07 November 2011

Eco the dog: penguin protection weapon

AUSTRALIA - The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is unleashing a new secret weapon that will assist in monitoring and protecting the last remaining little penguin colony on mainland NSW: an English springer spaniel named Eco.

NPWS Regional Manager Gary Dunnett said Eco is the first dedicated penguin, fox and cat sniffer dog in Australia. At the end of October she started working at Sydney’s North Head.

“One of the challenging things about monitoring the little penguin population is determining the exact size of the colony and most importantly the breeding pairs,” Mr Dunnett explained.

He said Eco will be helping NPWS Rangers to search out hidden and remote penguin burrows so they can monitor the colony’s breeding population and where they are nesting.

“This will allow us to monitor the chicks, get a better handle on whether the population is stable and help us plan the most effective pest programs like fox and dog controls.

“Little penguins are notoriously secretive - leaving for their fishing expeditions on night fall and returning in the pre-dawn light."

Mr Dunnett said that Eco will be used to try to find nests not previously known about, allowing the NPWS to monitor any adults and chicks and also to map where they are nesting against where the currently protected areas are.

One of the greatest threats facing Manly's little penguin colony are foxes and domestic dogs. Eco has been given hours of rigorous testing to ensure she will not harm the penguins once she locates them.

“All dogs have certain natural instincts that make them dangerous to wildlife and it takes long and arduous training to ensure they are suitable for this type of work in just the same way that guide dogs or police dogs are meticulously trained,” Mr Dunnett said.

“When Eco is working in national parks she wears a high-visibility coat that identifies her as having special permission to be there and that she is working for conservation purposes,” he said.

Monitoring the Manly colony is only possible during the breeding season and at the site of their nests, as once in the water outside of the breeding season the penguins can travel incredible distances.

Eco is also a trained fox and cat detection dog so with a word from her owner and handler Lisa O’Neill, she can swap from sniffing out penguins to tracking down one of their main predators.

Eco was trained by Steve Austin, whose detection dogs have been used with great success in the past couple of years to detect foxes at North Head to protect the little penguins and the long-nosed bandicoots.

“Eco is happiest when she is working – the hardest part is getting her to rest,” Mr Austin said.

“She can cover a stretch of a kilometre in about 40 minutes when looking for penguins, and about 500m2 an hour when looking for foxes. This is, of course, governed by the terrain.

Mr Austin rates Eco as one of the best dogs he has ever trained in terms of her ability and enthusiasm.

“In one hour, she can cover an area that would take 10 people four hours to cover,” he said.

Secret weapon unleashed at North Head for penguin protection, NPWS, 31 October 2011

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