Dingoes are back in the news, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott raising concerns on ABC radio last week about dingoes in drought-hit areas of Queensland and New South Wales:
I’d learnt some years ago on my Pollie Pedal bike ride that wild dogs were a difficulty in the high country of Victoria, but I now discover that this is a much more widespread problem.
The federal government is close to announcing a new assistance package to help drought-struck areas. Given the Prime Minister’s unprompted remarks, there’s a chance that extra measures to control dingoes will be part of that package.
It would be an understandable move, given that dingoes are synonymous with livestock predation and come into conflict with people around some tourist and mining activities.
But while culling to control dingo numbers is one management option, there are other ways to lessen the impacts of dingoes on humans.
Dingoes are opportunistic predators that hunt a wide variety of prey. Consequently, they are especially likely to consume abundant food items. While in many cases this food is likely to be fauna, it can equally be food waste provided by people.
Our research suggests that waste food can be a key resource for dingoes, that has dramatic impacts on the ecology and behaviour of dingo populations. Further, it seems this food subsidy can escalate conflicts between humans and dingoes in all kinds of settings, including on farms, at mines and at tourist attractions.
How do humans change dingoes' behaviour?
In the Tanami Desert in northern Australia, we compared dingo populations in areas with and without human-provided food. The results demonstrated that access to this food, scavenged from unfenced rubbish tips, altered the diet, weight, movement and social behaviour of dingoes.
Like many people, dingoes readily opt for an easy take-away meal. Discarded food scraps comprised 60-70% of the diet of dingoes living close to a rubbish tip, whilst further away, reptiles, especially blue-tongues and goannas, were dingoes’ primary prey.
Our most recent study, which has just been published in the Journal of Mammalogy, confirmed that the eating habits of dingoes around the tip were similar to free-roaming domestic dogs in a nearby township. This is akin to dingoes acting just like man’s best friend.
Eating human-provided food scraps also had consequences for dingoes’ weights. As with over-consumption of other “junk” foods, they got fat: animals living close to the tip were 20% larger than their desert-living counter-parts. Further, these labrador-like dingoes moved only about half as much as dingoes in other areas. One dingo that ate food scraps had a home range size of only two square kilometres. This is dramatically smaller than another dingo, well away from human-provided food, which ranged over 2000 square kilometres. With food provided daily at the tip, dingoes didn’t need to roam over large areas hunting prey.
The reduced dingo movements were also associated with drastically altered social behaviour. Ordinarily, dingoes maintain small family groups and will actively defend their territories to ensure they have access to food and water. Every day at the tip, where there was regularly sufficient food for at least 225 dingoes, we observed 50 to 100 individuals. From the DNA samples we collected from some of the dingoes using the tip, it was apparent that a group of at least 55 closely related individuals were living close by; a five- to ten-fold increase on typical dingo family size. Despite this, little aggression was observed, even towards dingoes visiting from away.
As well as changing the size and behaviour of dingoes, people appear to have also compromised the genetic purity of this remote population. We observed higher rates of cross-breeding between dingoes and domestic dogs around the facility, suggesting it might have been easier for domestic dogs to infiltrate dingo society where food was abundant.
Cutting down on conflict
Our key point is that access to easily available food appeared to drastically alter the way dingoes live and behave. And that could alter how dingoes interact with other predators and prey.
That could have important knock-on effects, because dingoes can help the environment and humans by suppressing overabundant animals that they prey on, including emus and kangaroos and possibly goats and rabbits. In some situations, they may even suppress smaller predators in their area, such as foxes and cats.
Our research found that when humans make food too easily available, it appeared to have mostly negative consequences. That includes sustaining and increasing dingo populations to unnaturally high levels - potentially leading to more conflict with humans.
Our findings are important given that people are increasingly making it easier for dingoes to eat our food scraps. Rubbish tips at mine sites, townships, remote communities and tourist areas throughout Australia are often left unfenced, or so poorly fenced that dingoes can freely access food.
Fortunately, addressing this problem is remarkably simple. At large industrial facilities (like mine sites), predator proof fences can be erected around food resources, such as rubbish tips.
At tourist facilities, including campgrounds and picnic areas, predator-proof containers for the storage of food and rubbish will help.
Of course, it would be ideal – and cheaper – if people would simply remove the waste they generate. Doing so would reduce the need for intensive, costly and often controversial management, such as culling or excluding dingoes, to ensure human safety.
Although it is difficult to deal with carcasses in pastoral operations, it is worth highlighting that these provide easy, take-away meals for dingoes. Similarly, dumping homestead food waste and carcasses in poorly constructed tips is an open invitation to enterprising predators.
Better and more consistent management of food scraps would contribute to a reduction in human-dingo conflict. It may even decrease rates of cross-breeding between dingoes and domestic dogs, a process that may permanently change the characteristics of Australia’s dingo.
Importantly, removing human food would enable the dingo to fulfil its natural ecological roles, including keeping a check on other animals like kangaroos. In the long-run, that will create benefits for all of us – including farmers.