Alistair Brightman

Lessons to be learnt

AN AUSTRALIAN dingo researcher is taking her study of high-order predators global, examining populations around the world and comparing their circumstances and ecological impacts to the experience here.

Dr Arian Wallach, who lives in Mt Perry, about 100km west of Bundaberg, but travels extensively with her research, has spent several months in locations including Israel and India to study how the loss or recovery of high-order predators impacts on entire ecosystems, with the help of a Churchill Fellowship.

In September last year, the Rural Weekly reported on the growing support in the scientific community for Dr Wallach's work, which in essence says the protection of dingoes actually helps to protect livestock, because killing the predators ruptures the pack structure that enables them to limit their own reproduction for the sake of sustainability and create a "balance of nature".

The Charles Darwin University research fellow recently journeyed through dense snow to spend time in Israel's battle-scarred Golan Heights, a fascinating and combustible mix of danger to humans and protection for packs of wolves that call it home, thanks to a legacy of landmines that still litter the area.

She observed one pack in particular, called the Itamar Pack, named after photographer Itamar Yairi who has been closely monitoring them, and who accompanied her during her visit.

Dr Wallach said the minefield was a sanctuary for wolves because it was too dangerous for humans to enter, and the landmines in the region along the Israel-Syria border were not designed to be triggered by a wolf's weight.

"Wolves of the Itamar Pack spend the day in the safety of the minefield and then emerge at night under the cover of darkness to hunt outside," she said.

While it is relatively common for wolves in Israel to be hunted, culled, poached and poisoned, it is illegal to kill the animals in national parks and in management zones such as this.

"Wolves live in extended family units, in which only one pair reproduces and the entire pack co-operates in raising and educating the young," she said.

"They hunt together, patrol their territory together, and are deeply bonded to one another. Some wolves stay with their parents well into adulthood.

"It is these social ties that make wolves such powerful ecological players. It is the pack - not the individual wolf - that is the apex predator."

But Dr Wallach said it was often difficult to enforce bans when the predators were killed, and the deaths of any of the wolves had significant consequences both for the pack and the larger ecosystem.

"When wolves are killed in the region, their deaths have heavy consequences for every facet of the Golan ecosystem," she said.

"This includes the jackals the wolves dominate and the animals they prey on, such as gazelles and wild boar."

Dr Wallach plans to compare her findings from around the world - in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa and the USA - with her research on dingoes as part of her Churchill Fellowship project.

Her findings so far might be controversial to landowners battling to save livestock from the threat of predators, but her work won a Eureka Prize in 2013 and she has had papers published in highly regarded journals such as Science and Nature.

Dr Wallach recognises there is much work to be done to change "the killing mentality" towards dingoes, but she plans to create a predator-friendly network for scientists and pastoralists that she hopes will one day lead to an accreditation system similar to that now in place for the likes of farmers changing over to organic operations.

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