Nature & wildlife of Kangaroo Island, South Australia

With low population, substantial tracts of old growth vegetation and a third of the island declared national park, it’s not surprising that Mother Nature loves it on Kangaroo Island. Here are just a few species you may like to look out for…

Endemic and rare species

Kangaroo Island kangaroos: the local kangaroo has evolved into a unique sub-species of the Western Grey. It’s smaller, darker and has longer fur than its mainland counterpart, and is easily seen within Flinders Chase National Park.

Tammar wallabies: the Tammar wallaby is abundant on the island yet nearly extinct on the mainland except for a small population surviving in Western Australia.

The Glossy Black Cockatoo: an island sub-species of the endangered Glossy Black is prized by both islanders and ornithologists alike. There are presently some 200 birds on Kangaroo Island, a number that has been bolstered by nesting boxes and lots of love...

Echidnas: this monotreme can prove a hard find on the mainland but the island supports a healthy population. Usually seen in understorey foraging for ants with its sticky tongue, the Kangaroo Island echidnas have distinctive ‘blonde’ spines. The grass tree: actually the Tates Grass Tree, a yacca that’s endemic to the island and very lovely to behold with its rounded grass skirt and distinctive spear growing to four metres. Collecting the gum was once a local industry – the gum was an ingredient in explosive manufacture.

Kangaroo, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board Glossy Black Cockatoo, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board Echidna, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board

The Ligurian bee: in the early 1880s, 12 hives were introduced from the Italian province of Liguria to establish an apiary near Penneshaw. All of the island’s present-day bees are descendants of those 12 hives, quite untainted by other bee species and as such, unique. Kangaroo Island honey is world renowned – and if you try nothing else, try the honey ice cream made at Clifford’s Honey Farm. Clifford’s is a tourism time warp, but by jiminy, the ice cream is something else.

Flowers: Kangaroo Island has 46 endemic plant species including tetrathecas and the prickly Kangaroo Island conestick (we wouldn’t know them if we tripped over them and we probably have); there are also more than 60 different species of orchid found on the island.

Famous species

Koalas: although one of its most famous residents, the koala on Kangaroo Island is something of a vexed issue and one that should cause purists to draw breath. Basically, it’s an introduced species and is so happy here that numbers have exploded, taking a toll on gum canopies in the process.

That said (even through gritted teeth) visitors love them and they love to see them in the wild. By the way, that ‘stoned on gum leaves’ thing? Not true.

The platypus: another introduced species but one that’s exceptionally difficult to see. If you’re patient enough you may seem them break the surface in creek pools. (Local knowledge can help here.)

Koala in tree, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board Platypus, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board
Little penguins: join a night-time guided tour each evening in Kingscote or Penneshaw where these small birds leave their rocky burrows for hunting grounds out at sea.

Pelicans: one of the simplest pleasures on the island is to gather on the wharf in Kingscote and watch the pelican feeding ‘show’. This has been operated by the same fisherman for years and while it sounds a bit naff, it’s one of those simple pleasures. Difficult to know which plays up best to the crowd – the fisherman or the pelicans.

Cape Barren Geese: these odd birds look like they have a yellow-green parrot’s bill stuck on their face and are given to grunt like pigs. Once a threatened species, they’ve staged something of a comeback.

Australian sea lion and New Zealand fur seal: both are native to Kangaroo Island and now increasing in number after being all but wiped out by early sealers. Seal Bay is where you can walk among the sea lions on ranger-led tours, one of the island’s biggest attractions.

Cape du Couedic has a fur seal population some 7000 strong.

Heath goannas: this whopper reptile grows up to a metre long. You may see it scavenging on roadkill along the roads or basking in the sun. Stand and admire – it’s a beauty.

Whales: Southern Right Whales and Humpbacks make an annual showing off Kangaroo Island from May to October.

Raptors: no, not the toothsome things from the Jurassic but a fine feathered collection of birds of prey. Raptor Domain near Seal Bay rescues injured birds, eventually releasing them into the wild. Kestrels, owls, kites and a stunning Wedge Tailed Eagle are brought out for a terrific interactive experience. Owner Dave Irwin is particularly good with both animals and public and no wonder – he’s Steve Irwin’s cousin.
Seal Bay, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board Goanna, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board Wedge Tailed Eagle, South Australia. Photo by South Australia Tourist Board

Need some local knowledge?

A local wildlife guide can make all the difference. Take a tour with operations like Kangaroo Island Wilderness Tours: you’ll travel by comfortable 4WD, accessing some of the island’s most famous attractions – like Seal Bay and Remarkable Rocks – and those tucked away corners where specific species are known to gather.
Responsible Travel would like to thank the South Australia tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marc Witte]