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Working to protect cassowaries in far-north Queensland

Ingrid Marker

February 2015: a pack of roaming domesticated hunting dogs entered the Wet Tropical rainforest adjoining my property and mauled to death nine endangered cassowaries I had been observing as a citizen scientist for 28 years.

The matriarch named Avalon was a regal bird of 50 years. With four (and sometimes up to five) resident males she produces many eggs, leaving the male to raise the young. Known as the gardeners of the rainforest, their guts assist germination of many rainforest seeds that they disperse as they move around the forest. The cassowaries had survived Cyclone Larry and Yasi but were unable to fight back a pack of dogs.

I naively believed the Animal Management Act, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) laws and the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act would prevent these crimes happening again and prosecute the irresponsible dog owners. I was soon to learn the laws were ineffective.

Cassowary Keystone Conservation Inc was formed to lobby local state and federal governments creating these positive outcomes:

  • All regional Wet Tropics Councils are providing responsible dog education and awareness programs, TV, Radio, newspapers, workshops, free dog obedience training.
  • All regional Wet Tropics Councils are conducting audits of households for compliance with the Animal Management Act. This includes microchipping, registration and fencing, owning a maximum of two dogs and informing residents of the new amendment (Oscar's Law) to the Animal Management Act that we helped develop.
  • Introduced in May 2017, Oscar's Law requires all dogs in the state to be de-sexed unless you apply for a breeder's permit. This was to stop backyard breeders ‒ particularly of hunting or dangerous dogs ‒ to address the wild dog issue sweeping across Australia and to prevent the thousands of healthy puppies needing to be euthanised annually.
  • Agreements are been finalised to ensure Local Council, QPWS and the Dept. of Environment & Science (DES) communicate with each other and are able to respond when receiving an incident report of a roaming domestic dog trespassing into a Park or Protected Area or is threatening wildlife outside the Park.

Currently we are working on:

  • Regulating pig-hunting dogs to declare them a dangerous dog. This requires that they be kept in a secure self-locking fenced enclosure, muzzled in public and wear a tracking collar when hunting, and owner incurs a heavy fine and possible goal term if through negligence the dog attacks or kills. The dangerous dog label can be removed if you can produce a certificate that your dog has been socialised, temperance report and obedience trained.
  • Currently, many Councils across the state have their dog off-leash zones near estuary mouths, head-lands and mudflats where most shore and seabirds nest and feed. Currently I am working with Birdlife Australia and hope to address this threat to our endangered feathered friends, by making these areas dog free or nature conservation zones.

I hope to create greater clarity around our understanding of "wild dogs" by changing the definition to "feral dog" which includes pet dogs gone bad. Wild dog is a dingo / domesticated dog hybrid which land-holders are permitted to kill. These dogs have very different behaviours to dingos and whilst dingos many not always be pure breeds can we learn to judge them on their behaviour.

I seek to protect dingos not by their breeding but by their nature. The debate is that there are no pure dingos, however there are different behaviours that can be learnt and understood. Dingos pair for life, breed only once per year and this year's pups learn whilst helping to raise next year's pups then leave home. Dingos hunt for food, not for sport and target the old, sick, weak and young in an ecosystem.

Dogs operate on a hierarchical system of top dog, breed twice per year with every bitch on heat being fair game, chase, menace and hunt for sport ‒ often maiming many stock without killing or eating just for fun. This behaviour leaves many famers distressed, having to shoot injured stock resulting in huge net agricultural losses across Australia and a hatred for wild dogs or dingos.

Dingos are the apex predator we could be entrusting with restoring Australia's ecological balance. They are wonderful at removal of cats, foxes and rabbits.

Thank-you Friends of the Earth for all your support and training over the past two years, without which these positive outcomes would not have been possible.

Ingrid Marker is a member of Cassowary Keystone Conservation Inc.

Published in Chain Reaction #134, December 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.


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