1 Dec 2016

The loss of a tireless worker for petrels – Bob the petrel detector dog

Bob on the job!
By Mike Britton

Sea bird conservation lost a tireless worker when Bob, one of two New Zealand trained `petrel detector’ dogs, sadly died last week after falling sick on Gau.  Bob, and his mate Tar, had been searching for the nests of Fiji Petrel on Gau island since their arrival in 2012.  Fiji Petrel is critically endangered, thought to breed only on the island of Gau and is considered to be very vulnerable to rats, cats and pigs when it is nesting.  But no action can be taken to protect these nests until their location is known.

Fiji Petrel are thought to nest in the forested hills and mountains of the island interior. This same area also has the only known breeding population of Collared Petrels in Fiji as well as a number of endemic forest species. Gau is the fifth largest island in Fiji, at 52km2, two thirds of which is covered in tropical rainforest. The land is rugged, dominated by the summits in the north and a main ridge running south. There are few records of Fiji Petrel on land, all known from single birds attracted to village lights on Gau. While introduced rats, feral cats and pigs are present the island is free of mongoose and supports good numbers of amphibians and reptiles including the Fijian Ground Frog (EN) and Banded Iguana (EN).

The work of Bob and Tar has been invaluable even though it is really is needle in the hay stack!  While no Fiji Petrel nests have been found, they have located a number of Collard Petrel nest locations allowing protection to be put in place to protects this endangered bird.

The dogs had a steady routine, with Mondays normally being a washing, training and kennel cleaning day with a program of 10-15 days of active searching each month, which is greatly dependent on weather. The dogs normally searched for 1 or 2 consecutive days followed by a rest in their kennels for 1 day at least.

Poasa Qalo (PQ), NatureFiji-MareqetiViti’s (NFMV) Field Manager on Gau is also the senior dog handler (having been by Steve Sawyer of Ecoworks NZ along with the Fiji Police Force Dog Unit.  Steve Sawyer trained the dogs in New Zealand and then brought them to Gau to work with the NFMV team.

From January to August, which is the Collared Petrel breeding season, the dogs search for new burrows mainly around and within the five known colony areas and assist in determining occupancy or movement in known burrows. The Fiji Petrel nesting period is likely to be during the second half of the year and so the dog’s search area is wider afield at that time of the year, although some searching continues in and around the colonies as some of the burrows not used by Collared Petrels may contain Fiji Petrels in the second half of the year.

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There are many ‘burrows’ in the forested hills of Gau, and only a small proportion of these are petrel burrows. It is believed that land crabs are responsible for most of these. As such, only when the dogs indicate a burrow is it given a tag with a number on it and each of these burrows is GPS located and is entered on a register.   At the beginning of 2014, there were 88 ‘indicated’ burrows which were registered in the database, as at 31st of July 2016, there are 106, an increase of 18 burrows. Once given a tag and number, ‘gates’ of twigs are placed across burrow entrances at all times and these enable activity to be monitored (activity not necessarily by petrels – rats, toads and land crabs sometimes use the burrows).

Bob and Tar have become important members of the Gau community and are respected for their dedication.  The sad loss of Bob is a major setback for the Petrel programme and with probably less than 50 birds left, maybe a major step back towards extinction.

Tar needs another mate but it costs up to $10,000 to train a new `petrel location dog’.   If anyone can help us raise the funds to train `another’ Bob we would love to hear from you.  Help us step back from another extinction.