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Geography in the News: Australia’s Dingos

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM and Maps.com

DINGOES OFFICIALLY BLAMED IN 1980’s INFANT DEATH

A doubly tragic story unfolded in Australia in 1980 that’s still making international news 33 years later. Wild dingoes apparently took a 9-week-old baby girl who had been left unattended by her parents during a camping trip in the Australian Outback. Despite evidence supporting a dingo attack, prosecutors charged the mother with murder and she was sentenced to life in prison. Only in 2012 was she vindicated.

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            The dingo is an Australian wild dog, likely brought to the continent by prehistoric people who migrated across the Sunda land bridge from Asia about 62,000 to 75,000 years ago. When sea levels rose soon thereafter, Australia became isolated, leaving the entire continent surrounded by water.

Until Dutch seafarers began exploring the Australian coast in 1606, both people and land animals there isolated and had almost no contact with other gene pools or non-indigenous land animals. Consequently, without new genes, unique species of animals evolved, including the duck-billed platypus and the kangaroo.  Dingoes, however, remained largely unchanged as a species.

 Dingoes are a medium build, about the size of a domesticated English setter or a small German shepherd. In general, dingo coloration is yellowish-white, but may range to dark grey to black. Very difficult to see in the Great Australian Desert, dingoes’ colors blend into the muted colors of desert shrubs and grasses.

The dingo’s main natural food source is the small kangaroo called a wallaby. Like the American coyote, however, the dingo can be omnivorous at times, consuming small animals, seeds, roots and berries and scavaging for discarded human foods.  They may hunt individually or in groups and occasionally may kill a sheep when given the opportunity.

            Dingoes communicate by a series of howls, seldom barking. Dingoes are members of the dog family, Canidae, their genus is Canis and the species is C. dingo.

            When captured as puppies, dingoes can be domesticated and trained as pets. Because wild dingoes are a threat to sheep, the Australian and provincial governments have spent considerable resources to exterminate them, going so far as to build a long fence in the 1880s to unsuccessfully keep them out of the continent’s relatively fertile southeast region

Most of Australia’s 22.3 million people live around the humid margins of the 3 million square mile (7.7 sq. km) continent, while the dry interior, or Outback, remains very lightly populated. Because humans are the dingo’s biggest threat, the sparsely populated Outback is a very suitable habitat for the versatile dog cousin.

            Dingoes are rather shy in the wild, preferring to remain hidden from humans and domestic animals. Like the coyote, however, they are bolder at night, running the countryside in search of food. Because there were no substantiated examples of dingoes attacking humans prior to 1980, they were believed not to be a threat, even to children.

 In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and her husband Michael Chamberlain took infant Azaria Chamberlain on a camping trip near Ayers Rock (locally called Uluru) in the Australian Outback. Ayres Rock is a very popular tourist attraction and camping area, located deep in central Australia.

Left briefly unattended in the couple’s tent, baby Azaria suddenly disappeared without a sound. The couple and others searched frantically, but were unable to find the baby. They and other searchers found some circumstantial evidence that dingoes had been in the campsite. Despite this evidence to the contrary, the mother was charged with murder and the father with being an accessory to murder in the disappearance.

            The sensational trial captivated Australia and the world. The mother and father were found guilty in 1982 and the mother was sentenced to life in prison.

            When authorities found a baby’s half-buried jacket, believed to be Azaria’s, near a dingo den at Uluru in 1986, Chamberlain-Creighton was released. However, she had served four years of the sentence before a Royal Commission overturned the convictions against her and her husband.

Even after the overturned convictions, Chamberlain-Creighton lived under a cloud of accusation. Over the years, however, the news media reported several dingo attacks on children, invalidating the idea that dingoes would not attack humans.

            Then on June 11, 2012, Coroner Elizabeth Morris of the Northern Territory finally announced to Darwin Magistrates Court that the cause of baby Azaria’s death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo. Finally, one of Australia’s most baffling cases had been brought to an end.

            Throughout human history, people and wild animals have lived in close association. There is always danger in this arrangement that some animals may turn on humans, whether black bears, mountain lions, dingoes or wharf rats. Dingoes, like all wild animals, are opportunistic by nature.     

 And that is Geography in the NewsTM .

               

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Sources: GITN 1156 Dingos Officially Blamed in 1980s Infant Death,Aug. 27, 2012; The World at a Glance, The Week, June 22, 2012; CNN Wire Staff, “Coroner rules dingo to blame for Australian baby’s death,” CNN U.S. (online), June 11, 2012; and http://www.wibw.com/home/headlines/Coroner_Rules_Dingo_To_Blame_For_Australian_Babys_Death_158965605.html

Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles (with Spanish translations) are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101.com, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.