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.