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: spotted hyaena

Nominated by: Ruaha Carnivore Project

Why do we love the spotted hyaena?

Spotted hyaenas, or laughing hyaenas, are seen as scavengers and are pretty much at the bottom of most people’s lists of favourite creatures, along with cockroaches and flies.  Ask anyone and they’ll usually tell you that hyaenas are cowardly, ugly, opportunistic and sinister – being linked to witchcraft (voodoo) hasn’t helped their case.  This Valentine’s Day the Ruaha Carnivore Project wants to change your mind and turn your views around.  Did you know that spotted hyaenas are fantastic mothers, fiercely loyal, wonderfully social and are skilled hunters? In fact they hunt more and scavenge less than lions!  Another common myth to bust is that hyenas are NOT dogs!! Hyenas are more closely related to mongooses and cats.  They’re feisty and have been known to confront lions, and can successfully drive lions off kills and defend their own meals from the big cats.

They are highly social and intelligent animals – amazingly, studies have shown that they are better at problem-solving and social cooperation than chimpanzees, and even more impressively, managed to solve the problems they were faced with in silence, using non-verbal communication. They can and do communicate over long distances, though – the hyaena’s whooping call is an iconic sound of the African wilderness, although few people realise that the pitch and tone of the ‘laugh’ actually indicate social status to other hyaenas.

In spotted hyaena society, the women hold the power (another reason to love them!) – and the core of the clan (which can reach 80 animals) is comprised of related females who form the top hierarchy. Fascinatingly, female hyaenas become very masculinised before birth and have three times the level of testosterone as males. This means that female spotted hyaenas are larger and more muscular than males – impressively, they even have a ‘pseudo-penis’ (actually an elongated clitoris) which can reach seven inches long, leading people as far back as Aristotle to falsely believe that they were hermaphrodites.

The often vitriolic and unwarranted treatment that hyaenas receive makes it all the more important to stand up for them – who doesn’t want to champion the underdog! Hyaenas have long been associated with witchcraft and even in our study area in rural Tanzania some people still believe that naked, invisible witches ride on hyaenas’ backs. Many myths surround hyaenas, such as them digging up the dead and morphing into werewolf-type beasts to attack people at night. Sadly, this leads to extensive persecution of these amazing animals, and they are frequently killed in rural areas.

Even without the human impacts, life as a spotted hyaena isn’t easy.  They’re born into a den, with no communal care – not even from their fathers.  Although litter sizes are small (1 – 4), they fight with their siblings from an early age and 1 in 4 cubs die within the first month due to the ferocity of their attacks on each other. Although not cuddly at birth – being born with their eyes wide open and a full set of teeth – we have to hand it to them as survivors in a hostile world…. And with this, we ask you to cast your vote in their favour.

What are the threats to the Spotted hyaena?

Being of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List means that there is no special treatment reserved for them in the conservation hierarchy. They’re often associated with attacks on villagers’ livestock and are persecuted along with other carnivores who attack livestock. As human populations expand and growth of agriculture, settlements and roads continues, wildlife is losing space in which it was previously able to roam freely.

What are we doing to save the species, to reduce persecution and to raise awareness?

As one of the Ruaha Carnivore Project’s main concerns is human-wildlife conflict we are engaged in programmes which actively change the way people think about the species, by taking school children and villagers on educational Park visits to become acquainted with wildlife, and especially top predators, in a safe environment, where they can ask questions and learn about the vital role these species play in the ecosystem.

Retaliation is the primary reason for hyaena killings. We work with communities to help them fortify bomas —( livestock enclosures)—that protect stock from predators.  Protecting bomas with wire has proved very effective – they reduce losses by as much as 95%. Importantly, we also develop community benefit programmes so that people see real rewards from living alongside dangerous species such as hyaenas – we have developed education, healthcare and veterinary health benefit programmes which have proved extremely valuable in terms of increasing local tolerance for hyaenas and other wildlife.

In our extensive camera-trapping programme we work with colleagues both within and outside Ruaha National Park, to collect information from as many carnivore sightings as possible. We equip Ruaha National Park lodge drivers with data collection devices and cameras, and they record and report large carnivore sightings to us each month. This initiative has been incredibly valuable, and by the end of 2015, 22 drivers from eight lodges had reported over 8,000 sightings to us and had also generously shared their invaluable insights into the behaviour and ecology of Ruaha’s carnivore populations. However, as we also need to get information on carnivore presence and movement outside tourist areas, we will be deploying satellite collars on lions and spotted hyaenas around Ruaha, so we can collect that information and use it to inform future conservation plans.

Tourists in Ruaha can help with our work by submitting photographs of these amazing animals to us. More widely, an innovative safari company has dedicated one of its tours to the species, and, as a member of the public you can get up close and personal by booking into a ‘spotted hyaena safari’.  So, move aside the big five…. as the spotted hyaena takes on a new and much-deserved significance.

VOTE NOW!

VOTE FOR ME!

 

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.

VOTE NOW!

VOTE FOR ME!

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