Guardians of the koalas: $800,000 for high-tech tracking project | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Guardians of the koalas: $800,000 for high-tech tracking project

A University of the Sunshine Coast project to provide residents with the technology to help monitor koala wellbeing has been boosted by $798,000 in Australian Research Council funding.

The ‘Koala Guardians’ funding will allow UniSC to produce solar-powered Bluetooth koala ear tags paired to a smartphone application, that will enable the public to participate in koala conservation,

Project lead and Director of UniSC Detection Dogs for Conservation (DDC), Dr Romane Cristescu, said the collaborative partnership was building on Redlands Coast’s Koala Safe Neighbourhoods program, one of Redland City Council’s key koala conservation projects.

“We urgently need to find new ways to protect our endangered koalas, and we want to harness citizen science by engaging people through the tech they carry with them every day - their phones,” Dr Cristescu said.

“In particular we want to identify which koala populations are in decline or becoming unwell, so we can know when and where they need help.”

This is where the community can play a major role.

“With many eyes on the ground, we have more chance of a sick koala being reported sooner, and the earlier we can intervene to rescue and treat a koala, the greater its chances of recovering. Hopefully the tech can then be used to help other threatened species in the same way.

“This builds on the previous work of staff and students to allow the community to effectively become the guardians of their koalas”.

A phone app will incentivise users to report koala sightings as well as better recognise signs of koala disease, a major threat in the studied population. Project co-investigators Professor Sharyn Rundle Thiele and Dr Elizabeth Foote from Griffith University are providing insight into effective behavioural change strategies.

From there, the DDC crew will use drones to monitor koala density in the area, before deploying detection dogs to pinpoint koala scats (for scientific analyses) and arrange veterinary care if the koalas need it.

“We are empowering them to protect an Australian icon, leveraging gamification, tourism and outdoor recreation to boost engagement through proven behavioural change theory, marketing and engagement strategies,” she said.

UniSC Detection Dogs for Conservation

UniSC Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Helen Bartlett, said the funding allowed UniSC to further its work to protect koalas, building on its development and current trials of a vaccine targeting chlamydia in koalas.

“Koalas are an Australian icon and yet last year were listed as endangered, given only a 20% chance of survival in the wild so it is vital that we find a way to protect the species before it is too late,” Professor Bartlett said.

“Our DDC team has a track record of delivering koala protection activities that are now used across local government areas, and we hope that this may offer a solution to roll out and adapt to other ecology projects.

“It’s also an opportunity for the Redland community to directly engage in the world-class Animal Ecology research happening on their doorstep at Moreton Bay.”

Along with UniSC, Redland City Council and Griffith University, other project partners are Atlas of Living Australia, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), The Trustee for the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Trust, New South Wales Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Service, Queensland Department of Environment and Science, Friends of the Koala and Port Macquarie Hospital.

Redland City Council’s Koala Conservation Program has been working with UniSC to map the density, health and genetics of koalas using drones, detection dogs and advanced molecular technologies.

Redland City Mayor Karen Williams said it is important to think outside the box if we want to reverse the decline in koala populations, and we are keen to embrace new research and technology to do this.

“The phone app will allow the community to report koala sightings and seek help for koalas showing signs of chlamydia, one of the top issues for koalas,” said Cr Williams.

Project Officer Dr Cathryn Dexter said the silent killer in Redlands is chlamydia and, unfortunately, that is a disease that affects survival and reproduction of the next generation, so it’s a double hit.

“The signs of chlamydia include dark-stained bottom or conjunctivitis that can lead to blindness. Other signs of concern are if a koala is on the ground and not moving much, or if it has trouble climbing,” said Dr Dexter.

UniSC sits among the world’s top two percent of universities on the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings which measures against the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and will soon open three new buildings at its Moreton Bay campus, established in 2020.

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