Totem species not wild dogs, says First Nations man seeking change to dingo management

Totem species not wild dogs, says First Nations man seeking change to dingo management

The First Nations community in Victoria’s north-west is calling on the state government to find ways to protect livestock without “indiscriminate” killings of their totem species, the dingo.

Readers are advised this story contains an image some people may find distressing.

Wotjobaluk man and Barengi Gadjin Land Council natural resource management officer, Stuart Harradine, said the dingo, or wilkerr as it was known in the Weirgaia language, was a “spiritual relation” to members of their community.

“If that’s your totem, you’ve got a responsibility to care for that totem and look after it,” he said.

Stuart Harradine says there has been little consultation on the issue of dingoes.(Supplied: Stuart Harradine)

The state government allows landowners to “prevent the spread of, and as far as possible eradicate, established pest animals, including wild dogs, on their land”.

The policy allows wild dog controllers to bait and trap on public land, including national parks, within three kilometres of the farm fence.

However, it is difficult to separate wild dogs from dingoes.

Agriculture Victoria says dingoes cannot be reliably visually distinguished from wild dogs, making it impossible to ensure they are not inadvertently destroyed in wild dog control programs.

The government says baits containing 1080 poison are an efficient way to control wild dogs.(Supplied: Kimberley Vermin Control)

Mr Harradine said it was “misleading” to call dingoes wild dogs.

“Let’s call them by what they actually are, which is dingoes,” he said.

“We can also bring in our language term for it as well, wilkerr.”

He said there were remnant dingo populations living in the Big Desert Wilderness Park, Wyperfeld National Park, and also over the border in South Australia at the Ngarkat Conservation Park.

Attacks on livestock

The issue is complicated for many landholders.

Underbool farmer Stephen Lynch said when he ran about 1,500 ewes on his property, up to a dozen lambs would be attacked by dogs each night.

“They just kill for fun,” he said.

“I’ve done a rough calculation and it would be up around $100,000 [lost].”

Mr Lynch says he has seen young dogs maul multiple sheep for fun. (Supplied)

Mr Lynch said he remembered spending countless nights out in his ute trying to catch the animals and keep them away.

“Sometimes I’d be out there till two, three o’clock in the morning,” he said.

“They’ll come in for a feed, and that’d be normally around four o’clock to seven o’clock in the morning.

“You’re out there for a long time.”

Scientists call for policy reform

A genetic study of wild dogs earlier this year revealed nearly 90 per cent of animals tested in Victoria were pure dingoes.

According to the same research, none of the animals tested in Victoria’s north-west had domestic dog ancestry.

Deakin University professor of wildlife ecology and conservation, Euan Ritchie, said the research indicated the government needed to do more to protect the dingoes.

“No one would question that losing livestock to dingoes is stressful, and it can actually lead to some really quite horrendous outcomes in a personal health sense, as well as economic costs,” he said.

Euan Ritchie explores the Big Desert Wilderness Park. (Supplied)

He said using conservation tools to help accommodate dingoes in the landscape while protecting livestock was possible.

“That includes the use of guardian animals, so maremmas, which are these large white dogs,” he said.

“There’s a role for strategic fencing as well.

“So small amounts of fencing that might protect vulnerable livestock that are living quite close by to dingo populations.”

Vulnerable listing

The Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water listed the dingo as “vulnerable” in Victoria in June.

Mr Harradine said he didn’t know how many dingoes were living in the national parks around Victoria’s north-west.

“Given they are very much under threat of extinction, we really feel obligated to stand up and start seeking the protection of wilkerr,” he said.

Professor Ritchie said there was no more important time to listen to the First Nations’ perspective than when discussing Australia’s native wildlife.

“That’s absolutely critical,” he said.

“We absolutely need to hear from all of society that has an interest in dingoes and make sure that that’s accommodated properly in policy management.”

Victorian government departments will need to renew an order which allows for dingoes to be killed in national parks by October 1.

A spokesperson said the government would continue to work with the First Nations community and farmers to “appropriately balance the protection of livestock and dingo conservation”.

The environment minister did not respond to direct questions about whether they would renew the order.

The Victorian Farmers Federation has called for wild dog management plans to be renewed in their current form.

According to the organisation, since the management plans launched in the 2012, there has been a 75 per cent reductions in livestock losses.

Mr Harradine said he looked forward to engaging with the state government to push for changes in terminology and policy.

“Let’s look at other ways of protecting livestock without needing to destroy wilkerr,” he said.

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