It's a possibility that horrifies Watson. People come from around the world to her Toolern Vale property an hour outside Melbourne, and pay to stay the night just to hear her 16 dingoes howl at dusk. During the day the lean, aloof animals, most of them the pale sand color of the desert dingo, lie in the sun in their high-fenced enclosure, snuffling and backing away when a stranger arrives. Having bred them for 20 years, Watson's home is full of photos and paintings of dingoes, but her argument for their protection is based less on sentiment than on her belief in their ecological status. "They're Australia's lion - and everyone knows that if you take out the top predator, things go bad," she says, as puppies roll in balls of golden fluff at her feet. "The outside world seems far more interested in the dingo than Australians are. Government puts so many millions into destroying this species but there's nothing on the other side, nothing going into preserving them."
Melbourne's Monash University aims to change that, in October announcing plans to store dingo samples in its gene bank alongside those from endangered species like the northern hairy-nosed wombat and the Sumatran tiger. Monash's Norwood Animal Conservation Group, which oversees the program, needs $A10,000 in start-up funding to gather reproductive and tissue samples from perhaps 100 wild and captive dingoes as "an insurance policy" against extinction, says project director Shae Cox. The funding offers aren't rolling in, but Cox senses public opinion is starting to shift in favor of the animals' long-term survival. While storing semen for artificial insemination projects, the team will also research reproductive behavior, which, like much about the dingo, remains little studied. "No one has taken a lot of interest in them," says Cox. "They're classified as vermin in a lot of states, so why would anyone channel money into investigating them?"
To ensure they're getting samples from pure dingoes, the Monash team will use a genetic test developed by University of New South Wales geneticist Alan Wilton. Following on from earlier skull morphology work by other researchers, Wilton's test has been ringing alarm bells about the extent of hybridization, confirming a collapse in pure dingo numbers throughout much of south-eastern Australia. And there's plenty more work to be done: one of the problems hindering efforts to manage dingoes is the lack of data on their numbers or the national spread of hybridization, particularly across vast stretches of the Northern Territory and Western Australia where they have traditionally been prolific. Wilton's keen to do more sampling, but hasn't been able to find funding and has to rely on charging a per sample fee. Now, with the help of a Ph.D. student from Sweden, he is about to begin trying to extract dna from skulls collected in the 1960s and '70s - the oldest he's been able to find here or overseas - stored in twenty 44-gallon drums held by the csiro.
In the Alice Springs office of the N.T.'s Parks & Wildlife Commission, Steve Eldridge has a small but growing collection of dna samples waiting to be sent to Wilton. They're to be the start of genetic sampling of dingoes in the Territory where they are protected, though government staff bait pastoral properties at the request of landholders. It's a common story: Eldridge says there aren't the funds or the staff to monitor changes in dingo populations other than as part of baiting programs on properties which are losing stock. "There are a number of buckets of money for pest-animal research but there are so many pests now and not enough money to go around," he says. With conservation of the dingo for its ecological role a departmental goal, Eldridge says that even if an animal has some dog genes, "if it's still operating in a pack and still behaving like a dingo, we regard it as a pure dingo." But Wilton thinks the bar should be higher. "If you have the opportunity and pure dingoes are still available, why be satisfied with a replacement?"
Due to talk in coming weeks with W.A. officials about sampling there too, Wilton says it's hard to see how any dingo colonies can escape hybridization in the long term: "In remote areas Aboriginal communities have domestic dogs and landowners have working dogs and tourists have their pooch in the back of the car, so there's not really anywhere that's isolated." Once inter-breeding starts, "it's very difficult to wind back the clock - it's like a ball rolling down a hill." While remote areas could still harbor pure populations, Wilton believes "they won't stay pure unless something is done." Some in remote areas have a more optimistic view of the dingo's future. Although he says there's no local data on population change or genetic purity, Brad Rushforth, wildlife district officer for the Department of Conservation & Land Man-agement in W.A.'s Kimberley region, believes national park populations there show no sign of mixing: "We're quite remote so the dingoes keep pure." There's no baiting in the parks, and feral cats and weeds are far more pressing problems. "We really don't worry about the dingo - we quite like them."
Many who don't find them lovable still acknowledge their usefulness. About 4,000 years after arriving from Asia, dingoes have carved out an ecological role - research suggests that they keep down feral cat and fox numbers, and can also rein in kangaroo populations. And there's little dispute that they're preferable to hybrids, which tend to be bigger, more aggressive and breed twice a year, rather than the dingo's one annual litter. On his 5,700-sq.-km Napperby Station outside Alice Springs, in a bad year cattleman Roy Chisholm can lose 1% of his calves to wild dogs. Hybrids and dogs from the local Aboriginal community are often the problem - much more so than dingoes. "Hybrids aren't tuned into the natural environment like dingoes are, and they're not prepared to eat lizards and grasshoppers like a dingo will," says Chisholm. The Alice Springs chairman of the N.T. Cattlemen's Association argues for a change to current baiting methods, saying that the requirement to call in departmental staff to lay baits sometimes means too many are used. One pack of dogs might require only 50 baits to be laid, but the department minimum might be several hundred. "If I have only one area that's a problem, it's overkill," he says. Given the indiscriminate impact of baiting, and the difficulty in visually telling dingoes and many hybrids apart, Steve Eldridge says the highly potent 1080 poison is used cautiously. He's released research showing that when excessive baiting unpicks the complex structure that dictates a dingo pack's breeding patterns, it's much easier for domestic dogs to move in and mate.
An alternative to baiting is now being considered in W.A., where the federal government is funding a feasibility study into building a dingo barrier fence similar to the dog fence which runs from Queensland to South Australia. Though exclusion fences are notoriously costly to maintain, federal Environment Minister Ian Campbell says pastoralists in the state's northwest and eastern Goldfields region are desperate to combat wild dogs hunting "in plague proportions." There, too, the problem is mixed breeds - Campbell says pastoralists haven't complained about dingoes to him - devastating stock and wildlife. The minister says pest hybrids should be treated differently to native animals - and believes it would be "an absolute tragedy" if the dingo disappeared from the bush: "Part of Australia's uniqueness is the incredible flora and fauna we have on this continent and the dingo is one of those."
Sarah Fyffe will be happy to hear that. The Perth dog trainer became so incensed by negative attitudes to dingoes that earlier this year she applied for a license to keep three dingoes - and train them, at her own cost, to detect explosives. "I wanted to destroy the myths that they're untrainable and dangerous." Two months into her year-long project, the animals have surpassed her expectations. Hybrids she's tried to train for clients have been "like badly wired electrical systems," but the senses of the pure dingo - stubborn but smart - are undiluted. If they're not patrolling airports anytime soon, Fyffe hopes her research might at least win the dingo some respect. "There has to be a happy medium without killing them all off," she says. "Otherwise our grandchildren will be looking at pictures of them in books, just like the thylacine." Australians must decide whether it matters to them that the dingo's howl may soon vanish from the desert dusk.