Australian Dingo: A controversial predator

The dingo is a wild dog in Australia.  It is a controversial animal in Australia for several reasons.  Some of the issues about the dingo are similar to controversies in our country about wild animals, so perhaps we may learn something about our own debates by taking a closer look at the dingo.

Dingo.  Creative Commons
Dingo. Creative Commons

Is the dingo a wild, native animal?

One of the questions about the dingo was this:  “Is the dingo more closely related to wolves or to domestic dogs.”  Wolves are considered wild animals, but a domestic dog that runs free—as the dingo does—does not enjoy that status.  A loose domestic dog is generally rounded up by animal control agencies and probably euthanized if not quickly adopted. 

The advent of DNA analysis has recently settled this question.  The dingo is said to be more closely related to domestic dogs that came from Southeast Asia, probably brought by migrating humans about 5,000 years ago.  This is not good news for the dingo, because it confers two demerits on the hapless dingo: 

  • As a relatively recent arrival, its status as a native species is now challengedThe mammals’ curator of the Queensland Museum said, “If they want to preserve pure dingoes they should send them back to Thailand where they came from.  Many people don’t realize that Australia’s so-called native dog isn’t native at all.”
  • If the dingo had arrived on its own, rather than in the company of humans, its status as a native species might not have been challenged.  Ironically, when human agency is a factor in the arrival of species of plant or animal, it is often categorized as an “invasive species.”  The fact that the dingo has been in Australia for over 5,000 years, does not exonerate it from this pejorative label.

Competition with human enterprise

Although the dingo is not closely related to the wolf they have in common that they are both top predators.  In addition to killing feral animals, they both kill animals domesticated by humans, such as sheep, cattle, and goats.  Consequently, both dingoes and wolves are a problem for ranchers and farmers who raise animals for a living.  Ranchers actively advocate controlling populations of wolves and dingoes. 

In the United States, dwindling populations of wolves were given endangered status to protect wolves from being killed by ranchers.  Wolf populations in the United States have increased since wolves were given protected status.  Ranchers are therefore aggressively lobbying to end that protected status and environmentalists are just as aggressively lobbying to continue that status. 

Poisoned dingoes.  Gnu Free Licencse
Poisoned dingoes. Gnu Free Licencse

The dingo has not been granted such protected status in Australia.  Dingoes are being poisoned to reduce their numbers, but the species is not presently considered threatened with extinction.

Those who defend wolves and dingoes do so by explaining the role they play as apex predators.  They help to balance many animal populations that might otherwise become too numerous.  For example, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park is said to have reduced the population of deer, which has enabled the recovery of some types of vegetation eaten by deer.  In Australia, dingoes control populations of feral cats and red foxes that prey on small native animals. 

Scapegoating animal competitors

Until recently, dingoes were also accused of hunting rare native animals to extinction, in particular the Tasmanian tiger and the Tasmanian devil on the Australian mainland:  “Perhaps because the public perception of dingoes as ‘sheep-killers’ is so firmly entrenched, it has been commonly assumed that dingoes killed off the [tigers] and devils on mainland Australia.”  (1)

Female dingo.  Creative Commons.
Female dingo. Creative Commons.

Australian scientists have recently exonerated dingoes of this accusation.  Using mathematical models, they have decided that the disappearance of the tigers and devils was probably caused by an abrupt change in the climate at the same time that the Aboriginal population on the mainland increased significantly.   The climate change reduced vegetation that had supported prey populations.  Increased numbers of Aboriginal hunters meant there was insufficient prey for tigers and devils.  They were the losers in the increased competition for a reduced food supply because they hunt alone, unlike humans and dingoes who hunt cooperatively together.

Familiar Themes

The case of the dingo recapitulates many themes on Million Trees:

  • The definition of “native” is illusive.  It seems to shift to suit the purposes of the person assigning that label.
  • When the economic interests of humans conflict with the needs of animals, the animals are usually the losers.
  • Animals are sometimes scapegoated by humans for environmental issues that are not caused by animals.
  • Human understanding of environmental issues is often inadequate to accurately identify the cause of environmental problems.

We wish the dingo the best of luck for its survival in Australia.



6 thoughts on “Australian Dingo: A controversial predator”

  1. Reading their reasoning only made two points very ironic. The men that brought the dingos 5000 years ago likely stayed in Australia. Should they be DNA tested and sent back to Thailand too? Who is non-native? 5000 years ago is a pretty long time to be part of a changing habitat. As per it being a top predator, why do they always forget about humans? Not much eliminates us unless you count virus and bacteria. It is not like dingos hunt people, bar the baby snatching one reads about rarely. I happen to like dogs and feel for them being poisoned and skinned for display.

    1. Yes, 5,000 years does seem like a very long to be considered an alien invader. That’s what made this story interesting. It seemed an extreme case that is perhaps explained by the inevitable factor of economic interest.

      I also like dogs, which is one of many reasons why I became involved in this debate. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, native plant advocates have tried their best to restrict dogs in our public parks. They have made quite a bit of progress on that agenda.

      Early in this interminable controversy, native plant advocates claimed that all criticism of their destructive projects came from people with dogs who weren’t happy about being fenced out of their public parks. We have made a little progress in making our objections understood; this is no longer the most common justification for ignoring our complaints.

  2. I like how they want to blame climate change, and not the bounties white “settlers” put on Tigers and Devils to reduce their populations out of fear of losing their beloved sheep to the local predators – and kept in place after it was proven that Tas Tigers lacked the jaw strength to kill a sheep. Next they’ll pretend there weren’t bounties on human (Aboriginal) head either. Anything to avoid taking blame.

    1. According to the study cited in this article, tigers and devils disappeared from mainland Australia over 3,000 years ago, long before European settlers brought sheep to Australia in the 19th Century. The study refers to a change in the climate thousands of years ago, not to the current change in the climate that is caused by greenhouse gases generated by human activities. The climate on Earth has oscillated between warm and cold for the entire 4.5 billion years of its existence.

      I agree that animals are often killed by humans in the service of human enterprises and that’s one of the main points of this article. However, in the case of tigers and devils, that’s not the explanation for their disappearance from the mainland.

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