A Draft Dingo Management Strategy for Fraser Island

For more than 28 years, the Fraser Island Defenders Organization has been researching the management of Fraser Island to be in the best position to advocate the wisest use of its natural resources. The organization has a longer history associated with the management than any other organization, including the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and its predecessors.

The Fraser Island Defenders Organization has studied and considered the Draft Fraser Island dingo management strategy prepared by the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and this submission is a response to that document released in April, 1999.

This organization has examined Draft Dingo Management Strategy and recommends some very important issues which need to be recognized and also some significant changes which need to be made to the actions.

Summary of FIDO's Position

1. FIDO wants the genetic status of Fraser Island dingoes recognized and protected.

2. Dingoes should be allowed to remain free to roam in the wild on Fraser Island.

3. The strategy should address all of the issues relating to the dingo population, including the characteristics, and the changes during the past century.

4. There is a need to review the population dynamics of Fraser Island dingoes to ensure that the island environment is managed to achieve an optimum dingo population. This needs to recognize that historically there was a much higher population on Fraser Island.

5. Dingoes should not suffer because of the intervention of humans which have induced changed behaviour.

6. A humane system of tagging should be established and all Fraser Island dingoes should be individually identified to provide more precise data on the actual population numbers and to assist in further research on animal behaviour.

7. The strategy should recognize how environmental changes during the last century on Fraser Island have impacted on dingoes and move to minimize these impacts.

8. The QPWS should develop a code of conduct which not only outlaws feeding of dingoes but also one which stops people encouraging dingoes to approach closer than 10 metres to be photographed thus encouraging them to loose their wariness of humans.

9. FIDO generally supports the first four recommendations of the Draft Dingo Management Strategy but is opposed to the recommendations for relocation, destruction, and culling.

1. Significant Omissions

There are a number of significant omission in the Draft Fraser Island dingo management strategy. The most important omission seems to be a clear objective for the strategy. Other omissions relate to the history of the dingo on Fraser Island, the significance and genetic purity of the dingoes on Fraser Island, the status of dingoes and the impact of environmental changes during the last 100 years.

1.1 The need for a clear objective: The Strategy should clearly state its objective. Without such an objective being clearly and publicly stated implementations of the final three recommendations could result in the extermination of the dingoes on Fraser Island. Is it to protect people from harassment by dingoes or is it to protect the animals? Is it to be an outcome that the genetic strain of Fraser Island dingo is only to be preserved in a zoo or behind barriers or is it to ensure that dingoes are to be allowed to roam wild on Fraser Island?

At present the objective could be construed only as stopping dingoes attacking humans.

The Fraser Island Defenders Organization believes the Final Management Strategy should carry wording such as:

"The biologically importance of the Fraser Island dingo strain is a value which must be preserved in as pure a form as possible. The fact that dingoes have lived on Fraser Island in the wild for thousands of years makes it important that the dingoes are allowed to roam as wild and unconfined animals on Fraser Island.

"The object of this strategy is predicated by the need to ensure that a viable wild population of dingos is maintained on Fraser Island."

1.2.1 History: The bibliography of the Draft Fraser Island Dingo Management Strategy fails to include any reference to any material relating to dingoes prior to 1994. The Draft Strategy doesn't refer to any material from early in the Century which would give the current situation a different perspective. FIDO believes that this is a significant omission because it fails to give a proper perspective to the current dingo management problems on Fraser Island.

In 1976, FIDO began formally collecting and recording oral history from veterans whose memory of Fraser Island extended back as far as 1905 (Jules Tardent). This collection of historical perspectives has continued since. In all of FIDO's questioning, there was never any mention of dingoes attacking humans. There were also many reports that dingoes were afraid of humans.

1.2.2 Past Populations: All accounts appear to support the claims that the dingo population on Fraser Island in the early part of the 20th Century was much higher. This needs to be compared with the current estimated "population of 25 to 30 packs peaks at approximately 200 animals during whelping in June-July" which is stated in the draft strategy.

1.2.3 Past population estimates: While all estimates are very subjective were likely to have greatly exceeded 1,000. In personal conversations Rollo Petrie puts the population around 1915 to 1922 as possibly up to 2,000. In "Early Days on Fraser Island 1913-1922", he provides a theory of why he believed that the dingo numbers built up rapidly when they no longer had to compete with the Aboriginal population of 2,000 to 3,000 for food.

Petrie refers to comparative number (pp 59-60). He refers to numbers: "(Available food) would not be as plentiful now if there was an equivalent number of dogs on Fraser Island, as in the early 1900's. The few dingoes now live comfortably on scraps ..." Further on he reports: "George Jackson on a trip to Indian Head, found a freshly shot stallion on the beach a few miles south of Indian Head. George ... poisoned the carcass and then camped not far away. Next morning he had 100 scalps and not a great deal of the horse was left."

1.2.4 Relevance of historical dingo population: The significance of the size of Fraser Island's dingo population in the past is important because it reflects on the carrying capacity in the past. It would seem to indicate that environmental changes are responsible for a diminution of the island's carrying capacity for dingoes.

Other aspects of dingo numbers are important because most geneticists would regard a population of 100 on an island, isolated from other genetic sources as a very risky. This will be discussed further below as that has major implications for management.

1.3.1 Significance of Fraser Island Dingoes: The significance of the genetic purity and the importance of the Fraser Island Dingo population is significantly understated in the Draft Strategy. The Draft (Para 2) only states, "Fraser Island dingoes ... are likely to be the purest strain of dingoes on the eastern Australia seaboard." Nowhere else does the strategy even refer to the fact that such an important gene pool needs to be protected and perpetuated.

It is FIDO's submissions that the genetic significance of the Fraser Island dingo strain justifies all efforts to protect and preserve this gene pool.

1.3.2 Preserving the Gene Pool: Assuming that the population peak of 200 is accurate, this is a very small gene pool on which to base a program for further reducing that gene pool. It is more worrying in the context that on anecdotal evidence the population has significantly declined over the past 8 decades.

If the numbers drop below "100 animals when breeding recommences", as the draft strategy states, then the viability of the gene pool is at risk.

The significance of this special genetic purity of the Fraser Island dingo seems to have been overlooked in the final 3 actions recommended in the draft management strategy which refer to relocation destroying and culling. FIDO is therefore strongly opposed to these three actions.

2. Keeping dingoes in the wild

2.1 Keeping Dingoes in the Wild: There is little acknowledgment that dingoes have a right to remain on Fraser Island in the wild. This is an a very important principle. It is not stated in any objective.

Dingoes have roamed free on Fraser Island probably since they first appeared in Australia which is at least thousands of years. Therefore, dingoes have a right to continue to roam freely over the island within the constraints of any wild animal which has learnt to be wary of other predators such as humans in their natural environment.

2.2 Saving a wild population in the wild: This organization does not want to see the Fraser Island dingo gene pool preserved only in wildlife parks or zoos or in special enclosures on Fraser Island. The establishment of large dingo free areas while it could be administratively convenient would be unacceptable. However, having said that this organization believes that it is important to try to ensure that dingoes do not become dependent on humans. Therefore they should be discouraged from areas where there is likely to be unnatural close interactions with humans. FIDO therefore would like to see more attempt made to deter dingoes from frequenting the settlements and camping areas such as Central Station and Lake McKenzie.

FIDO is vigourously opposed to any form of enclosure and artificial feeding programs. This is only encouraging a naturalized animals to behave unnaturally. Furthermore the Thylacines became extinct because they were hunters and would not accept being fed in a zoo. While dingoes are opportunistic feeders and will accept any handouts, it is still unnatural to hand feed them.

The loss of dingoes in the wild on Fraser Island would represent a much greater tragedy than the loss of the European wolves, because whereas wolves threatened humans in their domestic circumstances, Fraser Island dingoes only represent threats to humans in their recreation. We see the need to recognize and state these principles categorically in the final form of the management strategy.

Recommendation: In view of the above FIDO urges that a new section be written into the Strategy which addresses all of the issues relating to dingo population, the characteristics, the changes during the past century, and the need to maintain a viable population in the wild.

3.0 Population

We need a much better idea of the Fraser Island dingo population. We need to know the dynamics of reproduction and replacement rates, distribution of the population, the degree of interbreeding and an understanding of the reasons for any changes.

3.1 Accurate data needed: Because of the apparently critical size of the gene pool, there is an urgent need to have more precise information about the current population both in a macro and a micro sense.

More detailed work is needed to accurately determine:

(a) the current population in total,

(b) the distribution,

(c) the annual loss deaths of marked animals,

(d) the recruitment of new animals to the population on an annual basis and

(e) the identity of individual animals to that their behaviour can be observed.

3.2 Tagging: We believe that it is necessary to have a more precise estimate of numbers on Fraser Island even if this may mean tagging of every individual. This would then enable a better understanding of the numbers and the distribution and assist in identifying individuals.

The process of tagging also has other potential implications for dingo management which are discussed below. Depending on how it is done it could help reinstate a greater caution of humans and encourage them to keep their distance. This organization is aware that the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service tagged every crocodile in the East Alligator River as part of its program to better manage the largest single population of estuarine crocodiles in the world. If it was possible to tag every crocodile in this part of Kakadu 20 years ago, it should be possible to tag the estimated 100 dingoes on Fraser Island before whelping. The results of that tagging which was done almost 20 years ago continues to yield valuable research results in helping understand the behaviour of those animals. We believe that crocodiles are a more dangerous and difficult animal to catch and tag than dingoes and therefore this should be a priority task to any ongoing research program.

Recommendation: A humane system of tagging should be established. All dingoes on Fraser Island should be tagged to enable them to be readily identified. The objective of tagging would be also to provide more precise data on the actual population numbers and to assist in further research on animal behaviour.

4. Environmental Changes

The Draft dingo management strategy makes no reference to the environmental changes which have occurred on Fraser Island during the last century. A reference to old photographs and Petrie's Fraser Island memoirs will show that there have been very significant environmental changes to the whole island during the past 80 years. Petrie's observations are confirmed by all people who knew Fraser Island before the 1930s. These observations are also borne out by photographic evidence.

It is FIDO's belief that these environmental changes have very significantly impacted on the dingo food sources.

4.1 Understorey changes: In "Early Days on Fraser Island 1913-1922", Petrie described a number of changes. He described the lack of understorey on the island. Evidence of this is demonstrated by the number of horses which the island accommodated. Petrie estimated numbers as high as 2000.

With the change in the fire regime the understorey has caused not only the loss of grass but also the loss of a number of small mammals such as bandicoots. For example, "Bandicoots were fairly plentiful in the 1915 to 1920s in the Wanggoolba area," Petrie said.

4.2 Changes to the traditional Fire Regime: FIDO attributes the loss of habitat of small mammals, which would have been traditional dingo food, to the changes away from the traditional Aboriginal burning regime. There is strong evidence to link the growth of the dense woody understorey, and in turn the reduction in small mammal population, (and in turn the decline of Fraser Island's dingo population) with the absence of fire particularly in the tall forest where fire was deliberately excluded for more than a century.

Recommendation: FIDO believes that Fire Management Plan for Fraser Island to return the island to a habitat which is more suitable for small mammals and in turn for dingoes should be developed and implemented as a matter of the highest priority

4.3 Tradition hunting on beaches: Petrie also said that then dingoes used to eat wongs (eugaries) from the beach and fractured shells were regularly found in dingo droppings. It is apparent the use of the beach by so much beach traffic has denied this source of food to dingoes and / or they have lost this traditional hunting skill.

FIDO believes that some more research should be undertaken to identify ways which would encourage dingoes back to this traditional food sources such as wongs from the beach.

5. Modifying the Animal Behaviour

The major problem seems to result from the changed behaviour of animals to humans. FIDO contends that to a large extent this changed behaviour is human induced. In this section, FIDO focusses on what needs to be done to modify animal behaviour.

5.1 Domestic Animals Attacked: Petrie and others referred to the fact that domestic animals were vulnerable to dingo attacks. "I have seen working bullocks bogged in the peat swamps. ... The dingoes started eating them from the rear." (p59) and "... my horse Moses was freshly bogged and already dingoes were circling around him..." (p 60) The writer has recorded oral history of dingos cornering brumbies in the surf. There are many stories of dingoes attacking and eating domestic dogs in the 1970s until domestic dogs were banned from Fraser Island. However, despite the predatory behaviour of dingoes towards other mammals, there are no records or reports of dingoes representing threats to humans on Fraser Island.

5.2 Loss of Fear of Humans: FIDO attributes the recent behaviour of dingoes to the fact that dingoes have lost their fear or wariness of humans. That the change dingo attitude is apparent from this recorded Petrie anecdote: "Recently when I camped out on the island, I heard something close by. I sat up in my swag. In the moonlight, I saw two dingoes about 15 feet away. I picked up a bit of wood and tossed it towards them. The dogs trotted to the stick and smelt it. It was a far cry from the days when they would have fled at my first move." (p 60) Similar stories were reported by other early visitors to Fraser Island.

5.3 Problem Not Confined to Fraser Island: This behaviour change has only happened in the last fifteen years but the boldness of the dingoes continues to grow manifesting itself into an increasingly serious problem. The problem is coincidental with changes to dingo behaviour in other Australian National Parks with significant dingo populations. This was demonstrated by the Azaria Chamberlain case at Uluru. However, similar patterns are now being observed at Kakadu and in Jabiru township where dingoes refuse to be chased away as the writer observed as recently as February, 1999.

5.4 Feeding is Not the Only Problem: The Draft Management Strategy makes a case for feeding dingoes as the main reason that dingoes have lost their fear. FIDO has reason to believe that it is not only feeding which has transformed dingo behaviour. Dingoes have been fed by humans on Fraser Island for at least 50 years in the writers experience. Ignoring the past history is to overlook the underlying cause for this quite dramatic change in behaviour from one of wariness of humans to one of boldness.

5.5 Tagging to aid research: As mentioned above, if there are only 100 animals now left on Fraser Island, then tagging every animal is not an insurmountable problem and it will greatly assist identifying rogue animals and in studying animal behaviour. It should be noted that on Maria Island where detailed studies are made of the Tasmanian native hens, every animal in the vicinity of Darlington is tagged and these tags are observed to identify individuals when studying behaviour. The whole estuarine crocodile population in the east Alligator River section of Kakadu National Park was also caught and tagged.

5.6 Tagging to Discourage Approaching Humans: Normally animals who are trapped are very wary of approaching humans again. This is particularly true of cats, foxes and dingoes. However, some animals welcome the gentle treatment after trapping and back up again and again to be caught. The trapping must be done humanely but in ways which dramatically increases the wariness of approaching humans. Each animal should be trapped and tagged in ways which subsequently discourage them from approaching too close to humans.

5.7 Destroying Rogues: As indicated above, this organization is opposed to the destruction of rogues. We are more alarmed because by our estimates more than 30 animals have been destroyed over recent years. This great loss to the population has not diminished the occurrence of dingo attacks on humans.

While destruction of rogues is a recognized short term solution such methodology should have been carrying out with more foresight. For example if others in the pack saw a rogue approaching a human or the human approaching the rogues and then seeing the rogue die, this would be soon communicated widely amongst dingos. Instead, in some cases such as following a Happy Valley attack, whole packs were eliminated.

Nothing was gained from this slaughter other than creating a territory soon taken up by other animals which were not witness to the killing of their reasons. Thus, FIDO can't support such a counter-productive spontaneous reaction.

5.8 Identifying Humans with Unpleasant Outcomes: It is important that when reprisals do occur all animals are able to identify humans with the unwelcome outcome. This will help to reinstate the wariness of humans.

While aversion baits might be important to discourage scavenging for food scraps, this program is unlikely to ensure that dingoes to keep their distance from humans or even attacking them. However, we accept that aversion baiting may reduce scavenging.

5.9 Use of repellents: This organization supports more research to find and develop more effective dingo ultrasonic deterrents. If this is successful they should be used at all significant places where humans congregate such as Lake McKenzie, Central Station and the urban centres to try to keep dingoes out of these places.

6. Changing Human Behaviour

The Dingo-Human interaction part of the Strategy should identify the two distinct aspects of the problem. Just as important as causing dingo behaviour to revert to its previous pattern, the public must be better educated by both carrot and stick to recognize that every human has a responsibility to ensure that dingoes keep their distance.

6.1 Camera enticements: FIDO considers that the most overlooked factor has been the fact that dingoes have been increasingly enticed to come closer and pose for the cameras. This enticing of dingoes to approach humans without fear is quite deliberately saying to the animals that they have nothing to fear from humans. FIDO believes that this is even more subtle than feeding the animals as a form of changing animal behaviour and it should be stopped. The change in dingo behaviour to humans seems to occur only on national park and areas where there is no threats to the animals. The increase in the frequency of photography of the animals seems to have contributed significantly.

Recommendation: The QPWS should develop a code of conduct which not only outlaws feeding of dingoes but also one which stops people encouraging dingoes to approach closer than 10 metres to be photographed. This should be enforced with vigour.

6.2 The Blind Eye: It is true that feeding has been a factor but it is also true that a blind eye has been frequently turned towards the feeding of dingoes. On every occasion the author has spent more than 5 days he has observed someone feeding dingoes.

FIDO therefore support the recommendation in the Draft Dingo Management Strategy that feeding will be prohibitted. We just hope it will be pursued with more determination than we have observed in the past.

6.3 More active Interest from the QPWS: This organization also believes that more concern needs to be taken of the reports of dingo attacks on humans. In 1996, the writer's sister who has been visiting Fraser Island for more than 30 years was subject to an unprovoked attack by an animal on the beach as she was walking alone near the surf edge. She reported it to the Eurong Visitor's Centre to a completely disinterested staff and she is not even sure that any record was made of her report.

7. Destruction, Culling and Relocation

This Organization supports the first four recommendations of the Draft Dingo Management Strategy in principle with some modifications and revision in the light of the above submissions. We particularly believe that more research is warranted to understand the behaviour patterns of particular animals.

FIDO though is opposed to the last three recommendation options in the Draft Fraser Island dingo management strategy, relocation, destruction, and culling. These have all been used regularly over the last five years without any significant benefit in improved dingo behaviour. In fact the dingo behaviour has if anything changed to the dingoes becoming even bolder. While such measures may assuage the injured feelings of the public immediately after any attack by dingoes on humans, it has been demonstrated over the years that they provide no long term improvement in animal behaviour.

Therefore on practical as well as humane grounds, FIDO is opposed to these measures. However, more significantly, in view of the size of the dingo gene pool on Fraser Island of just 100 breeding animals, we do not believe that these measures can be justified on conservation grounds. The preservation of genetic diversity must be one of the foremost objectives of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. Thus we are opposed to further reducing the gene pool of Fraser Island's pure dingoes.

The Fraser Island dingo should not become like the European bears, wolves, and an number of other wild creatures which culled to the point of extinction outside zoos and a few isolated populations because they competed with human populations.