Feb 14

Today the dingo has been crowned the World’s Favourite Unloved Species, after two weeks of voting and some fierce competition. Here Bret Charman discusses his experiences with photographing this misunderstood yet beautiful species.

The world’s wild dog species, for the most part, are on a downward spiral – none more so than the iconic dingo of Australia. Unlike the profile of many of the world’s apex predators, many people still see the dingo as a pest species, particularly by some livestock farmers in the outback, and as such, there is little in the way of protection for this vital predator. Perceptions are starting to change though, as many have started to realise the species’ importance in managing the populations of rabbits, kangaroos and even feral cats.

Award-winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman spent 10 months exploring the south and east of Australia, getting up close and personal to these fascinating predators.

In 2014/15 I was incredibly lucky to spend 10 months exploring a remarkable country – Australia. The wildlife here is unlike anywhere else on earth, uniquely adapted to the diverse habitats that make up the Australian wilderness. Deep down, I have always had a love affair with the world’s canids and the dingo was a species I was desperate to see.

Like any of the world’s apex predators, there are fantastical stories about the dingo and their blood-thirsty habits. Headlines such as 6-year-old escaped by the bare buttocks from a dingo attack’, give an impression of a savage, mindless predator out to get the average person. However, when you dig a little deeper you realise that it is rarely the dingo that is to blame, and actually these wild dogs are an incredibly intelligent, resourceful and adaptable species.

I am happy tell you I have had multiple close encounters with wild dingoes, and I never once felt in danger or lost any item of clothing in the process. In fact, just like a domestic dog, dingoes give incredibly clear signals as to how they are feeling and are much more afraid of people than many would have us believe.

My first experience was on the western coastline of Fraser Island, I knew there were dingoes in the area as I had seen their tracks around a washed up turtle carcass. Setting off down the beach, following these tracks, I sighted a small group of dogs on the water’s edge around 300 yards away. I got low down so as not to spook them, but my efforts were in vain as they immediately clocked me and disappeared into the island’s forested hills. I thought I had lost the moment, annoyed at myself for disturbing them – as a wildlife photographer my job is to capture striking images but not directly affect the subject’s behaviour.

I turned my attention to the setting sun and after a few minutes I had that primeval feeling … I was being watched. I turned around and looked up towards the top of a sandy bluff. There were the three dingoes I had sighted only 20 minutes before, all three watching me intently before suddenly two individuals headed off into the forest. One lone dog remained and watched me … we both seemed to be fascinated by the other’s presence. Neither of us made any attempt to approach each other, we simply sat and watched one another for around 5 minutes (and in my case managed to capture a few images) before we both knew it was time to head home. I have never had an experience with a predator in the same way before. Neither the dingo, or myself, were afraid of one another, there was simply a mutual respect. There was a silent understanding that if we stayed put, we were both comfortable in each other’s presence. These dingoes weren’t the mindless predator I had heard so much about, they had foresight, planning and in-depth understanding of human behaviour. Of course that remarkable evening only left me wanting more!

The danger of getting involved in photographing the world’s predators is rarely any attack from the animal itself, the trouble in fact starts with the emotions that these encounters stir up. You get an attack of passion, an addiction! I was completely hooked, but I knew I hadn’t captured an image that reflected the true nature of the dingo. I had to keep trying. I had to hope another chance would come my way – luckily for me I was fortunate enough to capture the image below in a separate encounter.

I spent over an hour following this beautiful female as she went about her daily business.  I believe this image really shows the true character of a dingo – a species of wild dog that is perfectly suited to Australia’s harsh environment, a predator that keeps a natural balance in an ecosystem and actually controls the numbers of other pest species which are far more damaging for agriculture. Quite simply this species of wild dog is an integral part of the landscape and that is why it fits so comfortably across this vast land.

There can be no denying that there is always going to be issues with livestock being killed by dingoes, and this will always be a flashpoint. However, there has been some recent evidence which has actually suggested that where these apex predators occur on farms with livestock, the farmers often have better grass yields as a result of fewer grazers competing over this limited resource. This in turn increases the farmer’s revenue from the healthier livestock reared on this land.

Dingoes will always carry out the odd raid on livestock, but just as the wolf has transformed the landscapes of Yellowstone NP since its reintroduction, perhaps the Australian equivalent can play a pivotal role in the restoration of the outback. If all sides can come together and better understand the dingo and the role it plays, there could be unknown benefits for all involved. There is hope yet to save this iconic species, but if no one is prepared to make a stand then they could all too easily slip away.

Bret’s next big photography project is ‘Life in the Clouds’ – a photographic exploration of Ecuador’s cloud forests and the intricacies that altitude plays in the distribution of species. Find out more about the project here.

Jan 27

#LoveSpecies nominee: dingo

Nominated by: Wildlife Land Trust

Why do you love it?

There’s no shortage of reasons to love dingoes, starting simply with their physical beauty that has evolved in the Australian landscape over several thousand years. It can be a daunting place to survive and many predators (such as the Tasmanian tiger) have been unable to take the additional pressures of European arrival in Australia. But in the face of adversity, the dingo has survived and is, in some locations, thriving. This resilience is excellent news for hundreds of native Australian species including many threatened mammals, birds and reptiles, which benefit significantly from dingo presence due to the suppressing role the apex predators play on feral cats and foxes, which together are arguably the biggest threat to Australian wildlife. It’s this crucial ecosystem role that makes the dingo so important to protect, and at the very least respect far better than we currently do.

What are the threats to the dingo?

For decades the little dingo ‘conservation’ investment provided by Governments has focused on poisoning in an attempt to protect cattle and sheep from predation, with claims that ‘pure’ dingoes are also being protected from hybridisation with dogs in the process. This attitude has been perpetuated by a misguided focus on purity which ignores the vital ecological functions performed by dingoes and dingo hybrids, a growing body of evidence suggesting that hybrids share important aspects of dingo social behaviour such as pack formation, home ranges, reproductive cycles and feeding habits. Both dingoes and hybrids suppress feral cat and fox populations to the great benefit of Australian biodiversity.

Against overwhelming evidence, Governments around Australia still seem intent on eradicating the dingo and dingo-dog hybrids, primarily through large-scale and inhumane 1080 poison baiting programs. Such baiting, often done aerially, is indiscriminate and affects many Australian predators such as tiger quolls and wedge-tailed eagles. In some States and Territories there are also ‘bounties’ for ‘wild dog’ scalps, however with studies showing that it is next to impossible to determine what is and isn’t a dingo in the field, there is no doubt that dingoes are being killed in large numbers through the schemes – a ludicrous use of taxpayer money to incentivise the killing of native species.

As for protecting stock, fracturing dingo packs through controls such as baiting and shooting is, in fact, more likely to exacerbate the problem by encouraging opportunistic feeding patterns and disturbing natural behaviours. With more effective stock protection alternatives such as using Maremma dogs and other guardian animals available, there is no scientifically sound justification for killing dingoes in an attempt to prevent stock losses.

What are you doing to save it?

For several years we have sought the listing of ‘the loss of dingoes from the landscape’ as a Key Threatening Process under Australian and various state environmental laws, as well as preparing scientific nominations for the protection of threatened dingo populations. We are also heavily involved in efforts to improve the species’ only current ‘threatened’ protection under Victorian law, which is undermined by a purity focus and other conflicting laws.

We continue to attempt to turn around public perception of the iconic dingo, and encourage Governments to focus on the bigger picture of ecosystem health rather than getting caught up in purity debates. We have invested in research by supporting PhD candidates looking into the dingo’s ecological role as well as non-lethal stock protection methods to change the perceived need to kill dingoes in the landscape.

Dozens of Wildlife Land Trust members provide habitat for dingoes, with several involved in breeding and caring for the species, and we have also sought representation on Victoria’s Wild Dog Management Advisory Committee in an attempt to enable increased pursuit of alternative stock protection methods and closer scrutiny on the state’s well-intentioned but ineffective threatened listing.

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