8 July 2024


Indigenous rangers from Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC) are combining drones and Artificial Intelligence with ancient Knowledge to save a unique population of koalas from the wildfires that could wipe them out.

The koalas on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) are Australia’s only naturally occurring island koalas and have been isolated for about 8000 years. They have low levels of chlamydia, a disease devastating many mainland populations.

But these genetically distinct koalas are threatened by the intense wildfires suffered since the loss of Indigenous cultural burning. In 2014, 70% of the island burned. More wildfires followed in 2018 and 2019. These fires burn so hot that flames explode up into the canopy giving koalas no chance.

A koala on Minjerribah (North Stradbroke Island) © Dan Carter

But a $600,000 “Fireproofing Koalas” project led by QYAC will use ancient Indigenous cultural burning methods to reduce the dangerous fuel loads threatening koalas and other wildlife.

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia and WWF-Denmark are collaborating with QYAC on the unique project with funding support from Danish not-for-profit the QATO Foundation.

Before fuel reduction burns, QYAC rangers will locate koalas using a thermal imaging drone, equipped with Artificial Intelligence to identify koalas. Six Quandamooka rangers recently completed training and are now licenced drone operators.

By knowing koala locations, rangers can plan burns to minimise risk to the iconic marsupials. Precautions include watering down vegetation around koala-occupied trees and even having water bomber aircraft on standby for big operations.

The cultural burning guidelines for koalas developed by QYAC can be utilised across the entire koala range of Eastern Australia.

Kenneth Geipel and Lucas de Paula, co-founders of Danish drone software company Robotto, recently flew out to Minjerribah to work with QYAC to gather data to train the AI to automatically recognize koalas.

Drone flights to locate koalas are critical to QYAC’s plans. On-ground searches are slow, labour-intensive and in thick vegetation, even experienced koala spotters can struggle to detect a single koala. Drones are much faster, can cover up to 50 hectares per hour, and are far more accurate.

Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC)'s Kiah Morgan operating drone during koala survey on Stradbroke Island in collaboration with Dan Carter from QYAC
Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation (QYAC)'s Kiah Morgan operating drone during koala survey on Stradbroke Island in collaboration with Dan Carter from QYAC © WWF-Aus / think Mammoth

In Minjerribah’s Flinders Swamp, a drone search over two nights located 52 koalas, while an on-ground search in a nearby area found only one. In addition to protecting koalas, this project will also enable the first comprehensive assessment of koala numbers on the island.

QYAC’s chief drone pilot Ryan Kucirek said: “To me combining cultural fire and koala drone surveys is everything. It enables the best protection for our wildlife. And the burns bring life back into the ground”.

Quandamooka woman Kiah Morgan recently completed cultural fire training and obtained her drone licence.

“The collaboration between technology and Traditional Owners and looking after the environment is really important. We know the ways of the animals but having this technology will advance our research. We need more women out caring for Country. So having women doing drone work and the cultural burns is a good step. It will bring younger generations in to be more involved,” she said.

Djarra Delaney is WWF-Australia’s Indigenous Land Management Specialist and also a Quandamooka Traditional Owner.

“It’s a very exciting project for WWF-Australia and WWF-Denmark to be a part of to regenerate nature. We want to see Traditional Knowledge being used to care for koalas while bringing in cutting edge technology to assist. Koalas are a special animal for Quandamooka people. We have a custodial responsibility to make sure they’re happy, healthy and thriving,” he said.

Robotto co-founder Kenneth Geipel said: “This project has been very rewarding for me personally. I really enjoy seeing state-of-the-art technologies such as autonomous drones and artificial intelligence crossing over to ancient practices”.

But at a recent Koala Forum held on the island, QYAC warned that reducing the dangerous fuel load won’t happen overnight. With the loss of cultural burning, there is now a thick shrubby understory across much of Minjerribah that heightens fire danger.

Staff from QYAC conducting a cultural burn on Minjerribah to to help mitigate a major bushfire. © WWF-Australia / think Mammoth

QYAC Community Land & Sea Manager Darren Burns told the audience this thick understory has to be manually reduced before a burn can even be considered.

“You try to do a cultural burn like a tribal Aboriginal would have done 200 years ago you’re going to have the same result as a kid walking around with a box of matches, it just goes boom. So we can’t really do cultural burns we’ve got to do something in between, we’ve got to do manual reduction first. We’re actually out there mowing this bush down,” he said.