Does Extinction Loom for Australia's Wild Dingoes?

December 10, 2004

Wild populations of Australian dingoes may go extinct within 50 years unless steps are taken to prevent crossbreeding with domestic dogs, scientists and conservationists say.

Like North American gray wolves, dingoes maintain strong social structures. Genetic evidence suggests Australian dingoes descended from a small group of ancient dogs—perhaps a single pregnant female—brought to Australia from Indonesia about 5,000 years ago.

Alan Wilton, a senior lecturer in genetics at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, said pure dingoes are in decline mainly because they breed freely with feral European domestic dogs, creating fertile crossbreeds.

"The process is continual and insidious," Wilton said. "It is like dropping some ink into a bucket of clean water: It will spread until all you have is murky water."

Wilton and his colleagues recently analyzed the DNA of hundreds of wild dingoes across Australia and found that nearly 80 percent of them are crossbreeds. Wild pure dingoes may be extinct in 50 years, the geneticist said. The exception? Isolated populations such as that found on Fraser Island, off the east coast of Australia.

Barry Oakman, president of the Australian Dingo Conservation Association, near Canberra, keeps wild dingoes in captivity to ensure the breed's survival. He said dingoes are treated as an agricultural pest and persecuted by the livestock industry, which threatens the species. (See sidebar.)

"Farmers have no idea in regards to the overall niche the dingo has in our ecology," Oakman said.

Dingo Baiting

Because they prey on calves and sheep, dingoes and wild dogs are viewed as a threat to livestock. To protect the livestock, Australian government agencies permit farmers to kill the dogs with poisons and traps.

But according to Oakman, feral cats and foxes, which were introduced to Australia by European settlers, are the true nuisance species for livestock farmers and native fauna.

Oakman also raises sheep, and during lambing season, he walks his dingoes around the perimeter of his sheep enclosures to mark the property with the dingoes' scent. Foxes avoid these marked areas. "All the neighbors have a major fox problem, and I don't," he said.

Booming, uncontrolled populations of the cats and foxes and are also wreaking havoc on Australia's native animals as a whole, Oakman said. The invasive species kill birds, small marsupials, amphibians, lizards, and snakes. Healthy populations of pure wild dingoes, he said, would keep the cats and foxes in check.

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