Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia’s Iconic Top Predator Must Be Protected

By Michael Kennedy

Lethal control programs treat dingoes like pests, yet the evidence is mounting that this damages ecosystems by enabling foxes and feral cats to thrive.

It seems we’ll never learn that the dingo is a great friend of the Australian environment. In recent months we have seen proposals to dump and then kill dingoes on an offshore island to control feral goats; a suggestion that we should be selling dingo meat to Asian markets; and calls to bring back a dingo bounty in Victoria.

Emerging conservation science is increasingly pointing to the importance of dingoes as our top order mammalian predator, helping to control both introduced red foxes and feral cats, and fulfilling critical ecosystem functions. In turn this means that dingoes play an equally important role in protecting a long list of threatened and non-threatened Australian species that are being preyed upon in almost incomprehensible numbers by feral interlopers. Yet we continue to kill dingoes in large numbers even though the CSIRO’s Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012 (http://tinyurl.com/h4mxu4u) describes the dingo as “near threatened”.

The dingo’s essential role in suppressing feral cat populations was stressed in Humane Society International’s (HSI) submission to the Commonwealth Government’s Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by Feral Cats (http://tinyurl.com/jtskv48), in which we stated:

The weight of scientific evidence is now sufficient to warrant the establishment of a dingo predator re-wilding program as a broad-scale, cost-effective way of suppressing both cats and foxes to the benefit of literally hundreds of species of native wildlife. While it is fair to say that success of such a program is far from certain, its prospects are far more attractive than continued broad-scale 1080 baiting, which although cheap, lacks evidence of effectiveness.

The Commonwealth’s final 2015 feral cat plan did not fully reflect this advice, nor did Canberra agree to assess our 2016 scientific nomination to list the dingo under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), responding that there was insufficient population data to make such an assessment.

The CSIRO’s dingo analysis estimated a population figure of greater than 10,000 mature individuals in Australia, all threatened by habitat loss, poisoning, trapping and shooting, noting that the rate of decline in “pure” dingoes “may approach 30% in 18 years (three generations) across all of Australia, and is ongoing”. It also notes that lethal control programs, widespread across the country, are largely ineffective yet we continue to spend millions of dollars every year on such programs because killing is culturally entrenched among bureaucracies and graziers. It’s what has always been done, and so that’s what will continue to be done – regardless of scientific evidence or the obvious conservation imperative.

But there are better ways to protect livestock and conserve dingoes. A growing body of evidence shows that dingo-dog hybrids share many important aspects of dingo social behaviour, such as pack formation and feeding habits. As hybrids are performing the same ecological role as dingoes, they should be considered equally as important to conserve in Australian ecosystems. The first step is treating hybrid dingoes as wildlife instead of pest animals, and avoiding compounding the pressures on them through programs such as “wild dog” bounties.

The same selection processes that led to the evolution of the dingo are still acting on hybrids today, and we quickly see dingo traits and characteristics assert themselves in these animals. Indiscriminate killing programs don’t just hurt pure dingoes, they hurt the entire ecosystem, which is thrown out of balance when apex predators are eliminated.

What’s becoming clear is that a major side-effect is the significantly increased risk posed to threatened species that occur in areas wherever the dingo is subject to lethal controls. There is also an increased risk to livestock as well, with research showing that intact dingo packs are able to hunt traditional prey, whereas individuals from fractured packs, due to lethal control programs, tend to be more opportunistic.

HSI is pursuing a range of campaign efforts on behalf of the dingo, including nominations for the dingo as a threatened species under federal and state law, and the nomination of “the cascading effects of the loss or removal of dingoes from Australian landscapes” as a key threatening process under the EPBC Act.

We also need a national dingo recovery/conservation plan initiated by the Commonwealth that recognises this iconic mammal’s natural, indigenous and cultural importance to Australia; that incorporates alternative and humane mechanisms for managing livestock conflicts; that seeks to maintain the dingo’s keystone role in Australian ecosystems; and consequently contributes to the recovery of our growing list of threatened native animals.


Michael Kennedy AM is Director of Humane Society International (Australia) and the Wildlife Land Trust (Australia).