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Catching dingoes in the dead of night

By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience.

Dingoes were likely introduced to Australia 4-6000 years ago and while they played an important function for aboriginal people – closely or permanently associating with them – they now play a key ecological role as wild predators in Australian ecosystems. They are now the largest mammalian carnivore in the country, and in the absence of the long-extinct marsupial predators (like thylacines, marsupial lions, carnivorous roos, and devils on the mainland) they are an essential part of the web of life here.

Much like carnivores in every other part of the world where livestock is farmed, dingoes are a sensitive issue for many Australians. Dingo control (either shooting or poisoning) is a widespread practice among pastoralists, and this is one of the reasons why scientific research into their behaviour and ecology is so important.

The team here are working with dingoes to investigate their role in the ecosystem; how they interact with the native wildlife, feral cats (which have devastated small mammal populations since Europeans brought them over) and also cattle; and many other questions about how they behave.

Much of the research involves data gained from dingoes with coloured ear-tags either being seen incidentally by ecologists and tourists on the sanctuary (which is the size of a small country) or walking through motion-sensitive remote cameras. Some dingoes also wear radio-collars with GPS recorders. These animals are tracked down by helicopter, and once the researchers are within range, they can download the GPS data remotely without even setting eyes on the animal. Such data are used to monitor where the individuals are moving, and how they use their environment.

What I’ve been involved with is tagging the dingoes, alongside the normal small animal trapping (which runs between about 5.30am and 6pm, but sleep can wait till I’m home). Due to the lease arrangements with the government, part of the sanctuary here is also run as a cattle station, and having limited value on the market, some of the cattle are put to use for science. A cow carcass is left for a couple of days to allow the dingoes to get used to it as a “free” meal, and then leg-hold traps are placed in strategic positions around it – they seem to like the belly and anus as key access points.

These traps are well padded to minimise injury (they might receive a small bruise), and work when the dingo steps on the treadle, shutting the trap around it. So that the animal then doesn’t spend long in the trap, electronic trap-checkers then send an alert via radio, letting us know the trap has been sprung. Traps are only set at night (as while dingoes do forage in the day, the carcass is otherwise covered in crows, kites and eagles), and the ecologists go out at any time of the night to reach the animal quickly (one night the alarm went off at 8.30pm, 10.30pm, 1am and 4am).

On arrival the first thing to do is to restrain the dingo, which means it doesn’t have to be anaesthetised. This is done with a padded “shield” which holds it on the ground, and then the trap is taken off. The first attempt at restraining went well – although her ears were flat, eyes white, hackles raised and teeth well on show, raising innate feelings of facing off with a wolf – and the tags were on in no time.

It had actually taken two weeks for me to see a dingo in a trap – this second week was an area of the sanctuary which hadn’t been trapped before, and the dingoes weren’t wise to the methods. The first week, near the main homestead, the remote cameras we set show the dingoes sniffing round where the traps were buried – sensing our human smell, and then avoiding these areas while they tucked into our cow. That didn’t mean I got much more sleep though, as the radio trap-checkers are so sensitive that they send the alarm when anything walks across the wire connecting the trap to the radio. Still, at least we knew they were well-fed.

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