Erin O'Dwyer

Journalist | Writer | Editor

Reportage

Call of the wild

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Photo: Brad Purcell
Good Weekend, Sydney Morning Herald
2 October 2010

Pest, menace, killer … for an animal so little understood, the dingo has a bad reputation. But new research is showing how man and Australia’s wild dog can more happily coexist. 

The greater blue mountains world heritage area rises soft and blurry beyond the Sydney metropolis. On a clear day, you can see the city from its ancient sandstone ramparts and hear aeroplanes banking. How wild can it really be?

Very wild indeed. Its southern section (an area of 220,000 hectares that has the Great Western Highway as its northern border) is home to about 60 packs of dingoes. Ground-breaking re­earch by University of Western Sydney researcher Brad Purcell reveals that it is the largest dingo population so close to civilisation.

Almost 500 dingoes live in this part of the wilderness. They mostly hunt in packs of between four and six, and exist on a diet of swamp wallaby, brush-tailed possum, wombat and rabbit. They travel huge distances, sometimes more than 100 kilometres in a few days. They shy away from people and livestock, and rarely leave their own territory, usually a few thousand hectares bordered by rivers, ridges and roads. They only venture outside their pack to look for a mate.

It is late summer when i join Purcell for a spot of dingo watching in the Burragorang Valley, deep within the southern Blue Mountains. For 50 years, humans have had little access to the area around Warragamba Dam. Lake Burragorang, formed when a narrow gorge on the Warragamba River was flooded in the late 1950s, is Australia’s largest water-storage facility and supplies 80 per cent of Sydney’s water requirements. Lack of human contact has preserved a rich biodiversity.

To this uncivilised place, Purcell has brought the hallmarks of civilisation: cheese, crackers and dip. Cold beers, too – the kind with quiz questions under the cap. “I opened one of these the other day and the question was: ‘What was the first animal introduced into Australia?’ ” says Purcell.

What was it? I ask.

“Dingo,” he grins. “I kept it.”

We’re sitting on a hill above a small dam, hidden by rocks and saplings. Purcell, tall and slim in cargo shorts and singlet, would look more at home in a surfwear commercial than in the bush. But he has something to prove out here. As a young Scout, Purcell had an irrational fear of wild dogs. Now, he is one of the country’s leading dingo behaviouralists. He often camps in the bush alone. At night, he cups his hands and howls into the inky darkness. Half a dozen dingoes call back. For Purcell, his work is more than a PhD thesis. It is a project in facing fear.

“I’ve had a few frightening moments,” admits Purcell, who was recently awarded his doctorate. “But those have always been with people, not dingoes. The dingoes have never been aggressive to me. I would describe them as enlightened. They know what they know so well.”

Mid-sentence, Purcell signals for hush. A skinny female is slinking down the hill opposite. Her cautious movements have been heralded by a bunch of noisy miner birds, and Purcell trains the video camera on her.

“It’s No. 600,” he whispers, still excited after four years of dingo stake-outs. “I don’t know how much longer she’s going to live. She’s very skinny, emaciated. She probably had pups last year and she had worn teeth when we trapped her.”

In the four years it took purcell to complete his thesis, he worked like an army surveillance operative. He fitted 12 dingoes with GPS transmitters and another 10 with VHF radio transmitter collars, so he could trace them at any given time. And for 52 days during the 2007 breeding season, he observed five dingoes every 10 minutes. In his kit bag, Purcell had long-range video recorders and camouflaged motion-sensing digital cameras. He spent long hours in stake-out positions and set out plots of sand at one-kilometre intervals along dozens of fire trails to capture dingo footprints.

He used old-style dogger tactics, too – a whiffy home-made dingo bait comprising tuna oil, kangaroo blood, sardines, dog faeces and old yoghurt to entice dingoes into soft-catch leg traps so he could fit them with collars, measure them and swab their mouths and ears for DNA. If this wasn’t enough, he collected their scats, too. Fourteen hundred of them.

It paid off. His research creates an intimate portrait of a shy native animal about which we previously knew little. It’s likely to change the way we think about dingoes.

To date, almost every dingo study in Australia has been funded by the sheep industry, agricultural-protection bodies or pest-control agencies. Dingoes are deemed pests in most parts of Australia, conserved only in national parks where populations are considered “pure”. This distinction has led to intense debate. After 200 years of European settlement, what is hybrid and what is pure? And what makes a feral dog a dingo? Most Australians would define a dingo by their picture-postcard image – yellow coat, white-tipped feet and tail. But the reality is that dingoes can be tan or sable; black-and-tan or black-and-sable; or patchy white-and-tan, like an ordinary bitzer. Skull size and genetics are also used to categorise dingoes. But the skull measurements of a dog in the wild can change within six generations, as the pack adapts to the environment. Purcell believes the purebred debate is outdated.

The major difference between domestic dogs and dingoes, he says, is that dingoes breed once annually. Dogs can breed twice a year.

“There are two types of dingoes,” he says. “Wild dingoes and captive dingoes, and the idea of dingo purity is simply that. I would never compare dingoes from Kosciuszko with Blue Mountains dingoes, nor would I expect Blue Mountains dingoes to show genetic relatedness with captive-bred dingoes.”

Purcell has named each of his dingoes. There is Makileiko, which means “eyes” in the local Gundungurra tongue. She is the sandy-coloured female always caught on film looking directly at the camera. There is Kurre (“ears”) and Daoure (“earth”). Daoure travelled 120 kilometres over three days in March 2006. Purcell believes he was looking for a mate.

But No. 600, collared in 2007 and given the VHF frequency 600, is still just a number. It seems strangely fitting. She is alone and nervous. She drinks from the dam, and her head jerks anxiously.

Purcell’s study has revealed a tight pack structure of usually two females and three males, who probably live for about seven years. He is not sure whether No. 600 is the dominant or subordinate female. If she is subordinate, she would have become pregnant at the same time as the dominant female. Her pups would then have been killed so she could help suckle the dominant dingo’s litter. No. 600 still hunts with the pack, but her ribs are showing and her coat is dull. She may be kicked out before the next breeding season or she may die naturally. As we talk, she senses us and darts back into the bush.

“It does make me sad that she’s coming to the end of her life,” says Purcell. “But it just gives me more and more questions. We need to get her collar back and find out what she’s been doing for the past few years. It’s like any science project. You come up with more questions than answers.”

The first dingoes arrived in Australia about 5000 years ago. Our first introduced species, dingoes were probably brought in by Asian seafarers, perhaps just a single pregnant female. They are related to the wolf, and shear food rather than chew it. After European settlement, they mated with feral domestic dogs and as the livestock industry grew, they preyed on sheep and cattle.

Today, dingoes exist virtually everywhere, though there are none in Tasmania and few in the wheat belts of WA, SA, NSW and Victoria. The historic dog fence – a 5614-kilometre barrier extending from Dalby in Queensland to the Great Australian Bight – was designed to keep dingoes out of south-eastern Australia, where they had largely been eradicated. But it was only partially successful, and there are strong colonies in south-east Queensland and northern NSW. Dingoes have also invaded the city fringes – in Brisbane, in particular – attracted to urban rubbish dumps, which have plentiful supplies of food and water.

Traditionally, dingoes have been trapped, shot or poisoned by doggers (who sold their pelts for cash) and farmers. These days, most are killed by 1080 poison baits laid from the ground and the air. But the baits are not working. Farmers report more livestock are killed in areas that are heavily baited. Some dingoes die. Those that live keep on killing. Purcell believes he has the answer.

Every few hours, as we drive through the grey-green landscape, he points out a new marker – a ridge, riverbed or rocky escarpment. These are the landmarks of the Ginger Boss. A dominant male dingo who was marking his territory, the Ginger Boss covered almost 30 kilometres in two days. Each day, he took the same young dingo with him.

“He was probably showing his son how to mark the territory,” Purcell explains. “If you were to kill the dingo on the fire trail, which is where we usually bait them, the rest of the territory markers aren’t established, so other dingoes sniff it out and start to invade the territory.”

Once the pack structure is destroyed, the territory is not maintained. The pack has no protection and other dingoes – and possibly even feral domestic dogs – move in. Young pack members are forced to look for food – on farms, in tips and on small acreage blocks. Purcell likens them to a group of orphaned children. It may be why younger dingoes round up sheep, copying working dogs. These are extraordinary findings, especially since previous researchers have killed dingoes to analyse their skull size and stomach contents.

“You need to let these dingoes mark their territory because they’re going to maintain their pack in it if they do,” he says quietly.

What he means is baiting has to stop.

Culling dingoes has always been controversial. A cull of dozens of dingoes on Queensland’s Fraser Island in 2001 prompted a polarised “people v animals” debate on talkback radio across the country. The cull followed the death of nine-year-old Clinton Gage, who was mauled by two dingoes. The death of Azaria Chamberlain in 1980 needs no further comment. It’s burned into our national consciousness.

Despite these tragic cases, dingo attacks on humans are rare. Yet every year, dingoes and feral dogs do more than $66 million damage to livestock. In NSW’s Kempsey/Port Macquarie area alone, 1000 calves are killed each year. It’s in coastal hinterland areas, says NSW Department of Primary Industries senior research scientist Peter Fleming, that dingoes cause the most problems. They mate with domestic dogs, attack lambs and goats, and sometimes harass children.

Fleming believes Purcell’s research will change how we deal with dingoes. He predicts blanket baiting will shift to targeted controls, in buffer zones between farming areas and national parks. This will stop domestic dogs mating with dingoes and help to maintain dingo packs.

Farmers, rangers and researchers who spoke to Good Weekend all agree that a new approach is needed.

“There are more dingoes in Australia now than when Europeans arrived,” says Fleming. “That’s because we’ve changed the environment … by increasing the water points and changing availability of prey. We’ve introduced sheep and cattle and goats. We’ve also introduced rabbits and foxes.”

It’s a different story on Fraser Island, which is home to about 200 dingoes. The constant hum of humanity changes the goalposts for researchers. Campsites and four-wheel-drive paths encroach on dingo territory. Clashes are inevitable.

“If the dingoes ran into the bush every time they saw a human, they’d never get anything done,” says Griffith University researcher Rob Appleby. “They wouldn’t have been able to survive, and so they have adapted to this massive human presence.”

Appleby has spent five years observing interactions between humans and dingoes. But despite frequent reports of confrontations, he has seen only a handful.

“Of course, negative interactions do occur but they’re reasonably rare,” he says. “It’s a hysteria that arises when predators are involved and where people are injured. It’s not uncommon to see very polarised opinions.”

Appleby describes his job as a “peek into a secretive world”. Once, he saw a pup die from a snake bite. Its mother sat by until it died. Then she carried the pup’s body in her mouth for several days. “That’s quite unique,” he says. “There’s not too many reports of that attachment behaviour in wild canids.”

Appleby says there should be less focus on dingo behaviour and more attention paid to the supervision of children. Culling only makes the problems worse.

“The key factor in minimising risk to human safety is vigilant supervision of human children,” says Appleby. “People should be reminded that when they visit Fraser Island, they are visiting a world heritage area. That makes it a great place to try to conserve dingoes. If people want to see the dingoes on the island, they need to take pre-cautions. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”

After two days in the blue mountains, my dingo mission is over. Purcell and I have spent hours creeping around the bush – him carrying the VHF antennae, me the video camera. We hear them howl. We see fresh scats. Once, we see new footprints just an hour after we walked the same track.

They are always close – we can even smell them – but always they melt away into the bush. I see only one dingo: No. 600.

Two weeks later, a television film crew visits the Burragorang Valley. They wait in vain. No dingoes, just rain. I tell Purcell how grateful I am to have seen her.

He tells me I can name her, something from the Gundungurra tongue. I decline. I prefer her anonymous – a part of the bush that is seldom seen or heard.