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USC Detection Dogs: Our land's best friend

By Tom Snowdon and Kate Evans

The team of USC researchers have located the koala huddled in the fork of the blackened tree in the burnt-out Amamoor State Forest — a rugged but beautiful area about 20km out of Gympie.

The sprawling national park was decimated by bushfires in 2019. But with little to no human life impacted, virtually no one has been in to survey the damage — especially to local wildlife populations.

That is, until USC’s Detection Dogs for Conservation (DDC) sought permission to conduct surveys looking for surviving koalas.

Thanks to star detection dog Bear, the team have located several surviving koalas during this deployment, including the one in the fork of the burnt-out tree.

But because of the way the koala is clutching the tree trunk, it’s difficult to tell if it’s injured or malnourished— especially if, for example, there are burn marks on its paws from crawling across smouldering ruins.

Even for researchers from USC’s Detection Dogs for Conservation, who have done hundreds of these health assessments, it can be a challenge.

But after some careful observation and deliberation, they believe this koala needs help.

Three of the researchers, working together, gently coax the koala down from its bolthole — an exercise that’s fraught with peril because koalas are prone to bouts of panic. It takes a team of experts, who possess unwavering concentration and patience, to pull off such a feat.

It takes time but the group succeeds in rescuing the koala, wrapping the marsupial in a blanket once it’s safely on the ground. It’s now clear the creature is badly malnourished and scared. Its fur is patchy and discoloured — it needs help.

The team, working quickly now, have organised for the koala to be immediately delivered into the capable and experienced hands of a local wildlife rescue group where it will be nursed back to health and rehabilitated.

This is one important part of the Detection Dogs for Conservation’s work — a group of researchers at USC who train rescue dogs to locate or save sick, injured or at-risk wildlife.

Smouldering forest after bushfire

Associate Professor Celine Frere and Dr Romane Cristescu co-founded the Detection Dogs for Conservation research group in 2015 to fill a crucial gap in academic conservation work in Australia — the rescuing, training, testing and deploying of detection dogs to help at-risk wildlife.

“Our detection dogs are very lovable but they don’t usually make very good pets because they are very energetic, obsessive and determined, which are excellent traits to have for conservation work,” Dr Cristescu says.

“When they are not working, our dogs live like normal pets — they go to the beach, play in the park and run around with other dogs. The difference is our dogs have an important day job. They are not just our pets — they are our colleagues.”

Because dogs have so many more smell receptors than humans, they are ideal allies when it comes to locating or rescuing at-risk wildlife. The right dog can track anything with an odour, whether it’s flora or fauna, on land or even under the sea.

Associate Professor Frere says that even professional human spotters miss on average one in every two koalas in the wild.

“Dogs have proved to be much more accurate,” Celine says. “Our detection dogs in particular have been trained to locate and help rescue at-risk animals like koalas and quolls with remarkable success.”

“This is, in part, because everything we do is underpinned by rigorous scientific methodology that supports our conservation efforts.”

Because of their special skills, the DDC have been at the forefront of rescue and recovery missions after natural disasters such as Australia’s devastating bushfire season that started in 2019. This went on to destroy an estimated 11 percent of koala habitat across the country.

The rising star of this particular work has undoubtably been Bear — the blue-eyed Australian Koolie, co-owned by USC and conservation fund IFAW, who has become somewhat of a hero for locating koalas in woodland areas destroyed by bushfires.

Bear is unique because, while his canine colleagues are trained to locate evidence of koalas, the energetic Koolie can lead researchers directly to the actual animals — a valuable skill to have when you’re against the clock to find woodland creatures who may need urgent medical attention.

Thanks mainly to donations, Bear has gone out with researchers to survey more than 5,000ha of fire-ravaged bushland — such as in Amamoor State Forest where he located the malnourished koala in the fork of the tree.

During deployments such as this, researchers have used a combination of Bear’s unique skills and drones to locate and make health assessments on 120 koalas and rescue another 31 sick or injured native animals.

Ecologists estimate Australia lost a staggering three billion animals during the last bushfire season. However, the threat to life remains long after the fires finish smouldering.

It takes years for natural habitats to recover, and wildlife populations continue to decline as the animals return to their ruined home territories, facing possible death from starvation and dehydration if conservationists such as the DDC aren’t able to continue surveying and monitoring populations.

However, the work of the DDC is broader than protecting koala populations. The team do a lot of conservation work by mapping koalas and quolls in areas earmarked for new development or large infrastructure projects.

They work with governments, private organisations and community groups to provide important ecological research, evidence and support to make planning and development decisions that can protect and preserve Australia’s unique environment and creatures.

Apart from the direct impacts of the team’s work, they have also been an important ally in spreading conservation messages — especially through leveraging Bear’s popularity.

Not only has Bear developed a strong following on social media, including mentions from celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks on Twitter, he’s also starred in a Foxtel documentary, made frequent appearances in television shows, radio programs and news segments.

This has created a busy schedule for a group that has ballooned from its two founding members a few years ago to now include a whole team of post-graduate researchers, conservationists and trained detection dogs — all of them working for the protection and welfare of Australia’s native animals and habitat.

Dr Romane Cristescu, USC Detection Dog Bear and Associate Professor Celine Frere

(L to R) Dr Romane Cristescu, Bear and Associate Professor Celine Frere.

USC Detection Dogs - Baxter, Bear, Billie-Jean and Maya

If you’d like to help the Detection Dogs for Conservation team’s work looking after animal welfare and habitat conservation, you can donate at: usc.edu.au/ddc