Dingoes and other wild dogs (Canis lupus spp)
History and distribution
Both dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) and the New Zealand wild dog, the Kirri, originated from Asia where they were present possibly 10 000 to 14 000 years ago and were derived from wolves. Maori brought the Kirri to New Zealand and Aboriginal people brought the dingo to Australia approximately 4000 years before present. Aboriginal people aided the spread of dingoes throughout Australia and used dingoes for food, companions, hunting-aids and bed-warmers. The dingo never reached Tasmania. Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) were brought into Australia by Europeans in 1788 and their release into the wild has continued since.
Dingoes and other wild dogs are widely distributed throughout the country and are present in most environments. However, dingoes and other wild dogs have been removed from much of the agricultural zone over the past 200 years and hybridisation between the subspecies over that time has resulted in a lesser proportion of pure dingoes, especially in south-eastern Australia. Food, water and cover are probably the most important factors influencing the distribution and abundance of wild dogs in areas where there is little management. Dog-proof fences that protect sheep from predation also limit the distribution of wild dogs.
The average adult dingo weighs 15 kilograms and, although feral dogs and hybrids may weigh up to 60 kilograms, most are less than 20 kilograms. Dingoes live in small groups or packs in territories and individuals have home ranges that vary between 10 and 300 square kilometres. Packs are usually stable but under certain conditions some wild dogs, usually young males, disperse. Females dingoes become sexually mature by two years and breed only once per year. The average litter is five and is usually produced during winter.
Although wild dogs eat a diverse range of foods, from insects to cattle, they prefer medium to large mammals. Hunting group size and hunting strategies differ according to prey type to maximise hunting success. Larger groups of wild dogs are more successful when hunting large kangaroos and cattle, and solitary animals are more successful when hunting rabbits and small macropods.
Wild dogs prey on livestock such as sheep, cattle and goats, in some cases to such an extent that they can threaten the economic viability of properties. Some individuals, often called ‘rogue’ dogs, cause far more damage than others although most dogs will commonly attack or harass sheep, sometimes maiming without killing.
Wild dogs are also believed to spread hydatid tapeworms, the cysts of which are a risk to human health and cause lost production in cattle and sheep due to hydatidosis. They also provide a reservoir for heartworm infection and dog diseases such as parvovirus. Wild dogs are a major potential risk of maintaining and spreading dog rabies if it were to be introduced to Australia.
Under most State and Commonwealth legislation, dingoes are considered to be a native Australian mammal and there is some public expectation that dingoes will be conserved because of the role that they play in influencing the abundance of the species they compete with or prey on. Hybridisation with domestic dogs is the greatest threat to the survival of dingoes as a protected sub-species. In south-eastern Australia, more than half the wild dogs are hybrids.
In most states and territories, legislation requires the destruction of wild dogs in sheep and cattle grazing zones. Current management aims to minimise the damage of wild dog predation on livestock, not just on killing wild dogs. Aerial baiting with 1080 baits is the principle tool. Usually it is targeted to limited buffer zones adjacent to livestock grazing areas. Widespread coordinated campaigns have been shown to be more efficient and effective than small localised efforts. Other techniques include shooting, fencing and trapping. Bounty payments have not been successful in reducing predation by wild dogs and are subject to abuse. New techniques such as the use of livestock-guarding dogs, poison ejecting devices and toxic collars have been suggested as alternatives to current methods.