Trouble at Kangaroo Island

A resurgent seal population is ganging up on the world's smallest penguin

A A A

Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, is one of Australia's most popular tourism destinations, thanks to its profusion of native wildlife, which includes koalas, kangaroos and the world's smallest penguin species.

But lately there have been dark goings-on in the animal kingdom: the New Zealand fur seals have been devouring the fairy penguins.

Penguin numbers have dropped by half on the island, according to some locals, who want the seals to be sterilised, relocated or even culled. Now they have come up with a new suggestion: shoot them with beanbag rounds – a method more commonly used to control riots – if they approach penguin colonies.

John Ayliffe, who runs nightly penguin-spotting tours, said five penguins had been taken by seals near the town of Kingscote in recent weeks. He warned that the seal population was booming and that, unless drastic measures were taken, the penguins on the rocky island could be wiped out. The lead shot "hits the seals like a punch and it will not penetrate the skin provided it's fired from sensible distances", he said, after which the seals would simply move away.

Conservationists, however, are horrified, and the state environment department says that "interactions between New Zealand fur seals and penguins are a natural phenomenon over which humans have little control". It adds that the seals – a protected species native to Australia as well as New Zealand – are only now recovering from commercial sealing in the past.

Sealing, which was Australia's first major industry after colonisation, nearly eradicated the fur seal. Although it was banned in the 1830s, fishermen were still allowed to kill seals deemed to be "interfering with fishing operations" until 1983.

In recent decades, the Kangaroo Island population has bounced back to about 25,000 – and the number of penguins has declined in tandem, claim tourism operators. One of these, Simone Somerfield, told The Australian last year that visitors to her penguin viewing centre had seen the birds ambushed by seals in the shallows and even chased on to the shore.

"Every now and again you would see one penguin being taken, and I would say, 'Gee, that's amazing, it's like David Attenborough'," she said. "But then it was more and more and more, and then mass kills in which the seals were not even eating them. It was happening within a hundred metres and you have a complete view – it was like watching a horror movie."

Seal populations are believed to have grown partly because of a decline in numbers of sharks and killer whales, their natural predators. Mr Ayliffe, manager of the Kangaroo Island Penguin Centre, said that in South Africa and Namibia seals were "harvested" because there was not enough food for them. "Harvesting is a major tool used internationally to manage numbers. It's only a matter of time before we implement some control measures here."

However, measures such as culling and relocation have been rejected by environmental authorities, who say they have proved expensive and largely ineffective elsewhere. New seals move into areas from which others have been removed, and relocated seals swim long distances to return to familiar feeding grounds. Moreover, penguins form only a small part of the fur seal's diet, according to marine biologists.

Tim Kelly, of the Conservation Council of South Australia, said while he could understand the frustration of tour operators, the growth in seal numbers was a welcome development. He added there were other threats to the penguins, such as attacks by dogs and nest predation, which also had to be taken into account.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee