Previously hunted as pests, dingoes to be re-classified as a protected species in Australia

Two dingoes touch noses in a park in Australia

As adorably dog-like as they may appear, Australia’s dingoes have had a complicated, bad-to-the-bone reputation throughout history.

Farmers and land-owners Down Under have long seen the canine species as a pest that threatens their livestock, but dingoes have also been lauded as an iconic species by ecologists, conservationists, and First Nations Australians alike.

However, a new DNA discovery has reimagined the dingo for all.

In a new study published by Sally Wasef, a paleogeneticist at Queensland University of Technology, DNA research indicates that Australia’s dingo populations are more closely related to ancient canine lineages that pre-date European colonization than they are with modern dog breeds.

A group of cream dingos stand on a rock, surrounded by fallen branches
Photo courtesy of brittgow (CC BY 2.0)

These so-called “wild dogs” are actually a distinct species.

The study compared modern dingo populations from 10 sites around Australia, using 16 ancient dingo DNA samples, ranging from 400 to 2,746 years old. Results suggested that there are two different populations of dingoes — north-west and south-east groups — neither of which are the result of post-colonial hybridization. 

Dr. Kylie Cairns, a genomics researcher and conservation biologist at the University of New South Wales, was not involved in this particular study, but has been a devoted dingo researcher for over a decade.

“This new study through the use of ancient DNA demonstrates the population structure existed 2,700 years ago,” Dr. Cairns told ABC Australia. “[This] supports evidence that dingoes and domestic dogs rarely interbreed and adds to the growing body of evidence that dingoes are distinct from modern domestic dogs.”

A black and tan dingo walks around a national park in Australia
Photo courtesy of Leo (CC BY-NA-SA 2.0)

Cairns’s own recently-published research also indicates that the populations of “wild dogs” in Namadgi National Park — an estimated 200 to 400 canines — are pure dingoes, showing no evidence of domesticated dog genetics.

These findings contribute to a large debate over the origins of dingoes and how much they have been hybridized with domestic dogs. This could determine whether rural farmers have the right to shoot dingoes as pests when the canines hunt sheep and other livestock.

In fact, the Australian Capital Territory — home to Canberra and located between Sydney and Melbourne — is moving toward classifying the dingo as a protected native species. 

This would update the terminology used in the territory’s Pest Plant and Animals Act and would move dingoes away from a “pest animal declaration” and to a protected class as a native species under the Nature Conservation Act, according to The Guardian

Mountains and trees compliment the scenery of Namadgi National Park
Photo courtesy of Judychristie (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“For many years it was assumed that wild dogs in Namadgi National Park were not native, and that they were therefore to be managed as a feral pest species,” said Minister for the Environment, Parks and Land Management, Rebecca Vassarotti, in a statement.

“Contrary to this, a recent scientific study undertaken by Dr. Kylie Cairns has shown that our ‘wild dog’ animals in Namadgi National Park are in fact 100% dingo. As a result of this research, the ACT government will now look at exploring policy options to recognize the dingo as a native animal protected under the Nature Conservation Act 2014 to reflect their ecological and cultural values.”

According to the Guardian, some local farmers are concerned about restrictions on the use of lethal pest control methods and what a protected dingo species might look like for their livestock. 

Some farmers do employ other non-lethal control methods like exclusion fencing and livestock guardian dogs, as well. 

Although dingoes have a long history of hunting farmed animals and are revered as an apex predator, they are at risk themselves. In fact, many of the DNA samples used in Cairns’ most recent study were from 20 animals trapped between the border regions of Namadgi National Park and Kosciuszko National Park.

A tan dingo sits in the dirt with its eyes closed
Photo courtesy of Henry Whitehead (CC BY-SA 3.0)

“Dingoes play a crucial role in Australian ecosystems as a top order predator. They prey and scavenge on native and invasive species and may also reduce populations of introduced predators such as foxes and feral cats,” Vassarotti said.

Dingoes are also a sacred species for many First Nations communities.

“Dingoes also hold a special place within the Ngunnawal community, representing resilience and protection. They were raised with families as an effective hunting aid and protection against invaders,” Vassarotti continued. “Many First Nations communities have tracked dingo footprints to find waterholes, food sources and neighboring nation groups.”

Richard Swain, a Wiradjuri man who has worked in Kosciuszko National Park for 30 years, told The Guardian that farmers have “persecuted” the dingo for years. He said that lethal control methods disrupt a dingo’s natural life cycle, leading packs to “overbreed and overeat.”

“It’s a credit to them that they survived,” Swain said. “For me, it’s about respect for what belongs here and what was here.”

While dingoes have not yet seen a change in classification, the ACT government plans to consult with the Ngunnawal community, as well as rural land-owners, to figure out the best path forward.

“While it’s important we act to recognize dingoes as a native species, it is equally important that we proceed with care and in consultation with our First Nations and farming communities before making any major changes to current management practices,” Vassarotti said.

“I want to create a sustainable and long-term future for Dingoes in the ACT that will work for everyone.”

Header image courtesy of Robert Lynch (CC BY 2.0)

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