Dogs guarding world's smallest penguins turn into 'predators'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2007, 12:00am

For more than a year guard dogs bred from wolves have watched over a colony of tiny penguins on an island off Australia's southern coast that had been decimated by foxes.

As the killings stopped, and numbers recovered from six towards triple figures, the radical experiment was hailed a stunning success. But a spate of deaths has once again put the future of the Little Penguins - the world's smallest - in doubt.

Autopsies revealed internal bleeding, and their much-loved four-legged friends are the prime suspects.

Last week, conservationists reluctantly removed the white Maremma sheepdogs from Middle Island, which sits just off Warrnambool on Victoria state's Great Ocean Road.

While project leader John Amor admits they were probably responsible, he blames humans.

'Maremmas are very aloof and serious,' he said. 'Their job was to protect the penguins and they were doing it with brilliant results.'

But their newfound celebrity status drew curious two-legged visitors to the island. Fines of A$250 (HK$1,700) - so far handed out to five trespassers - proved to be an insufficient deterrent.

'In November the rangers started noticing the dogs were becoming more friendly,' Mr Amor added. 'They found things like stuffed toys.'

'And we thought, 'Oh no'. These dogs are going to end up wanting to play, and if they get a sense of play that's really bad news for the birds.'

The deaths of six adult penguins and four chicks prompted last week's pullout. 'It looks like the dogs were trying to play and the penguins obviously weren't capable,' he said.

'They probably died from fright and were bitten on the bum in an effort by the dogs to keep playing. It definitely wasn't a fox or an attack. There was no issue with viciousness at all.'

It is a huge setback for a project that was dreamt up by an environmental student who collected eggs for local chicken farmer, Alan 'Swampy' Marsh.

In Italy, the large white-haired dogs have been protecting livestock from bears, wolves and rustlers for 2,000 years, and a decade ago, Mr Marsh taught them to look after his free-range chickens.

The foxes that liked to eat his chickens also got a taste for the world's smallest penguin after discovering a short low-tide land bridge that connects Middle Island to the popular tourist town.

The birds go there to breed between August and February, but at 45cm tall and weighing 1kg they were easy meat for the predator. From a thriving population estimated at 1,000 in the early 1990s, the birds were almost wiped out in 2005 when foxes killed more than 500 in two days.

This year, penguin numbers recovered to around 80, prompting international notoriety and two TV documentaries. The project inspired a new Australian children's movie, currently in development.

Mr Marsh said the dogs' fiercely territorial nature - rather than any altruism towards penguins or chickens - made the concept work.

Mr Amor said people would have to stay away to give the Maremmas a chance of being reintroduced. But he was pessimistic. 'How do we train the community.'