Written by Alice Derwentsmith
The use of dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) as apex predators and biodiversity regulators in the Australian landscape has recently generated a significant amount of discussion. This concept has ben extensively researched however there has yet to be any movement from the Australian Commonwealth Government on reduced culling of dingoes or a response to the practice of selectively introducing dingoes into the productive southern eastern grazing regions of Australia. This issue is multifaceted, with implementation and outcomes largely influenced by political agendas. Financial considerations and pressure from lobby groups that coerce policy makers into non-scientifically supported proposals, produce variable and poor environmental outcomes. Public perceptions that the dingo is a menace, killer, and an environmental pest are often misguided, irrational or unjustified, and have consequently obstructed the government from making sound environmental decisions.
Currently, Australia’s native mammal and marsupial populations are on a downwards spiral. This is mainly due to introduced predators such as the cat (Felis catus) and European red fox (Vulpes vulpes). It is well known that dingoes, as apex predators, act as trophic and biodiversity regulators and have the potential to subdue feral predators such as those described above. Dingoes demonstrate the ‘landscape of fear’ phenomenon towards feral cats and foxes, meaning that they avoid areas in which dingoes frequent due to fear. This in turn allows smaller native mammals and marsupials to benefit from less predation effort.
The exclusion of dingoes from the southern half of the continent due to the dingo barrier fence, has led to great changes in ecosystem and biodiversity functions. Research indicates that the re-introduction of dingoes into the southern half of Australia will limit the presence of feral cats, foxes and rabbits and in turn have a positive trophic cascade effect on the ecosystem.
Dingoes are currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Redlist list. The IUCN attempts to bring their concerns of threatened biodiversity to the attention of policy makers.
This advice and high level of concern has somewhat been ignored by the Australian Government as there has been no move to protect the species and culling still exists in many states.
With so much public interest and research being conducted, why has the Australian Government yet to do anything? This is due to a combination of factors such as money, public opinions and governmental power.
Governments are often slow to act or react, and are prone to responding to, or being influenced by, pressure or lobby groups. This resonates for the Australian Government in regards to managing many environmental issues. For instance the reintroduction of cattle into the Victorian High Country has no scientific merit, but is a reaction to an idealistic notion that can be linked to the famous Man From Snowy River poem, film, and previous heritage. Research suggests that grazing has a detrimental impact on the landscape and has no impact on fuel reduction to decrease fire risk. The lobby group, Mountain Cattlemen, are powerful and are very much invested in this issue and therefore pressure the government. In the case of the dingo, these powerful lobby groups are farmers.
Agriculture is a large source of income for the government and local communities and takes many forms. It is a well known fact that dingoes attack livestock, with sheep being their easiest targets. They can at times attack many sheep in a single visit but generally only eat one, leaving farmers in the position to euthanise the remaining injured sheep. Financial and emotional turmoil for the farmer is consequently ensued, which is costlyand therefore requires careful consideration when proposing to introduce an animal such as a dingo. Australia produces and exports the largest amount of wool globally, which provides the government with a large source of income. Protecting this income and that of the farmer weighs heavily on decision makers.
“The deliberate introduction of dingoes to control exotic predators is unlikely because they affect agricultural interests and other human activities”
– Departments of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in 2008 (Feral Cat Threat Abatement Plan)
Along with wool exports, Australia also participates in the live animal export trade, which earned $996.5 million dollars in 2009. The notion of introducing dingoes into areas where agriculture intensity is high is not favoured by the government as it could cause have a detrimental impact on profit and the loss of farmers’ income and livelihoods.
Implementing dingoes as a pest control measure presents a major hurdle for the government in the form of legislation. Currently, there is no nationwide system that classifies dingoes into a native or non-native species, triggering each state to develop its own system, classification and subsequent management. The level of protection for dingoes varies across states. In all states and territories, with the exception of dingo free Tasmania, dingoes can legally be culled outside of national parks by one of two means: legislative sanctions or by private permit.
There is also difficulty with fact that some states or territories have legislation that contradicts or can be seen to contradict another piece of legalisation. For example, in New South Wales, dingoes are a protected species when in national parks and nature reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974 and the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. Once dingoes exit the national park, they become unprotected and are therefore a pest species under the Rural Lands Protection Act 1998 (Table 1). If the protection of dingoes is sought in the future, overarching federal legislation such as the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 along with a Threat Abatement Plan should be introduced.
Table 1. Current legal status of dingoes in Australia
|State/Territory||Classification of dingoes||Relevant legislation||Level of protection|
|Australian Capital Territory||Protected species||Nature Conservation Act 1980||Permit needed for culling|
|New South Wales||Threatened species||National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995||Protected in National Parks|
|Pest species||Rural Lands Protection Act 1998||Government responsible for management on public lands|
|Northern Territory||Undeclared||Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1993||Unprotected. Landholders not obligated to cull|
|Queensland||Pest species||Rural Lands Protection Act 1985||Landholders obligated to control on their land|
|South Australia||Pest species (South of the barrier fence)||Animal and Plant Control Board Act 1986||Landholders obligated to control on their land|
|Wildlife species (North of the barrier fence)||Animal and Plant Control Commission 1993||Protected – level unknown|
|Tasmania||Dingo free- No classification||N/A||N/A|
|Victoria||Pest species||Catchment and Land Protection Act 1994||Landholders obligated to control on their land|
|Western Australia||Declared animals||Agriculture and Related Resources Protection Act 1976||Landholders obligated to control on their land|
|Unprotected fauna||Western Australian Wildlife Conservation Act 1950||Control confined to livestock areas|
There have been two recorded fatalities from dingoes in history; Azaria Chamberlain and the death of a child at Fraser Island. In response to the Fraser Island attack, the Queensland Government immediately introduced a dingo culling program at Fraser Island, even though there hadn’t been a fatal attack for more than 20 years. This reflects the opinion of many that dingo culling is an emotional response with little if any scientific backing.Whilst an entire legislative change would be ideal for managing the culling of dingoes and their subsequent protection, the likelihood of it happening in the near future is low. The perception of the public and farmers alike is not geared towards the reintroduction of dingoes, and implementing such proposals may alienate some voters and or polarise a portion of the electorate.
A recent example of an emotional response to an issue with the interaction between humans and their environment is the culling of sharks off the Western Australia coast. This reaction was in response to the deaths of seven beachgoers from 2010 to 2013. Baited drum lines were used to hook and kill large sharks that were in close proximity to popular beaches. There is little or no scientific evidence to support the view that the drum lines will deter sharks from public beaches or that there is no confounding environmental impacts, yet the government implemented the proposal.
The attachment of emotion to environmental decision makers is of great concern for many Australians. Ideally, decisions should be based on merit, with all issues or concerns given consideration and a balanced decision formulated that applies less weight to emotion and more to scientific reasoning. In the case of the dingo, their environmental benefits should be acknowledged, explored and implemented if necessary. In addition to this, attempts to save or protect native species should always be placed at a higher priority than agricultural and economic interests. In order for Australian environments and ecosystems to flourish in the future, legislation must be brought under one federal system and reflect environmental needs without the input of emotions, public perceptions, finances and governmental popularity.
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