PHILLIP ISLAND, Australia – Just as the light begins to vanish, thousands of tiny penguins waddle out of the surf on an island in southeastern Australia, then head up the beach and along well-worn paths toward their burrows.
The “penguin parade” has been a major attraction since the 1920s, when tourists were led by torchlight to view the nightly arrival of the birds — the world’s smallest penguin breed, with adults averaging 13 inches tall — from a day of fishing and swimming.
For much of that time, the penguins lived among the residents of a housing development, mostly modest vacation homes, in tight proximity to cars and pets and ravenous foxes. The penguins’ numbers fell precipitously. But in 1985, the state government took an extraordinary step: It decided to buy every piece of property on the Summerland Peninsula and return the land to the penguins. The process was completed in 2010.
The birds are thriving. There are about 31,000 breeding penguins on the peninsula, up from 12,000 in the 1980s. Phillip Island Nature Parks is the most popular wildlife tourist destination in the state of Victoria, drawing 740,000 visitors in 2018. And late month, a gleaming symbol of that success opened to the public: a $58 million visitor center, a striking star-shaped building with glass walls that look onto penguin burrows.
The story of the transformation of the Summerland Peninsula from a coastal suburb into a wildlife habitat is one of unusual government foresight. It also reflects the Australian tourism industry’s heavy reliance on wilderness and wildlife resources and the economic threats posed by environmental degradation.
“The case study at Phillip Island is proof that difficult short-term decisions can yield great long-term results,” said Rachel Lowry, chief conservation officer of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Australia. “It is an incredible example of allowing scientific modeling to motivate and inform a decision that has gone on to benefit both people and nature.”
Phillip Island, which sits in the mouth of Westernport Bay about 85 miles south of Melbourne, is home to the world’s largest colony of the species known as the little penguin.
In the 1930s, the owners of the land on the peninsula gave about 10 acres to the state of Victoria for the protection of the little penguins.
For many residents, a visit to the penguin parade was — and still is — a childhood rite of passage, the destination for school trips and family outings.
But the peninsula, with its breathtaking views of the ocean, has also been an attractive location for developers. On the penguins’ breeding ground, 190 structures — mainly homes — were built as part of Summerland Estate, with plans for hundreds more.
That, along with predatory foxes (now eradicated) that had been introduced by European settlers, led to a sharp decrease in the island’s population of little penguins. At one time there were 10 colonies on Phillip Island; today there is only one.
By the early 1980s, scientists were worried about the prospect of total local extinction. “The colony was being eroded at an alarmingly rapid rate,” said Peter Dann, research manager at Phillip Island Nature Park and one of the authors of a study that led to the Summerland property buyback.
When Dann describes the 1985 decision to remove or destroy the structures in Summerland Estate, he still seems shocked it happened. It is thought to be the only instance in the world in which an entire community has been purchased by a government for the sake of environmental and wildlife protection.
In the years leading up to 1985, the government began to halt development and buy undeveloped land. But the idea of eradicating Summerland Estate was a bombshell for residents.
“We were horrified and deeply shocked and incredibly saddened,” a former resident, Jean Verwey, said.
Dann said he understood the anguish. “I have lots of empathy — these are people who have spent countless Christmases and holidays here, who made intergenerational family memories,” he said. But his main concern and loyalty lay with the penguins, he said.