Few animals in Australia have been more despised and subject to myth and misunderstanding than the dingo.
It was not until 1966 that the first major study into Australia's largest carnivore was undertaken.
The C.S.I.R.O. team studied animals in both dry desert regions and in the south eastern woodlands.
The dingo was thought to have originally come to Australia with the Aborigines some 30-40,000 years ago but recent research is casting doubt on this theory.
Apparently no dingo remains have been found that are older than about 4,000 years and this suggests that they arrived much later than was previously thought.
DNA research has shown that the 'mother of all dingoes' lived about 5,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that the arrival of the dingo in Australia
coincided with the development of a new type of tool among the human population. There are suggestions that this tool technology was brought south by people
from India and that the dingo is a descendant of the Indian plains wolf.
Other studies suggest the dingo may have originated in southern China. The 'out of China' theory holds that the dingo could have arrived between 4,600 and 18,300
years ago. This spread of dates is far too extensive to be of any use in working out how the dingo first arrived.
Prior to interbreeding with domestic dogs, dingoes were all genetically very similar. Studies conducted across the country, found that all pure bred dingoes were only 1 mutation
away from the main type. All dingoes probably descended from a very small original number and may have even come from the litter of a single female.
The dingo is regarded as a pest species by farmers and they are shot, trapped and poisoned in most areas.
The dingo is an intelligent, alert and cunning animal and it is very unlikely that attempts to destroy the species will succeed.
With the introduction of domesticated dogs came inevitable cross breeding but DNA research is showing that where dingoes interbreed
with domestic dogs, the dingo genes are almost always dominant.
5,000 DNA samples were taken from across the country and the results show that 99% of wild canines are either pure bred dingoes or dingo
dominant cross breeds.
Pure bred dingoes made up 64% of the sample population and animals with at least another 20% had 75% dingo genes.
It was previously believed that pure bred dingoes were almost extinct in the wild but this is certainly not the case.
Dr Kylie Cairns, Study Lead Author and Conservation Biologist, is quoted as saying:
"Wild dog' isn't a scientific term - it's a euphemism. Dingoes are a native Australian animal, and many people don't like the idea
of using lethal control on native animals."
"The term 'wild dog' is often used in government legislation when talking about lethal control of dingo populations."
"Dingo populations are more stable and intact in areas that use less lethal control, like western and northern Australia. In fact,
98 per cent of the animals tested here are pure dingoes.
"But areas of the country that used long-term lethal control, like NSW, Victoria and southern Queensland, have higher rates of dog ancestry."
"Avoiding baiting in national parks, and during dingoes' annual breeding season, will help protect the population from future hybridisation."
"There is a large amount of funding currently going towards aerial baiting inside national parks. This funding is to aid bushfire recovery,
but aerial wild dog baiting doesn't target invasive animals or 'wild dogs' - it targets dingoes."
"We need to have a discussion about whether killing a native animal - which has been shown to have benefits for the ecosystem - is the best
way to go about ecosystem recovery."
Dingoes do not usually bark like ordinary dogs but they howl (somewhat like wolves do) to communicate. Although the dingo had started to evolve in a different way to
domestic dogs Canis familiaris, they are still close enough genetically to inter-breed and are still considered the same species although the dingo had the
scientific name Canis lupus dingo. This has now been changed to just Canis dingo and recognises the dingo has a separate lineage to wolves.
The pure bred dingo does have some distinct differences to the domestic dog, including breeding only once a year at a set
time instead of twice a year at random times but dingoes and domestic dogs have the same gestation period which is 63 days.
The dingo also has a much larger skull and larger teeth than similar sized domestic dogs.
Dingoes are usually solitary but seem to congregate more at breeding time, April to May. Pairs form at this time and pups are usually born between July and September.
A typical dingo litter is between 5 and 7 pups but as many as 14 pups have been seen on rare occasions. The pups are usually hidden in remote secluded dens and the breeding pair work
together to raise the pups until late summer when the male moves away and the pups start to become independant.
Dingoes are territorial and have a loose social organisation. They do seem to live in separate groups and howl and scent mark to keep other groups out of a territory. It was once thought that they
travelled hundreds of kilometres to obtain food but radio tracking shows that they remain within a defined territory and travel much shorter distances than folklore suggested.
Aggression and fighting between dingoes seems to be rare with dominant animals using body posture to keep subordinates in line.
Dingoes usually hunt alone but due to their habit of congregating in small groups from time to time, they are able to tackle much larger prey and can
hunt animals like kangaroos and wombats.
Dingoes inhabit all the mainland states of Australia but never managed to get to Tasmania. It is thought that the extinction of Tasmanian devils and Tasmanian tigers on the mainland
was a direct result of the introduction of the dingo.
Dingoes are not usually a threat to humans but there have been some fatalities of children and there was one historic account of a pack of dingoes threatening a lone cyclist in the goldfields.
It must be remembered at all times that they are wild animals and they should never be approached.
Anyone travelling to South East Asia (and Thailand in particular) will note domesticated dogs
(yellow pariah dog) that are very similar in appearance to the dingo.
New evidence is showing that removal of dingoes from areas encourages the expansion of mid-level introduced predator species like cats and foxes. This leads to the mass extermination
of small native species. If dingoes remain the top predators in an area then small native animals do much better. Cats, for example, can eat 30 small animals a day and there are estimated
to be 15 million feral cats in Australia.
There is an on-going debate about whether dingoes should be considered an introduced species due to the longevity
of their tenure but there is no doubt that they do control fox and cat numbers. The wholesale removal of dingoes from the
wild will undoubtedly mean that more small native species will become extinct.
Dingoes are not generally a major problem to cattle farmers but they are a threat to sheep. One solution being successfully trialed by some sheep farmers are maremma guardian
dogs. They are only part of the solution but it is better that the complete eradication of the dingo which is after all, an Australian icon.
The 7 year C.S.I.R.O. study showed that dingoes with enough native food or with access to plentiful rabbits and rodents are much less likely to
attack stock as smaller game is
usually taken in preference to domestic stock. As little a .5% of the dingoes diet consisted of sheep or cattle when native prey was plentiful but this increased to 4%
during droughts. At times when large numbers of stock die and become carrion the dingoes diet can reach 27% of domestic stock but this is achieved by scavanging and not predation.
Some cattle stations are now allowing dingoes to co-exist with cattle. The results are surprising as fodder around water holes is increasing and cattle losses are not as great as in
places where dingoes are being shot and poisoned. This is thought to be the result of a more stable pack structure and it has great promise for the long term survival of the dingo as a species.
Studies with wolves in North America have shown that stable packs actually reduce breeding and control predator numbers. In
places where hunting is frequent and packs are broken up, the restrictions on breeding are removed and wolf numbers actually
increase. This probably applies to dingoes as well.
When dingoes are removed from an area, other species such as rabbits, rodents and feral pigs increase and this results in loss of fodder for domestic stock.
Many farmers still see the dingo as the enemy but it is becoming increasingly clear that the dingo is needed for the long term sustainability and stability of the land.
The relationship the Aborigines had with the dingo was sometimes as a kind of pet but more often as a food source. Wild dingoes were hunted and pups were an especially
sought after food source. Not all pups taken from dens would be killed. Some would be kept in camp and even suckled by female members of the tribe.
Dingoes kept around camp would often have their front legs broken to stop them from moving back into the bush. These unfortunate creatures were used as a kind of
living blanket and used to help keep warm on cold desert nights. When times were tough these dogs became an emergency source of food.
Dingoes were not reliable companions and were not usually used as hunting dogs.