Australia has been suffering an unprecedented rate of mammalian extinction in recent years, but Dr Thomas Newsome believes the frequently maligned dingo may hold the key to conserving those species we have left.
Newsome, a researcher for The University of Sydney and Oregon State University, has spent years working with apex predators in the wilderness, whether they’re dingoes in the Tanami Desert or wolves in the forest of north-east Washington State, USA.
His website reveals a long history of delving into the thorny issues regarding ‘rewilding’ – a concept that has become something of a buzzword among conservationists – with scientific papers published on both wolf and dingo ecology, as well as a slew of articles and interviews.
“One of the more relevant studies was a broad analysis of animal trapping and bounty data across North America to assess interactions between wolves, coyotes and foxes,” Newsome told Wild in a recent interview.
The story that this, and other, research tells is one of a delicate system that has been thrown out of balance with the removal of keystone species.
Reintroducing those species can have a positive effect; for example, in the years since wolves have been reintroduced to certain parts of the US, aspen woodlands are recovering, in part due to the suppressing effect wolves have on elk populations.
In theory, the same may hold true for dingoes in the Australian outback.
“While their physiology and environment are clearly different, the wolf and the dingo occupy very similar ecological niches and therefore play a very similar role in their respective habitats as apex predators.”
A Life in the Wild
Newsome’s passion for wild predators, and dingoes especially, began as a young child.
“My father, Alan, was also an ecologist and he was one of the first to work with dingoes in central Australia. I think my time spent with him in the outback fostered my interest in conservation, particularly as it relates to controlling invasive species.”
As part of this unique upbringing, Newsome witnessed first-hand what a burden introduced species were on the native ecology, with cats and foxes representing a major and direct threat, while introduced herbivores like rabbits and goats add further pressure.
This, coupled with habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as ongoing changes in climate, have already pushed 29 endemic mammals to extinction.
Public opinion often supports hunting bounties, recreational shooting and exclusion fences in order to help curb the spread of invasive species like foxes, but research shows these measures aren’t particularly effective – an alternative method is required.
“I believe the dingo could be the answer to this problem,” Newsome said. “There’s some evidence to show they can have a suppressive effect on foxes and cats, as well as potentially helping to curb overrun herbivores like kangaroos (in unnaturally high proportions) and goats.”
The real challenge, as in nearly any issue related to wilderness protection and conservation, lies in educating the public.
The Dingo: Enemy or Ally?
For many, dingoes are simply a wild dog that represent a clear and present threat to livestock and even humans, but this isn’t Newsome’s experience.
While researching the dingoes in Tanami, Newsome encountered a significant population of both dingoes and humans living together in the vicinity of a mining settlement.
“We had over 100 dingoes living near mine workers, so there was a clear risk. However, from what I’ve seen the risk only tends to exist when people create a reason for dingoes to be attracted to them in the first place. In the absence of an attractant, dingoes would rarely approach humans – they are much more likely to avoid people entirely.”
His research has shown that dingo behaviour can be altered in disturbed environments; dingoes find it easier to scavenge around rubbish tips than to hunt for themselves in rural areas and tourist sites, however another issue lies with their genetics.
“The genetic purity of dingoes is highly variable across the continent,” Newsome explained. “We discovered the population in Tanami were around 90 per cent pure dingo, whereas the opposite is true of most populations found on the east coast.”
Since the arrival of European settlers, dingoes have been interbreeding with domesticated dogs and this may explain differences in behaviour from place to place.
Ultimately, Newsome believes it’s human behaviour and management practices that need to change in order to protect our native species, and even ourselves.
As it relates to human-dingo interactions, people need to be aware of what might attract the unwanted attention of a dingo in the first place.
“If you have an open rubbish tip on your property or you’re leaving carcasses about, carrying unsealed food or even water in arid areas, then you need to be aware of attracting a predator like this,” he said. “Farmers and land managers need to take precautions to ensure they’re not unduly attracting predators to their properties.”
Changing Management Practices: Let the Dingoes In
As it relates to altering current management practices, Newsome’s current push focuses on promoting research projects that seek to determine whether dingoes do actually have a positive effect on native fauna populations.
The concept is to realign a small section of the world’s longest fence – a 5,531-kilometre barrier that was initially erected in the late 1800s to protect crops from rabbits and was eventually improved to also protect livestock from dingoes.
Unfortunately, this fence (and similar fences in Western Australia) also prevents dingoes from accessing national parks, where they may be necessary to keep feral species in check.
Newsome proposes to have the fence moved around Sturt National Park in western New South Wales, leaving it open to the influence of dingoes and thereby providing an experiment to further assess their ecological role.
The proposed project would also include control areas in the same region that are left dingo-free, so they can be compared and contrasted in the experiment.
“My previous experience with wolves in the US, as well as similar cases with wolves and other predators in Europe leads me to feel quite confident this will be a fruitful avenue of research,” said Newsome. “However I also strongly believe that any conservation effort must be firmly grounded in good science, so it’s not something we want to rush through.”
Regardless of how we feel about the presence of dingoes, the general theory behind reintroducing apex predators appears to be taking hold in Australia and should inform the way we think about the way we interact with such species, as in shark culling.
As another example, there have been ongoing discussions regarding the feasibility of releasing Tasmanian devils into Wilsons Promontory National Park – a move that is argued to have tourism benefits above and beyond the ecological services the devils will provide.