Little Penguins face extinction

A campaign has been launched to raise awareness and funds for the protection of Little Penguins, which City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp says are facing exctinction.
A campaign has been launched to raise awareness and funds for the protection of Little Penguins, which City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp says are facing exctinction.
TOURISM ICON: The City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp is trying to save the Little Penguin population on Granite Island.

TOURISM ICON: The City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp is trying to save the Little Penguin population on Granite Island.

The rise in numbers of New Zealand Fur Seals along the south coast has been blamed as a major factor in the decrease in the local Little Penguin population.

The rise in numbers of New Zealand Fur Seals along the south coast has been blamed as a major factor in the decrease in the local Little Penguin population.

VICTOR HARBOR - The Little Penguin population that has become synonymous with Granite Island and attracted countless visitors to the region is on the verge of extinction.

This is according to City of Victor Harbor mayor Graham Philp, and he wants action now.

Mr Philp, with the support of the council, has launched a campaign to bring attention to the plight of the Little Penguins, and raise money for their protection.

The census on the population of the Little Penguins on Granite Island in 2012 showed a rapid decline in numbers with only 26 found.

Mr Philp is pushing for the Little Penguins of Granite Island, along with their counterpart populations in Penneshaw and Kinscote, to be listed as endangered.

“The penguin colonies on West Island and Wright Island are extinct and the colony on Granite Island is now in the low 20s,”  Mr Philp said.

“We have to raise awareness to the state government that Little Penguins on Granite Island are vulnerable.

“In South Australia there are no colonies that have been listed as endangered, even though there are over 10 colonies that have been listed as extinct. 

“One colony in Manly, NSW, is already listed as endangered and populations on Penguin Island in Western Australia also needs our attention. 

“There are numerous other colonies that are listed in decline. 

“We need to find out if the Little Penguins in South Australia are genetically distinct from the colonies of other states.

“The only way this can be achieved is to have a study on how we can conserve these birds.”

According to Mr Philp, the cost of the study is approximately $100,000 and government support is needed.

While local environmental groups are still loathe to point the finger, Mr Philp believes their dwindling numbers can be attributed to the high numbers of New Zealand Fur Seals.

“Scientific research has proven the major threat to Little Penguins is the increase in New Zealand Fur Seals,”  Mr Philp said.

“A study has proven New Zealand Fur Seals has impacted on the marine environment, not just along the south coast, but on Kangaroo Island.”

However, Granite Island penguin researcher Vanessa Owens said: “we can’t really say the seals are to blame”.

“It could be overfishing, it could be competition between the penguins and the seals for food,” Ms Owens said.

Ms Owens said there is “absolutely” a chance that the Granite Island Little Penguin colony will become extinct, and agreed with Mr Philp that further study needs to be conducted.

“We’re looking at getting the causeway closed at night to protect them; no-one on the island at night,” she said.

According to Ms Owens, torchlight shone into Little Penguins’ eyes (resulting in vision problems) making them susceptible to seal attacks, and the uncertainty over whether people are taking their dogs to the island are both reasons to have the causeway closed during night hours.

At the December council meeting, the mayor received support from elected members to drive a campaign to help the Little Penguins.

In a bid to raise awareness and funds for the Little Penguins’ plight as part of this campaign, a CD by Adelaide musician Nicky Ross titled Where have they gone will be available for purchase from various outlets around Victor Harbor.

Proceeds from the CD that was launched on February 4, as well as donations, will be put toward research into understanding the threats to Little Penguins and how they are impacting on different Little Penguin populations, and conservation strategies for Little Penguins, to safeguard them for future generations.

Ten per cent of proceeds will also go to a disability program at the Encounter Centre in Victor Harbor.

“On behalf of the City of Victor Harbor I wish to thank Nicky Ross for his donation and effort with the CD and the Victor Harbor and Port Elliot Lions Club for their assistance,” Mr Philp said.

For further information on the campaign contact Graham Philp on 0418 851 311 or at mayor@victor.sa.gov.au

How can you help? 

BUY a Where have they gone CD, available from various Victor Harbor locations.

WRITE to state ministers and urge them to support the ‘Little Penguin cause’.

MAKE a donation via the Victor Harbor and Port Elliot Lions Club at Westpac Victor Harbor, BSB 035-621, account number 580853.

GET involved in the Friends of Granite Island group by  contacting Granite Island Penguin Centre’s Dorothy Longden on 8552 7555.

Little Penguin facts:

Scientific Name: Eudyptula minor

Distribution: Found only in Australia and New Zealand. The breeding range extends from Fremantle in Western Australia, right across the southern coastline of the continent including Tasmania, and up the New South Wales coastline, nearly as far as Sydney.

Habitat: Favour rocky shorelines, which provide suitable breeding sites, Mainly inhabit scattered offshore islands, like Granite Island, where they are generally free from disturbance.

Description: Little Penguins stand about 35cm and weigh about 1.2kg. 

Diet: Major food items are small schooling fish (76 per cent), squid (24 per cent), and occasionally krill (small shrimps, 1 per cent). The penguin feeds only in surface waters as they are not deep divers.

Adults: Adult penguins have about 10,000 steel blue downy feathers, this is about three to four times the feather density of flighted birds, which is necessary to provide insulation from the cool waters.

Juveniles: Hatchlings are first covered in black down, however, at eight to 14 days of age this is replaced by chocolate brown down, The brown down is moulted and replaced with adult feathers at 29 to 56 days. Following this the penguin is independent from its parents, and will leave the colony and may not return for 12 months or more.

Breeding Cycle: Burrow construction usually begins in April/May and again in August/September, and is undertaken by the males who seek to impress the females with their burrows. The female chooses the burrow she likes best, and that male will mate with her for the year. Breeding success is largely determined by food availability.

Eggs: A clutch of two eggs are laid in winter or spring, two or three days apart. Incubation time is 36 days with male and female penguins taking shifts to incubate the eggs. Hatching success is approximately 60 per cent, however in a good season three clutches of eggs may be laid.

Sight and Hearing: Penguins have excellent vision both in and out of the water, day and night. They depend on their vision to locate prey. A ‘third eye-lid’ protects the eyes underwater, and on land is used as a ‘windscreen wiper’ to clear sand from the eyes. Penguin hearing is also very good, but is better in the water, due to water’s physical properties.

Voice and Sound: Penguin calls are complex and serve many purposes such as attracting mates, aggression, pair communication, danger and location. Often the Granite Island penguin calls can be heard from halfway across the causeway.

Sleep: Penguins only sleep for four minutes at a time, either standing up or lying down.

Predators: Natural predators of penguins include sea eagles, fur seals, goannas and snakes. Introduced predators such as dogs, foxes and cats can significantly reduce numbers. Preditation by rats, cats, foxes and dogs, as well as disturbance by humans, are the major threats to the Granite Island penguin colony. 

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