Dogs are calm, highly intelligent and gentle, they have been our best friends for centuries. But do you know they can also be our allies in conservation, to sniff out endangered species, and to fight wildlife crime?
On a tiny island of Australia, a dog experiment is underway, with potentially global significance for conservation.
Middle Island is a rocky outcrop off the coast of Victoria, best known for its avian inhabitants: it’s home to a colony of the world’s smallest penguins. Such cute species are just 33 cm tall (13 inches), and they would come ashore when breeding season rolls round. Unfortunately, foxes usually have a devastating effect on wildlife there. They wiped out a colony of little penguins from Middle Island. As a result, the penguins numbering in the hundreds had been left with fewer than ten survivors.
Thankfully, the Australian canine heroes Maremma Sheepdogs (livestock guardian dogs) came, fiercely protective of their flocks, those little penguins. It seems to be an ingenious method, but it works in the end.
The first dog, Oddball, were introduced on the island 10 years ago, and other maremmas have followed in her footsteps. Since then, there has not been a single penguin killed by a fox on Middle Island. Penguin numbers have been recovering, with around 180 birds at last count.
Today, the pooch patrols are carried out by sisters Tula and Eudy, named after the scientific term for the fairy penguin: Eudyptula.They spend five days of the week on the island during the penguin breeding season ,and their lingering scent is enough to keep the foxes away even when the dogs are not there.”They love living on the island; they get very excited when they go back there,” says Peter Abbott, one of the dog handlers for the Penguin Preservation Project. The dogs also ensure humans keep away, to minimise any disruption to nests.
After many summers of hard work, the dog duo has now reached retirement age, so the team is looking to raise funds to train a new generation of penguin guardians. And getting enough support for that project may prove easier when a movie based on Oddball’s amazing story hits Australian cinemas in September last year. It’s earned about AUD11 million (US$7.9 million) at the box office. “It’s a great story,” said Abbott. “We’re trying to save a cute penguin with a couple of cute dogs but the movie has taken things to a different level.”