Dogs aid in protection of little penguins

A group of fairy penguins in Australia

Little penguins, also known as fairy penguins Photo: Ken and Nyetta / flickr

By Roxanne Lee
Contributing Writer

New conservation measures are being taken in Australia, as sheepdogs are being employed to protect a colony of endangered penguins.

Australia has a long, unfortunate history of invasive species. Invasive species are animals, plants, parasites, or disease-causing organisms that come from outside their native range and become pests.

Invasive species cause serious damage to native plants and animals, which have no natural defenses against these organisms, by competing with native animals for food and shelter and in many cases preying on them for food.

Numerous invasive species were introduced to Australia when it was first settled by Europeans and have caused great harm to the native ecosystem ever since.

One of the many native species threatened by these invaders is the fairy penguin. The fairy penguin, also called the little penguin, is a penguin species that lives on the coastlines of Southern Australia and New Zealand. Middle Island, an outcrop off the coast of southern Victoria, was once home to a colony of hundreds of them. But foxes, one of the many invasive species of Australia, have long threatened the colony, killing fairy penguins unhindered.

The colony was virtually wiped out in the early 2000s, with one attack in 2005 leading to the deaths of 360 penguins over the course of two days. At the worst of it the foxes reduced the colony of 800 penguins to only six individuals, and it seemed for a time that the entire colony would be eradicated.

The penguins were facing complete extinction on the island when local chicken farmer Swampy Marsh suggested using Maremma sheepdogs to guard the penguins. Maremma dogs guard livestock, usually goats or sheep, and are know for forming social bonds with the livestock they protect instead of confronting them.
Another trait in favor of the Maremma dogs is their ability to ration food, giving them the ability to stay several days on the island guarding the penguins without assistance from humans.

In 2006, after much discussion, the plan was approved and the first Maremma dog, named Oddball, was sent to the island and trained to guard the penguins. More Maremma dogs have since been stationed on the island, in the ten years since it has been an overwhelming success.

Under the protection of the dogs, the penguin population has been quickly recovering, with the once minuscule colony of six now a colony of about 150 penguins. The island is currently being patrolled by two dogs, Eudy and Tula. The dogs patrol in the penguins’ breeding season, and even when they are absent their scent is enough to deter foxes.

This is good news for both the penguins and for conservation efforts as a whole. Zoos Victoria is now trying to use these dogs to protect the wild eastern barred bandicoot and reintroduce it to the wild, where it has not lived since 2002. Previous attempts to reintroduce the bandicoot have failed, but the current hope is that the Maremma will make the difference. A five-year trial is currently underway.

Eudy and Tula are currently eight years of old and nearing retirement. Crowdfunding efforts by the local groups managing the project have succeeded in raising the money to buy and train two new replacement dogs for when the current dogs retire.

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