19 April 2014

Pest-free Macquarie Island now a penguin haven

Royal penguin on Macquarie Island.
Credit: M Murphy
via Wikimedia Commons.
AUSTRALIA - This month brings great news for about 2 million penguins: following a successful pest eradication programme, Australia's Minister for the Environment, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, officially declared that Macquarie Island is pest-free.

The programme was funded by the Australian and Tasmanian governments, which invested more the AU$24 million to ensure the World Heritage-listed island is preserved. Eight years ago, WWF-Australia and Peregrine Adventures invested AU$100,000 to kickstart the programme.

Mr Hunt said, "[The programme's] success is due to the hard work and dedication of scientists, ecologists, hunters and trainers and their remarkable detector dogs."

Macquarie Island is roughly halfway between Tasmania and Antarctica. It is home to about 850,000 pairs of royal penguins and 250,000 pairs of king penguins, as well as nearly 4 million seabirds and four threatened species of albatross.

Before the programme began, it was also home to invasive rodents and rabbits, who were destroying the island's ecosystem.

Ship rats were attacking and killing the chicks and eggs of endangered seabirds. The activities of rabbits, whose population had climbed to over 100,000, had lead to massive erosion and landslips that were destroying penguin and albatross nesting sites. In 2006, a landslip at Lusitania Bay resulted in the deaths of over 100 king penguins.

The two governments signed an agreement to jointly fund the programme in 2007. After extensive planning and research, aerial baiting for the pests began in winter 2010.

In 2011, to prevent seabird deaths from the consumption of poisoned rabbit carcasses, people were sent to the island to find and remove carcasses before they were eaten by the scavenging seabirds.

Teams of skilled hunters and specially trained detector dogs eliminated the remaining rabbits. The dogs were trained to locate rabbits but not to harm native animals. Three specially trained rodent detector dogs were sent to the island in March 2013.

Since August 2011, six dog handlers, four hunters, two rodent hunters and a team leader have covered more than 90,000 km on foot looking for signs of rabbits, rats and mice.

There have been no confirmed sightings of ship rats or house mice since July 2011 and no confirmed sightings of rabbits since December 2011.

Mr Hunt said, "The programme has resulted in a dramatic recovery of the island’s flora and fauna. Plant species that were at considerable risk of extinction and those which give Macquarie Island its distinctive character such as tussock grass, Macquarie cabbage and silver-leaf daisy are all showing a remarkable recovery."

Bob Zurr, head of WWF’s Antarctic and Southern Oceans Initiative said, “There are few places like Macquarie Island on the planet and it was heart-breaking to see how the island had been so badly damaged by pests.”

“Now it is once again a haven for Antarctic wildlife thanks to the Australian and Tasmanian governments, whose pest eradication program rescued the island from disaster,” he said.

And in case you're wondering what the detector dogs are doing now that the programme is complete, Mr Hunt said, "Most of the dogs are now enjoying a well earned retirement with some continuing to work with Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service."
Macquarie Island is declared officially pest-free, 7 April 2014, Minister for the Environment, Australian Government

Macquarie Island brought back from the brink, 15 April 2014, WWF-Australia

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