Conservation tourism: Lessons from Phillip Island’s penguin protectors

Australia’s Phillip Island is known for its Penguin Parade. Here’s the back story of how the Little Penguins and their friends were saved and continue to thrive not just despite but due to a daily influx of tourists into the area.

The words ‘penguin parade’ may bring to mind a more Disneyfied artificiality of experience than a success story of conservation by rea-life heroes. But at Phillip Island, just two hours away by road from Melbourne, in Victoria, Australia, the daily waddle of hundreds of Little Penguins is a tourist attraction that proves there can be happy endings where tourism and conservation coexist rather than clash.

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Aerial view of where the penguins parade at Phillip Island. Image: Courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks.

The Environment Rangers at Phillip Island Nature Parks work on the front line of conservation, making sure no harm comes to the penguins. Through the day, the birds dive deep into the ocean to feed on fresh fish. At sunset, they return to their small burrows built on land, looking like little children coming home from school in navy blue and white uniforms! My excellent ranger guide, Ricardo Alves-Ferreira, tells me how, although there are so many penguins and so many burrows, the birds never get lost and know exactly how to reach their homes without having an address to refer to.

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The Little Penguins returning from a productive day of fishing at Phillip Island. Image: Courtesy Phillip Island Nature Parks.

We are sitting on the Penguin Plus viewing platform that’s specially made for tourists to watch the birds without disturbing them in their normal activities. We can even go down into an underground space with glass windows from where we can see the penguins passing by at eye level. Thankfully, although all the steps are full of eager tourists, the rangers are very strict about not allowing anyone to take photographs as the flash from the camera could hurt their eyes. Everyone is requested to be quiet and refrain from sudden sounds or movements so as not to startle the birds.

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The well planned Penguin Plus Visitor Centre that allows tourists to see the phenomenon up close without disturbing the Little Penguins. Image Courtesy: Phillip Island Nature Parks.

While the visual impact of the penguins coming home is spectacular, there’s a whole lot more going on behind the scenes, which is as interesting for the conservation-conscious traveller. The burrows, on closer inspection, for example, are not the simple shored-up holes in the ground that they would probably be naturally. They are made of wood and created by caring humans to protect the penguins from feral animals, which threaten their existence. Since their introduction to Australia in the mid-1800s, foxes have played a significant role in the decline of many native species. Here on Phillip Island, foxes are the Little Penguins’ biggest threat on land, having been responsible for many penguin deaths, with a single fox capable of killing up to 30 penguins in one night.

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The penguins are quite happy with these manmade ‘burrows’. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Giving them a hand

In fact, at the conservation centre, visitors are encouraged to volunteer their services at building these burrows. I am handed a hammer and nails and taught how to put one together the next day. It’s tough work but a great way to get tourists to contribute in a small way in the conservation efforts and perhaps feel more involved than just being mere spectators.

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A helpful ranger shows me how to build a burrow!

This hands-on approach works even at the Little River Reserve in the You Yangs, where Janine Duffy, who runs Echidna Walkabout Tours and also heads the Koala Clancy Foundation, gets me to do something to help the Koalas, whose habitat is fast being destroyed because of climate change. A pair of thick gloves and 30 minutes of pulling help clear a patch of the forest of huge clumps of Boneseed, a weed that is not allowing the koala’s favourite gum trees to flourish. You feel you did something to help those cute marsupials and they get to survive successfully in the wild. SO much better than that ‘koala cuddle’ all the tourists take photographs of!

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Janine Duffy, who runs Echidna Walkabout Tours and also heads the Koala Clancy Foundation, is passionate about saving all the endangered species in the bush. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

On Churchill Island, very close to Phillip Island, researchers like Dr Duncan Sutherland, are working to save the Eastern Barred Bandicoots. These tiny marsupials only come out from their hiding places on this island at night. Their numbers in the world had gone down to less than a 100, with zero in the wild thanks to their normal habitat being taken over by humans and being hunted relentlessly by foxes and feral cats. But with people studying them and their habits so carefully, there’s still hope for these cute creatures. The researchers from Phillip Island Nature Parks and the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team began the attempts to bring this marsupial back from the brink of extinction with a trial release on nearby Churchill Island in 2015 to evaluate the suitability of local conditions.

Following the successful growth and maintenance of the Churchill Island population, a further 44 bandicoots were released in 2017 onto the Summerland Peninsula, located at the western tip of Phillip Island. These marsupials have now established their population strongly on Phillip Island, distributing beyond the Summerland Peninsula, and living in harmony with the penguins, sea birds called shearwaters, and other native wildlife. This is indeed a true success story in effectively halting the extinction of a species in the wild and maintaining vital biodiversity.

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Dr Duncan Sutherland is one of the dedicated researchers working to save the Eastern Barred Bandicoots on Churchill Island. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Not foxed by foxes anymore

After many years of effort to remove the island’s foxes, the rangers welcomed the adoption of a Fox Eradication Project in 2006, which incorporated a range of integrated techniques such as night-time searches, fixed cameras and track searches, to rid Phillip Island of foxes completely. The eradication programme was further enhanced in 2014 with the introduction of two fox detection dogs, a couple of highly trained springer spaniels named Sam and Jazz. Alongside their handler, the dogs have achieved excellent results, covering over 2700 km of survey areas in 2015 alone. This dedicated team, along with an integrated approach to eradication, continued their untiring efforts, and can claim credit for the total elimination of this destructive pest, with Phillip Island being announced fox-free in 2017. A robust monitoring programme remains in place to ensure that the fox population cannot re-establish on the island.

Just as pest animals can wreak havoc on wildlife, so can pest plants wreak havoc on wildlife by destroying its natural habitat. Thanks to the ongoing work of rangers, the focus of weed management has shifted over the years from large-scale infestations to more targeted follow up and habitat restoration. 2021 marks 15 years of concerted weed management on Cape Woolamai, with work continuing on the removal of Boxthorn, Inkweed, Apple of Sodom, Horehound, Capeweed, Buffalo grass, Kikuyu and thistles. Rangers employ a variety of techniques including hand weeding (as I did with the Boneseed in the You Yangs), bagging seed heads, cutting and painting, spraying, and the Ecoblade, a specialist piece of machinery that simultaneously slashes and applies herbicide in a single pass.

A ranger explains how grasses such as Kikuyu and Buffalo stop birds including shearwaters and penguins from digging burrows. They can also affect other ground nesting birds like Cape Barren geese and lapwings by tangling and injuring their feet and wings and forcing them to nest in dangerous areas. Once the weeds are removed, the area needs to be revegetated. The major focus over recent times has been on increasing biodiversity as well as plant numbers to maintain sustainable habitats. To that end, a total of 55,000 grasses, shrubs, trees and ground covers were planted during the last year by rangers and volunteers. As these plantings mature over time, the selected vegetation is able to out-compete the weeds, allowing native plants to self-generate and maintain a sustainable habitat for the island’s wildlife.

To rescue, repair and rehabilitate

This wildlife is at the heart of operations carried out by the rangers in the area of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. Highly trained rangers are on duty 365 days a year, responding to reports of sick or injured wildlife on Phillip Island, receiving 820 calls for assistance last year alone.

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The rangers are knowledgeable and friendly, as long as you respect the privacy of the penguins! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

A lot of this is actually because of the tourist influx, which often leads to generosity by donors, as well as the successful fund-raising activities of the Penguin Foundation such as the adopt-a-penguin programme that the Nature Parks were able to open a state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic in 2011 within the Penguin Parade precinct. This clinic is the hub of wildlife care undertaken by rangers on the island, and its facilities have hosted a wide variety of wildlife species. The clinic treats approximately 500 animals each year, with the focus being to release them back into the wild when they are strong and healthy enough to do so. Last year, the clinic saw a total of 48 different local species including penguins, wallabies, possums and geese, along with a Fiordland penguin from New Zealand which found itself a long way from home and needing help.

The rangers also carry out an important rescue programme when the short-tailed shearwaters commence their annual migratory journey to Alaska each April. The shearwater chicks have difficulty flying and can be attracted to streetlights, often finding themselves on the roads at the mercy of traffic. Rangers and volunteers rescued around 360 shearwaters last year, giving them another chance to complete their long migration.

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Recently refurbished: The general area for witnessing the Penguin Parade. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Timely action, backed by solid research

The Phillip Island success story is the culmination of years of research and the right action being taken at the right time. Back in the 1980s, the future of the penguin population was uncertain. A housing estate on the peninsula was presenting many dangers to the colony; Little Penguins were being killed by cars, foxes, dogs and feral cats. Their habitat was being destroyed by houses, fire, and weed invasion. A scientific paper prepared by Phillip Island Nature Parks’ research staff predicted that, if nothing were done, the world’s most famous colony of Little Penguins could be extinct on Summerland Peninsula by the year 2000.

This colony was the last remaining of the original 10 penguin colonies on Phillip Island prior to European settlement, and the findings set off alarm bells across the community and Government. In 1985, the State Government developed a ‘Penguin Protection Plan’. This bold paper included a raft of measures to protect the Little Penguins and their habitat, including road closures, fox control and the complete buy back of the 774 lots that made up the Summerlands Residential Estate.

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There’s hope for adorable penguin chicks like these to survive in the wild because of the work of the researchers, authorities and rangers. AND the tourists that come to see them, donate generously to preserve the wildlife, and spread the word among other eco tourists. Image: Phillip Island National Parks.

That’s how the major programme of revegetation and regeneration commenced, and still continues today. The penguin colony began to rebuild and grew from 12,000 to 30,000 breeding birds. More and more of the Peninsula is being used for nesting as the penguin habitat is progressively re-established and the threat of depredation by foxes and dogs is eliminated. In 2012, the Summerland Peninsula was returned to the penguins, and its protection was assured with a comprehensive Master Plan which outlines the responsible and sustainable future of this special place.

In 2016 the Victoria MP announced $48.2 million funding for a major redevelopment of the Penguin Parade visitor centre, one of the last stages in realising the vision of the Summerland Peninsula Master Plan. Central to the decision to fund this development was the outcome for the Little Penguins themselves. The removal of the old visitor centre allowed for rehabilitation of the site, creating approximately 6.7 hectares of prime penguin real estate. This area created a new habitat for upwards of 1,446 breeding penguins, ensuring that the Nature Parks’ world leading research can continue in a thriving penguin colony.

The flourishing Penguin Parade we see today from the refurbished visitor centre, is a result of the foresight and dedication of the researchers and authorities as well as the tireless work of the rangers.

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