dingo strain.
Martin and Norma’s dog Jade (seen on right) had a Dingo mother and a cattle dog sire and is now a 13-year-old dingo-lookalike. She is described by her owner as “loyal and obedient but something of a loner when it comes to relating to other people”. She is a lovely golden colour with the brownest of eyes. Jade appears to be immune to tick bites, a very useful attribute when it comes to living on the South Coast.
Will the Dingo disappear? Australia lags behind world best practice
Now, sadly, the dingo has been listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and National Resources, and unless attitudes change this animal (only newly recognised as native to Australia) will disappear.
The number of pure Dingoes in the wild has declined rapidly over the years, with the main causes being loss of habitat; interbreeding with domestic dogs; as well as being shot, trapped, or baited by those who believe a dingo is a wild dog that must be exterminated at any cost and by any means.
The use in Australia of 1080 poison, (outlawed in much of the world) inflicts a horrible death and has an effect on other birds and animals who may feed on the carrion, as well as poisoning the surrounding land.
The role of Dingoes for those who listen
Michael Kennedy, from the Humane Society for Protecting All Animals says: “Emerging conservation science is increasingly pointing to the importance of Dingoes as our top order mammalian predator; helping to control both introduced red foxes and feral cats; and fulfilling critical ecosystem functions. In turn this means Dingoes play an equally important role in protecting a long list of threatened Australian species, preyed upon in almost incomprehensible numbers by feral interlopers. Indiscriminate killing programs don’t just hurt pure Dingoes: they hurt the entire ecosystem, which is thrown out of balance when you start killing apex predators”.
The Office of Environment which is held responsible for the eradication of pest dogs classes any dog living in the wild as dangerous and officers are authorised to eradicate them by any lawful method — whether they are feral domestic dogs, dingoes or hybrids. [Ed note: As with most Australian wildlife management, government policies since colonial times have prioritised the interest of farmers and graziers over the public, ecological interest for conserving native species.]
The Australian Dingo Conservation Inc. is one of the organisations alarmed by this indiscriminate slaughter of a fabulous Australian animal and is managing a breeding and release program into wilderness areas that aims to return the dingo to its crucial place in the Australian ecosystem.
— WORDS and inset images, Susan Cruttenden.
MAIN image: Tango the male dingo that belonged to the White family (Photo: Katrina White).
> Related story — 1080 The Nasty Poison: Why do Australians use it?