The Falkland Islands and South Atlantic
WARRAH Dusicyon australis- reduction and extinctionWarrah fur courtesy of Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm. Adult dog Warrah collected by J Frank 1847.

WARRAH Dusicyon australis- reduction and extinction

And it cannot, I think be doubted, that as these islands are now being colonized, before the paper is decayed on which this animal has been figured, it will be ranked among those species which have perished from the earth’.
Charles Darwin 1839

We know that the warrah was exterminated relatively easily because of its tameness. From the day man first set foot on the Falkland Islands warrahs were persecuted, much as wolves were in Europe. Like all Falklands wildlife, the penguins, seals and birds, warrahs had no fear of man. This led to great exploitation and slaughterings of all of them by settlers and sealers.

John Byron mentions that four individuals were seen together, suggesting a social, organised pack animal, and that his people having suffered being ran directly at by these ‘creatures of great fierceness’, and after killing five of them, had set fire to the grass to get rid of them, so that the country was in a blaze as far as the eye could reach. The fire burned for several days and he reports that ‘we could see them running in great numbers to seek other quarters’. If the ‘grass’ was a white grass fire it would indeed look spectacular for as far as the eye could see, and if it was the tussac grass that was lit it may have burned down into the peaty soil to destroy a habitat forever. At any rate they seem to have been quite comfortable and successful at this stage.

By 1833 the warrah was already in trouble. Darwin reported that it was quickly disappearing , numbers surely had greatly decreased during the previous fifty years, and the warrah was already banished from that half of the island (East) between St Salvador and Berkley Sound. The South American gauchos working to kill the cattle regularly killed them. He predicted, correctly, that the warrah would become extinct within a few years. Soon after Darwin left the islands the government set a bounty on the warrah to protect the fledgling sheep industry.  Shepherds claimed high sheep losses, and that the warrahs sucked the blood of the sheep. This reduced the warrahs drastically especially on the East.
Of the West Falklands, in 1836, Captain George Grey, of the ‘Cleopatra’, surveying the Port Edgar area, West Falklands, remarked that although he had heard there was a great number of indigenous foxes this was the first time he had seen one when he stepped ashore and his dog Pilot chased one.

The American Fur Company was formed by John Jacob Astor in 1808 and grew to become the first great trust in American business, and one of the largest, monopolizing the fur trade until he retired in 1834. He died in 1848, the USA.’s first millionaire on record. The company however, continued under the leadership of one Ramsay Crooks, a Scotsman. By 1834, at the time of Astor’s retirement, the American Fur Company had already passed its heights. Fur popularity was losing out to silk in the fashion world and the supply of furs from the Midwest was drying up. A vessel was despatched to the Falkland Islands in 1839 for ‘wolf’ skins. Many must have been taken as Colonel Hamilton Smith writing the Falkland Islands Aquara Dog, after seeing ‘the fur stores of Mr Astor in New York, a large collection of peltry which came from the Falkland Islands, where, according to reports that gentleman had received, his hunters had nearly extirpated the species’.
The American Fur Company did not survive any more than did the warrah. It folded in 1842, but it had undoubtedly led to a reduction in warrah numbers from which they could not recover, and the survivors were picked off slowly and surely with poisons and baits.
 In 1842 Governor Moody,  noted that ‘there were not many in the Northern part of East Falklands, and all of them could be easily, and should be soon exterminated, as they are large enough and sufficiently daring to attack lambs.’  He was informed that they were still much more numerous on West Falklands. It is interesting to note that in this despatch to Lieutenant Stanley in 1842 (written at Port Louis) Moody accurately describes the warrah, and it’s present situation in the Falklands in his paragraph of ‘the different species of wild animals indigenous to the Falkland Islands’ then further along in the despatch mentions ‘wild dogs’ in a paragraph ‘of animals brought to these islands, and now become wild’.
‘It is reported that there are still some few wild dogs in the interior, but many were destroyed last winter in the consequence of the reward set upon their heads, and it is probable that very few remain.’
Although the sheep industry and Jacob Astor’s Fur Company was certainly responsible for much of the government backed extermination of the warrah, it must be remembered that it was being killed for years before by the South American gauchos employed on the Falklands for the cattle hunting which dominated the camp life long before the sheep arrived. Darwin was assured by several of the Spanish countrymen that they had repeatedly killed them by a means of a knife held in one hand and a piece of meat in the other. What reason they had for killing them is not mentioned, but maybe they felt they were sufficiently large to kill a new born calf, or perhaps it was just that the gauchos considered them a type of vermin, they would have certainly been aware of rabies which was on their native South America at the time.
By the time the industry really got going (the Falkland Islands Company only introduced its first successful Cheviot sheep to the islands in 1852) the warrah was probably well on its way to extinction, but it undoubtedly did not endear itself to the fledgling sheep industry. (Governor Moody mentions that warrahs attacked lambs).
The warrah, however was said to be a different animal to that on South America and most explorers at first glance saw and reported a larger more dangerous animal that needed to be dealt with to make the fledgling country safe for settlers and their livestock. There is a hint by Mister Byng, the acting colonial secretary of the Falklands (1870) that the warrah had indeed been preying on sheep. He writes ‘as Mister (Charles) Darwin prophesied would probably be the case, the animal (warrah) formerly so common, has now become almost extinct on the Falklands, the depredations it commits upon the sheep having rendered its extirpation necessary’.
Byng here perhaps attempted, when it was already too late, to preserve  the warrah as he despatched a ‘pair’ of warrahs to the London Zoo but sadly only one ‘Antarctic Wolf’ survived the long journey.

On the West they seem to have held out a little longer.  By 1868 the Illustrated London News reported that warrahs were far less abundant now, and its extinction was probably ‘drawing nigh’. Eight years later in 1876, the last warrah was killed at Shallow Bay, in Hill Cove camp, West Falkands.

Given the hard life our immigrant ancestors faced in the Falklands it is easy to imagine how enthusiastically they would have helped rid the islands of what they considered, and possibly was a very real danger to their livestock. The added bonus of a bounty for the sale of the pelt very quickly sealed its fate.

To survive in a new and inhospitable land settlers did what was necessary to protect livelihood and family.  There would have been no compassion for a small brave animal that might be a wolf but also closely resembled the destructive fox of Europe. The shootings of, and attitude to the wildlife of new territories in this era was how things were in those days and it is easy to see how species were wiped out. Sea lions and fur seals came close to extermination. Every animal was tame and easy game so the warrah did not last long. Other species had the sea for escape. As a general rule if something moved it was killed, sometimes for food or oil, very often because it was feared, or simply for sport.
It must remembered too that there were no antibiotics or medical help for the immigrants, and a dog bite could be potentially fatal, there was a fear of rabies and any dangers were harshly dealt with. Even in modern times, a food scare can still provoke mass killing of animals (BSE of the 1990s). Wolves were common in Europe and USA at this time, and man had a natural fear of them so it was not surprising that when the immigrants were met by warrahs running at them with teeth barred and hackles up, they were afraid and shot them.
Admiral George Grey, undoubtedly a brave and confident man, was certainly nervous of the warrahs as were others that were met by the Falkland’s only native terrestrial quadruped. The warrah cannot surely have been helped by his looks.
‘I have never seen such teeth’. Admiral Grey

Probably the greatest factor in the demise of the warrah was the loss of its habitat and somewhere to hide, as the cattle and sheep ate and destroyed the fringe of tussac that was on all Falkland coasts. The Falklands in winter it is not the most hospitable place for small mammals such as dogs or cats.  As the coastal fringe of tussac disappeared with the onward march of farming life probably became tougher for the warrah. It is well recorded that this was where they were mainly to be found, inland was shallow soil with few places for a warrah to burrow, it would be colder away from the sea and food would have been restricted to wild geese where they could be caught. There would be little food to be had in the winter.The gauchos informed Charles Darwin (1833/34) that although the warrahs ranged all over the whole (East Falkland) island, they were more numerous near the coast, and in the inland parts subsisted entirely on Upland  geese, which in turn had been forced to build nests only on outlying islets for fear of the warrahs. The loss of the warrah certainly left behind a legacy of uncontrollable numbers of geese on the Falklands.

Even without a campaign to eradicate them warrahs would have found it hard to survive without shelter to raise cubs, and the sea birds and seals for food (seals at this time were also being decimated by hunters, and warrahs fed and scavenged on them). The Falklands in a very short time went from a hospitable land, abundant with food for a creature who ruled supreme to a land that was taken over by man for which anything not useful or a threat to him was wiped out.
The ease at which he was exterminated was what made our warrah different from any other wolf that was about then or now. James Lovegrove Waldron, writing up his notebook in 1866-67 says that ‘The Falkland Island Fox is inquisitive and if any one stands still, will fearlessly approach a man and even come to smell him, as I have witnessed.’ This late report suggests that even though it was persecuted for decades the warrah remained trusting of man, was easily fed and poisoned  and thus eradicated.

It has always puzzled me, given the numbers of warrahs that were killed and skinned, why we never found the bones around the settlements. I grew up at Fox Bay where there surely would have been plenty of them in their day, and the children played with bones for toy animals, horse, cow and sheep bones from long gone animals, bleached by the sun. I never remember any different bones that we would have been taught were from dogs.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, General Custer was defeated by  Indian forces at the Battle of Little Big Horn, the first express train ran from New York to San Francisco.
And the last warrah was killed at Shallow Bay, Hill Cove,West Falklands.

Photographic credits: Hurst, courtesy of Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm. Adult dog Warrah collected by J Frank 1847.
Sources include: Dom. Pernety 1763-64. Historic d'un voyage aux Iles Maloaines. Renshaw, G. 1931, Mivart (1890) Mon. of Canidae, Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm, Sweden, Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles of Belgique, Brussels, Belgium. The World Museum, Liverpool. Voyage around the world by Louis de Bougainville 1766-9, The Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle Charles Darwin, Despatch from Lieutenant Governor Moody to Lord Stanley 14th April 1842


  • Warrah
  • Warrah
    Warrah at Hill Cove, reconstruction with a photograph courtesy of Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet, Stockholm. Adult dog Warrah collected by J Frank 1847.