Two decades ago no one believed Lindy Chamberlain when she claimed a dingo had snatched her baby from a campsite in central Australia. She was vilified, convicted of murder and sentenced to life--before being released four years later, when the child's jacket was found outside a dingo lair. Last week her story seemed even more plausible. On Fraser Island, a World Heritage nature site off the Queensland coast, 9-year-old Clinton Gage was mauled and killed by the primitive dogs; his father and younger brother were attacked when they tried to recover his body. Police quickly cleared out other campers and killed the animals thought to be responsible.
The tragedy may have been an accident waiting to happen: after years of being fed by backpackers, the dingoes on Fraser have lost their fear of humans. And that dangerously close interaction between man and beast is being repeated across Australia, as ecotourists range farther afield in search of a wilderness that remains vast, untamed and highly unpredictable. "Dingoes are not the only danger. There's funnel-web spiders, poisonous snakes. It's certainly well known not to swim on the eastern beach--the sharks are on that side," says Donna Ebsary, a Fraser Island guide. "There are many dangers going to Fraser, but that's probably one of the major attractions for people."
Those dangers are increasing, to the point where tourists may have to rethink how they vacation Down Under. Australia already has the most venomous snakes and spiders in the world. Now, after successful conservation efforts in the past 30 years, the number of deadly predators has risen dramatically. Fraser itself has more than 200 purebred dingoes, wild dogs that don't bark; crocodiles, after being hunted nearly to extinction, now number about 80,000 in the Australian wild. As wildlife officials cull nonindigenous animals like goats, horses, camels and feral cats from the country's fragile ecosystem, the predators find themselves with much less to eat, driving them into human campsites.
Authorities say they can do little but warn tourists to be careful. In Darwin, where more than 150 crocodiles were removed from the city harbor last year, officials have set up the Croc Sighting hot line, and hotel brochures warn guests to stick to swimming in the pool. "We told people, 'If you give them a chance, they'll grab you. They'll rip your arms off. They'll grab your kids and eat them in front of you'," says Dr. Grahame Webb, director of Crocodylus Park in Darwin. But critics say that the warnings are toned down in order not to frighten off tourists--and accuse the government of being too ready to resort to culling predators instead of keeping people away from them. "In the past we've been able to camp wherever we liked in designated areas. We'll have to make it a little bit more restricted," says Judith Blackshaw, an animal-behavior professor at the University of Queensland. That seems a small price to pay to save the life of another child.