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Canis Lupus Dingo on the Precipice of Extinction

Updated on January 22, 2018
Tourists on Fraser Island are warned not to interact with the wild dingoes. A dingo wanders along a sandy beach.
Tourists on Fraser Island are warned not to interact with the wild dingoes. A dingo wanders along a sandy beach. | Source

Icon or Pest?

Kangaroos, koalas, crocodiles, and emus are well-known animals associated with Australia. Despite its role in the historical foundation of our culture, the Australian dingo remains an animal which is both loved as a national icon and despised by as an introduced pest.

Interbreeding with domesticated dogs let wild after Australia's Colonisation in 1788, has changed characteristics of the dingo considerably. The pure breed of the Australian dingo is tarnished by ignorance. Bob Irwin (Australia Zoo) speaking on the plight of the canis lupus dingo believes from his research that only two areas in Australia are now home to the purebred Australian dingo: Fraser Island in Queensland and the Snowy Mountain Range in Victoria.

Plight of the Fraser Island Dingoes with Bob Irwin

The Mystery of the Australian Dingo

Speculation and controversy surround the history of the arrival of the dingo to Australian shores. The dingo's mysterious arrival possibly dates from 3,500 years ago to 12,000 years ago. The most popular and scientifically backed theory on the arrival of the dingo to Australian shores is that it was brought by seafarers from East Asia.

The East Asian origin theory which is based on the discovery of 3,500-year-old skeleton and supported by a study of dingoes mtDNA . The theory suggests dingoes were first introduced to Australia from East Asian Seafarers arriving with humans on boats about 4,000 years ago. (This is despite partial and fragmented bones that have been found and are reported to be much older than 12,000 years old.) It is speculated that the Asian seafarers may have brought the dingo along as a source of food. In many areas, dingoes who are considered direct descendants of the Asian Wolf (hence the use of the Latin name Lupus meaning Wolf), were welcomed into Aboriginal communities and Aboriginal culture with many remaining wild. With the arrival of more settlers throughout the nineteenth century, this close relationship between the Aborigines and dingoes disintegrated.

The close resemblance of the dingo's skeletal anatomy to Indian pariah dogs and wolves, suggests a different theory. This theory coincides with the timeline of backed-blade-stone-tool first appearing in Australia, possibly from India. Scepticism on the introduction of these tools from India does not support this theory of the dingo's arrival from India. It is generally agreed, that as there are no archaeology records for dingoes living in Tasmania, that the dingo may have arrived with the assistance of humans, after Tasmania was cut off from mainland Australia, placing their arrival between 3,500 to about 12,000 years ago.

The theory that the dingo's origins lead back to an Asian breed of dog is strengthened by the shared characteristic of their lack of a bark. It is a well-known characteristic that Australian dingoes howl, that they do not bark. The second and larger study mtDNA testing of the Australian dingo compared the dingo against the Asian wolf and other descendants. The mtDNA findings indicate that Australian dingoes are most likely a unique off-shoot of the Asian wolf, laying between the wolf and the domesticated dog in the evolutionary chain. The mtDNA study suggests that the Australian dingo may have been started from just a few or even one solitary line of dingo.

Captive Australian Dingo at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia
Captive Australian Dingo at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia | Source

Nationally Protected Species or Vermin?

Dingoes share hunting tactics with the Asian wolf. They have been known to sometimes travel in packs and hunt older and weaker animals across the Australian plains. The Australian Aboriginals gave the name to the dingo. Dingo is their word for 'coward', a befitting description for this near descendant of the Asian wolf. While the dingo was known to share the Aborigines' camps, it generally kept its distance, wandering off on their own to hunt small animals or in packs for larger prey.

In colonial texts, settlers were inclined to describe dingoes as "cunning, cowardly and cruel", mainly due to their hunting of sheep, rather than for their "quick-witted, pragmatic, and resourceful" hunting attributes. The dingoes' reputation for cowardice is well known, as is their attribute to kill to survive, preying mostly on livestock when traditional food sources have gone. "Dingo dualisms: Exploring the ambiguous identity of Australian dingoes" (PDF) is an interesting essay that explores the different outlooks upon the dingo represented as both a National Protected Species and as a pest, The latter attribute is particularly supported by the farming lobby and their members. They strongly support the isolation of dingoes believing that they are best suited to National Parks and Wildlife reserves but not on their "private property". Much of the ambiguity about dingoes now lies in distinguishing pure breeds from half-breeds, where domesticated dogs turned wild have interbred with the purebred dingo.

Distinguishing Attributes of the Australian Dingo

Feature
Attribute
Communication
Howl, not bark; have a complex vocabulary of howls and purring revealing a strong sense of communication and community, giving rise to obvious evidence of their intelligence
Fur
No body odour but they do leave their scent to mark their territories; Colour of fur often depends on where the Dingo lives. The 'standard' coat colour is ginger with white feet. In the desert areas, the fur is more golden yellow while in forested areas the fur can be a darker tan to black. The body fur is short while the tail is quite bushy.
Size Range
Shoulder height: 440-620mm, Body length: 860-1230mm, Tail: 260-380mm, Body mass: 12-24kg.
Breeding Cycle
Once a year. (Whereas, a domesticated or wild dog may breed twice a year.)
Shape, Appearance and other Distinguishing Features
No dew claw on their hind legs. The dingo has a relatively broad head and erect ears, makes the Dingo with canine teeth longer than those of a domestic dog, the dingo's muzzle is also longer and tapered.

Source: Australian Museum

A Tarnished Reputation

It is unfortunate that throughout the history of Australia the reputation of the dingo has been increasingly tarnished by humans. One of the major contributing factors is the increasing number of 'half-dingoes' or wild dogs that bark, strongly resembles and are often mistaken for dingoes. These animals are far more likely to engage with humans in a violent nature and their behaviour is far less predictable. Dingoes are often blamed for attacks on animal stock which are often terrorised before being killed and left to rot. Dingoes are known for killing only what they want to eat. The actions of killing for sport, are more likely to be the actions of the dingo half-breeds and wild dogs introduced into Australia by humans.

More recently a fourth Inquest in 2012 was held into the missing baby Azaria case. Azaria was a nine-week-old baby that was taken from her camping tent in the Northern Territory in the 1980s. The Inquiry found the dingo guilty of the crime. Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and her ex-husband, Michael Chamberlain had always claimed a dingo took their baby. One of the damning pieces of evidence was that the defence claimed that because a dingo's maw could stretch wide enough to hold fast a human's skull, it was certainly capable of the crime. Though no body was ever found, bloodied but un-torn clothing was found near to a dingo's lair during another police investigation. The coroner in the fourth Inquest believed this was enough evidence to convict the "dingo" for the crime. It is rumoured against more than one article in comments left by readers, that one of the National Park rangers owned a half-breed "dingo" who may have been responsible for the crime but that it was covered up at the time. Crikey.com.au an independent news media also makes a similar suggestion that it was assumed a dingo took the baby and not a wild dog.

More recently and giving credence to the fourth inquest into the Azaria Chamberlain case are recent fatal and non-fatal attacks by pure bred dingoes on Fraser Island. Fraser Island is a popular tourist destination on the South-east coast of Queensland. it is on Fraser Island where dingoes are isolated from the main land and where other dogs are prohibited. Many believe that this population of dingoes are perhaps one of the last pure breeds in Australia. The attacks by the Fraser Island dingo are not without foundation and prompting. It is well known that tourists and some locals will feed and encourage human contact with the dingoes, an act which is discouraged by wild life officials as being dangerous, leading to fines and possible eviction from Fraser Island. Interaction by a dingo with the public can lead to the dingoes demise, as the dingoes are tagged with identification numbers for ease of recognition.

Dingo Activists Call for Tighter Restrictions on Fraser Island

Dingoes are a wolf, born in the wilds where they have made the Australian outback their home. They are not meant to live in a close proximity with humans despite their ability to easily adapt to domestication. Mistakenly people have fed wild dingoes in tourist destinations like Fraser Island, weakening the natural hunting instincts of the dingo and establishing a dependence for food upon humans. This, in turn has lead to children taunting hungry dingoes at Fraser Island, angering them to the point of attack.

Though it is common for people beyond Australia to assume the kangaroo is our most treasured animal, the dingo has no less a fascinating history and way of life. Though they may not have arrived in Australia with the Aborigines, Australian legislation states that any animal in Australia before colonisation is considered to be an Australian Native and therefore the dingo has protection, but this is often overlooked by State laws which encourage baiting and shooting.

Dingoes are unique and belong to the outback, tying in intricately with Aboriginal culture. Australian settlers wrote about witnessing an Aboriginal woman 'caring' for dingo pups as if they were her own. Dingoes are a beautiful sub-species of wolf who are endangered through the ignorance of humans who have allowed and encouraged interbreeding with domestic dogs. Some of this breeding, in the case of the blue cattle dog, is deliberate. Most of the interbreeding though is the result of domestic dogs gone wild abandoned by their human owners. It is the purebred dingo, the Canis Lupus Dingo whose reputation and name is tarnished due to human interference. Dingoes continue to be hunted and killed for misdoings they did not begin and now their fate lies on the precipice of extinction.

Australian dingoes often solve problems in packs. Above, an Australian dingo enjoys the sun at Taronga Zoo in Sydney,
Australian dingoes often solve problems in packs. Above, an Australian dingo enjoys the sun at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, | Source

Extinction

His paws race on and on
Under the hot sun
Either be extinct forever
Or the Dingo must run.

By the wild domesticated dogs
His name is damned
Away from the hunters of his hide
His strong legs scram.

For companionship he howls
The bark is not his
Of his name and colour
The hunters are prejudiced.

The Dingo is a coward
And afraid of man
His red coat, a prize
For the murdering clan.

The last of the pure breed
The Dingo is unique
After his bottle brush tail
The slaughterers still sneak.

The Dingo is dying
His numbers decline
Who will save Nature's masterpiece
From the hands of mankind?

© Tina Dubinsky (nee Wells 1988)

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