• Myrtle, a pure alpine dingo. (Australian Dingo Foundation)Source: Australian Dingo Foundation
Pure alpine dingoes were once believed to be extinct, but modern DNA testing is proving otherwise - and time is running out to protect our native apex predator.
By
Rae Johnston

Source:
NITV News
12 Feb 2021 - 2:48 PM  UPDATED 15 Feb 2021 - 10:59 AM

In October 2020, two trail bike riders discovered four orphaned dingo cubs in a hollow log on Yaitmathang country in the Victorian High Country. Two ran off, but two who were captured - Myrtle and Moko - could change the way dingoes are treated in Australia. 

Speaking with NITV News, the Australian Dingo Foundation's Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Center Manager Kevin Newman said it's difficult to tell how old Myrtle and Molo were when they came to the sanctuary, because they were so small. 

"They were about three kilograms, because they were quite malnourished," said Mr Newman. Close to death, they had survived for several weeks on a diet of grass and crickets. "They were obviously quite psychologically damaged as well."

The cubs weren't used to being around people, and Moko, in particular, struggled with sanctuary life. 

"He would hide every time he saw a person," said Mr Newman. "You couldn't touch him without him, unfortunately, urinating or defecating because he was just so terrified and associated humans with something that was quite negative."

Myrtle came out of her shell a little easier. Eventually, when the pair were teamed up with a sanctuary-born dingo as a foster sister, they gained their confidence. 

"They've both now started to come out of their shell, look at people and feel comfortable enough to be in the sanctuary environment," said Mr Newman.

While the pair are now protected, they can run around and play with other dingo cubs, but the sanctuary is not where they belong. 

DNA Testing 

Dr Kylie Cairns, a molecular biologist at UNSW Centre for Ecosystem Science, carried out DNA testing on the two cubs. The testing confirmed the pair are alpine dingoes, a listed 'threatened species' in Victoria. 

"Myrtle and Moko show no evidence of domestic dog ancestry," said Dr Cairns.

This isn't the first recent discovery of Alpine Dingoes in Victoria. Wandi was dropped from the sky by an eagle in November 2019, and Sooty was found on a cattle farm a year later

Current DNA research tests for 300,000 genetic markers. Previously, tests would only look at 24 genetic markers.

"That's how they would say 'they're all wild dogs because these markers don't show that they've have dingo in them'," said Mr Newman.

"Now we know - based on 300,000 genetic markers - and those tests are just much more accurate and comprehensive and can really see the genetic differences." 

There is an ongoing perception that there are no pure dingoes left in Victoria (or Australia), but this is incorrect. 

"In some dingo populations, particularly in south-eastern Australia, there is evidence of low levels of domestic dog genes in the population," said Dr Cairns. "However, this does not remove their identity as dingoes". 

Dr Cairns said that overwhelmingly, wild-living canids (mammals of the dog family) in Australia are pure or high-purity dingoes. There is also zero evidence that domestic dogs have the instincts and behaviours to successfully establish in the wild in Australia.

Why Protection Is Needed 

"Currently, we can't [release dingoes into back into the wild] realistically, because of the way dingoes are treated in the environment - and the laws, as well," Mr Newman told NITV News. 

"They say that dingoes are wild dogs, and therefore are unprotected in a lot of areas in Victoria, despite being a protected and a threatened species here."

Lyn Watson from the Australian Dingo Foundation said Myrtle and Moko are evidence that dingoes need "urgent protection." 

"Just like Wandi and Sooty, Myrtle and Moko were found in a zone where dingoes are actively baited, trapped and shot," said Ms Watson. 

Dr Cairns said dingoes perform the top apex predator's critical ecological role, and are fundamentally crucial to biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. 

"For example, dingoes may suppress the abundance and alter the behaviour of foxes and possibly feral cats," said Dr Cairns. 

"They also limit the abundance of large herbivores, which benefits vegetation recovery and smaller animals. Dingoes are also important culturally and spiritually for First Nations People, and their voice on this matter is rarely heard." 

Mr Newman points to areas in Europe where apex predators no longer exist. 

"Wolves have been completely wiped out of ecosystems. And they think 'Oh, hang on a second, maybe we need to reintroduce those." said Mr Newman. 

"As Australians, we're actually at a point now where we can stop that happening. We can get to the point where we don't have to reintroduce dingoes, or we can reintroduce them to help supplement the populations that we already have."

Ms Watson wants locals to embrace Myrtle and Moko as their own, and support preserving the pure alpine dingo population. But there's a problem. 

"Extensive and indiscriminate dingo culling programs by government agencies as well as private landholders and the $120 'Wild Dog' shooting bounty on dingo scalps are all driving dingoes to likely extinction," she said.

Publicly available data shows that dingo predation on sheep is "miniscule", Ms Watson said, "and yet these powerful lobby groups have the ear of government."

Looking To The Future

"Myrtle and Moko are doing really well, their rehabilitation is going great," said Mr Newman. "These are the kind of dingoes that we would look for to be able to rewild down the track, and put into our breeding program to help those future generations of dingoes as well."

Mr Newman said what is also important, and recognised by the sanctuary, is the need "to return a lot of land under Indigenous management."

Calls for Victorian government to reevaluate the protection of the state's dingo population
The Association for Conservation of Australian Dingoes has renewed calls for the Victorian government to reevaluate the protection of the dingo population, which remains under threat.