Since getting much of their Country on Cape York back in 2014 the Olkola Traditional Owners have stopped poison baiting, and the Dingo, boss totem of Olkola Country, is making a comeback. This is good news for his endangered little mate Alwal, the Golden-shouldered Parrot, another significant Olkola totem.
Known as Ootalkarra in Olkola language, dingos are the top predator in the savannah woodlands of Cape York. Their presence has a significant role in keeping other ground-dwelling predators’ numbers in check. Research by Olkola and Bush Heritage, as part of the ‘Bringing Alwal Home’ partnership, has found that two of these predators, the feral cat and goannas, prey on Alwal when they're nesting.
Alwal build their nest by digging out a hollow in a termite mound, often only one metre above ground. This provides an easy target for feral cats and goannas.
Through motion-sensor cameras, Olkola Rangers and Bush Heritage ecologists have observed dingos around Alwal nests. One dingo in particular seemed to be keeping a close eye on his little mate's nest throughout the whole breeding season. There were no signs of predation or visitation by other predators and the Alwal chicks fledged successfully.
These observations, and Olkola’s cultural understanding about the relationship between dingoes and Alwal, aligns with research in arid areas that shows that healthy dingo numbers play a significant role in reducing feral cat numbers either by killing them or by scaring them away from places they would normally hunt.
In the USA the return of Grey Wolves to Yellowstone National Park has had remarkable consequences for the entire ecosystem. The wolves’ prey on, and scare away lower order, meso-predators such as coyotes. The Pronghorn Antelope, which coyotes’ prey on, survived better where there were more wolves and fewer coyotes.
The story illustrates the effect an apex predator can have on putting a cap on meso-predator numbers, or on meso-predator activity, and how this effect can flow through the whole ecosystem. Currently, there's little research to show if this is also true in savannah woodlands.
Olkola Rangers and Bush Heritage are beginning to investigate the impact of dingoes as an apex predator on meso-predators on Olkola country, particularly in regards to Alwal conservation. This year for the first time protecting dingoes has also been included in the National Recovery Plan for the Golden-shouldered Parrot.
Olkola rangers are using motion-sensing camera traps in Alwal breeding habitat to collect information on dingo and feral cat densities. Camera trap transects are being used to monitor dingo and feral cat densities through primary habitat areas. In addition, each year cameras are set up at Alwal nests in various parts of Olkola country to collect information on predation and other activities at the nest sites.
These results, along with spotlight surveys, showed that feral cat numbers are high in comparison to other areas in north Australia. This is concerning from a conservation and management perspective, given that we know they kill nesting Alwal, and are likely to kill both fledglings and adults. While dingo numbers are thought to be recovering since Olkola put a stop to poison baiting, it's still too soon to know if they've returned in large enough numbers to help suppress feral cat and goanna impacts.
Olkola people know that their Totems are looking after each other; and Olkola’s Dingoes, boss of country, might be a key weapon in the war against feral cats!
The Bringing Alwal Home project is kindly supported by the Scully Fund.