Scouring the bush floor for koala scat isn’t the most ideal job. But ecology researchers Dr Romane Cristescu and Dr Celine Frere from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) have found a group of willing workers to do just that, and their only payment is a tennis ball.
Detection Dogs for Conservation aims to protect koalas by mapping their populations, habitats and health, then use that data to help land developers and government agencies make informed choices.
Romane says she has spent what seems like months crawling through the bush, looking for the koala’s tiny pellet-like poo. A dog’s ability to smell is 1,000 – 10,000 times better than a human so she decided to test the theory to see if it worked for koala poo. When tested against humans, the dogs found koalas in 30% more areas than humans could find.
“If we miss 30% of where the koalas live, we have no chance of accurately or efficiently protecting them,” Romane said.
Maya and Baxter are two of five dogs that are part of the conservation team at USC.
Maya, with her mottled black and white coat, was the team very first detection dog. When they found her, she was on death row at the pound. Detection dogs are often the ones that not chosen and abandoned because their high drive and energy makes them difficult to keep as a pet.
“What makes the worst pet makes the best detection dog,” Romane says.
Maya’s rescue and initial training was done by professional trainer Gary Jackson, but since then the USC team is training their detection dogs in house, with Masters student Russell Miller doing most of the scent training, wildlife habituation and testing of the dogs. The first steps are target and non-target scent training, and just require the dogs to associate the target scent with their reward, which is an easy task for dogs as they are so intelligent. Most of their training is then focused on making sure the dogs aren’t distracted by local wildlife or barking and are focusing on their work. For the dogs, it’s a bit of play with a reward of a tennis ball at the end, especially the squeaky ones.
“They’re the first waiting at the car every day because they want to go to ‘work’,” Romane says.
The koala poo, or the “golden nuggets” as Celine calls them, are key to understanding the health of koalas. When fresh they contain enough genetic information to understand the genetic diversity of the koala population, their resiliency and if they’re carrying chlamydia.
“You can really answer a lot of the questions without seeing the koala,” Celine says.
“In some ways, finding the poo is more important than seeing the koala.”
If people want to help Celine and Romane, they can get engage with koala conservation, things as small as reporting the koalas they see on their Sunday walk to Koala Tracker or the Atlas of Living Australia, planting native trees, driving more carefully and keeping dogs indoors at night all contribute to helping keep koalas safe. As a non-for-profit, the group can take donations through the USC website, or the dogs can be hired for koala surveys.
Overseas, landowners have given land to conservationists and ecologists like the two researchers so that dogs and handlers can live and train together. “It’s good to dream big, right? We would love to have our own land where we could protect wildlife, train our dogs and have our handlers and their dog live together,” concludes Romane.
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This story originally appeared in: Soul Magazine Australia