Koala-sniffing detection dog the latest weapon in saving wildlife after devastating bushfires
Conservation detection dog is one of the important tools being used in the search for injured koalas from bushfires on the New South Wales Mid North Coast. Taylor is a four-year-old English Springer Spaniel, that has been in training since eight weeks of age. Bear, a Cattle Dog cross-breed, is trained to find both koalas and quolls, another small Australian marsupial, in the wild. “This is the first year that we have been involved in the fires,” Romane Cristescu, Bear’s minder and ecologist at The University of the Sunshine Coast, said. “It is a bit more dangerous than what we usually do.” Bear, who usually looks for sick or injured wildlife for conservation and research purposes in calmer conditions, has been wearing protective socks on his paws to search through areas scorched by fire.
"Every time she smelt koala poo or koala fur, she'd get her favourite reward which, as a puppy, was a tennis ball and treats," Taylor’s trainer Ryan Tate said. "What we essentially train the dog to do is enjoy that love for sniffing the environment but to discriminate a particular smell so every day out in the field for her is the best day of her life." At four, Taylor is becoming an old hand. "She just loves smelling things," Tate said. "But if she smells koala poo or a live koala that's the icing on the cake. She knows when she smells that she gets told by a million people she's fantastic and she gets a tennis ball.”
"Her breed has been bred for hundreds of years to use their nose, to find small animals traditionally for hunters, but we sort of reverse that role now and use them for conservation purposes. Sometimes she'll just sit right beneath the live animal if there's not too much wind. Other times she'll help us find the koala by identifying the freshest scats and then we call in the brilliant volunteers at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital who are expert koala spotters."
Tate has been an animal trainer all his life, but got into conservation detection dogs through his former work as a penguin trainer.
"But my wife and I are both hardcore conservationists and as soon as we saw what was happening around here we knew we had to dedicate and donate our skills and time to helping find what remaining koalas are here. So ever since the fires ripped through the Lake Innes area we've been on standby and we've gone in there on four occasions now and Taylor has been successful in locating eight koalas."
Port Macquarie Koala Hospital President Sue Ashton said Tate, who is now a member of the hospital, offered his and Taylor's services to help them in a search-and-rescue program. "We never imagined that we would be using her in these fires, but it's just working so well," Ashton said. "Taylor's very speedy and very dedicated and covers a lot more area much faster than we do so it's been a great asset."
The Koala Hospital has had teams going out to the bushfire zones every day searching for burnt koalas and healthy koalas as well. More than 30 koalas are being treated for burns at the hospital.
"What we're doing is treating their little paws and their noses and anywhere else that's burned," Ashton said.
The hospital's GoFund Me campaign has already raised more than $1,8 million dollars. That money will go towards more than 100 water stations for the Port Macquarie area where bushfires have devastated core koala habitat. "We're working with NSW Forestry Corporation and National Parks to map the areas they need to go in to and we've also got a vehicle that we're going to use to top up these water stations as needed," Ashton said.
"We're also getting some manufactured for our wildlife colleagues up in the Northern Rivers where they've been devastated by fire and also for wildlife organisations down south of us in Taree."
Cameras will also be installed to see what wildlife comes to those water stations and how they help the wildlife population.
The Koala Hospital is also hoping to start the first wild koala breeding program in the world to try to rebuild the koala population. It will probably be somewhere in Port Macquarie. "That was a five to 10-year goal, we couldn't have done that without the massive support from the community," Ashton said. "It's now brought that goal forward and we're going to be focussing on that in the New Year."
The Koala Hospital will first have to find the land for the breeding program and then build infrastructure. "There will be roads, there'll be fencing, there will be water and feeding stations, and there'll also be probably a clinic and a laboratory attached to it because we want to do this really well," Ashton said. "We are going to be working with a number of government departments and a lot of wildlife vets to make sure we use best practice, and then we get to share that knowledge with other organisations."
Source: SBS News and ABC News