by John Sinclair
Honorary Project Officer, Fraser Island Defenders Organisation
This is an article written originally in response to a media request on 2 May, 2001 following the death of 9 year old Clinton Gage as a result of a dingo attack on Fraser Island on the morning of 30th April. It discusses the threat which dingos pose to human safety which has only recently emerged.
About 5000 years before Portuguese navigators began exploring the east coast of Australia and Captain Cook claimed it for Britain, Asian seafarers had introduced the dingo or Asian wolf to Australia’s northern shores. As it spread throughout mainland Australia it became responsible for a change in the ecology and the extinction of a number of mammals.
Because the dingo never reached Tasmania some animals which were killed out on the mainland survived there including the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and Tasmanian devils. The dingos became the dominant predator of the Australian mainland and with the Aborigines occupied a niche at the top of the food chain. They became a critical part of the Australian environment and over thousands of years the Australian ecology adjusted to their presence.
About the same time as dingos arrived on the continent, Fraser Island was already cut off from the mainland and assuming its present shape and form. Because it was separated from the mainland by only a couple of kilometres in parts of Great Sandy Strait, dingos would have had no difficulty in swimming across to take up residency on this island of 167,000 hectares.
Dingos and Aborigines coexisted on Fraser Island for thousands of years before European contact with no apparent conflict. If dingos were seen as a threat to Aborigines who were very numerous on Fraser Island they would not have survived there.
When Captain James Fraser and other survivors of the “Stirling Castle” shipwreck struggled ashore on Fraser Island in 1836 and began their battle for survival, the dingos did not rate even a mention. After Captain Fraser (for whom the island was named) died there, his widow Eliza returned to European civilization and earned much money telling and retelling of her harrowing ordeal, but dingos were never a part of any of her stories.
From the earliest European settlement dingos posed no threat to human life on Fraser Island. A few years ago I published the autobiography of Rollo Petrie who first went to Fraser Island in l914 as a four year old. While he was growing up there over the next nine years four of his siblings were born there. But while in his reminiscences Rollo recalled many dingo attacks on their family’s domestic animals, he had no recall of any member of his family being threatened by dingos.
In 1975 I began a project, which I still continue, collecting oral and other history of the first part of the 20th Century on Fraser Island from people with long associations with it, including Aborigines. Nobody ever suggested that dingos were a threat to human safety and most said dingos on Fraser Island were lot more numerous in the past than they are now.
Although my parents spent their honeymoon there in 1935 I did not set foot on the island until the late 1950s. I rarely had a good sighting of dingos then even though they were constantly nearby. They would hover around the camp, lurking near the cover of protective bush and rarely come within 20 metres. Nobody was threatened by dingos although one had to keep a watchful eye behind one when fishing to ensure that a dingo did not run off with part of the catch left on the beach.
Before sandmining threatened the natural integrity of Fraser island it was estimated that it drew only 5000 visitors. That was in 1970. In 1971 the controversy raging over sandmining caused the number of visitors to double. The number of visitors has increased exponentially since reaching 300,000 last year and continuing to grow.
Fraser Island dingos had largely escaped the impact of hybridization with domestic dogs and by the 1970s were recognised as having the purest dingo genes in Eastern Australia. To protect that very important gene pool domestic dogs have been banished from Fraser Island since 1981. The purity of the Fraser Island dingos was one of the special values recognised in its World Heritage Listing in 1992 and as such Australia has an obligation to ensure that this genetic integrity is preserved.
Right through the 1970s and 1980s dingos were not thought to be a threat to humans, but during the 1990s dingo behaviour began to change dramatically.
Enticed away from the bush by tourists anxious to get close up photographs, Fraser Island dingos lost their wariness of humans. They became bold. Then they became brazen. They lost all fear of humans and some have now become aggressive towards humans with tragic consequences. Since 1995 40 dingos have had to be killed because of this aggression.
As a result of the series of dingo attacks in 1997-98 the Queensland Government initiated the development of a Dingo Management Strategy to improve the interaction between humans and dingos. Regrettably this has taken much longer to produce than it should have because the Queensland Government then starved the Island of funds for natural resource management, including dingos. For the past two years Fraser Island has been the only major Queensland National Park to receive any consolidated revenue to facilitate its protection. To implement this dingo strategy on Fraser Island will require the Queensland Government digging it hands into its pockets.
The tragedy of the fatal mauling of the 9 year old boy on 30 April 2001 has led to some outrageous calls that all Fraser Island dingos should be exterminated (or euphemisms like cull which mean the same thing) in the interests of tourism. This would make the tragedy of the young boy even more tragic.
Fraser Island without dingos would be like Yellowstone National Park without bears or Kruger National Park without lions or Kakadu without crocodiles. We don’t destroy all the cars on the road because some have been responsible for killing some humans. We don’t demand that all domestic dogs be destroyed because some kill humans. Whey then should anyone demand that all Fraser Island dingos be killed.
Instead of dingos being punished, those who feed them, entice them closer to get photographs and to lose their fear of humans should be punished.
Dingos in the wild are a natural part of Fraser Island and part of its World Heritage values deserving much better management. To achieve that we must get dingos to revert to the role they fitted into so comfortably for 5000 years until less than two decades ago. That involved coexisting with humans but being wary of them.
Implementation of the new completed Fraser Island Dingo Management Strategy will go a big way towards ensuring that in future these wild animals keep their distance from humans.