More than 100 sick or injured koalas have been found in bushfire-ravaged parts of Australia by a dog named Bear and a team of experts since last summer.
The five-year-old Australian koolie dog has been on the ground since November trying to detect surviving koalas in parts of NSW and Queensland which were devastated by bushfire.
Bear is part of the University of the Sunshine Coast Detection Dogs for Conservation team which has been working with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and local wildlife groups to look for koalas known to live in areas impacted by the fires and rescue them.
USC uses a drone equipped with a thermal camera to locate koalas in trees and then Bear is sent in to use his sense of smell to find them. The team of experts asses the koalas and take them into care if necessary.
The 2019-20 bushfire season was Bear’s first deployment onto a fire ground but his handler never doubted his ability.
“We’ve worked in areas post-fire with other dogs, and they were able to smell their target odours, so it didn’t surprise me that Bear could do it,” Dr Romane Cristescu told AAP.
“The catastrophic landscape is really hard for us, but for Bear it’s an opportunity for him to be out and play and do what he likes doing.”
Most of the koalas found were near the Two Thumbs Wildlife Sanctuary in the NSW alpine region, Nerriga in the southern tablelands and Kandanga in Queensland’s Gympie region.
Despite the bushfire season ending in March, the team is still out on the field searching for sick or injured koalas.
“We’re still finding animals that are struggling to find food. They’re on the edge of starvation,” Dr Cristescu said.
“If we find them, wildlife carers can plump them up. Their goal is to release them when and where they have a better chance of having food available to them.”
Dr Cristescu acknowledges the bushfire emergency might be out of everyone’s minds now but for koalas, it’s not over.
Many areas of land which were badly burnt haven’t recovered and vegetation has not grown back.
“Some places have burnt so much for such a wide area, some species may take decades to recover,” she said.
The USC Detection Dogs for Conservation researcher said the devastating bushfire season left her team in shock, but being able to go into the fire grounds and help was a healing process for them.
IFAW wildlife campaigner Josey Sharrad said Bear brought the team hope during the devastation.
“He found koalas despite all those harrowing conditions. That brought us hope,” she told AAP.
IFAW earlier this year released a report which found more than 6000 koalas died in last summer’s bushfires across NSW. They called for an emergency listing of koalas as endangered, to make sure the marsupial is protected as the population starts to recover.
“We don’t want people to move on so quickly from the bushfire emergency,” she said.
“Every koala we can track, rescue and rehab counts to the future survival of species.”
IFAW and USC are also working on research looking into how resilient the species are in the hope they can help more koalas survive in the next fire season.