Review: The Dingo Debate

The Book: The Dingo Debate
Edited by: Bradley Smith

There are very few animals in the world, let alone Australia, which are as divisive as the dingo. The fact that a book describing the native carnivore’s biology and ecology refers to the ‘debate’ is evidence of as much. However, despite its title, editor Dr Bradley Smith has clearly attempted to, as much as possible, settle some of the debate around dingoes (ranging from its taxonomic description to its role in the Australian environment) and ultimately contend that the dingo is worthy of increased conservation effort.

The theme of ‘interactions’ is predominant throughout the text, be it the troubled relationships between dingoes, humans and livestock, or the potential ecosystem-scale effects of the canid’s presence in the landscape. This is, of course, the hotly contested ability of the dingo to suppress feral predators, thus reducing predation pressure on small prey species.  However, despite the complexity of the various relationships, Smith and his co-authors distill the concepts in a thorough and engaging way. For example, Chris Johnson’s description of the controversies surrounding the ecological role of dingoes is perhaps the clearest and most rational account of the debate available.

However, perhaps the most striking and informative chapters are those written by Smith himself. The dingo is often demonized in Australia as a cold-blooded killer, but Smith instead describes a species that has incredible intelligence and cunning. Complete with images, Smith details some of his groundbreaking work, demonstrating how dingoes exhibit grief at the death of a sibling, as well as their superior problem-solving ability. These experiments provide a compelling argument as to why dingoes were able to take advantage of the Australian environment and establish themselves as apex predators.

For the lay-person, The Dingo Debate also offers a fantastic insight into the intricacies of studying the animal. Damian Morrant provides an intriguing and entertaining history of dingo research, weaving in some of his own experiences and insights. All manner of methods for measuring dingo behavior and activity are discussed, from camera traps and scats to hair traps and GPS tracking, providing a great look at the considerable amount of work that goes into collecting useful data on dingoes.

Given the tensions around the conservation and management of dingoes in Australia, it’s often hard to find a balanced discussion on the carnivore. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what’s on offer here. The Dingo Debate is a fantastic summary of all the available science on dingoes, spanning evolutionary biology through to ecology. As the reader moves through the text, Smith slowly builds up the evidence for his overarching contention: that the dingo is deserving of continental scale conservation, such is its evolutionary uniqueness and ecological importance. Significantly, it is so well written that non-academics are sure to gain plenty from reading.

This book belongs on your bookshelf if…. you’re interested in the evolutionary origins of Australia’s native canid, their importance to some ecosystems, and the opportunities to conserve and coexist with them.