But what they see today when they visit might shock them - starving pure-bred dingoes, the victims of a bizarre approach by the Queensland Government to discourage human-animal interaction on the island following the death of a young child who was mauled by dingoes 10 years ago.
Wildlife photographer Jennifer Parkhurst paid the price for trying to help the dingoes - a species Australia can't seem to make up its mind about. On the one hand its lauded as a cultural icon and remembered as a companion of the first Australians who set foot on the continent, on the other derided as a pest and threat. But is that any excuse to torture a species?
Sydney Morning Herald journalist Frank Robson caught up with Jennifer Parkhurst recently, and what she has to say about the plight of the dingoes is heartbreaking.
Battle over the fate of Fraser Island's dingoes
January 8, 2011
Wildlife photographer Jennifer Parkhurst fell foul of the law trying to protect the island's harried inhabitants, writes Frank Robson.
Jennifer Parkhurst's war with the custodians of Fraser Island's dingoes began when she saw rangers setting traps for the harried animals atop a sand dune. It was 2003, two years after a nine-year-old boy had died in a dingo attack, and the traps were part of the Queensland government's radical crackdown on human-dingo interaction within the world-renowned national park.
Parkhurst, a wildlife photographer, approached the rangers and asked to see the traps. They were the usual cruel-looking devices, but the rangers assured her that a covering of rubber on the jaws meant the dingoes would not be hurt. Once trapped, they would be ear-tagged for identification and then released.
"So I said, 'OK, if they don't hurt, let's pop your arm in one and trigger it,'" Parkhurst says. "But they didn't go for that idea. After that, relations between me and DERM [Queensland's Department of Environment and Resource Management] got steadily worse."
Over ensuing years, rangers killed scores of "problem" dingoes and fenced off the island's residential communities and campsites to isolate the animals from humans. Signs were erected and brochures depicting dingoes as fearsome, toothy killers liable to attack at any moment were distributed, with a warning that anyone feeding them would be ordered off the island and fined up to $3000.
Cut off from their human food sources - rubbish tips, camp bins and the island residents who had fed them scraps for decades - and with their natural habitat under siege by up to 350,000 tourists a year, Fraser's native dogs, one of the purest dingo strains left in Australia, became desperate victims of Queensland's bizarre tourism-native species juggling act.
Snapshots by island residents show emaciated dingoes standing plaintively outside the communities' electrified cattle grids or dragging legs injured by the department's "harmless" traps or being "hazed" (shot at by rangers with slingshots and pellets) away from carloads of excitable backpackers. In some cases, autopsies of those killed by rangers revealed nothing in their stomachs but sand or plastic waste or grass.
"To see these beautiful animals in that condition broke my heart," Parkhurst says. "The Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service [a department agency] estimates there are more than 200 dingoes on the island, but even allowing for seasonal breeding variations I think there are a lot less than that."
For years, Parkhurst, 43, travelled daily from her home at Rainbow Beach to photograph one of the island's 10 dingo packs at Hook Point, on Fraser's southern tip.
Increasingly at odds with the rangers, who suspected her of illegally feeding the pack, she was woken early on August 25, 2009, by five department officials and a policeman, who had a warrant to search her home.
Six hours later, they left, taking all her computer files about dingoes, including a book she was writing, 90 department dingo autopsy reports she had obtained through freedom-of-information searches, and her spirited analysis of the department's dingo management stuff-ups. They took her still and video footage of dingoes, her journals, field notes and even photos of "K9", her pet dog of 16 years which died not long before the raid. (Most of the material has yet to be returned.)
On November 3 last year, Parkhurst appeared in Maryborough Magistrates Court and pleaded guilty to 46 charges related to feeding and "disturbing" dingoes in the Great Sandy National Park (Fraser Island) between July 2008 and August 2009.
Pleading not guilty wasn't an option: among the videos seized was footage of her feeding members of the Hook Point dingo pack and celebrating Christmas Day 2008, with the pack and her now former boyfriend. Parkhurst is heard to say: "Three roast chickens … disappeared in seconds, but gee whiz, they loved it."
(The videos seized also contained footage shot by Parkhurst of a veteran ranger, Les Gallehawk, feeding dingoes a bucket of fish at the same location. Gallehawk was sacked and fined $300 for his action last year. "I'm not allowed to say anything about it," he said from his home. "I had to sign an agreement after I got sacked.")
She was fined $40,000 and received a nine-month jail term, suspended for three years. The magistrate, John Smith, referred to the "deliberate nature" of Parkhurst's offending, saying she had engaged in a covert campaign over a long period and had sought to hide her offending from rangers.
At her home, Parkhurst told the Herald she had been made a scapegoat for the department's flawed management of Fraser Island. She believes the harshness of her sentence was linked to her role as an activist against the government's treatment of island dingoes. "I have to take responsibility for what I did," she adds, "but I don't accept that feeding starving animals makes them dangerous. I believe if everyone was feeding them - as residents and rangers used to - they would be less of a risk to visitors, not more."
Before her court appearance, rangers killed five of the juvenile dingoes Parkhurst had fed and given names to, claiming they had become habituated and had "attacked" humans. "My actions put the spotlight on that pack, and that's what got them killed. That's what I'm remorseful about … yet I hope people can understand how horrific it was watching those animals starving. It's such a slow, cruel, horrible process."