Bear, a Collie cross Koolie, is a canine with an extra-special talent. He, along with Maya, Baxter and Billie, are all members of a very important program based at the University of the Sunshine Coast, in Queensland, Australia. Among many other tasks, the team have received special training as Detection Dogs, to track and locate the vanishing koala population.
This is such an important effort. According to recent surveys, koala populations have nosedived more than 80 percent since 1995. People are finding dead koalas throughout New South Wales and Queensland. Malnourished koalas are found on the road with nowhere to go. What is going on?
According to the World Wildlife Fund, koala habitats are being systematically destroyed by excessive tree clearing. Also, during brushfires, they’ll climb into the tops of trees, hidden, burned and starving, being found weeks after the flames are gone. Dr. Jon Hanger, Managing Director and Wildlife Veterinarian from Australia’s Endeavour Veterinary Ecology, says,
“if we don’t act very quickly… we’ll lose 50-90 percent of remaining koalas over a couple of decades.”
Dr. Hanger was the veterinarian for the late Steve Irwin, and is highly respected for his expertise with koalas in particular, being a member of the Koala Crisis Taskforce.
Bear was first brought into the USC Detection Dogs for Conservation (DDC) program by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who saw untapped potential in the pup. He had been relinquished to a shelter by his family because he was too high energy, as well as highly toy-driven. But these qualities actually make him an excellent candidate for the program! The IFAW, supporting Bear, partnered with the DDC team who trained the canine. Bear passed his exams with flying colors.
Able to detect the scent of koalas with a 96 percent success rate, Bear uses his amazing muzzle to locate an endangered marsupial, who may be living in the path of a logging company en route to tear down the little one’s habitat. The rescued koala can then be relocated to a safer space.
Maya, another Detection Dog graduate, was also found abandoned in a shelter. Her trainer says she was totally obsessed with balls, but her obsessive behavior made her an excellent candidate for the program. Maya, who is extremely driven, can sniff out koala feces. Her trainer had previously prodded through undergrowth, searching for signs of poo in areas targeted for construction, knowing if there was poo, there was certain to be a koala. A time consuming process, until Maya joined the hunt.
Once Maya was trained to search and sniff, locating and then relocating the endangered animals became as important to Maya as it was to her trainer. And she’s very successful at it. The four-dog team is always training, honing their skills to help multiple imperiled species. Safe from what was once an uncertain future in a shelter, they’re now helping to save others.
Sadly, a recent survey of koalas in the district of Tiaro, Australia, found no sign of the animals. Fifteen years ago there had been numerous sightings. So you can see how important these dogs are, and how necessary this training program is, if there is any hope to save the koala.
Says researcher Anthony Schultz, “I think that we run the risk of turning around in 10 years and going ‘where are our koalas? Why did nobody tell us about this?”