It was August 1980 when Lindy Chamberlain, camped with her family at Uluru (then called Ayers Rock), heard her baby daughter Azaria cry out. When she went to check on her she saw a “dingo” run out of the tent dragging something into the dark. She checked another tent and found the other children safe — but Azaria was missing. It was then that she called out “a dingo has got my baby”. Dingoes, badly managed back then, frequented the camping ground and often stole food. These dingoes were also said to be “cross breeds” and “camp dogs”.

Today there is a new inquiry into the death of Azaria Chamberlain, 32 years after her disappearance. The third inquest 17 years ago left an open verdict as to the cause of death. Lindy Chamberlain was released from jail after serving three years on a jury’s verdict. Michael Chamberlain was given a suspended sentence. After a series of failed appeals, the last of which was at the High Court in February 1984, Lindy began serving her life sentence. When the matinee jacket that Azaria was wearing was discovered at Uluru in 1987 and after intervention by Senator Bob Collins, she was released.

A Royal Commission cleared the Chamberlains of all responsibility and the NT Parliament offered them a pardon, which does not clear them of guilt, in 1987. A supreme court in Darwin declared the Chamberlains’ innocent in 1988 and two books a film and a TV series later in 2012, the Northern Territory coroner, Elizabeth Morris, agreed to hold a new inquest.

New evidence will be tendered in this inquiry that shows there have been significantly more dingo attacks and deaths due to attacks since the last inquest.

Before the inquiry begins, just as public opinion had declared Lindy Chamberlain guilty, now dingoes are seen as “guilty” by a public increasingly hostile to the bush.

It should not be dingoes “on trial” at this new inquest but their bad management by Australians and the poor research by Australian scientists. Dingoes that killed nine-year-old Clinton Gage on Fraser Island in 2001 had previously badly scared a German backpacker in the late 1990s. She was given a holiday around the Whitsunday islands — where I met her in 1998 — funded by Queensland National Parks by way of compensation, and to keep her out of any headlines that could damage tourism in the area.

Apart from pets of the breed, it is these dingoes on Fraser Island — said to to be the home of the “last full blood” dingoes in Australia — that are responsible for most of the recent attacks, and only fatal attack. The island has been logged, burnt and “developed”, steadily reducing food available to dingoes and increasing their conflict with people.

Though clearly a native dog and widespread across Australia,  the dingo is to this day considered an introduced species by most scientists. It was first described by Meyer as a species in 1793 and given the scientific name Canis (the dog family) lupus (wolves) dingo — then Canis dingo and later Canisfamiliaris (domestic dog) and later again Canis lupus familiaris reflecting the ongoing scientific ambiguity to this animal.

Similarly the fossil record is oddly regarded, with individual bones that are dated back 8000 years overlooked with only complete skeletons aged at 3200 to 4000 years giving the “currently most accepted date”.  In a strange parallel with the “out of Africa” theory for the origin of humans, dingoes are seen as “out of Asia”. Their apparent absence from Tasmania is often used as evidence that they must have arrived with a later Aboriginal people or, as more commonly stated, with Asian seafarers.

Of all native Australian animals, dingoes were the greatest threat to an economy that “rode on the sheep’s back”. Given they were efficient killers of sheep, successive state governments have invested in dingo trappers, aeriel baiting and shooting. A massive dingo fence was constructed from 1880 to 1885 and stretched 5200k from Dalby on the Darling downs of Queensland to the Eyre Peninsula on the Great Australian Bight and complemented with many thousands of kilometres of other “dingo proof fencing”. 

Frederick McCoy was the first  “director of the Museum of Natural and Applied Sciences” in Melbourne and published prolifically on geology and paleontology. In 1881 he published a paper The Dingo in which he describes dingoes as a unique ancient dog and not related to wolves as domestic dogs are.  He cites their dentition, skull structure and habits — that they do not bark or growl like domestic dogs when vexed and only come on heat once a year.

In this first paper McCoy states:

“The announcement, many years ago, of my recognition of the bones and teeth of the Dingo in the Pliocene Tertiary strata (layers) of Colac, and other Victorian localities, in company with similarly mineralised remains of Thylacaoleo, Diprotodon … and other extinct genera, therefore excited great interest, as proving that the Dingo is one of the most ancient of the indigenous mammals of the country, and abounded as now long before man himself appeared.”

The specimens he refers to may still be in the Museum of Victoria collection labelled with the localities where they were found.  With dingoes still seen as killers of sheep and children and costing taxpayers to bait, trap and shoot there appears to be a scientific “prejudice” that maintains them as “introduced”.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, as would most Australians, assumed that the dog that fled the tent on that dark night was a dingo and not a dog. There are many assumptions about this animal that “so inconveniently” has been a native predator on this landscape so often described as “predator free”.

Though understated by modern researchers, many naturalists and some scientists believe that dingoes have a vital ecological role in the Australian landscape. They could do much more to regulate the populations of feral animals, even foxes that they are known to kill.

It is a pity that government bodies that manage places where dingoes and people interact are not a whole lot smarter about the way they manage this interaction. It is a challenge met by countries all over the world that manage to maintain wild carnivore populations from Japan to Europe and the US. They combine well-funded science with community involvement and innovative management.  This approach is conspicuously missing from Australia where a likely reaction to this inquiry will be to shoot more dingoes — again — just as was done not long after Azaria went missing in 1980.

Peter Fray

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