SYDNEY— Dogs are being used for their keen sense of smell to help locate and protect koalas, who are considered at risk across much of Australia. The dogs began detection work in November last year, in regions like the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area, inland from Sydney, which is a vast wilderness of dense eucalyptus forests and sandstone escarpments, approximately 3,800 square miles in size.
Two years ago, following the bush fires that ravaged the region, there were several rare sightings of koalas who were seeking refuge, with sightings in the upper Blue Mountains, the first since the 1940’s.
The sightings were hopeful news for the koala, which is currently listed as vulnerable in the Australian states of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory.
“Before these fires, we weren’t sure that koalas existed in many of these areas,” says Kellie Leigh, founder of the organization Science for Wildlife.
Badger, a 6-year-old Australian Shepherd, was the first dog trained to locate the spotted tailed quoll, and now he is being used by Science for Wildlife to help locate the koalas, so they can map out the populations in order to conserve them. The dogs track the fresh scent of the koalas from fur swabs, and koala scat.
Dogs are capable of detecting scents at concentrations down to parts per trillion, which is the equivalent of a teaspoon inside two Olympic sized swimming pools. This work could not be done without the help of the dogs.
It doesn’t matter what breed of dog you use, you just need to choose a dog with a high motivation for food, or one that likes to play with a tennis ball. The dogs are trained to associate a reward with the source of the odour. The dog handlers also play an important role, they must be physically fit, capable orienteers, and be able to read the body language of their dogs.
Science for Wildlife is also training a second dog with k9 Centre Australia in Queensland. The detailed ecological studies of the koalas will be shared with land managers, rural fire services and community groups in the region, to help conservation plans that protect koalas from bush fires and encroaching development.