Record-breaking bushfires are raging along the eastern and southeastern coast of Australia, burning through prime marsupial habitat and claiming the lives of hundreds of koalas, an already vulnerable species. Search-and-rescue teams are underway to locate surviving koalas, and they do so thanks to the efforts of koala detection dogs, like Bear, who has been trained by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Human-caused climate change is to blame for the severe temperatures, vegetation dry-out, worsening drought impacts and low-to-almost-no precipitation, all of which have exacerbated bushfire conditions in Australia. Raging bushfires have devastated the eucalyptus stands populated by koalas.
Koalas can survive weeks following a fire, but they are likely suffering from severe burns and smoke inhalation. Finding these surviving koalas, many of whom are injured and distressed, to provide them proper care and rehabilitation then relocate them to safer areas has been a challenge. That’s where the deployment of koala detection dogs, like Bear, can be of value.
The University of the Sunshine Coast has been training canines at the Detection Dogs for Conservation Centre. These trained detection dogs locate koalas by recognizing the scent of koala fur as well as fresh koala scat.
What makes a good koala detection dog? A canine must be disinterested in people and not have a strong prey drive. More importantly, they must be hyper-focused on koalas. Bear, now 6 years old, meets those qualifications.
IFAW shared about Bear’s training and upkeep, “He was brought in for assessment at about 1 year old. Within minutes, the team knew he was ‘The One’ they had been looking for to train on live koalas. He is high-energy, obsessive, doesn’t like to be touched and is completely uninterested in people, which sadly means he doesn’t make the ideal family pet. But these qualities do make him a perfect candidate for a detection dog, which is exactly why he was chosen. He also has zero prey drive, which is essential for a wildlife detection dog, as they need to focus purely on the scent and not the animal, ultimately ignoring the animal.”
Unlike other detection dogs that are trained to sniff out koala scat, Bear is trained to detect live koalas by their fur. Scat remains aren’t always effective, for they don’t always lead to the koalas who left them. But, with Bear’s abilities to detect koala fur, living koalas can be found even at the top of burned trees, giving them more chances of survival success.
Photography by Fiona Clark Photography via IFAW