For most of our discussions on how our four-legged friends are aiding in the conservation of imperiled species around the world, we focused on olfactory detection as the primary canine skill. Whether it be sniffing out noxious weeds, scat, poachers, or alien imported cargo, conservation canines have become an integral part of our collective efforts to save our planet. Still, our canine best friends maintain even more potential over pack from intruders. The combination of these instinctual traits is the basis for why some dog breeds have become excellent guard dogs. Around the world, guard dogs protect livestock, property, people, and even elephants.
Outside of dissuading poachers in Africa, though, there are not many instances where dogs are directly protecting wildlife. That all changed when Alan “Swampy” Marsh, a free-range chicken farmer in coastal Victoria, Australia, came up with an idea to help a local threatened species. Mr. Marsh has used Maremma guard dogs with success for years to protect his chickens from the region’s predators. His revolutionary idea to protect the locally imperiled population of little penguins by using Maremmas not only saved the penguin colony but perhaps opened a whole new potential for canines assisting conservation!
Little penguins (Eudyptula minor) are the smallest penguin on Earth, only measuring up to 13 inches tall and weighing just over 3 pounds. The species is relatively common across the South Pacific with a total worldly population numbering at least 350,000, however, their numbers are declining, and individual colonies remain at risk of collapse. Middle Island, a small island off the coast of Victoria is one of the critical nesting habitats that are at risk. Within a six-year span, the little penguin population plummeted from around 500 individuals to only 4 penguins returning to breed. Researchers immediately determined there was only one main culprit for this decimation—the introduced and invasive red fox (Vulpes vulpes)!
Although foxes are important native carnivores in North America, they are not native to Australia and have caused extensive damage to both agriculture and ecosystems. Middle Island does not have foxes present; however, it is only separated from the mainland by a few hundred feet. Unfortunately, thanks to sand migration caused by coastal development, the channel is now an exposed sandbar during low tide. The crafty foxes quickly learned that little penguins and their eggs are easy prey, and access to this buffet is now possible every low tide. The colony was helplessly rampaged to the point of near extinction. Multiple attempts to keep foxes away from the island failed, then local farmer “Swampy” had an idea…if his Maremma guard dogs effectively protected his chickens, could they do the same for little penguins?
In 2006, a revolutionary new attempt to protect little penguins on Middle Island began when the first Maremma guard dog, named “Oddball”, arrived on the island. Without any previous training, Oddball settled right in with the penguins, treating them like his previously protected flock of chickens. The penguins also seemed to accept his presence with ease, even allowing Oddball to bed down within 3 feet of their active nests! The effectiveness of guard dogs on the island is obvious—since the first night of the trial until even today, not a single penguin has been taken by the invasive foxes! The Maremmas have adamantly protected the island from fox activity every low tide, even chasing some fox back to the mainland beaches after attempts to access the island. Researchers now believe local foxes have learned to avoid the island altogether, making the project 100% successful!
Within the first year of guard dog protection, the penguin population bounced from under 30 known individuals up to 116! In subsequent years, penguin breeding numbers raised up to around 200 where they have stabilized, indicating a healthy population for the island. Since this recovery project was so unique, it gathered huge publicity among conservationists and promoted local ecotourism enough for the local government to provide funding for continued Maremma protection on the island. Penguin protection hero Oddball even had a feature movie created about his historic conservation efforts! In addition to saving the Middle Island colony, Mr. Marsh and Oddball’s actions have prompted researchers to think outside the box on how canines can further assist wildlife conservation projects around the world. More threatened species are sure to benefit from the guarding abilities of our canine friends. Thank you Swampy and Oddball!