Maremma dogs are well known to be excellent at protecting other species. Though they are mostly used as livestock protection dogs for sheep, they have also put their watchdog skills to work for more unusual species, including Australia's endangered little penguins. Conservationists figured that if the dogs can be successful in protecting penguins, why not other endangered species? So, Zoos Victoria is training Maremma dogs to be bandicoot bodyguards.

The eastern barred bandicoot is native to Tasmania and Victoria, but since the introduction of foxes and cats, this marsupial's population plummeted. Captive breeding programs and reintroduction into the wild is the last hope for this critically endangered species' future. But to be released into the wild where introduced predators still roam is a recipe for failure. That's where the Maremma dogs come in.

"[Bandicoots] are prolific little breeders, better than rabbits," says Jacquie O'Brien of Zoos Victoria. "However they just can’t cope with foxes, an introduced predator in Australia that is devastating wildlife. The theory behind our Bandicoot Bodyguard trial is for dogs to work in pairs where they will guard flocks of sheep in an area where we will release bandicoots and they will ward off foxes from their territory. Essentially the dogs will protect the bandicoots by proxy."

Maremma dogs have proven themselves to be wonderfully effective at keeping predators away. So with hope, any bandicoots are living near Maremmas will also be under their protection. And that means the eastern barred bandicoot has a chance to regain a foothold in Victoria.

The trial will be staged over five years. "The Guardian Dog program will trial whether bandicoots, protected by specially trained Maremma Guardian Dogs, will be able to form self-sustaining populations in areas that are not enclosed by feral proof fences. The first two working dog pups, Mackinnon and Banjo, have the joined the program and over the next two years they will be gradually introduced to sheep, Eastern Barred Bandicoots and other native species."

Here is a great short video about the zoo's bandicoot plan, including footage of the pups in training:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.