Why Plants Need Predators

by Inga Yandell

Plants and Predators

A natural but not necessarily obvious dichotomy emerges from recent research into the synergy between predators and plants.

Australia has one of the worst records for species extinctions in the world, 28 mammal species are now extinct and 20% of our remaining mammal species are threatened. Australia’s biodiversity crisis has been caused primarily by uncontrolled outbreaks of introduced predators, and current research shows widespread persecution of dingoes has been the underlying driver. Compounded by decades of killing, the Australian dingo is continually threatened by trapping, shooting and poison-baiting with 1080. Some species are now so rare that they are being delegated to the ranks of “the living dead” (AKA Zombie Species), and some conservation biologists argue that there is no point in wasting precious funds on a lost battle to save them. There is a clear need for a paradigm shift in our approach to conservation and threatened species recovery, and Dr Arian Wallach, of Charles Darwin University, offers such a new approach. “The dingo offers the best way forward for biodiversity management that is cost-effective, sustainable and ethical” she said.

Persecution of dingoes spread across the country with European settlers who viewed the dingo as a threat to livestock. These attitudes remain largely unchanged today, and have given rise to prejudices and misconceptions on the identity, behaviour and traits of dingoes. A common misunderstanding is that the dingo is an introduced domestic dog, a savage killer and a pest. A study lead by Dr. Matthew Crowther from the University of Sydney found that the dingo should be defined as a unique species: Canis dingo. The history of the dingoes’ arrival in Australia remains a mystery, but we do know that dingoes have been here for at least 5,000 years and some argue for even much longer. Although the dingo is legally defined as a species native to Australia, their ability to hybridise with domestic dogs has created a loophole in any attempt to provide protection even where they are considered threatened. All canid species can hybridise, and dingoes and dogs are no exception. The occurrence of dingoes with domestic dog ancestry has been used an expedient excuse to continue killing dingoes, even providing bounties on dingoes, in areas where they are legally protected. Crowther’s study shows that we cannot usually distinguish between dingoes with and without domestic dog ancestry based on their appearance. Dingoes are more varied morphologically than many people assume and their coats can come in many colours besides the most familiar tan.

Wherever livestock fail to thrive dingoes become a convenient scapegoat for poor management and the harshness of the Australian environment. Dingoes are one of the few threats that pastoralists feel they can fight back against. But scientists are showing just how important dingoes are to the health of Australia’s biodiversity. Dingoes act in the environment as unpaid ‘pest eradicators’ that works around the clock, effectively. Last year, Wallach and a team of scientists were recipients of the prestigious Eureka Prize for their research showing that dingoes are very effective at limiting the populations of smaller predators and wild herbivores. By doing so small prey species are able to recover and vegetation condition improves. Persecution of dingoes across the continent explains patterns of high-density fox populations on the one hand and extinctions of marsupial and native rodent species on the other. “Humans with poisons, traps and guns have not been able to benefit biodiversity in this way” Wallach said.

Dingoes are not alone in providing crucial ecological services and being subjected to ruthless persecution. Large carnivores are some of the most imperilled species on the planet. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has found that human hunting is a threatening process for 87% of carnivores larger than 15 kg. But some large carnivores are making a comeback, and scientists are finding that wherever this occurs ecosystems benefit. When apex predators return to an ecosystem, they trigger a cascade of changes as they chase and hunt their prey and drive out smaller predators. This process, called ‘trophic cascades’, highlights how everything in the natural world is interconnected.

The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has dramatically improved the health of this ecosystem. Prof. William Ripple, from Oregon State University in North America, has shown how during the century in which wolves were absent, deer populations grew so numerous that several tree species were unable to reproduce. The return of the wolves has enabled the first saplings to reappear, benefitting beavers that in turn build dams and provide habitat for birds and insects. The wolves are even helping the grizzly bears survive the harsh winters by providing a steady supply of carcasses, and increasing the availability of berries that bears love to eat. Since their return to Yellowstone, the elk and deer are stronger, the aspens and willows are healthier and the grasses taller. Perhaps most incredible of all is how wolves have changed the course of the rivers by protecting plants that hold the riverbanks together. In a recent article in the journal Science, an international team of scientists (including Ripple and Wallach) have argued that the loss of large carnivores such as wolves and dingoes can have such severe impacts on ecosystems on par with the effects of climate change.

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Currently, the very method used to help recover threatened species is also the most effective way to kill dingoes. “The poison 1080 is used on every landholding type across the continent with catastrophic consequences for biodiversity and for the dingoes themselves” Wallach said. Welfare issues include the pain and suffering caused directly by the poison, to both target and non-target animals, and is considered inhumane by the WLPA and the RSPCA. Welfare implications also extend to ecological flow on effects as dingoes are killed. There has been little cost-benefit analysis for the use of 1080, which is still used not only in pastoral lands but also in National Parks and even in Indigenous Protected Areas.

Killing of dingoes has impacted on Australia’s first people. “Many Australian Aboriginal people respect the dingo as a creation figure, and thus as an active part of both Dreaming creation and contemporary life” says Professor Deborah Bird Rose, from the University of NSW and author of Dingo Makes Us Human and Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. “Some of the stories tell of a time when humans and dingoes were one species, and recount how they came to be separated”. In her book, Rose urges us to “think about it: to look at the face of a dog is to see your own ancestor and your contemporary kin… it is to see mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers… without them we would not be who we are”.

Both pastoralists and conservationists are reluctant to change age-old practices of predator control, but change is in the air. Some private conservation landowners such as Bush Heritage and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy are beginning to consider the ecological role of dingoes in the management of their reserves. Some pioneering pastoralists are also transitioning to predator-friendly management. In sheep grazing properties, pastoralists are successfully working with guardian animals such as Maremma dogs. In cattle grazing regions, pastoralists are finding that calf losses often decline when they stop baiting. In Africa and North America, a Predator-Friendly accreditation system has been set up to encourage this transition. Wallach is based at Evelyn Downs, a predator-friendly cattle station in northern South Australia, managed by her partner Adam O’Neill, author of Living with the Dingo. “We came to Evelyn Downs to implement and study a new kind of pastoralism in which dingoes are valued and protected and where all species, regardless of whether they are native or introduced, are free from persecution” she told me.

I feel we have lost ancient primeval instincts from the past that indigenous people still have and know, the relationship of every species and how it is linked. We have become surrounded by concrete and seem to be limited by concrete thinking. The symbiotic relationship of dingoes and their balance in the environment calls on us to remember our own interconnectedness with the rest of the living earth.

Campaigns and Events

There is now a massive campaign to wipeout dingoes using 1080 (a chemically manufactured artificial Super Toxin) especially targeting the sensitive biosphere on the Sunshine Coast. Your voice can help prevent the devastation of dingos and their habitat, please help support us in opposing this campaign.

World renowned conservationist and UN Messenger of Peace, Dr Jane Goodall, and an expert panel of speakers and live audiences around Australia will address the question:

‘Nature has always been an intrinsic part of Australian life and identity. We live, work, and play in the great outdoors. But, what will Australia’s nature look like in 50 years’ time?’

The Wilderness Society will be facilitating audience interaction in eight venues around the country. The discussion will also be live streamed for those unable to make it to one of the live venues.

Lectures will be held in Sydney on May 31, Melbourne on June 5 and Brisbane on June 8. Visit www.janegoodall.org.au for more information.

Read Dr Jane’s letter in support of the Dingo.

About the Authors

Marie-Louise Sarjeant is C.E.O. and Spokesperson for The Ochre Project, Queensland. She has campaigned for both the Fraser Island dingoes and the mainland dingoes, for many years working & writing on behalf to help the dingoes. Discover her passion, perhaps it will become yours… www.ochreproject.com

Dr. Arian Wallach is a University Fellow at the Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University. Read her research at www.dingobiodiversity.com/

Prof. Deborah Bird Rose is a founding member of the Environmental Humanities Program, University of New South Wales. Her wisdoms can be explored at http://deborahbirdrose.com 

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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