Non-violence has its place, but let’s give dingoes due credit

Dingo: when they come to rely on humans for food and water, not killing them can be naive. Flickr/woulfe

The sad reality of human-dingo relations is that blood will be shed, as Brad Purcell recently reminded us in these pages with his article about non-violent co-existence, The Australian Dingo: to be respected, at a distance.

Although Dr Purcell’s piece was well intentioned, our experiences suggest that his “Techniques for keeping wild dogs away” (playing recordings of a wolf pack howling, using scent marks, and flying bright red “fladry” tape) are unlikely to work in situations where direct human-dingo conflict is most likely or is already happening. Although we disagree with this aspect of Dr Purcell’s article, we stress our intention is not to discredit him, but rather to support his call for better education programs and to provide readers with additional food for thought about managing human-dingo clashes.

The ecological niches of humans and dingoes overlap and some dingoes are “anthropic” - that is, they actively seek food and water from people. This is not surprising given that people probably initially selected dingoes from among the less aggressive wolves they encountered (dingoes are a sub-species of wolf). This overlap and the subsequent conflict between us are exacerbated by spreading urbanisation and the expansion of industry and tourism. From a human perspective, dingoes are formidable competitors because of their resilience - an artefact of amazing behavioural and physiological “plasticity” that makes them capable of surviving and thriving in virtually any situation across Australia. Indeed, we have worked with dingoes and other free-ranging dogs in many of the situations where they occur: on beaches, in coastal towns, wetlands, rainforests, rugged gorge country, savannas, and in deserts.

We agree with Dr Purcell to the extent that human interventions are necessary in order to minimise further aggression between dingoes and humans. We endorse broadening and intensifying wildlife managers’ efforts to exchange unsafe human practices for safer ones. That is, substitute practices that attract dingoes and other wild dogs, such as feeding them at campgrounds, for those that remove incentives for close contact and reduce the risk of aggression when proximity occurs, such as ensuring people use “dingo-proof” receptacles for rubbish.

Unfortunately, we have seen with our own eyes that education is not enough. Sometimes, this is because some people don’t think that the warnings apply to them. Even strategies to reduce association between people and dingoes can be insufficient to totally prevent trouble. Indeed, if dingoes are already dependent upon food or water that they get from humans, then when it is removed, their aggression against humans, domestic animals and wildlife can intensify. Plus, when people stop providing food and water to dingoes that have become dependent, the animals that cannot find alternative sources will die.

Sniffing out the landfill. G. Ballard

Hunger and thirst are great motivators: they drive dingoes to climb fences or dig under them, to enter buildings and vehicles and even to directly confront larger apex-predators, i.e. people. Faced with food or water shortages, dogs kill other dogs, eat more wildlife (both native and invasive species) and move further afield to hunt, scavenge, and find water. Consequently, in addition to educating humans and removing the food or water that people provide to dingoes, it is sometimes necessary and arguably more humane to simultaneously kill anthropic (human-reliant) dingoes. This can minimise the risk of further aggressive confrontations and associated flow-on effects, for dingoes, domestic animals and wildlife.

Dr Purcell specifically suggested three techniques for keeping wild dogs away:

  1. Playing recordings of howling to simulate a resident social group;

  2. Artificial scent marking to establish false dingo territories;

  3. Using fluttering “fladry tape”.

Unfortunately, these are all techniques we and other dingo trappers, whether for research or control purposes, successfully use to attract dingoes, not to repel them. Although work at both Macquarie University and the University of New England on dingo vocalisations may make it possible, in future, to isolate sounds that will serve to repel animals, what we already know is that playing or simulating dingo vocalisations is a good way to attract dingoes into an area.

Similarly, our extensive GPS-tracking of dingoes has found that individuals will venture into other groups’ areas of activity and are commonly attracted to scent marking by other dogs, whether known or unknown to them. Lastly, many trappers use visual lures, such as flag-like material, pinwheels or flashing LEDs to attract dogs into trap sets.

Despite this contrast between our experiences and Dr Purcell’s suggestions, we concede that some dingoes would be deterred by strategically used sounds, smells and objects. Dingoes, like people, vary between individuals and some are much more cautious than others. However, the cautious individuals are also least likely to be the ones posing the greatest risk of aggression toward humans. Confident, experienced dogs, inquisitive individuals, and animals so desperate for food or water that they will overcome a reasonable fear of a larger predator are most likely to be involved in direct confrontations with humans. These same animals will be the ones least likely to respond to the measures Purcell proposed.

We recognise that many, if not most, Australians find the idea of killing dingoes confronting. They have become iconic, adopted by our nation in the absence of the charismatic apex predators that occur elsewhere throughout the world (such as much larger wolves, or lions and tigers and bears, for example). Their adoption has been made easier by the fact that dingoes are dogs, the same species that has contributed to human success and become our valued co-workers and companions. However, just because killing dogs is unpopular, it does not automatically make it unnecessary, or even unsound, as a strategic tool for wildlife management and protecting people, particularly where populations are locally overabundant.

We reiterate that managing human behaviour to avoid human-dingo conflict in campgrounds, tourist spots and urban fringes should be our primary strategy. However, if conflict has already occurred, then it will sometimes be necessary to reduce both the availability of anthropogenic food and water, as well as dingo density to avoid further attacks or harassment. So long as non-lethal techniques for deterring dingoes do not simply shift problems elsewhere, or worse still exacerbate them, we support such attempts to find effective ways to minimising human-dingo conflict. However, to be effective, such techniques must give dingoes due credit, something that is only likely if they are based on a thorough understanding of dingo biology and behaviour and human behaviour towards dingoes.

This article was co-written with Dr Thomas Newsome, who holds a PhD from the University of Sydney on the ecology and behaviour of the dingo.

Comments welcome below.