Sniffer dogs to save koalas

By Science for Wildlife

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Thanks to everyone who has supported this cause so far! Please help us to reach our first milestone; $10,000 will cover a professionally trained and certified koala detection dog. We are in discussions with some new project partners for 2015 who will help us raise the rest if we can meet this first funding goal!
We are a not-for-profit organisation and any funding received will go towards this project, even if we don't meet the final funding goal. So don't hold back, your dollar will make a difference!
Conservation Dogs will help to save koalas from bush fires in the World Heritage Blue Mountains.

Man's best friend is about to become the koala's best friend. This time last year, bush fires roared through the Blue Mountains, devastating over 200 homes. The fires also burnt over 200,000 hectares of bushland, but we don't know how wildlife was affected.

We still don't know where the koalas are living, or how many there are, in this massive World Heritage Site. If we find the koalas and map their locations, land managers like NSW National Parks Service and the Rural Fire Service can use this information to protect koalas from bushfires.

So we have a cunning plan to find the koalas, because ordinary koala surveys methods do not work at this site. This project has everything; koalas, amazing sniffer dogs, and the stunningly beautiful World Heritage Blue Mountains. What's more, it's where cutting edge science meets Dr Suess...

What's the problem?

The koala is (a small cough of embarrassment) listed as a threatened species in Australia. Without knowing where koalas are living in the Blue Mountains, or how many there are, we can't conserve them.

We have to admit there is a good reason we don't know much about koalas in the Mountains. Ordinary koala survey methods don't work here, so the koalas are extremely hard to find. The World Heritage Area is vast and covers over one million hectares, and it's made up of remote and rugged terrain, full of dramatic cliffs and steep slopes. Visual surveys for koalas don't work because the trees are too tall, you can't see the small grey bottom of a koala sitting in a fork thirty meters above your head, watching you searching for it.

So a creative solution is the answer...

Koalas are a threatened species but we don't even know where they live or how many there are in the massive Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

How are we fixing it?

We have been working with conservation dogs, sniffer dogs trained to track endangered and hard to find wildlife. Our previous research with Badger, the world's first tiger quoll detection dog, found that there are very few limits to what dogs can find in Australian habitats. Conservation dogs are incredibly talented - they can sniff out scent at concentrations of parts per million, which is mind blowing! The trick to success is all in the training, and we have been developing methods to improve the dogs' performance even more.

So we know that conservation dogs can find wildlife, in habitats where humans fail. And we know that training up koala detection dogs will help to find and conserve the koalas in the Blue Mountains.

Badger was first trained to find scats from tiger quolls. With your help we can add "eau de koala" to his scent repertoire and train some friends for him.

A snippet of where your help will go..

will pay for collection of scent from a captive koala for detection dog training. And the koalas love a good chest rub with a scent swab, the males lean into it and get a sheepish grin on their faces.

$50 will pay for one week of detection dog husbandry, including special treats for wildlife sniffer dog training; like Badger's favourite – cheese! Some dogs will do anything for a piece of cheese..

$75 will pay for fuel for a week of koala surveys in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area

$500 will pay for detection dog equipment including GPS tracking collars so we can see exactly where the dogs go and get an accurate measure of much area we have surveyed, and measure dog performance.

$10,000 will cover the full training cost for a professionally trained dog, capable of detecting a koala from over 40 meters away in thick bush. It takes at least 3 months of intensive training, depending on the dog.

$15,000 covers dog training plus two months of surveys in the remote and rugged Blue Mountains.

$25,000 covers training for two dogs plus surveys of Wollemi and Blue Mountains National Park

Additional funding covers more dogs, and more surveys.

Please note the dogs are professionally trained and certified not to chase wildlife, they track the koala scent for a toy reward (a ball or tug of war rope) they are not interested in and will not harm the actual koala. It is the same training method used to train narcotic and explosives detection dogs - these dogs don't eat the drugs or explosives when they find them, they received a food or toy reward.

Who are we?

Science for Wildlife is led by Dr Kellie Leigh, featured in the video above, who has a wealth of experience in native wildlife conservation and with canines. Before starting research on koalas she spent a decade living in a tent in Africa studying endangered African wild dogs, and all that behaviour research has also helped her develop some dog training skills. After tracking an animal that has a home range of eight hundred square kilometres, tracking koalas that might move once or twice a day to the next tree is a challenge she is looking forward to! Kellie is an Honourary Research Fellow at the University of Sydney, where she also teaches for a Masters degree in wildlife population management. She is part outdoorsy bush-woman and part science-geek.

Martin Dominick from K9-Centre Australia has over 30 years experience training detection dogs, for everything from explosives and narcotics through to dogs trained to detect disease-infected bee hives. Martin was a partner in the research that evaluated detection dog performance in Australian conditions. He has a passion for K9's and is our "dog whisperer".

Jennifer Tobey from San Diego Zoo Global has decades of experience in koala research, including behavioural studies on scent communication in koalas. With so much hands on experience studying koalas up close, Jen is our "koala whisperer". Once we have found the koala populations in the Blue Mountains, San Diego Zoo are giving their support to more detailed ecological studies of koalas.

Badger the Australian shepherd recently completed his research project on the performance of detection dogs in Australian habitats. He is looking forward to getting back into the field again, and adding "eau de koala" to his scent repertoire.

So where is Dr Suess?

Well, Dr Suess had it right and we aim to share his message: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not"

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Team Members

Kellie Leigh