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The Value of the Predator

By Alan Hewett, Trust For Nature Covenanter     

After 200 years of European occupation Australia has the highest rate of mammal decline and extinction in the world. One significant reason is the introduction of invasive animals, particularly foxes and cats. They are responsible for the extinction of at least twenty mammal species and continue to devastate our native fauna.

Recently, a radical proposal has emerged to combat this problem, the reintroduction of an apex predator –the dingo.

The dingo is a controversial animal. Introduced 5000 years ago it is not considered a true native species. It supplanted the role of the Thylacine and now plays an important role in the food chain.

Apex predators are ecosystem shapers; they control smaller predators and larger herbivores. In the arid regions where dingoes predominate, fox and cat numbers are significantly lower, as well as feral goats and pigs. In areas that lack dingoes there is vegetation depletion due to dense kangaroo populations. Besides the obvious land damage, lack of adequate vegetation exposes smaller mammals to predation and denies them food and shelter.

In a study of nest survival in short- necked turtles on the Murray River without dingoes, foxes preyed upon 93% of nests, but no predation was observed on Cooper’s Creek where dingoes were present.

Returning an apex predator to the environment can have a startling effect. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. They began to predate on the large moose population who had been eating young willow trees. Consequently, more trees reached maturity and this encouraged beavers that built dams. This change in habitat created an abundance of birds. The apex predator had a significant influence on riparian hydrology and biodiversity.

Dingoes have a bad reputation. They can cause significant stock losses. In south east Australia they have interbred with wild dogs. But, consider this, instead of shooting and poisoning dingoes, is it possible to use guardian animals to protect flocks and allow the predator to kill foxes and cats, keep kangaroo numbers in check, and limit spending the huge amounts of money controlling pest animals?

Dingoes are an important species protecting our small mammal population. They are a constraint on the destructive power of foxes and cats. A positive management plan for dingoes can ensure they are an essential part of biodiversity conservation in Australia.