10 Jan 2020


High in the treetops, a mother koala and her joey climb to a green patch of leaves. Surrounding them is a burned-out forest. Although there aren’t many green leaves left, spotting koalas up this high is no easy feat. Thanks to our supporters’ urgent donations and furniture company, Koala, detection dogs from OWAD Environment have been deployed into bushfire-affected areas to find survivors. Olivia Woosnam, Director of OWAD Environment, who works with detection dogs Taz and Missy, explains more...

Why do you work with detection dogs?

We got our first detection dog coming up to six years ago now. Previously, we had the job of scratching through the leaf litter looking for koala scats ourselves. For humans, this is like looking for a needle in a haystack. All we can rely on is our eyes, so we've got to be incredibly close to the scats to spot them. And even when you're close to koala scats, a lot of the time you're not actually going to see them. The detection dogs, on the other hand, rely on their nose (their sense of smell) to scan the landscape. They can take us to the location of the koala scats much quicker than we could without them. 

How effective are the dogs?

When we got our first detection dog, Taz, a few years ago we did some field trials and testing. We were interested in knowing how much better (or worse) she was going to be compared to humans. We were expecting her to be better in some of the more complex types of leaf litter but it turns out she was better in all conditions. At the end of this study, we found that Taz was 372% more effective than humans were, as well as much quicker. This means gains in efficiency as well as a massive gain in time. 

Taz has done over 15,000 kilometres of searches on koala-specific projects now. We’ve also sent over 2,000 scats to the WildDNA laboratory for analysis in the last three years.

Why are the dogs looking for scats? What do they reveal about a koala population?

We look for koala scats on most jobs because it’s a trail of evidence that koalas leave behind them in the forest. One individual can produce 100 - 150 fecal pellets (known as scats) in 24 hours. That's a lot of evidence they'll leave behind, and reveals how koalas utilise the landscape. Relatively fresh scat, up to about two months old, can be sent off for analysis. This then gives us a unique DNA profile of that individual including whether it's carrying any of the key pathogens that affect wild koalas, and its gender. Genetic analysis of DNA profiles is then to identify distinct populations, which enables the development of tailored management responses specific to each distinct population (as a response to its specific needs, challenges etc.).. 

What does a typical day of post-fire monitoring involve?

When specifically working in burned environments we're looking for fresh, unburnt scats. This tells you that there are survivors still in the area after the fire. So far at Spicers Peak in Maryvale, in two days we have located seven live koalas and found evidence of yet more survivors around. We did a visual check on each koala found and had no immediate concern for their safety. We note locations of both live koalas and where we find lots of fresh scats, and drinking points will be installed there so they can have access to fresh water. Emergency water points were already placed for one female that did show signs of dehydration. Unfortunately for the koalas there already wasn't much green leaf before the fire, and now obviously even less. Lack of food and water are an ongoing issue. New leaf is just starting to grow on this property, so right now the race is to provide water so they don't die of thirst so close to having fresh food. 

What are the benefits of using detection dogs in conservation?

Detection dogs have been increasingly used not just in Australia but all over the world to help ecologists in detecting both native threatened plants and animals, as well as invasive species. Our dogs are a very powerful 'tool' for us, including for post-fire monitoring as well as post-fire emergency response in the immediate aftermath of a fire, to quickly locate survivors in need of immediate medical attention. Mainly because we can just cover that much more ground, which greatly increases our chances of locating individuals. 

Is this the first time you work in fire-affected areas?

No. We have 6 years' experience now working in fire-affected areas with detection dogs, deploying at various stages after a fire has impacted an area. This includes deploying in the immediate aftermath of a fire and coordinating with wildlife rescuers in the area. In these cases, we deploy when the ground is still hot and smoking in places, and big trees and logs are still being consumed. This is highly dangerous work and we take extreme precautions when deploying in the immediate aftermath. We control our dogs with an Acme whistle, so we closely control their movements to ensure they don't step on hot ground or go near a burning tree or a red hot log. Neither our dogs nor ourselves have ever sustained any injury during post-fire work; it is a highly specialised part of our work for which we have developed specific control measures to ensure no one gets hurt.

WWF-Australia is calling for global support to establish an Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund. This includes continuing wildlife response efforts, habitat restoration and future-proofing Australia. To help wildlife in need adopt a koala today.