Koala Habitat Protection with Detection Dogs - AustraliaIn Australia, detection dogs are koalas’ best friend
1. Is all of Australia on fire?
Devastating fires continue to burn across Australia, having so far burned more than 24.7 million acres. Two of the biggest, most devastating fires are in New South Wales and Victoria, which happen to be two of Australia’s most population-dense states. They have now merged to create a ‘megafire’. Below is NASA’s animation of the far-reaching smoke emanating from the fires.
The first fires, called the Peregian Fires, were reported in September 2019. These were quickly followed by fires in the Northern Rivers, mid-North Coast, and Hunter regions of New South Wales. These fires were of particular concern due to their proximity to key koala populations and areas of core habitat. IFAW, along with our partners immediately began to rescue injured wildlife, including koalas. Since September, we have expanded our work into key affected areas, even deploying, Bear, IFAW’s koala detection dog, to locate koalas among the burned forests.
Courtesy of NASA
2. Aren’t bushfires normal? Why is this year so bad?
Australia is accustomed to an annual bushfire season – it’s not a case of ‘if’; but ‘where.’ We have responded to bushfires nearly every year over the last 30 years. This year however, the fire season started much earlier than normal with unprecedented intensity and unpredictability. These fires are so powerful that they are creating their own weather systems with lightning sparking more spot fires.
The catastrophic conditions affecting large parts of Australia have been aggravated by months of severe drought, very dry fuels, dry soils, and excessive heat. Record breaking temperatures including days where weather conditions are considered “catastrophic” have also impacted wildlife with animals suffering dehydration and birds and flying foxes (bats) literally falling dead from the sky. All of these factors have been compounded by climate change.
Rain is critical as many regions have been without it for months. Once the rain comes, the ecosystem is poised to recover.
3. I’ve seen conflicting numbers. How many animals have perished?
Researchers from the University of Sydney estimated that half a billion animals have been killed by the fires. However, as the fires have intensified and spread, revised calculations put that figure at over 1 billion animals.
As shocking and incomprehensible as these estimates are, they are unfortunately likely to be conservative as they are only for the State of New South Wales and only for mammals, birds and reptiles. The figures don’t include insect, frogs or bats – species which are suffering losses in the hundreds as a direct result of the heatwave that is accompanying this current bushfire season. They also don’t include animals that are dying due to the heatwaves and due to the lack of food and water.
With over 24.7 million acres of land already burned and the fires burning across the country, the true cost of life is insurmountable.
4. Are koalas really “functionally extinct”?
Koalas are listed as vulnerable species in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. Some local populations were already so small prior to the fires as a result of habitat loss, disease, car strikes, and dog attacks.
According to ecologists, populations of species already in danger, will be pushed to the brink and experience ‘local’ extinctions.
It’s too soon to say for certain what the long-term prognosis is. Without a doubt though, this current bushfire event has been devastating on Australia’s biodiversity and will have long-term impacts on local ecosystems.
IFAW and our partners have been rescuing injured koalas since September 2019, with some even being released back into secure habitats away from the fires. This work is far from over, and we are still encountering injured wildlife, many of whom have a long road of recovery ahead.
With these fires being so widespread and impacting key areas of koala habitat, now more than ever every individual animal matters in conservation. For further information we recommend the following article.
5. What are the species most impacted and how are they dying?
No species is untouched by these fires, but endangered species will suffer the greatest population loss at scale. The fires have killed more than 1 billion animals including mammals, birds and reptiles. This estimate does not include other animals such as insects, bats, frogs, and fish. As the fires are still burning and weather conditions expected to worsen again, there will be many more wildlife fatalities in the coming days and weeks.
In addition, many animals who survived the initial fire will die from starvation, heat stress, loss of shelter and smoke inhalation as they battle to survive in their decimated habitat. For further information and specific examples, we recommend the following article.
To understand the true impact of the devastation, IFAW has commissioned and released an in-depth scientific study that reveals the magnitude of the effect of the resulting bushfires upon the koala population in the region of New South Wales.
6. With so much destruction, where will the animals go after the fires?
At the moment the priority is to contain the fires and to make sure that people and animals are as safe as possible. The Australian bush is remarkably resilient to fire and has evolved with it for many millions of years, so some of the habitat could spring back remarkably quickly. We just need rain – something which many parts of the country hasn’t had for months and months. Unfortunately this fire season has been so intense in parts of the bush recovery may take much longer than normal, leaving wildlife without food and shelter.
Now projects to restore vital wildlife corridors like our eucalyptus tree planting initiative with our partners Bangalow Koalas are more important than ever. The community will be dealing with the effects of these fires for a long time to come. IFAW will continue to support rescue and recovery efforts.
7. Who is Bear and how does he help?
Bear, IFAW's koala detection dog, is an integral part of search and rescue efforts to locate koalas suffering from the bushfires. Trained by our partners at the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Detection Dogs for Conservation team, Bear is one of the few detection dogs in Australia able to locate live koalas through the scent of their fur. So far during this bushfire season, Bear and his handler have deployed to south east Queensland and some of the hardest hit areas of New South Wales.
He has indicated the presence of possible koalas in the area at multiple spots, finding scratchings on trees and scat on the ground, giving us great hope that we will soon find and rescue those in need. Most recently he was able to lead the rescue team to a koala high up in a tree which the team could then monitor for any signs of injury from the fires or disease.
Bear remains on standby to assist wildlife search and rescue teams wherever he is needed.
As the weeks progress, we will continue search and rescue efforts on the ground and remain dedicated to providing support to our local partners who are receiving an influx of animals in need of rehabilitation.
Read more here about the koala sniffing dog taking the internet by storm.
8. How can I help?
IFAW’s Australia-based team has been working round-the -clock since September. As the fires have intensified so has IFAW’s work on the ground most recently culminating in our international Disaster Response team being deployed to the scene to focus on crisis management and hands-on support to wildlife care groups across impacted areas. The situation on the ground is dire. Local wildlife populations are being decimated. But miraculously, there are survivors and they desperately need our help.
- A gift of $25 could supply lifesaving food for a koala recovering from a bushfire
- A gift of $50 could purchase a feeding station for kangaroos and wallabies, or a nest box for surviving wildlife such as gliders and possums
- A gift of $100 could purchase veterinary supplies including burn cream, fluids, and supplements
- A gift of $500 could cover the cost of deploying Bear, the koala sniffer dog, and his handler for a full day’s search efforts
If you’re not in a position to donate, you can still help. We recommend that you share emails and social posts and encourage others to donate to organizations like IFAW who are on the ground. You can also help by keeping an eye out for calls for supplies, blankets, food, and other necessities. To note, we do not need additional mittens for now for the koalas. And in the weeks and months ahead, we encourage you to contact your local wildlife rescue group and sign up as a volunteer to help care for wildlife in your local area.
9. What has IFAW done in the recent bushfires?
IFAW has been active on the ground since the bushfires began in September 2019, working with local partners to help animals affected by the devastation. In the early days of this disaster, we purchased an off-road wildlife rescue vehicle that is being used daily by our partners at Friends of the Koala, assisting with every day transport needs, rescues and releases. We also procured emergency enclosures for animals including koalas, kangaroos, birds and bats, as well as possum nesting boxes. In addition, we bought a disaster trailer for Hunter Wildlife, fire gear for several groups, fuel cards for caregivers and rescuers, medical supplies, the transfer of a water tank, UHF radios, and critical food.
Funds donated to IFAW also allow us to pay for Bear, the koala detection dog’s deployments into firezones, the sponsorship of Marley Christian, a veterinary nurse at Friends of the Koala, and a vet at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in Tasmania. We also continue to be in constant partnership with local wildlife groups to assist and to meet their needs.
As the fires have escalated in scale and intensity in the first few weeks of 2020, additional team members from our international offices with expertise in disaster response and risk reduction (DRRR), have been sent to increase our capacity and expand our relief efforts – assisting with critical needs assessments and getting supplies to where they are needed most.
Going forward, IFAW will be investing resources as well as our on-the-ground expertise in the following key areas, namely:
1. Providing support for immediate and ongoing rescue needs;
2. Capacity building for animal rehabilitation;
3. Long-term habitat restoration efforts; and
4. Disaster planning and risk reduction training for future disasters
The purpose of this multi-faceted approach is to ensure a viable future for koalas and other affected native wildlife. This comprehensive effort will be undertaken in close collaboration with like-minded partner organizations.
10. What happens once the fires stop?
IFAW has worked closely with our partners on the ground and will do so into the future. Funds are and will continue to be allocated to the emergency bushfire response, including:
- Supporting our partners at Friends of the Koala and Queensland Koala Crusaders, who together with our team, look for wounded, dehydrated, and displaced koalas;
- Providing veterinary supplies including burn creams, surgical kits, and pain management;
- Salaried compensation of a specialty nurse-veterinarian as part of our partnership with Friends of the Koala;
- Support and expansion of IFAW’s disaster response team to which Bear, IFAW’s koala detection dog, is a member, as well as his supervisor from the Detection Dogs for Conservation team;
- The purchase of fire safety as well as search and rescue equipment for operations to support active rescuers, including decontamination units (for people and animals), radios, fire-retardant field suits, breathing apparatuses, and approved footwear;
- Ongoing maintenance of IFAW rescue vehicle in the field;
- Fire safety training for emergency responders;
- Providing of medicines, water and food, as well as rehabilitation efforts for koalas in the care clinics that IFAW supports;
- Temporary accommodation for koalas and other wildlife including enclosures, feeding and water stations, and nesting boxes, realizing that every structure is currently at risk and will be needed through many months of rehab for injured animals;
- Transport costs for responders, rescuers, and wildlife, including animal-specific transport needs;
- Purchasing triage gear including transport kennels, stabilization veterinary supplies, personal protective equipment, and fuel cards;
- Grant funding for local partners to sustain life-saving efforts for the influx of animals needing care and local capacity-building;
- Restoration of habitats of the koalas as well as other native wildlife over the longer-term;
- Providing ‘care for carers’ who are rescuing injured, orphaned or starving/malnourished wildlife;
- Continued local support and investment for Australians on the frontlines of rescue;
- Continuing with current and future tree planting initiatives. (For example, IFAW, along with our partner, Bangalow Koalas, have originally committed to planting 25,000 eucalyptus trees by 2020. That objective has since been increased to 40,000); and Development of contingency plans to ensure carers are fully prepared and have the resources they need.