Bear, a five-year-old rescue dog, is a “very happy soul”, according to his handler, Romane Cristescu, a French ecologist in Australia. He also has a very special skill: detecting koalas.
Unlike many other detection dogs, who are trained on the odour of scat, Bear is trained on the scent of live koala fur.
Bear is a Koolie, an Australian cattle or herding dog bred from working canines imported by European settlers in the 19th century.
His original owners had abandoned him, saying he was too much to handle, but his talents make him perfect for tracking koalas.
“Bear is a funny character, has super high motivation for every-thing, and there is no rest time for him. He always wants to go and run and play, ” says Cristescu. “That is why he makes a great detection dog.”
Cristescu, an ecologist, koala expert and veterinarian, leads the Detection Dogs for Conservation team at the University of Sunshine Coast. The team studies koala movements, population, health and habitats.
Team member Bear was first taken to the areas devastated by fires in November last year.
He has since found more than 100 koalas in the three states worst affected by bush fires that burned more than 12 million hectares of land.
Scientists estimate that more than a billion animals were killed in the blazes. The lands include substantial koala habitats and areas where the animal is already listed as vulnerable.
Experts say koalas require emergency intervention. No national data is available, but conservationists estimate thousands were killed in the fires.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says preliminary surveys in New South Wales’ north indicate the local population in the hardest-hit areas decreased by up to 85%.
And many of the koalas that survived were injured, dehydrated and starving. If not found early, they could’ve died, so the work of koala detection dogs like Bear is essential.
“Most detection dogs in Australia are trained to find koala poo, but Bear is trained to find live koalas, ” says Josey Sharrad, a wildlife campaigner with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which helped Cristescu find Bear.
“Bear is a little bit OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), loves to play, and has no off switch, ” says Sharrad.
“But what made him not an ideal pet made him a perfect rescue dog.”
Researchers seek specific attributes in animal-finding dogs, who need a very low interest in chasing or barking at animals, but high energy and an obsession with play.
The team focuses on places where koalas might have survived the fires but may be struggling, and bring wildlife rescue groups and local experts.
They also have a professional koala spotter and a drone equipped with a thermal camera.
On the fire ground, Bear, clad in special booties to protect his feet, is unleashed. When he finds a koala, he is trained to wait.
“He does not bark or anything. He just lies down under the tree, ” says Sharrad.
If he’s right, he’s rewarded with a ball, his favourite toy.
“Bear has no interest in koalas or wildlife. That’s what makes him better. All he cares about is his ball and playtime.”
So far, Bear has found more than 100 koalas in burnt areas. Many were sick, injured, dehydrated and malnourished.
The researchers rescued more than two dozen. Five had to be euthanised. The rest were left in their habitat after a health assessment.
“You don’t want to catch an animal that’s coping. But you also don’t want to leave behind an animal not doing so well, ” says Cristescu.
Finding koalas is hard. Human experts miss them 80% of the time because they are adept at camouflage, are very quiet and usually sit still at the top of trees.
“It would be extremely difficult without Bear, ” Cristescu says. “Without dogs, it’s extremely time-consuming and laborious work, and we would need a much bigger team on the ground.”
Even before the fires, a drought and a heatwave meant koalas were already in “severe decline”.
“They really like to live where we like to live, like fertile plains and coastal areas, where we build houses and do agriculture. They are thus in direct competition with us for habitation, ” says Cristescu.
Koalas also get hit by cars and hunted by pets in suburbs.
And in some areas, the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia has decimated populations.
“And now with climate change, obviously, the population distribution is more affected and it will have a direct impact on their food availability as well, ” says Christescu.
“If we are not careful, we will not let koalas recover from one hit before they get hit by another crisis, ” adds Cristescu.
Australia’s animals are struggling, with threatened mammals declining by 38% since the mid-1990s, according to a national mammal database released by the government recently.
“More and more animals are becoming vulnerable, and many are relegated from vulnerable to threatened species, ” says Cristescu.
Conservationists say Australia already has one of the highest extinction rates worldwide and one of the highest clearing rates of forest habitats.
“We need all the help we can get from technology and dogs, as humans have failed to protect the species, ” says Sharrad.
While there is little risk of koalas going completely extinct, researchers say that the marsupials are at “real risk of local extinction” in many areas.
Asks Sharrad: “What would Australia be like without koalas? Unthinkable.” – dpa/Subel Bhandari
Did you find this article insightful?
96% readers found this article insightful