I had a surprise sighting on the long drive down from Mt. Kaputar National Park. The road tunnels through a forest of white-trunked Eucalyptus trees. Just where it starts opening onto patchy meadows, a dog broke from the underbrush and trotted across the road in front of me.
It was built like a medium husky but with bright golden-red fur. I knew instantly this was no ordinary dog. It was a dingo—the wild dog found only in Australia.
I stopped the car and kept the engine running (to avoid the sudden silence that often spooks wildlife), while the dingo slowed to a saunter about 40 yards into the meadow. Where, to my amazement, it turned sidelong and stared at the car.
I grabbed my camera from the passenger seat, wondering why some of us are compelled to make a “media event” out of everything. For whatever reason, I wasn’t content just to watch…and if the recorder hadn’t been in the car’s trunk I probably would’ve tried to catch the sound of its footsteps.
Instead of sprinting for cover as I expected, the dingo stood for a long minute without a twitch, staring intensely at the car while I snapped a few pictures through the windshield.
“Dingo!” I whispered. Even the name is purely and quintessentially Australian. But dingoes are latecomers here. Biologists figure they arrived roughly 4,000 years ago with fisherman-traders from Indonesia. Aboriginal people adopted them as hunting dogs and wrapped up with them beside waning fires on “Three Dog Nights” in the desert winter.
Dingoes also went wild and spread throughout Australia. They live in loose packs of several to a dozen and collaborate on hunts for large prey like kangaroos. But they often prowl alone for birds, lizards, or small mammals.
When Europeans settled Australia they tried to wipe out the dingo, just as they did for wolves in North America. They even built the longest fence in the world to keep dingoes out of eastern Australia…but it was a total failure.
When I drove past the Dingo Fence in the desert country a few years ago, somebody had shot or poisoned two dingoes and hung their desiccated carcasses from the top wire—as if to say: “These two won’t kill any more lambs!”
Like the coyote, dingoes are clever and adaptable, and they remain common in much of Australia. But today they’re threatened by a strange kind of extinction.
Look closely at the Mt. Kaputar dingo. It should have perked-up ears like a wolf and its body should be lean like a red fox. Like most dingoes today, this one has some domesticated dog in its pedigree, even though it remains as red as the central desert sand. The only other dingo I’ve seen had a reddish-gray coat with black markings—obviously a crossbreed.
Facing the possibility that it could vanish by hybridization, Australia is now trying to protect the few pure dingo populations that still exist.
It’s a different story from those of the wolf and coyote in North America, but there’s something almost eerily familiar about the love-hate relationship between Australians and the dingo.