It takes teamwork to future-proof the treasured Phillip Island penguin population
In the most extensive conservation endeavour since the notable buyback of Summerland Peninsula in the 1980s, Phillip Island's Little Penguin population will receive heightened protection against the dangers of bushfires and heatwaves. The Penguin Foundation has allocated $109,000 towards safeguarding the species from dehydration, fire, and extreme weather conditions over the next three years. Moreover, the Foundation has welcomed Phillip Island Nature Parks' receipt of $227,000 from the State Government's Risk and Resilience Grant Program to support its ‘Future-Proofing Little Penguins’ initiative.
This funding compliments the generous support that has been received from the NAB Foundation Community Grant to create green firebreaks to protect the Little Penguins and their ecosystem. NAB Foundation Community Grants fund local projects that help communities prepare for natural disasters, support long-term recovery and build resilience against future disasters and climate change. Mil Kairouz, Executive for Retail and regional VIC at NAB says, “We are proud to have awarded a NAB Foundation Community and Impact grant to support the exceptional work being done by The Penguin Foundation. Now more than ever, there is a growing need to support communities to rebuild and prepare for the challenges ahead. In these times we are honoured to be able fund green firebreaks in Australia's largest Little Penguin colony to protect vulnerable penguins against bushfires and reduce the risk of bushfire impacting the tourism and local business economy in the region”.
Later in the year NAB staff volunteers will come and help plant the firebreaks. Georgia Symmons, Executive Officer Penguin Foundation says, “We are looking forward to welcoming the team from NAB to planting days that will be held in June to July. It really does take team work to make such an ambitious project happen. Many hands will be required to transform the landscape so Little Penguins have the best chance to survive extreme weather conditions”.
In an Australian first, Phillip Island Nature Parks will use evidence gathered during research to modify penguin habitat to reduce flammability and land temperatures, particularly in areas where common fire risk reductions such as controlled burns or fire breaks can’t be used because of the impact to significant vegetation and wildlife. As part of the project, researchers are heat mapping the Summerland Peninsula for ‘hotspots’ that need to be revegetated, and analysing that data to prioritise key penguin breeding and nesting areas. Nature Parks will also modify and replace vegetation to expand habitats for Little Penguins and reduce the impact of climate change, heat stress and fire.
Phillip Island Nature Parks Ranger-in-Charge, Ben Thomas, said "climate change and threat of increased penguin mortality due to more severe and frequent heat stress events and destructive bushfires had been a driving force for the holistic initiative that would ‘future proof’ the species. Nature Parks will remove sections of overabundant melaleuca scrub, which inhibit biodiversity and penguin friendly vegetation, and replace it with bird succulent herbland species, such as Bower spinach.
The Summerland Peninsula is home to Australia’s largest Little Penguin colony, and we have an important role to play in securing the future of the species. That means doing all we can to protect these treasured animals,” Mr Thomas said.
“The reality is climate change is making heat stress events and bushfires worse, not only in Australia but across the world. These are more frequent, more intense and more dangerous. The modified vegetation structure has the ability to greatly reduce the speed and intensity of a bushfire, and importantly would provide emergency services more time to respond, giving our Little Penguins the best chance of survival in the event of a fire.”
Mr Thomas said controlled burns and large, cleared firebreaks were not practical on the Summerland Peninsula due to the risk of harm to the Little Penguins, their burrows and the habitat, particularly during moulting season.
In the 1980s, the Victorian Government brokered the largest residential buyback in the state’s history, purchasing 774 housing and other lots in the Summerland Residential Estate to protect the state’s beloved penguin colony from extinction. The buyback coupled with dedicated conservation measures by Nature Parks has helped penguin numbers on the island grow from 12,000 in the 1980s to 40,000 birds today.