THE FIRST SAFETY message Brett,[i] one of our tour guides, delivered was about wearing seatbelts. The second was about dingoes. ‘If you see a dingo, do not crouch down. Remain upright. Take only photos, walk back to the group. They are native here on Fraser Island and they are dangerous.’
The all-terrain bus climbed up the hill from the Kingfisher Bay Resort on a sealed road and careered down the track on the other side. Sitting at the front, I was alert – half thrilled, half apprehensive – to the way Brett manoeuvred the vehicle down the hill so wildly; the engine was excited too, whirring with what sounded to me like high revs. Perhaps tourists are foolish to trust the expertise of their guides. Or perhaps that is one of the appeals of being a tourist – childlike relinquishing of decision-making, curtailment of agency, simple trust in someone else’s authority.
I was trying to be a credulous tourist. I wanted to be innocent, to see the island with fresh eyes. But I was already in too deep. I had been researching dingoes for a few years and I was writing about relationships between dingoes and people for a doctorate of creative arts. Six months before, on my first research trip to the Cooloola Coast, I had attended a public forum organised by Save Fraser Island Dingoes in Hervey Bay, and had interviewed Jennifer Parkhurst, a photographer and dingo researcher. Parkhurst spent six years observing dingoes on Fraser Island, known to its Butchulla custodians as K’gari, before she was prosecuted by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) for interfering with a natural resource and for feeding dingoes. Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS), the organisation that manages most of K’gari, is part of DERM (that latter now being called the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection). Before her prosecution Parkhurst had been critical of how QPWS was managing dingoes there.
The Queensland government’s heavy-handed treatment of Parkhurst intrigued and scared me. She claimed that she fed a pack of dingoes because they were going to die of starvation; she was on the dingoes’ side. In a leap that seemed entirely logical to me, I construed the actions of DERM and QPWS against Parkhurst as yet another form of state violence against dingoes. Observing from New South Wales, the Queensland government’s treatment of Parkhurst also seemed to be a continuation of the authoritarian and unrestrained use of power that made the state notorious when Joh Bjelke-Petersen was premier and police corruption was rife.
I HAD BOOKED this tour more than six months ago as a way of getting to the island because K’gari is not an accessible place for someone who doesn’t drive a four-wheel drive. I wanted to be as dispassionate as I could, to see the situation from different perspectives. I also just wanted to talk about dingoes. I thought of the tour as research; I had no idea what an amazing sensory experience it would be.
Our bus ploughed along the soft sand track that in some places, under the wheels of the seventy-thousand-plus vehicles that Brett said visited K’gari every year, had been etched a couple of metres below the level of the surrounding bush. He related the geological history of the island: over millennia each beautiful elliptical grain of sand that makes up K’gari was brought in on the wind from the south or rolled in on southerly swells and was then overlaid with bush. Different sand dunes host different flora: drier sand under wallum scrub and damper sand under rainforest. He told us about K’gari’s timber and where it was used: karri for ship’s masts; hoop and slash pine for house frames; satinay for building the Suez Canal in the 1920s and for rebuilding the docks of London after 1945.
I can’t remember the native species he talked about, apart from the last: dingoes that, he said, came to Australia with Asian seafarers as food. The food theme continued when, explicitly refusing to assign causation, Brett said he’d tell us two things about dingo attacks on the island. The last dump on Fraser Island was closed in December 1993. The first reported dingo attack occurred in January 1994. The dump at Uluru, he said, was closed two months before Azaria Chamberlain was taken. I haven’t checked these assertions. What I take from them is that the relationship of dingoes with food, especially humans’ food, is important and can lead to bad consequences.
Public education about K’gari’s dingoes highlights the sensitive issue of food. The dingo information sign near the boat ramp at River Heads, embarkation point for the barge that took our tour group to the island, warned that ‘Feeding dingoes is dangerous – for you and for them’ and ‘Encouraging dingoes to approach you increases your chances of injury’. It showed a photograph and a drawing of a dingo with its lower teeth bared, and a photograph of a dingo tugging at a plastic bag near an overturned esky at a campsite.
These pictures illustrate the foundational premise of the current Fraser Island Dingo Management Strategy (FIDMS): if people provide food to dingoes, those dingoes become ‘habituated’, which means they lose what the authorities call ‘their natural fear of humans’.[ii] In this view, these ‘habituated’ dingoes are more likely to attack people. There is no published empirical evidence to verify this premise, and many critics of the FIDMS dispute it, but QPWS staff who implement the FIDMS and the guides and rangers who work for various private tour operators on K’gari adhere to it. FIDMS public education claims that feeding dingoes increases people’s chance of injury, and, in a catch 22 for dingoes, that it is also dangerous for dingoes because QPWS staff kill dingoes that are too interested in humans. Between 2001 and 2013, one hundred and ten dingoes were killed by QPWS because they showed behaviour ‘deemed to be unacceptable to human safety’. The majority – seventy-five of them – were young, under two years of age.[iii] Based on these destruction numbers and depending on which population figures one uses, I calculate an average of 7–10 per cent of K’gari’s dingoes are killed each year by QPWS.[iv]
THE PUBLIC IS enlisted to collect data about such dingoes. The sign at River Heads asked for the kind of help that might be construed as citizen science by an unsuspecting visitor: ‘Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service is continually monitoring Fraser’s dingo population. Please help this process by reporting any negative encounters with dingoes to rangers. Take note of the features of any threatening animal to aid in completing a Dingo Incident Report Form.’ To facilitate citizen reporting, there was a drawing of a dingo with identifying features marked: ‘Body condition: ribs and hips well covered or obvious’, ‘Ears: erect or drooping’, ‘Eartags: what colour, which ear’, ‘Injuries: scars, ragged or torn ears’, ‘Tail: limp, kinked, part tail missing’, ‘Tail tip: white or ginger’, ‘White feet and socks: extent above paws’.
Beside the sign’s final message – ‘Never encourage or excite dingoes. They can become aggressive and attack you. Dingoes that become a serious threat to people must be humanely destroyed. Please let them grow wild’ – was a picture of a dingo pup sitting, big ears pricked, looking pensively, attentively at the viewer with dark triangular eyes as though it was the most natural thing in the world for a dingo to be interested in a person.
‘Wild’ in this context means afraid of people. Under the FIDMS thinking, aggression ‘will rarely occur with wild animals that retain their natural wariness and distance from people’.[v] It’s no new thing for humans to decide how animals should be and to select for that behaviour; killing dingoes deemed to be aggressive is a form of domestication.[vi] It’s so confusing, domesticating animals to make them ‘wild’. Critics of the current management strategy worry that the elusive ‘wild’ dingoes the authorities want on K’gari may not exist at all and that there are not enough dingoes on the island to sustain a viable population, let alone withstand the regular killing of ‘habituated’ dingoes (that are not ‘wild’ but may be ‘aggressive’).
More fundamentally, there is ample documentary evidence showing that not all dingoes are or ever have been wild, if that means living independently of humans. No one knows for sure how dingoes reached Australia but relationships between tame dingoes and Aboriginal Australians have been recorded across the continent since European settlement began in 1788 and on K’gari since 1836. Archaeological evidence shows that close relationships between dingoes and humans go back for millennia. Like many Aboriginal people, K’gari’s traditional custodians the Butchulla have a word for camp dingoes – wadja – and a word for wild, rogue or wandering dingoes – wongari.
Maybe they were all wild dingoes at Lake McKenzie the day our tour group visited because we didn’t see any. The picnic area between the car park and the lake was fenced. A sign informed us that it was an offence under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 to prepare or consume food outside the fenced picnic area. Food was prohibited on the lake’s shore.
After my swim I sat in the shallow water on the shore with my knees raised and exfoliated my feet with the lake’s fine white sand. Little brown fish, shaped like leaves, swam toward me and hung around my legs and feet. They glided under my calves and rested in the shade of my legs. One moved over my foot so closely I could feel the gentle displacement of the water. They steered with their tails, oriented their heads towards me and I could see their bulgy eyes. It felt almost like affection, interest definitely. They were so unguarded they were tame. Were they young? Would you call them habituated?
When I asked our tour guides about them they explained that they were guppies (western carp gudgeon: Hypseleotris klunzingeri) that feed on dead skin cells. What kind of benign wilderness is this, where animals are so unthreatened they approach humans? Nothing could be more unlike horrific stories of predation than this experience of being eaten by an animal. Guppies can make their unobtrusive approach to a human unnoticed. But dingoes are different.
AT CENTRAL STATION, formerly a centre for logging operations, was a ‘Dingo-Aware! storage locker’, a metal cage built on a wooden platform about one metre off the ground. In bold type, visitors were exhorted to lock up ‘all iceboxes, items containing food, items that smell like food’. The helpful list of things that people might forget to lock up – ‘small plastic food containers, bottles of oil and sauce, butter, wine casks’ – read like an exotic wish list for an imaginary dingoes’ picnic.
I didn’t count the number of people on our tour – maybe about thirty. Most of them were from overseas – English, Swiss, French. Our group, along with several others, ate lunch in the dining room at the Eurong Beach Resort. Eurong is a hub for the biggest industry on the island – accommodation and food services – and facilities there include a bakery, a general store, a petrol station, a pub and a bottle shop. There are other human settlements on K’gari – Kingfisher Bay Resort on the west coast, and Happy Valley and Orchid Beach further north on the east coast – but Eurong is the most populous, home to seventy-eight of the island’s one hundred and ninety-four permanent residents, according to census figures from 2006 and 2011. Coincidentally, according to a 2015 study, the estimated number of dingoes on the island – between seventy-six and a hundred and seventy-one[vii] – is similar to the number of human residents. It is probably no coincidence that Eurong is also an important dingo population centre.
Parkhurst had told me about the Eurong dingoes: before Eurong and the neighboring settlement of Second Valley were enclosed by a fence designed to keep dingoes away from human habitations in 2009, dingoes and people used to live in close proximity. It was not hard to imagine dingoes lying in the shade on wooden verandas and resting in the cool under dwellings, lounging by the resort pool and lazily dipping a white-tipped paw in the water. According to Parkhurst, the residents ‘knew all of the different generations of dingoes. There was a huge cohesive pack… It had about fifteen and it was multigenerational. I think it was five generations in this pack.’[viii]
I had also read how, year after year, members of the Eurong pack have been killed by QPWS staff. One to four Eurong dingoes were killed every year between 2001 and 2013, bar 2005 and 2012 when none were killed.[ix] Of the seventy-six dingoes killed by QPWS between January 2002 and October 2012, twenty-four of them were killed around Eurong and Dilli village, eleven kilometres south.[x]
I met one of these doomed juveniles when I visited the east coast of the island with Parkhurst the day after our interview. In May 2015 the dingo was about ten months old – lanky, lively and utterly himself. From our vehicle, Parkhurst and I spotted him and his brother jaunting down the beach. We watched him follow a man collecting pippies on the sand, then wait by his vehicle. We nicknamed him Bold. We drove at a distance behind the young dingoes, and saw them cross Gerowweea Creek, play with each other, inspect the sea foam in the damp sand below the high water line and trot off inland into the scrub near the Govi camping zone.
I was photographing their footprints in the sand about ten metres away from our vehicle when Bold and his brother came back over the dune from the bush. From downwind, Bold approached me. Hot blood pumped around my body. I stood still. He had a multicoloured tag in his ear – though I couldn’t have said what the colours were – and a scrawny rump. He looked up at me. Almost imperceptibly he flinched back and I knew I was okay: he was as nervous as I was, and I could scare him off if I needed to. But I stayed still and tried to communicate with him gently and firmly with my eyes that I had nothing to give him but my curiosity. As I remember it, he walked around behind me and sniffed my shoe without touching me before he walked away of his own accord.
There are many reasons why I didn’t take a photo of Bold’s face, so close, inquiring, during our meeting. I didn’t want to excite him so I didn’t move my hands to raise my phone with its camera to my face. I didn’t want to bring attention to an item he might have been interested in – because dingoes are often interested in the things people are interested in. I didn’t want to put a contraption between his eyes and my eyes. And maybe I was too scared to move.
I don’t remember taking two photos of him as he was walking away, but I must have because I have them now, the last with his nose low to the tyre track of a vehicle. The photos Parkhurst took, with their digitally embedded, second-by-second information, are the record of our less-than-two-minute interaction. They show how Bold trotted up to me and extended a paw slightly – the moment I remember his flinching – before he walked clockwise behind me to my left side where he looked up at my face and extended his nose forward toward my shoe. Then he came anticlockwise back around to look up at my face again. In Parkhurst’s photograph he is horizontal, looking up at me; I am almost vertical, leaning slightly toward him. I have straightened up, averted my gaze by the time he did what might have been the beginning of a play bow, a last split-second attempt to get me to do something interesting. Luckily I was boring, and he walked away from me toward Parkhurst with his tail in the air before he circled around to head away from both of us, toward the south. I was grateful to his brother, who had lain low and stayed out of sight somewhere on the dune during our meeting.
The many dingo-incident or interaction reports that Bold accrued over the next three months provide many funny anecdotes about his antics and life on the island.[xi] But they are also confounding and shocking. The language used to describe his behaviour – acknowledged by both independent dingo experts and QPWS rangers to be normal juvenile dingo behaviour[xii] – consigns dingoes like Bold, that are sociable and curious, to some kind of human criminal underclass. If dingoes find themselves in places frequented by humans, which is not hard when the camping zones and tourist attractions in their territories fill up with people at Christmas and Easter, they are ‘loitering’. If dingoes are interested in human food, they are ‘soliciting’. If dingoes make away with anything from a human camping zone, they are ‘stealing’. And no matter what humans do to dingoes – approach them, lure them, feed them, hit them, throw things at them, drive at them (all actions recorded in the incident reports) – dingoes are culpable. If a human gives a dingo a steak, the dingo receives an incident report.
If a dingo receives a lot of incident reports it is, according to this system, a ‘high risk’ dingo. Bold was a problem because QPWS rangers perceived that his behavior testing the boundaries between people and dingoes was escalating. But his real problem was that in 2001, a nine-year-old boy named Clinton Gage was mauled to death by two dingoes on K’gari. No one wants another human fatality and, as far as I could tell, people who worked on the island genuinely believed that killing some dingoes made people safe. This belief that humans have a right to safety wherever they are has become non-negotiable. It is part of a world view that, as legal scholar Ugo Mattei puts it, ‘demand[s] that nature submit to human laws’.[xiii]
AFTER LUNCH AT Eurong we drove north along the eastern beach. An English woman joined me on the seat behind the driver. She wanted to talk. She wanted to know how much I’d paid for this tour. She wanted to know what sights to see around Sydney. She wanted her money’s worth out of life. As the bus rose and fell over the undulations on the beach I scribbled illegible words in my notebook.
Other buses and four-wheel drives zoomed along the beach too. It is gazetted as a road, our guides told us. Rules of the road apply. There is a speed limit, the wearing of seatbelts is compulsory and, of course, drink-driving is prohibited. We saw a police vehicle. A few months before, Bold was the suspected ‘thief’ of a bag of breathalyser tubes. Rangers saw him nearby after an unidentified dingo had run into the dunes with a bag that contained rubbish, including breath-test tubes and two empty tuna cans, which had been sitting on the ground near the police vehicle while they were conducting random breath tests. The bag was never found.
Our itinerary – how far north we could drive up the beach at what time – and the itineraries of all the other tour buses were dictated by the tides. We all stopped at the Maheno for the same fifteen minutes, but that did not diminish the wreck’s rusting fascination. An eagle soared over Indian Head as we climbed it, and one of our guides, Grant, pointed out five sharks in the green-blue water below. They looked small from that height but they weren’t, Grant said.
It was sunset by the time we reached Champagne Pools, named for the effervescence the waves create as they break over the rocks into the pools. By 5.45 pm we were driving back south at eighty kilometres per hour through the immense horizontal tunnel of the eastern beach: breakers on our left; the dune, which my eyes scoured ineffectually for dingoes, on our right; wet sand in front reflecting a wide sky action-packed with clouds. As we travelled, the expanse of beach we were heading into disappeared into the mist of dusk. I didn’t see a dingo. I was thinking about Bold and his brother.
Near Eurong, a Swiss tourist at the back of the bus said, ‘Dingo!’ A pup was on the beach. I saw her mother climb the dune. The tour guides knew her; I’d heard about her and read about her in interaction reports. As the matriarch of the Eurong pack, she was Bold’s mother too. Usually, just one pair of dingoes in a pack, often called the alpha male and the alpha female, breed. A pack might consist of the breeding pair, the current year’s pups and any surviving offspring from previous years that have not died or gone to find their own territory. These uncles and aunties help to raise the new pups, looking after them when their parents are out hunting and teaching them how to hunt for themselves.
Brett swung the bus around and opened the door so we could see the dingo lying down on the dune taking in the evening breeze. We all stayed on the bus and people took turns to come down the front in twos and threes to photograph her. I knew I had to give other people a turn by the door, but I was mesmerised. Her head rested on her white paws and she gazed serenely out to sea with bewitching dark-rimmed eyes. She looked confident and content. Her pinkish-coloured eartag was bright in the fading light. Bold was one of her first litter, born in 2014 when she was only a year old, young for a female dingo to breed.
Not far away her dark, gangly daughter sat on the dune and watched us. She was one of the 2015 pups, about four months old. Unlike domestic dogs, dingoes breed only once a year, in winter. She came down and stood on the sand, her long front legs slightly splayed. I don’t think she knew how vulnerable she was, how controversial it was for her to be standing on the beach between her mother and the bus, how her behaviour would be noticed.
We saw another pup on the beach before we drove over the cattle grid into Eurong. A tourist commented on how skinny the dingoes looked and Grant reassured us that dingoes are naturally lean.
My room that night was on the ground floor in the two-storey besser-block ‘Tradewinds’ wing of the Eurong Beach Resort, a few hundred metres away from the two-storey weatherboard Eurong Beach Bar on the other side of the village. On the western side of the bar was a covered drinking area, and on the eastern beach side a swimming pool. East of the swimming pool, a track called the Esplanade led to Second Valley. From the cropped emerald lawn around the bar grew coconut palms, Norfolk Island pines, pandanus, banksia and acacia. The dingo deterrent fence ran in a swampy dip east of the Esplanade, before the dune that fronted the beach rose up.
The fence around Eurong and Second Valley did not deter Bold. In early July, two children at the QPWS accommodation at Eurong saw him crawl under the vehicle gate to get inside the fenced area. Interaction reports record him being inside the fence three times in July and August. The evening before the third 2015 State of Origin match, a dingo suspected of being Bold turned up to a barbecue in Second Valley and wandered off without showing aggression, visited the Eurong bakery, walked behind the resort pool and entered a ground-floor room at the resort before being enticed out by its occupant, a tag-along tour leader who, on the report, said he could not remember who he worked for or how he got the dingo out of his room.
The next day two dingoes were spotted inside the fence. Bold was suspected of approaching people at the Eurong pool and at Second Valley. I could imagine him trotting up and down the Esplanade between Eurong and Second Valley, not wanting to get his paws wet and risk snake bite in the swampy bush outside the fence, visiting the places people were, interested in what they were interested in.
On 8 July, while Queensland trounced New South Wales 52-6 in the third State of Origin rugby league game, a dingo, suspected to be Bold, was hanging around the Eurong Beach Bar. Interaction reports record that he followed four separate parties from the bar that night. The first person headed out of the bar to the resort reception area, and clapped loudly and yelled at Bold, who stayed about two metres away and started propping and jumping from side to side. When a ranger approached and started walking to the front of the resort, Bold followed, but he would not be lured through an open gate. Next, the ranger headed west and Bold followed him at a distance of five metres for two hundred metres before he lost interest and went back towards to bar. He was then chased into the bush, but he reappeared and followed another person closely, within one metre, again propping and jumping backward and from side to side before once again losing interest and wandering off. Later he followed a group of four young people, only half a metre away from them, to their accommodation in the Tradewinds wing. He moved from side to side of another group of four adults as they made their way to Tradewinds from the bar. Each time he left after they went into their room.
THE EURONG PACK were up early the next morning: some of our tour party, who had been up at 4 am to see the sunrise on the beach, saw five dingoes – they didn’t know if they were pups or adults – walking from south to north as they returned to the resort. Ours was the first vehicle to park at the entrance to the Lake Wabby walking track. This stretch of beach was as nondescript as the rest of the long eastern beach but it was called a car park in the incident report that described what happened there for ten minutes around 8.15 am on 20 June 2015 when Bold approached two QPWS rangers who were going to clean the toilets, dropped on his paws, crouched, sprang up and made short yaps and other noises but did not growl or snarl. The rangers labelled this behaviour as ‘dominance testing’. When he opened his mouth and moved within half a metre of one of their legs they were concerned he would nip. He approached two tour groups and another vehicle before two more QPWS rangers arrived. When one of these rangers drove him away from the car park area by walking towards him with a shovel above his head, Bold ran backwards and forwards in front of the ranger. Then, with no regard for the fact that the beach has been gazetted as a road, he lay down and rolled close to the water in the ‘traffic zone’ before trotting off southwards. On the interaction report detailing the morning’s events were three checked boxes – ‘dominant/submissive testing’, ‘dominant toward humans’ and ‘hunting tactics (with intent to test a response)’ – in the Code D section, the second most serious behaviour classification.
He did this sort of thing numerous times, always leaving – as he had walked away from me – of his own accord. Typically, and optimistically to my mind, he left one group of humans to go and investigate another – not because someone had thrown sand and pumice at him, driven at him with a vehicle, waved a baseball bat at him, thrown bits of wood at him, chased him with a frying pan, squirted liquid detergent at him or gone at him with sticks and poly pipe and shovels. All these actions against Bold were described in the interaction reports – and under the FIDMS they were perfectly acceptable, appropriate responses.
Yet he did not bite a person until 23 July, after a radio-tracking collar had been fitted around his neck, when he surprised a woman on the beach who was photographing her partner driving their four-wheel-drive across a creek. She ran and he nipped her. When she stopped running he stopped. She walked to her vehicle, photographed Bold, rang QPWS from the Hook Point barge landing point on the southern tip of the island, and gave photos of the bite wounds, which did not require medical assistance, and Bold to QPWS rangers at Rainbow Beach on the mainland. Bold continued to procure food from camping zones and rip tents. Dangerous dingo signs were erected in the places he visited. His curiosity about people frightened them.
I DIDN’T PAY much attention to the parking area for the Lake Wabby walking track, or to the toilets – our guides specifically didn’t recommend them. As we took the heart-thumping walk over the dune to Lake Wabby I was talking with Brett, our tour guide, about dingoes. He, like others, thought that habituated dingoes had to be killed but he expressed doubt about how many dingoes were left on the island, how long they would be there. I gleaned small subversive messages from possibly insignificant signs: when Brett told us the Butchulla word for dingo he used wadja, the word for camp or tame dingo. Was this choice of words a subtle critique of the FIDMS philosophy that they must all be wild dingoes, wongari, now? Or was it the only word he knew?
Further north, at the end of the boardwalk at Eli Creek, I stood under the green foliage watching the clear, thigh-deep water flow underneath me. A man arrived with a tripod and I moved to allow him to put it down. Immediately I regretted moving because, I thought, I had as much right to be there as he did. He set up to film a magnificent spider on its web. Down on the boardwalk a Kingfisher Bay Resort ranger tried to catch a fly to put on the web so they could film the spider doing its thing. The filmmakers – a cameraman and a director – were from New York; they were making a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel.
I went back to our tour bus, parked on the beach in a neat row with other tour buses and four-wheel drives, to put on my swimming costume and pick up an inner tube so I could float down the creek. The filmmakers and the ranger were still working near the boardwalk. I asked the ranger, who looked familiar, how long he had worked at Kingfisher Bay. It didn’t take long to establish that he was Matthew, a friend of an old flatmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen since she was working on the island seventeen years before. I was happy to hear about my old friend and about this serendipitous encounter in such an out-of-the-way place.
We chatted and the cameraman talked about how he listened to Bob Dylan while he checked and catalogued the day’s footage each evening. I wish I could remember which song he mentioned. Matthew was a Dylan fan too and demonstrated his knowledge by naming the album that particular song came from. Maybe he said it was from Desire, then he corrected himself, actually it was Blood on the Tracks. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I’m not sure, but it seemed important then.
I floated down the creek on my inner tube, trailed my hands in the water and watched the bank glide past. When I put my head back my hair swirled around in the water and I could see the clouds and the sky framed by the tops of the trees. The slow motion of the creek and the view of the foliage and branches passing silently above me were deliriously gorgeous. No wonder Ophelia chose the river over rotten old Elsinore.
Out on the beach, Matthew gave me the telephone number of our friend. He was interested in my interest in dingoes. Like everyone I’d spoken to who worked on the island, he said that habituation made dingoes dangerous. But QPWS needed to publish the evidence to prove this assertion, I said. The evidence that habituated dingoes were aggressive, he said, lay in twenty years of experience. When I asked him whether humans’ treating dingoes aggressively might make them more aggressive he said, like others had, that dingoes were cowards. It was too windy on the beach for the filmmakers’ drone. I asked Matthew and the filmmakers to play a Bob Dylan song for the dingoes. Wanting to demonstrate that I knew some Bob Dylan songs too, I suggested ‘Idiot Wind’. It was an angry song with teeth in it. ‘Or “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”?’ I said, thinking of Bold’s mother.
But now it is ‘Brownsville Girl’ – an eleven-minute epic with gospel backing vocals, Tex-Mex horns as jangly as a dingo’s gait and a story delivered in a voice with trust issues and perfect timing – that puts me in mind of Bold. There are lots of characters in this song – outlaws, a movie, a road trip, an old love affair, scorching sun, a crime, an alibi, and teeth as pearly as a young dingo’s. There’s a line, ‘Ah, you know some babies never learn’ that applies to the people who try to manage Bold as much as it applies to Bold.
Dingoes pay the price for having been ‘habituated’ by tourists and members of the public, but the island’s managers largely ignore how impossible it is for dingoes to avoid people in their territories and QPWS’s own role in the habituation process. QPWS rangers trap, sedate and handle dingoes to tag them when they are young, and Bold was sedated and handled again to be fitted with his tracking collar after he had gained a reputation for being a problem dingo. He received his first incident report for sniffing the head of a ranger who was sleeping in a swag at Cornwells camping zone. Cornwells is not a camping ground as urban people might picture a camping ground but a series of sandy patches shaded by casuarinas strung along the dune behind the beach in the Eurong pack’s territory.
Like the narrator of ‘Brownsville Girl’, I’m sure that sometimes Bold didn’t mean to trespass, he just found himself over the line. His penultimate interaction report records how he stood at the screen door on the deck of one of QPWS’s residences looking in at the people as they were finishing dinner. He moved away when one of them stood up. I imagine him there, wraithlike, asserting silently, in his dingo way, his relationship with these humans.
For the next twelve days he no doubt continued his independent life – traversing his territory and spending time at the family den with his parents, brother and the 2015 pups – until, early one morning in mid August, for no recorded reason, he nipped a tourist on the beach near Eurong, leaving two scratch marks on his skin. Without seeing or interviewing the man who was nipped, QPWS rangers killed Bold, probably with an injection of the sedative Valabarb to the heart, later that day.
AFTER THE TOUR, just after take-off on the flight home to Sydney from Hervey Bay, I looked down at the estuaries, waterways, mangroves, sandbars and islands below me, unable to distinguish mainland from island, land from water. The Mary and Susan rivers mingled and flowed out into the straits between the Cooloola Coast and K’gari, making swirling patterns of turquoise, dark green and bright pale yellow. The colours were warmer than the cool ultramarine tones of my own New South Wales coast. K’gari herself was a spirit who, according to the Butchulla, wished to stay in this part of the world so her boss, the creator spirit, turned her into an island. All this beauty is part of a place called Queensland.
The authority that tries to control this femininely named country is macho. It reacts to crises and finds no resources for much-needed independent, non-invasive research into K’gari’s dingoes and the multifarious factors that come into play when humans and dingoes interact. In its support of ‘unsustainable extractive capitalism’[xiv] it allows dingoes no space.
Close co-operation of private interests and government is not unique to Queensland. Lack of accurate, impartial knowledge about dingoes is not unique to Queensland. Persecution of dingoes is not unique to Queensland. But laws about dingoes in Queensland are particularly stringent: over most of the state they are classified as Class 2 pests and land managers are obliged to eradicate them; people are not allowed to keep them, which means very few people can know dingoes independently of official government information. Even in a national park such as K’gari, where dingoes are meant to be protected, they are not safe. They are killed legally under the FIDMS, and illegally. Whatever efforts authorities have made to find the perpetrators, no one has been prosecuted for running down and killing one of the 2015 Eurong pups on 25 March 2016 or for deliberately poisoning six dingoes at Orchid Beach in June 2016.
As Tony Fitzgerald, chair of the Commission of Inquiry into Official Corruption in Queensland (1987–89) and chair of the Commission of Inquiry into the Conservation, Management and Use of Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Region (1990–91), explained in 2014: ‘Queensland is extremely vulnerable to the misuse and abuse of power… There are almost no constitutional limits on the power of the state’s single house of parliament. Unless there is an effective parliamentary opposition to advocate alternative policies, criticise government errors, denounce excesses of power and reflect, inform and influence public opinion, the checks and balances needed for democracy are entirely missing.’[xv]
Killing Bold did not make the four hundred thousand tourists who visit K’gari every year safe. People hurt themselves diving into lakes and rolling their four-wheel drives. Killing dingoes does not result in a decline in the number of serious incidents reported.[xvi] By destabilising dingo social structures and creating trauma, killing may even exacerbate conflict and aggression.[xvii] On 3 April 2016, not long after her brother had been killed by a vehicle, QPWS staff killed another 2015 Eurong pup, perhaps the one that had stood between her mother and our tour bus, her hips sticking out of her hide like crescent moons, an oversized head on her skinny body, her puppy muzzle dark and powerful, and her big eyes inquisitive and trusting.
Many thanks to Debra Adelaide, Paul Schwarzl and Arian Wallach for reading a draft of this essay, and to the University of Technology Sydney and the Australian Government Research Training Program for supporting this research.
[i] Names of guides and private operator rangers have been changed.
[ii] Ecosure. 2013, Fraser Island dingo conservation and risk management strategy, Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, no place.
[iii] Allen, B.L., Higginbottom, K., Bracks, J.H. Davies, N., Baxter, GS. 2015, ‘Balancing dingo conservation with human safety on Fraser Island: the numerical and demographic effects of humane destruction of dingoes’, Australian journal of environmental management. doi.org/10.1080/14486563.2014.999134.
[iv] Figures taken from Allen et al. 2015.
[v] Ecosure. 2012, Fraser Island dingo management strategy review, Report to Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Ecosure, West Burleigh QLD, p. 78.
[vi] Allen et al. 2015, p. 14.
[vii] Allen et al. 2015.
[viii] Parkhurst, J. 2015, Interview with Rowena Lennox, Rainbow Beach, 18 May.
[ix] Allen et al. 2015, pp. 14, 15.
[x] Ecosure 2012, p. 84.
[xi] Right to Information (RTI) data from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) obtained by Save Fraser Island Dingoes (SFID).
[xii] At a public meeting organised by SFID with QPWS staff in Hervey Bay on 27 November 2015 QPWS rangers showed and discussed footage of this dingo – known to QPWS as PuGY14m.
[xiii] Ugo Mattei, 2016, Forum response The New Nature, Boston Review, 11 January.
[xiv] Ugo Mattei, 2016, Forum response The New Nature, Boston Review, 11 January.
[xv] Tony Fitzgerald cited in Francis Tapim and staff, 2014 ‘Queensland corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald says Newman Government has "flaunted its disdain for democracy and good governance"’ ABC News, 30 June. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-29/tony-fitzgerald-criticises-queensland-government/5557762. Accessed 14 March 2016.
[xvi] Allen et al. 2015, p. 14; Ecosure 2012, p. 84.
Griffith Review received a response to the above essay from Colleen Enchelmaier, president of the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation, which we reproduce below. Rowena Lennox responds in her turn.
Colleen Enchelmaier writes:
I am very unhappy about the essay ‘Killing Bold’ by Rowena Lennox, in the latest, otherwise excellent Griffith Review. I find it a very sentimental, unrealistic and one-sided report on the situation. It is as if she did not read her sources, Allen et al and O’Neill et al, and certainly did not reveal the complexity of human–dingo interaction and the problems QPWS has had in order to deal with this complex problem. She offers no solutions. It is interesting that she says early in the essay that ‘I was in too deep.’ This means, I suppose, that her interaction and visit to the island with Jennifer Parkhurst and her attendance at the forum held by Save Fraser Island Dingoes had already formed her views. This seems to have been the case.
The comments about Queensland still being a police state as it was in the days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and relating that to how the law treated Jennifer Parkhurst in 2010 after she had committed forty-six offences is so inaccurate. Using a reference to Tony Fitzgerald’s comments on Campbell Newman in 2014 before Newman was so thoroughly rejected by Queenslanders is very poor argument and history. Tony Fitzgerald is a great and vigilant fighter for democracy as we all must be whatever the political party or government. New South Wales has not been pure in this regard. How this ridiculous referencing relates to why the writer felt ‘scared’, how the rangers deal with dingoes on K’gari or how Jennifer Parkhurst was treated by the law mystifies me. The essay is especially disappointing as the author purports to be a historian.
The difficult problem of dealing with human–dingo interaction is a very complex one as the references Allen et al and O’Neill et al demonstrate. There are a number of solutions that could be suggested: tourists could be banned from the island (this is not going to happen – imagine the outcry); the island could be divided in half with the top half for dingoes (this is not going to happen as it would be expensive, ineffective as it is impossible to run a fence across the beach and into the water at the eastern and western ends, very destructive to the flora and requires monitoring a very long fence inland behind Orchid Beach down across the island – imagine the outcry if people were not allowed in the northern half. It would also affect the fauna in the south with the removal of the major predator); offending dingoes could be put into the care of persons or refuges or zoos on the mainland (this would not solve the existing, as yet unknown, effects of removing dingoes from packs as O’Neill et al refer); QPWS could inform the public that it no longer takes responsibility for human–dingo interactions and that the public must take responsibility for their safety within the law (this would lead to more deaths and injuries to both humans and dingoes as people would protect themselves any way they can. Imagine the outcry); or QPWS continues with the care and protection it is giving humans and dingoes. These suggestions just illustrate how difficult the problem is. Like all dogs (see how many people are admitted to hospitals in Australia each year with dog bites – fifty a week), dingoes are inquisitive and on the search for food, but like many dogs they are also likely to bite at unexpected moments. I am sure the rangers on K’gari would love to have a simple solution to the problem, and they certainly do not support as a first priority ‘sustainable extractive capitalism which allows dingoes no space’.
It is unfair to all rangers but especially female ones to say that ‘the authority that tries to control this femininely named island is macho’. After all, the number of incidents involving Bold that were tolerated is evidence of their tolerance. Other people visiting the island have told me that this dingo was unusually interactive.
Using the story that the Butchulla tell to describe how the island was ‘femininely named is just one example of the sentimental approach of this author. So too is the inclusion of the reference to Dylan’s songs, and describing the dingo looking in the door of a residence as ‘wraithlike, asserting silently in his dingo way, his relationship with these humans’, eventhough she had been told that the dingoes on K’gari are not starving and she has no idea what the dingo was asserting. Comparing how she felt as fish nibbled her legs to whether dingoes are habituated and saying how ‘Bold’ did not want ‘to get his paws wet and risk snake bite in the swampy bush outside the fence’ as to why he was inside the fence is sentimental nonsense. Better from a historian would have been reference to the research done on dingoes on the island and elsewhere.
Why did she not ask Brett if his use of ‘wadja’ instead of ‘wongari’ had any significance instead of insinuating that the dingoes were habituated as they were when the Butchella lived with them in their camps on a permanent basis? It is unfortunate that fences have had to be built and the permanent population separated from dingoes, but unfortunately most of the humans in the villages on K’gari are tourists and do not have the opportunity that the Butchella, or maybe permanent residents, had to form relationships with the dingoes. The record of human responses to dingoes is what one would expect when fear of strange dogs is involved. Having been attacked on two separate occasions by domestic dogs while I walked on a Brisbane city footpath, I know the fear one can feel as a dog approaches. A third attack on my hand now has me immediately lift my hand to my chest when near a dog. According to new research reported in the Herald Sun on 16 July 2017 and on the ABC, in Australia, fifty people a week are admitted to hospital with dog bites. Small children are the most in danger. According to Dr Trepheena Hunter, dogs are unreliable in their behaviour. See ABC RN Drive on 1 August 2017.
We can all agree with the Ugo Mattei reference that humans have done unwarranted damage to the world’s flora and fauna. It was so visually illustrated by the late Professor Andrew Wiford of Bond University with his diagram showing that ten thousand years ago humans and their domesticated animals were 9 per cent of the world’s vertebrate fauna, 12 per cent two-hundred and fifty years ago, and 95 per cent today, but this does not solve the difficult problem of managing humans and dingoes on K’gari. Blame everyman, overpopulation of humans on the planet and in Australia, the wealth that allows people to travel to K’gari in such numbers, not QPWS and the park rangers.
This author jumps to so many unwarranted insinuations and conclusions, as for example when she refers to the closing of dumps and the Azaria Chamberlain case. She does not listen when she is told that rangers have twenty-five years of experience of observing dingoes on K’gari, and dismisses the efforts made to educate the public and keep them and the dingoes safe. She does not reveal the detail of the research on dingoes that has been done. She has been influenced far too much by one side. It is a sentimental, insinuating, unrealistic, biased investigation of the real situation and provides no solutions.
10 August 2017
Rowena Lennox replies:
I appreciate the president of FIDO’s close reading and engagement with ‘Killing Bold’ and I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond to the letter.
The writer of the letter claimed that I purported to be a historian. But I do not purport to be a historian. In the essay I say ‘I was writing about relationships between people and dingoes for a doctorate of creative arts’. My bio on the Griffith Review website mentions that my first book was awarded a NSW Premier’s History Award – that award was the judges’ decision.
I thought it was important to be open about the fact that I visited the island with Jennifer Parkhurst, though I am aware that she is a divisive figure and mentioning her would immediately put some people off side. Strongly held and seemingly intractable views are part of the story of dingo management on the island.
Another reader has commented to me how the tour guides and rangers mentioned in ‘Killing Bold’ care about dingoes, and I’m glad the essay conveys their care. However, I perceived that this care is exercised as an attempt to control dingoes and to control people’s perceptions of them.
I do not want to criticise individual rangers because I am sure many of them are between a rock and a hard place, doing the best they can to conserve dingoes and to keep people safe.
But I am shocked and deeply saddened by the commonplace killing of dingoes across Australia and I think it is important to bring this killing out into the open, especially in a national park where dingoes are meant to be protected. Part of my aim in writing about dingoes and people is to critique the so-called rationale for such killing.
I have compiled information from many sources in this essay. Data about the number of dingoes killed, how these killings relate to serious incidents and the dingo population as a whole come from scientific publications such as Allen et al., O’Neill et al. and Ecosure reports.
Public education about dingoes is taken from QPWS signage and tour guides’ public announcements.
Language used to describe dingoes as ‘loitering’, ‘soliciting’ and ‘stealing’ is taken from QPWS interaction reports.
Images that arise from my own perceptions and thoughts are signposted: ‘I could imagine him trotting up and down the Esplanade between Eurong and Second Valley, not wanting to get his paws wet and risk snake bite…’; ‘I imagine him there, wraithlike, asserting silently, in his dingo way, his relationship…’
I agree that New South Wales is not ‘pure’. Dingo management in New South Wales is not better than in Queensland (I’ve written about NSW and Victoria elsewhere, see ‘Apex predators’ Meanjin, vol. 73, no. 3, 2014, pp. 6–9). I noted that laws around dingoes in NSW are different from laws in Queensland.
I agree that I am sentimental if it is sentimental to mourn a dingo. I wanted to give that dingo his life back. I do not intend to oversimplify the complexities of managing dingoes on the island, which is one of the reasons I turned to Bob Dylan’s songs – because they express anger, sadness and confusion in a way that is not fixed, and depict complicated relationships and stories.
The situation on K’gari is complex, as the letter-writer’s suggested solutions indicate. I believe that finding solutions requires sophisticated, dispassionate and open dialogue and research. ‘Killing Bold’ is my way of calling for ‘much-needed independent, non-invasive research into K’gari’s dingoes and the multifarious factors that come into play when humans and dingoes interact’.
The essay does not offer solutions. It critiques the rationale for and effectiveness of killing dingoes on K’gari Fraser Island. My long-term aim is that humans will be able to imagine and implement a form of conservation in national parks that is not completely human-centred.
Given that the aims of this essay are to give voice to plurality and to provoke thought, it is not surprising that some people find it contentious. Thanks again for giving me the opportunity to respond. I respect the work that FIDO does, and the president’s engagement with ‘Killing Bold’.
21 August 2017
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