Two small children were hospitalised in recent weeks after being attacked by dingoes on K’gari (Fraser Island).
The latest attack involved a 14-month-old boy who was dragged from his family campervan by dingoes, an incident that could have ended with much more serious consequences than the injuries he sustained.
While dingoes exist in many parts of Australia today, those on K’gari are thought to be “special” because of their genetic purity. This means they have not interbred with wild and domestic dogs to the same extent mainland dingoes have, and so are considered the purest bred dingoes in Australia.
They are legally protected because of this special status, and because they live in a national park and World Heritage Area. Unfortunately, it is precisely this protection and separation from humans that has driven much of the increase in interaction and aggression towards people.
This ongoing human-dingo conflict on K’Gari shows how our laws and management practices can actually increase negative encounters with wildlife when they don’t consider the history, ecology and social circumstances of the conflict area.
Law and policy ‘naturalised’ dingoes
The island’s laws and policies, such as the international World Heritage Convention and the more local Fraser Island Dingo Conservation and Risk Management Strategy, are focused on conserving a particular human idea of “natural wilderness”.
In practice, this means the management policy focuses on “naturalising” the dingo by effectively separating them from people and the sources of food they bring.
But dingoes, although wild animals, have never effectively been naturalised on K’Gari, so our attempts to maintain their “natural” and “wild” status is not entirely accurate.
Dingoes have a long history of being close with Aboriginal people. This human-dingo relationship continued as the island was used for mining and logging, as employees also lived with dingoes. They were fed by people, scavenged scraps from rubbish tips, and fed on leftover fish offal.
It is only in the last few decades we have sought to rewild dingoes by removing all forms of human-sourced food, separating them from human settlement.
Separating the animals from humans won’t work, however, when more than 400,000 tourists visit K’Gari every year, expecting to see a dingo.
International law and local management prioritise tourism, and a tourism-based economy is certainly preferable to the logging and sand-mining economies that existed before the national park was given World Heritage status in 1992.
But are such large visitor numbers in a relatively small space sustainable?
Yet, there has been no serious consideration given to reducing tourist numbers or increasing fees, despite research suggesting visitors are willing to sacrifice some access for improved environmental outcomes and less crowding.
Such proposals have been specifically rejected by decision-makers within the Dingo Management Plan.
So where does that leave us?
We essentially have three options:
if we wish to stick with the policy of dingo naturalisation and human separation, we must change our attitudes and values towards dingoes so people maintain an appropriate distance and do not inadvertently feed them. This can happen with education, fines and collaboration. While this is essentially what policies have attempted so far, there has been little effect on overall incident numbers
we can take the naturalisation policy to its expected endpoint and completely separate tourists and dingoes. This may mean more fencing, greater fines and fewer annual visitors so rangers can educate and manage all visitors effectively
we can drastically reevaluate how we value wildlife and how we place ourselves within the natural world. This would see an enormous overhaul of the regulatory framework, and would also require a deeper understanding of all the causes of conflict, other than just the immediate issue of tourism, habituation and feeding.
In practice, an effective dingo management policy would probably require a combination of all three options to maintain the pristine state of K’Gari, conserve the dingo population and improve human safety.
This is an article from Curious Kids, a series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky! You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.
What sea creature can attack and win over a blue whale? – Drake, age 7, Sydney.
Hi Drake. That is an interesting question.
As you probably know, blue whales are the largest creatures to have ever lived on Earth – bigger than any dinosaur. They can grow up to 30 metres in length and weigh over 150 tonnes. This is very, very BIG. To give you an idea of how big a blue whale is, it’s the size of a Boeing 737 plane! Because of their size, power and speed, adult blue whales have virtually no natural ocean predators.
The only sea creature known to attack blue whales is the orca whale (scientific name: Orcinus orca) also known as the “killer whale”. They have been known to work in groups to attack blue whales.
However, there are very few reports of orcas actually killing blue whales. We know that orca whales interact with them because many blue whales carry scars from the teeth of orcas. But blue whales probably see orcas as more of a pest than a predator.
Curious Kids: Why do sea otters clap?
The human threat
A much more serious problem for blue whales is humans. Humans have caused a lot of trouble for blue whales over the years.
One big problem is what we call “ship strikes”. This is when large ships collide with blue whales causing dreadful wounds and, in many cases, death.
Blue whales migrate freely across all the great oceans of the world to breed. They travel each year to the Antarctic in search of food. Global warming is a major future threat to their way of life. This is because rising sea temperatures and ocean acidification (which are caused by climate change) are likely to cause severe disruption to the production of their main food source, the very small crustacean we call “krill”.
Blue whales were the target of commercial whalers, mainly in Antarctica, between 1900 and the 1970s. During that time, over 330,000 blue whales were killed.
Fortunately – and only just in time – the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1966. Blue whales are now a protected species and are recovering from the brink of extinction. People on whale watching trips at various locations around the world can see them, if they are lucky. The risk of whaling still exists in several countries, including Japan, Iceland and Norway. Many people in these countries are seeking to return to commercial whaling. Recently, whalers in Iceland killed a hybrid blue whale.
Blue whales can talk
One of the most interesting things about blue whales is that they use very low frequency sounds to communicate. Through this they can talk to each other over great distances. The low frequency sounds can pass through the earth, so it’s possible to record their songs and sounds from anywhere in the world.
In the 1960s, an American scientist called Chris Clark got permission to use the USA’s submarine listening system across the Atlantic Ocean to listen to blue whales. One day, he heard a blue whale calling from the far northeast Atlantic Ocean and realised another whale many thousands of miles away in the southwest Atlantic Ocean was answering it. Through their calls, he tracked them over the next few weeks moving towards each other. The two blue whales met and spent time together in the middle of the Atlantic. Then they separated and went on their way!
It is important for all who are interested in the conservation and protection of these amazing creatures to remain vigilant and involved in making sure that they remain safe. Whales are part of the international heritage of all people of the Earth.
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The case of Debbie Rundle, who was attacked by dingoes at a mine site in Telfer, in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, evokes our instinctive horror at the idea of being attacked by wild animals.
Rundle suffered severe leg injuries in the incident, and said she feared she may have been killed had her colleagues not come to her aid.
We know that there are carnivores throughout the world with the potential to kill us. And while most of us will never come face to face with a hungry wolf, lion, tiger or bear, such attacks do unfortunately still occur.
In the scale of things, such attacks are very uncommon – although that is little consolation to the victim. Australia’s dingoes are no exception; despite some infamous examples, dingo attacks on humans are mercifully rare. But people will still understandably want to know why they happen at all, and what can be done to prevent them.
Why do wild animals attack?
Research on wolf attacks shows that, absent the influence of rabies which can increase wolves’ aggression, two common factors associated with attacks are that they often happen in human-modified environments, and by animals that are habituated to human presence.
These two variables are obviously linked: many species of mammalian carnivore are highly adaptable, and soon learn that human settlements are sources of food, water and shelter.
These human resources can have a profound effect on the behaviour of wild animals. Abundant human food often reduces animals’ aggression towards one another, and can result in the presence of much larger numbers of individuals than normal.
This is equally true of dingoes. Although they are usually observed alone, it is not uncommon to see groups of ten or more dingoes foraging at rubbish dumps associated with mine sites in the Tanami Desert of central Australia. There are thought to be around 100 dingoes that forage in and around the Telfer mine where Rundle was attacked.
Waste food may inadvertently entice animals to human settlements, and this may lead to predators becoming habituated to human presence. In Canada, a young man fell victim to a wolf attack at a mine site; the local wolves were reported to be used to humans, and would even follow rubbish trucks to the tip. They may have come to associate human smells with the provision of food.
Animals that are habituated to humans lose some of their natural wariness towards them. This is typical of many animal species that adapt to urban habitats, and while this may be an appealing trait in squirrels or garden birds, it can be quite different if the animal is a predator capable of attacking a human.
In the United States, there have been many reports of coyotes attacking humans. The coyote, like the dingo, is reasonably large (typically weighing 10–16kg) and can be found in close association with urban areas. The coyote’s natural range has expanded as wolves (their competitor) have dwindled, and their numbers have increased in and around cities where they find copious and consistent supplies of food and water.
A survey of reported attacks on humans by coyotes showed that many were “investigative”, often involving the animal trying to steal something they perceived as food from the person. Other attacks by coyotes could be identified as “predatory”, in which the victim was pursued and bitten, and often occurred when the coyotes were in a group.
The Telfer dingo attack similarly appears to have been investigative – a young dingo climbed onto a table and grabbed Rundle’s phone. But the incident turned nasty when Rundle (perhaps understandably) followed the dingo that had her phone; this seemed to trigger a defensive or predatory attack from two other dingoes.
On Queensland’s Fraser Island, more than half of the recorded aggressive incidents by dingoes towards humans happened when the person was walking or running, suggesting that a “chase” response may have been involved.
The Telfer site, like other mine sites, has strict rules about putting waste food in bins, and managers have been proactive in training workers to not feed dingoes, in an attempt to prevent just such attacks. Rundle certainly seems to have followed these rules.
Unfortunately, in her case, other variables contributed to the attack – an investigative approach by one dingo that stole an item (that may have smelled of food) seems to have turned into an aggressive group attack when she followed the animals.
What can we do to prevent such attacks? Mine site managers already do much to reduce the likelihood of such incidents by reducing dingoes’ access to food. Fencing off eating areas or storing food in cages – as is done at Fraser Island – can help in this regard.
Interestingly, many people believe that it is best not to act aggressively when they encounter a large carnivore, but in reality it depends on the species. For wolves and pumas, the best tactic seems to be to shout and throw objects to put them off.
Ultimately, the onus is on individual people to be aware of the potential danger of wild predators, and always to treat them with wariness and respect.
Has the Australian climate change debate changed? You could be forgiven for thinking the answer is no.
Just this week The Australian has run a series of articles attacking the Bureau of Meteorology’s weather observations. Meanwhile, the federal and Queensland governments continue to promote Adani’s planned coal mine, despite considerable environmental and economic obstacles. And Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions are rising again.
So far, so familiar. But something has changed.
Those at the top of Australian politics are no longer debating the existence of climate change and its causes. Instead, four years after the Coalition was first elected, the big political issues are rising power prices and the electricity market. What’s happening?
A few years ago, rejection of climate science was part of the Australian political mainstream. In 2013, the then prime minister Tony Abbott repeated a common but flawed climate change denial argument:
Australia has had fires and floods since the beginning of time. We’ve had much bigger floods and fires than the ones we’ve recently experienced. You can hardly say they were the result of anthropic [sic] global warming.
Abbott’s statement dodges a key issue. While fires and floods have always occurred, climate change can still alter their frequency and severity. In 2013, government politicians and advisers, such as Dennis Jensen and Maurice Newman, weren’t shy about rejecting climate science either.
The atmosphere is different in 2017, and I’m not just talking about CO₂ levels. Tony Abbott is no longer prime minister, Dennis Jensen lost preselection and his seat, and Maurice Newman is no longer the prime minister’s business advisor.
Which Australian politician most vocally rejects climate science now? It isn’t the prime minister or members of the Coalition, but One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts. In Australia, open rejection of human-induced climate change has moved to the political fringe.
Roberts has declared climate change to be a “fraud” and a “scam”, and talked about climate records being “manipulated by NASA”. He is very much a conspiracy theorist on climate, as he is on other topics including banks, John F. Kennedy, and citizenship. His approach to evidence is frequently at odds with mainstream thought.
This conspiratorial approach to climate change is turning up elsewhere too. I was startled by the author list of the Institute of Public Affairs’ new climate change book. Tony Heller (better known in climate circles by the pseudonym Steven Goddard) doesn’t just believe climate change is a “fraud” and a “scam”, but has also promoted conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school massacre. This is a country mile from sober science and policy analysis.
So where is the Australian political mainstream? It’s not denying recent climate change and its causes, but instead is now debating the policy responses. This is exemplified by political arguments about the electricity market, power prices, and the Finkel Review.
While this is progress, it’s not without serious problems. The debate may have rightly moved on to policy rather than science, but arguments for “clean coal” power are at odds with coal’s high CO₂ emissions and the failure thus far of carbon capture. Even power companies show little interest in new coal-fired power plants to replace those that have closed.
Have those who rejected global warming and its causes changed their tune? In general, no. They still imagine that scientists are up to no good. The Australian’s latest attacks on the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) illustrate this, especially as they are markedly similar to accusations made in the same newspaper three years ago.
This week, the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd wrote that the BoM was “caught tampering” with temperature logs, on the basis of measurements of cold temperatures on two July nights at Goulburn and Thredbo. For these nights, discrepant temperatures were in public BoM databases due to automated weather stations that stopped reporting data. The data points were flagged for BoM staff to verify, but in the meantime an amateur meteorologist contacted Lloyd and the Institute of Public Affairs’ Jennifer Marohasy.
In 2014, Lloyd cast doubt on the BoM’s climate record by attacking the process of “homogenisation,” with a particular emphasis on data from weather stations in Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke. Homogenisation is used to produce a continuous temperature record from measurements that may suffer from artificial discontinuities, such as in the case of weather stations that have been upgraded or moved from, say, a post office to an airport.
Lloyd’s articles from this week and 2014 are beat-ups, for similar reasons. The BoM’s ACORN-SAT long-term temperature record is compiled using daily measurements from 112 weather stations. Even Lloyd acknowledges that those 112 stations don’t include Goulburn and Thredbo. While Rutherglen, Amberley and Bourke do contribute to ACORN-SAT, homogenisation of their data (and that of other weather stations) does little to change the warming trend measured across Australia. Australia has warmed over the past century, and The Australian’s campaigns won’t change that.
In 2014, the government responded to The Australian’s campaign by commissioning the Technical Advisory Forum, which has since reviewed ACORN-SAT and found it to be a “well-maintained dataset”. Prime Minister Abbott also considered a taskforce to investigate BoM, but was dissuaded by the then environment minister Greg Hunt.
How will Malcolm Turnbull’s government respond to The Australian’s retread of basically the same campaign? Perhaps that will be the acid test for whether the climate debate really has changed.
A group of killer whales are on the hunt. They work together to submerge and drown a whale calf. But then more whales appear.
The newly arrived humpbacks bellow a trumpet-like call, and wield their five-metre-long pectoral flippers like swords against the prowling killer whales.
The killer whales are driven away from the calf, and the humpbacks also move away. As they do, the killer whales turn back and descend on the calf once more. In response, the humpbacks swing around and return to the calf’s defence.
The humpbacks position themselves close to the calf, between it and the killer whales, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.
This process continues and repeats for many hours, but it is not a calf of their own species, it is a grey whale calf.
This is not an isolated case. Robert Pitman, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US, and his colleagues report more than 100 incidents where humpback whales have approached or actively intervened in killer whale hunting attempts.
Surprisingly, most of these have been predation attempts on other species, such as seals, other whales or even fish.
The question is: why would these humpback whales place themselves in danger by interposing themselves between one of their few predators – killer whales – and an individual of an entirely different species?
You scratch my back…
Altruistic behaviour is some of the most difficult to explain in evolutionary terms. In a biological context, altruism refers to cases where one individual’s behaviour provides a benefit to another individual at a cost to itself.
It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as throwing themselves on a grenade, but even placing themselves at a small disadvantage could jeopardise their chances of surviving and reproducing.
And if they don’t reproduce, then neither do the genes that encouraged the individual to be altruistic. This is why – all else being equal – you would expect altruistic genes to slowly disappear from a population over multiple generations.
But there are cases of altruistic behaviour in nature, particularly among closely related groups. One example is an individual meerkat who calls to alert its group to the presence of a predator, particularly as that call could make the predator more likely to notice the vigilant meerkat.
This kind of behaviour can evolve and remain stable in a population due to a process called kin selection. This is because the meerkat is closely related to the other members of its group, so it shares many genes with them. Even if it does end up sacrificing itself, if it helps its relatives survive, they may also be carrying the genes that encourage altruism.
Other cases of altruism in nature are supported by recriprocation: you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.
An example would be vampire bats that share blood meals. They do so on the assumption that their friend will return the favour at some later date.
However, for kin selection or reciprocal altruism to evolve, there needs to be a high level of social cohesion within the group.
For example, individuals need to be able to recognise who is a relative or a friend, and who is not. Presumably, you are less likely to put your neck on the line for a distant relative or for someone who is not likely to repay the favour.
So it might not be surprising that a humpback mother would vigorously defend her own calf from attacking killer whales. But why would a humpback approach and position itself between attacking killer whales and another whale’s calf?
As mentioned above, if an individual is prone to behave in a way that reduces their chance of surviving and reproducing, we would expect the genes that promote that behaviour to dwindle over generations and eventually vanish from the population. And even if an adult humpback puts itself at minimal risk by interfering with killer whales, minimal risk is more than zero risk by avoiding them altogether.
Pitman and his colleagues think there might be more social cohesion among humpbacks than we previously thought, and kin selection and/or reciprocal altruism could be playing a part.
Individual humpback whales return to the same region to breed. This means that there is a good possibility that humpbacks are related to their immediate neighbours. Pitman suggests this means it may be worth a humpback helping other humpbacks to protect their calves from killer whale attacks.
However, it is trickier to explain apparent altruism directed towards other species. Pitman and his colleagues explain that for the humpback whale, this intervention on behalf of other species is a “spillover” behaviour. They suggest it is an extension of the humpback whales’ “drive” to protect their own calves.
Humpbacks may have learned to respond to vocalisations of attacking killer whales, which trigger them to drive the killer whales away, regardless of the species being attacked.
If this tendency to drive away killer whales whenever they are attacking has helped humpbacks to protect their own calves, then the genes that promote it could be maintained in the population, even if other species benefit at times.
This interspecies altruistic behaviour may be “inadvertent” altruism – it can be altruism in the individual case but it is ultimately driven by self-interest.