We are not alone. The rapidly declining numbers of little or fairy penguins is not restricted to Granite Island; the serious problem exists at other points along South Australia’s coastline, and overseas.
And the lack of control of increasing rat infestation on the island may be just as bigger problem as the seals, which are commonly blamed.
The bottom line is that since research began on the penguin decline on Granite Island two years ago the numbers have dropped from 100 to 26, and of them there are now only 10 pairs who attempt to breed. There were an estimated 2000 penguins in 2001, and at this stage there is no definite cause for the alarming drop.
The plight of the penguins will again be at the forefront when Sonia Kleindorfer, a Professor of Physical Sciences at Flinders University, addresses the community at a $50-per head fund-raising dinner at the McCracken Convention Centre on Friday, June 14 at 6pm.
Dr Diane Colombelli-Negrel, who gained her PhD working with American-born Prof Kleindorfer upon arriving from France eight years ago, and has worked on this penguin research with her the past two years, said the common perception was that seals were responsible for eliminating the penguins.
“It may be the seals, but it is probably not just one factor,” Dr Colombelli-Negrel said.
“The seals could be responsible, but it is not 100 per cent for sure and we need to actually verify that and see if it is in correlation with different things. The answer has not been found.
“It could be disease through their food or in the sea, or seal predication. It could be migration; the penguins may be just going somewhere else because the condition at Victor Harbor may not be good for them anymore.
“The action that needs to be taken depends on the outcome. There was an invasion of a plant species on the near-by West Island that actually prevented the penguins from breeding properly. Unfortunately, we realised this too late and the penguins had already gone.
“If it is predication there may be some measures that could be implemented on land, like trapping of predators or preventing them to get access to the island. Predation at sea is obviously really difficult to do anything about, and killing seals near the island is not a solution or is going to have a big impact on solving the issues.”
The two-year research by the Flinders University team has included video surveillance of the penguins’ burrows at night to determine whether something was destroying their eggs, but again Dr Colombelli-Negrel said the findings were inconclusive.
“We had video cameras to look at the rats – and there is a lot of rat activity on Granite Island – but we have not had any videos of rats taking anything,” Dr Colombelli-Negrel said. “We have vision of a possum going into a burrow, but this did not seem to have any impact on the breeding success.
“More studies are needed in this area; we have been looking at a very small population. If the rats are the problem we can put traps or have other kinds of rodent control.”
Prof Kleindorfer and Dr Colombelli-Negrel would like to establish studies on penguin populations across South Australia. “The trend is not just Victor Harbor; the decline in numbers is much more global than that,” Dr Colombelli-Negrel said.
The critical factor is funding; about $150,000 per annum is needed to employ a full-time researcher to assist with the studies. Proceeds from the dinner on June 14 will go to this cause. Tickets and more information on the dinner may be obtained from organiser Rob Heaslip: 0439 995 760 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org