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Australia’s koalas are a very vulnerable species. Populations are under pressure from land clearing, attacks from domestic animals and climate changes. The devastating wildfires along the east coast of Australia have not only destroyed people’s homes but also the habitat of the slow moving marsupials. They live in eucalyptus trees which can ignite quickly.

Scientist like Romane Cristescu study how the various pressures affect the koala population. While searching for koala scats for her PhD, and spending countless hours on all fours, the idea came about for a koala detection dog.

That gave me a lot of time to think of a better way – one that possibly was four-legged,” Romane says. “Little did I know at the time that others had been working with dogs to help conservation in the past, but as far as I know, never before for koala scats.”

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The Detection Dogs for Conservation program at the University of the Sunshine Coast has five dogs, two of which are dedicated to sniffing out koala scats. Romane and her colleagues found that koala habitat detection dogs had a 100 per cent success rate in finding the scats, while humans often missed an average of 30 per cent of sites. The dogs allowed for more accurate and robust data on koala distribution.

In 2016 a Border Collie-Koolie mix was surrendered by his owners because of his high-energy, obsessive behavior. The blue eyed Bear turned out to be a perfect candidate for the detection dog program. Wildlife detection dogs must focus purely on scent and ignore the animal. They must be hyper focused and without any prey drive.

Everything that made Bear an undesirable pet, his high-energy, obsessive nature, not liking to be touched and completely uninterested in people, made him an ideal detection dog. In fact, Bear is one of the few dogs that can also find live koalas.

The International Foundation for Animal Welfare funds Bears training and upkeep. The IFAW along with dogs and handlers from Detection Dogs for Conservation joined the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services and other organizations to rescue wildlife in fire stricken areas.

Photo credits: Fiona Clark

Once an area is declared safe, Bear, outfitted in special socks to protect his feet, is sent in to look for surviving koalas.  Bear’s ability to sniff out live koalas is especially effective when there isn’t fresh scat to sniff out such as after a fire.

Bear and his team are on standby to be deployed as burned areas become safe.  It is hoped that surviving koalas may be found in the scorched areas.  Beyond his important work during the devastating brush fires, Bear will continue to assist scientists in conserving Australia’s koalas.

Photo credits: Fiona Clark

Thanks to our friends at the Australian Geographic for the story

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