Jane Goodall and Dingo Conservation
Australia has just had a visit by world renowned primatologist and threatened species advocate Jane Goodall. While in Melbourne, she entered the debate surrounding dingo conservation, making a number of public statements and issuing a media statement which commented on the issue.
It is not surprising that Jane Goodall would advocate for threatened species while in Australia. However, her intervention on dingo conservation is problematic as not all dingo conservation advocates and their organisations base their case on the assumption that the dingo is a threatened species. Goodall appears to have adopted a less progressive position on dingo conservation than was immediately apparent to the general public, or perhaps than she was aware of.
In a nutshell, the controversy surrounding dingo conservation has been underpinned by a growing body of environmental research, which highlights the importance of conserving dingo populations for environmental balance, on the one hand, and long-established anti-dingo or ‘wild-dog’ sentiment amongst elements of the pastoral industry, on the other hand, who deem the dingo to be a pest animal to be eradicated or, at least, controlled through lethal means at a landscape level. The legal status of the dingo across much of Australia largely reflects this historically entrenched pest-animal perspective. Victoria is something of an exception, where the dingo was listed as a threatened native taxon in 2010 and ‘wild-dog’ control is geographically constrained as a result.
The growing dissonance between environmental research, which concludes that dingo conservation within ecosystems should be harnessed in the service of good environmental management, and established pest animal legislation is complicated by the fact that dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) hybridise with their domestic counterpart, the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris).
Pastoral industry advocates, concerned to fend off the idea that dingoes should not be managed simply as pests, but an environmental asset, have latched hold of hybridisation to argue that what currently exists in the wild are not dingoes, but hybrids, which ought not be considered indigenous or wildlife, and are therefore ineligible for protection. It is at times further argued that in controlling hybrids through ‘wild-dog’ control (poisoning and trapping on a large scale) protection is afforded to remnant ‘pure’ dingoes. Indeed, current purity testing techniques show hybridisation to be widespread, particularly in south eastern Australia.
So, where does this leave dingo conservation advocates, including Jane Goodall’s dingo intervention? One view is that the key task at hand is to locate and protect remnant ‘pure’ dingo populations. This, however, implies that, from a conservation perspective, wild hybrid populations are a threat to be managed, or controlled. ‘Pure’ dingo populations would need to be isolated from hybrid populations. Elements of the farming lobby have support this view. Adherence to this perspective also has significant consequences for where dingoes can be conserved. If dingo purity data is to be believed, hybridisation is widespread throughout much of south eastern Australia. Unless it is possible to completely eradicate wild hybrid populations across south eastern Australia, and then seed the landscape with pure dingo stock, or genetically isolate remnant pockets of ‘pure’ dingoes, wave goodbye to dingo conservation there.
An alternative dingo conservation perspective is one that accommodates the reality of hybridisation in defining what is to be conserved. The key consideration from this perspective is the ecological function of wild populations, even if they have undergone some degree of hybridisation. If the role played in the natural environment by hybridised populations is essentially the same as the pre-European dingo, then considerations of genetic purity become an unnecessary distraction. This approach is lent support by the fact that much of the in-the-field research into the role of the dingo in maintaining top-down ecological balance, as a top order predator, has been conducted with populations that were probably hybridised. There is currently no research to show that hybridisation presents a biodiversity risk within Australian ecosystems.
Another consideration in evaluating these different dingo conservation perspectives is the uncertainty involved with current dingo purity testing techniques. Two approaches are in use. The older method involved making a large number of fine measurements from an assumed representative sample of dingo skulls, and creating a skull profile that is presumed to represent pure dingoes. Any particular skull being tested is then compared for conformity with this profile. The other, more recent method compares key genetic markers from extant dingoes/dingo hybrids with a genetic benchmark that has been derived from a sample of dingoes presumed to have been pure. The real limitation of both of these methods is that there is no pre-European representative sample of either, skulls or genetic make-up. It may never be possible to overcome this limitation. In addition to this uncertainty, ‘pure’ dingoes and dingo hybrids are not readily distinguishable in appearance. Dingo researcher, Dr Laurie Corbett, once commented that although he believed dingoes in north eastern Victoria had undergone some hybridisation, this was not visually apparent. He speculated that this was because the strong selection pressure for survival in this region was effectively pushing the hybrids back into an ancestral conformation.
It is fair to say that, over time, the foremost dingo advocacy organisations have gravitated away from a preoccupation with genetic purity towards the ecological function perspective in deciding what conservation strategies and legislative change should be pursued. Possibly the most developed policy position is that of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program. This organisation makes a distinction between the remnant ‘ancestral dingo’ populations, representative of the pre-European type and the ‘modern dingo’, which encompasses wild populations that perform a desirable ecological role, but which have undergone some degree of hybridisation. Ancestral dingo populations may plausibly be conserved in isolated settings, as in island locations, and captive ‘ancestral’ conservation populations are encouraged as a genetic resource for reintroduction where the circumstances are appropriate. The NDPRP sees the main conservation task, however, in securing the protection of extant populations despite the hybridisation that has occurred. This does not mean that reasonable measures should not be taken to limit further hybridisation.
Once it is accepted that the main dingo conservation task is to secure the legal protection of extant wild dingo populations despite some level of hybridisation, and to gain official recognition of the environmental benefits of such populations, the idea that dingoes are threatened with imminent extinction becomes largely irrelevant. The conservation focus turns instead to the negative environmental consequences of dingo persecution through lethal landscape-level control regimes.
Where can Jane Goodall’s intervention be located in this context?
It is significant therefore that Jane Goodall’s statements appear to have fallen within the genetic purity camp. Her public pronouncements centred round the imminent extinction of the dingo and the prospect of hybridisation. The following statement, was aired on Channel 10 News on June 5th:
…I suppose that they [dingoes] will become extinct and the last few will be hybridised with domestic dogs, and the wild dingo will be gone forever. (10 Eyewitness News, June 5)
This basic message was picked up more widely within the Australian media:
While in Australia, she will talk about the need to protect dingoes, now regarded as being on the verge of extinction. (Radio Australia, June 5, 15:31)
A more sophisticated account is contained in a prepared public statement by the Jane Goodall Institute Australia, dated June 5th. This account, however, remains confused on the key issues of purity, hybridisation and ecological function. The claim that ‘the species could face extinction after decades of persecution’ is repeated. Reference is made to the listing of the dingo as threated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an assessment based on considerations of genetic purity. The regulatory role of the dingo as top land predator is correctly recognised, as is the view of many scientists that the dingo is ‘…ecologically vital for the health of our land and other native species’… . The relationship between the disruption of packs from poison baiting and increased hybridisation is also noted. A serious flaw in this account, however, is that the populations of dingoes which scientists have concluded are significant for ecosystem health are not necessarily pure, but characterised by some degree of hybridisation. The ecological benefit that has been observed has not depended on the genetic purity of the dingo populations. As noted above, once this is acknowledged, concerns about near-term ‘extinction’ go out the window. Conservation efforts then turn to how extant hybridised populations can be accepted under the rubric of wildlife and protected for their positive environmental role. The confused understanding of the issues underpins the Institute’s claim that very few Alpine dingoes remain. This claim depends upon the view that Alpine dingoes in South eastern Australia are particularly hybridised, being closest to population centres where contact with domestic dogs is more likely. However, once one accepts the ecological function approach to dingo conservation, there is no shortage of Alpine Dingoes. South eastern Australia is full of them; they should be governed humanely and protected as wildlife.
A lost opportunity
The Jane Goodall intervention was therefore a lost opportunity to communicate more widely the complexity of dingo conservation issues. However, the thrust of Jane Goodall’s intervention was at odds with what is, arguably, now the predominant perspective amongst dingo advocacy organisations in Australia, as well as the direction of much scientific research which highlights the beneficial ecological role of existing (‘modern’) dingo populations. This is unfortunate. Pastoral industry representative organisations are not likely to be perturbed at the basic message of the Jane Goodall’s intervention. Some may openly agree with it. It is a simplistic, purist view that some dingo advocates held around a decade ago, but have now left behind for a more mature perspective.
One is left pondering how this could have occurred. Was it an informed choice by the Jane Goodall Institute? Would not a high-profile international organisation, which would have invested considerable resources in preparing for Jane Goodall’s Australian visit, have been aware of the competing perspectives on dingo conservation in Australia, and the current state of play between them? Perhaps part of the explanation relates to the Goodall Institute’s focus on threatened species. Did the idea that dingoes are on the ‘verge of extinction’ fit more neatly with the Institute’s established focus? If the dingo is viewed as persecuted, but not in threat of immediate extinction, then the threatened species message loses leverage. Although the net effect on public awareness of dingo conservation has most likely been positive from the intervention, the specific message communicated may stand to frustrate the efforts of the leading dingo conservation organisations which do the heavy lifting in pushing for appropriate legislative change on the issue.