Dingo divide bares its teeth again
THE flame-haired toddler points a tiny finger at a poster on the wall, beams and demands, "Cuddle puppy?"
She wriggles with excitement on her father's hip as his pen blazes through the pile of paperwork required to hire a four-wheel-drive for Fraser Island.
The Hervey Bay-based staffer serving him immediately halts the process. "No!" he says sternly. "NOT cuddle puppy. This is not a playful puppy."
The European family, comprising three generations travelling in two vehicles, has been given its first stern dingo safety warning before even leaving the mainland.
It's a stark message that has been amplified by tourism operators and Queensland park rangers since the third dingo attack on the island this year. The latest, involving a 14-month-old on Good Friday, captured headlines throughout the world due to its similarity to the infamous Azaria Chamberlain case of 1980.
In a harrowing ordeal, the child was snatched and dragged from a camper trailer in the dunes just north of Eurong on the island's east coast.
Hearing his fading screams, the boy's father rescued him from the jaws of the animal, which had unclipped the canvas flap of the camper.
The toddler suffered a fractured skull, puncture wounds to his neck and head, and a bite mark on his shoulder. He underwent surgery after being flown to Brisbane from Hervey Bay Hospital.
His parents say he is expected to make a full recovery. The Department of Environment and Science says attempts to find the dingo after the attack were unsuccessful due to "a lack of visibility on the night".
Fraser Island, also known by its traditional name, K'gari - pronounced "gurri" and meaning "Paradise" - has experienced at least 10 dingo attacks on humans since 2001.
However, the latest was the most alarming since the death of nine-year-old Clinton Gage in April, 2001.
It reignited debate over management of the wild animals on the World Heritage-listed island, which is visited by hundreds of thousands each year.
A polarising issue, there appears to be little middle ground between those who want the dingoes gone - destroyed or moved - and those who want people gone by way of a reduction in tourists and campers.
With few inroads being made into preventing the "habituation" of the ancient creatures, mainly due to inadvertent or deliberate feeding, stiffer penalties, increased education, and a review of camper numbers loom as the logical courses of action.
This week Insight visited the island, which was bustling with visitors taking advantage of the Easter and Anzac Day holidays.
While rangers say spotting one of the 100 to 200 dingoes on Fraser Island comes down to luck, we saw our first just a minute after driving off the barge at Wanggoolba Creek. It was a few metres off the track, where it appeared curious about the convoy before darting back into the scrub.
The following day, we witnessed a classic example of habituated behaviour.
We were on the beach at Yidney Rocks, about 23km north of Eurong, where vehicles slow to negotiate a small hill. A fearless dingo systematically approached the passenger side of each vehicle - even massive, roaring four-wheel-drives towing six-metre caravans. It sat on the track as meekly as a labrador, in an attempt to gain a handout. The dingo moved from one vehicle to the next when unsuccessful and completed the process more than a dozen times.
Tourists say rangers' warnings and media reports about the Good Friday incident have them on full alert, with parents of young children the most cautious.
Dane and Michaela Lloyd, from Ocean Grove in Victoria, tell us Dane's mother phoned to express concerns about them taking their two-year-old daughter, Zoe, to Fraser in the wake of the attack.
They say another camper took one look at little Zoe and irreverently said to them: "I see you've brought a dingo biscuit."
"We are taking the danger very seriously though," Michaela says. "We understand the main issue is people feeding the dingoes."
Environment Minister Leeanne Enoch says the continued safety of visitors to K'gari is a priority for the Palaszczuk Government.
"That is why I announced a review of the dingo risk management implementation plan, to determine if more work needs to be done to improve visitor safety, and (it's) why we boosted ranger numbers by 50 per cent over the remainder of the Easter and Anzac Day holiday period," she says.
"While the terms of reference for the review are still being developed with the Butchulla traditional owners, I anticipate the number of visitors to K'gari will be included in the review."
While expressing sympathy for the family involved, the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation says the most recent incident shows the current education campaign about wongari (dingo) safety is failing.
"We would like to remind people that our traditional homeland is a pristine wilderness that has dangerous animals that could harm your loved ones," a Butchulla statement reads.
The Butchulla are pushing for people to be more accountable for "human error or inciting interaction", the key mistakes being feeding dingoes or trying to get close for photos.
Sunshine Coast mother Tessa Kemp is among the few who have experienced the terror of an attack.
She touches the 10cm scar that runs just above her right knee as she recalls the horrifying moment she and her sister, Bay McGovern, were set upon in October 2014.
The massive gash, caused by a snarling young male dog, was one of three wounds she suffered after the pair were "corralled", lunged at and bitten.
Kemp, a pharmacist, and McGovern, a business analyst, were on their regular morning run when they came across the two dingoes about 6.30am.
The sisters, both mothers, were about 1km from their holiday unit at Yidney Rocks - a spot their family had visited for 30 years - when they slowed to a walk after the animals began watching them and growling.
Kemp says they stood tightly together and McGovern kicked the male twice in the head as it surged towards them.
"It just kept coming at us ... it was not going to give up," she says. "We were terrified."
Two men came to their rescue - one in a four-wheel-drive, the other on foot - and managed to scare the dingoes away.
Kemp was taken to Hervey Bay Hospital, where she had surgery. McGovern escaped with bruises.
The sisters understand the dingo involved was found and euthanised.
"We were very lucky," Kemp, now 39, says. "We have been back there every year since, but are much more wary.
"The dingoes are still prominent and I find myself constantly scanning for them."
With three children - Henry, 3, Oliver, 6, and Maggie, 7 - her focus has turned to keeping them safe.
Kemp says she had seen visitors trying to entice the animals closer so they could get a photo. She says she doesn't know how authorities are going to curtail the attacks, but they cannot be allowed to continue.
"Education obviously is the key, but the signage and warnings are everywhere and these incidents keep happening ... there is so much stupid behaviour," she says.
Some Queenslanders believe the dingoes should be put down or relocated.
Richard Marman, of Parrearra, says rangers and conservationists appeared to be more concerned about the animals than children.
"How many more infants need to be put at risk? Either stop tourism or remove dingoes," he says.
Mike Flanagan, of Toowoomba, says humans and dingoes don't mix.
"Round up all the dingoes and transport them to the mainland, for the safety of all. How many incidents need to happen before action is taken?"
But the conservation lobby group the National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program believes it's not the dingoes that should go, it's the people.
Co-founder Dr Ernest Healy says his organisation, which is affiliated with the Save Fraser Island Dingoes group, has grave fears for the future of the iconic animal on the island.
Healy says the Fraser situation is unique in Australia, and nowhere else has "a constant stream of negative interactions with people".
He says the only way forward is to reduce the number of visitors, restrict camping, and change the current management plan that his group believes has escalated the crisis.
"Dingoes are barely able to avoid contact with tourists ... they are forced into contact by the sheer volume of people.
"Fraser should not be treated as an eco-tourism cash cow. It should be an elite, premium destination that people who are passionate about the environment can visit.
"There also seems to be a clash of cultures on the island. You have the eco-friendly element, many from overseas, and then there's the domestic four-wheel-drive beach warriors, who are more interested in tearing around the island. Surely they don't need a World Heritage area to do that."
The call to reduce the number of visitors to the world's biggest sand island would have huge repercussions for the economy, according to business leaders.
Fraser Coast Tourism & Events general manager Martin Simons tells Insight the destination is a massive drawcard.
Simons says almost half of those who come to the region placed a Fraser trip at the top of their wishlist. He says the latest data shows that of the 902,000 annual overnight visitors to the Fraser Coast, more than 400,000 - about 44 per cent - went to the island.
"The region sees a direct (tourism) spend from overnight visitors of about $485 million a year, and you could make a strong case that Fraser would bring in more than $200 million of that.
"It is the number one reason people come here, and it's not just us. If fewer tourists were allowed on, it would also have a big impact on the Sunshine Coast and Queensland tourism as a whole.
"To put it in perspective, even at the height of the whale season, we still sell more tourists to Fraser than to whale experiences."
Simons says high-yield international visitors from European countries, including Germany, are targeted with Queensland packages headlined by a Fraser experience.
He says the World Heritage-listed natural wonder is sold as a wilderness adventure.
"Dingoes have roamed the island for thousands of years and are part of the appeal. Our job is to ensure people are educated about the risks and take sensible precautions.
"What we don't want to see is a major cull or heaps of ugly fences that would ruin the experience."
ANIMAL ATTRACTION: FRASER DINGOES AT A GLANCE
- The dingoes of Fraser Island, an apex predator dating back thousands of years, are unique in having rarely interbred with domestic or feral dogs. Their role at the top of the island's food chain helps keep a healthy balance in the environment.
- Dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) and domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) may look similar because they are both subspecies of wolf. However, dingoes differ from domestic dogs in a number of ways. For example, like wolves, coyotes and jackals, they only have pups once a year, whereas domestic dogs breed twice annually. They are also wild and unpredictable.
- Adult dingoes on Fraser Island stand more than 60cm high and about 1.2m long. They have an average weight of about 18kg.
- They howl, mostly at night, to announce their location and find out where other dingoes are to keep the pack together and warn others to stay away.
- Although numbers are extremely difficult to log, there are believed to be between 25 and 30 dingo packs, each containing between three and 12 individuals.
- A Dingo pack is dominated by its breeding male and female, with the subordinate animals aggressively competing for their place. This structure means not all dingoes have equal access to food.
- Despite concerns from some members of the public that the animals are starving, experts say that's a myth.
- Feeding dignoes can result in them losing their hunting skills and natural wariness of humans. This can lead to them becoming "habituated" and potentially behaving dangerously towards people. This habituation is believed to be the key reason for aggressive behaviour and attacks involving people.
HOW TO BE DINGO SAFE
- Always stay close (within arm's reach) of children and young teenagers.
- Always walk in groups.
- Camp in fenced areas, where possible.
- Never store food or food containers in tents.
- Do not run. Running and jogging can trigger a negative dingo interaction.
- Never feed the dingoes.
- Lock up food stores and ice boxes (even on a boat).
- Secure all rubbish, fish and bait.
■ Always stay close (within arm's reach)
of children and young teenagers.
■ Always walk in groups.
■ Camp in fenced
areas, where possible.
■ Never store food or food containers in tents.
■ Do not run. Running or jogging can trigger
a negative dingo interaction.
■ Never feed the dingoes.
■ Lock up food stores and ice boxes
(even on a boat).
■ Secure all rubbish, fish and bait.