The infamous killings that came back to bite dingoes

Years after two children were snatched by Australia's wild dogs, the backlash has all but wiped them out

A A A

Ten years ago, and nearly two decades after the infamous Lindy Chamberlain case, a boy of nine was killed by two dingoes on an island in Queensland – grim proof that Australia's native dogs do attack children. The fatal mauling of Clinton Gage, at the popular tourist destination of Fraser Island, caused national outrage and silenced those who had scorned Ms Chamberlain's claim that a dingo had snatched her baby daughter, Azaria, as they camped out at Uluru in 1980. The Queensland government took drastic steps to protect visitors, culling dozens of animals on Fraser and fencing off resorts and camping grounds.

Now critics say the clampdown has gone too far and that Fraser Island's dingoes, accustomed to scavenging in rubbish tips, are dying of starvation. Some conservationists are even warning that the animals could go the way of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, which was hunted into oblivion in the 1930s after being blamed for livestock deaths.

Fraser, the world's biggest sand island at about 75 miles long, had a thriving population of dingoes long before tourists arrived. Like their mainland counterparts, local Aborigines valued the animals as companions, hunters and watchdogs. The island is home to one of Australia's purest remaining dingo strains, and despite Clinton Gage's death in April 2001, the wild dogs remain a major attraction. Wildlife officials are under strict instructions to limit encounters between humans and dingoes, however. Anyone caught feeding the animals faces a heavy fine, and rangers continue to destroy dogs that display aggressive behaviour. Twenty-eight were shot after the attack on Clinton, who was camping on the island with his family.

Banished from populated areas, many of Fraser's 200-plus dingoes are starving, their advocates say. They also believe the introduction of ear tagging has made the dogs less effective hunters, while the practice of "hazing" them – firing clay pellets to move them off beaches – causes injuries and stress. Ian Gunn, a veterinarian at Monash University in Melbourne, says: "When you see the condition of these animals... if I owned them, I would be prosecuted for animal cruelty. If this continues, the dingoes on the island will become extinct."

The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service insists such fears are unfounded. It also denies the dogs are short of food, saying they are naturally lean, with a high mortality rate among pups. "Dingoes are still widespread across Fraser Island, they are breeding very effectively," says Terry Harper, the wildlife service's senior director of marine parks. "As a population, they are in very good condition."

The ancestors of the dingo were introduced to Australia about 4,000 years ago by Asian seafarers. On the mainland, interbreeding with domestic and wild dogs has led to increasing hybridisation, but on Fraser the isolated population has remained genetically pure.

Recently, controversy has crystallised around Jennifer Parkhurst, a wildlife photographer who was fined A$40,000 (£24,730) and given a nine-month suspended sentence for feeding and "disturbing" dingoes. Ms Parkhurst, a founder of the Save Fraser Island Dingoes group, had spent years observing the animals. But while she has become a martyr figure, not all conservationists support her. The Fraser Island Defenders Organisation, set up in the 1970s to oppose sand mining, disputes that dingoes are under threat. It believes supplementary feeding of them would be "disastrous", triggering a population explosion and destroying the traditional pack structure. Critics of the separation of humans and dogs on Fraser – who include Bob Irwin, father of the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin – point to the dingoes' co-existence in the past with the indigenous Butchulla people. But Mr Harper says the island's 350,000 annual visitors cannot be expected to know how to interact with them safely.

Dr Gunn, vice-president of the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Programme, rejects Mr Harper's assertion that the Fraser dingo population is healthy. He believes there are only 40 to 50 breeding animals. Post-mortem tests on 90 dogs, obtained via freedom of information searches, show that most died of starvation.

In Europe and the US, says Dr Gunn, confrontations between campers and wild bears have been minimised by the establishment of feeding stations. He also suggests that problem animals could be relocated to mainland reserves. "This is a world heritage site and the authorities looking after it have a moral responsibility to protect the flora and fauna. I fail to see that that is happening."

Both sides of the debate brandish photographs showing, variously, healthy looking or emaciated dingoes. Karin Kilpatrick, secretary of Save Fraser Island Dingoes, says the removal from the island of wild horses known as "brumbies" – previously a food source for the dogs – "created a hunger situation". That, and a sharp increase in tourism, led to problems never before experienced, Ms Kilpatrick says. "Tour operators say they are seeing very few, and those that they see are lacklustre in their fur and they look depressed," she says. "Some have diarrhoea or are limping – we believe that's because they are having to travel long distances to find food."

The autopsies showed that dogs' stomachs were empty, or contained just sand or grass or plastic waste. To that, Mr Harper responds that a domestic dog's stomach would be empty an hour before its daily meal. He says the dingoes' main problem is "habituation" – growing accustomed to humans as an easy food source, and then turning dangerous.

Dr Gunn disagrees, saying starving dogs are more likely to enter populated areas. He is adamant that Fraser's dingo population is ailing. "Australia has lost more than 20 native mammal species since European settlement, and it's still continuing," he says.

The 'dingo baby' case

In 1980 Lindy and Michael Chamberlain went camping in the Australian outback. On 17 August they reported that their nine-week-old daughter, Azaria, had been snatched from their tent by a dingo, but police did not believe them.

Mrs Chamberlain was jailed for life after a seven-week trial in 1982. Her husband received a suspended sentence.

Then, in 1986, some of Azaria's clothing was found by chance near a dingo lair. A court overturned the convictions and Mrs Chamberlain was released in 1988.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event
filmBut why were Back to the Future screenings cancelled?
News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Lewis Hamilton walks back to the pit lane with his Mercedes burning in the background
Formula 1
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con
comic-con 2014
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
News
i100
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Litigation

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - SENIOR COMMERCIAL LITIGATION SO...

BI Developer - Sheffield - £35,000 ~ £40,000 DOE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Day In a Page

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride