Koala Habitat Protection with Detection Dogs – AustraliaIn Australia, detection dogs are a koala’s best friend
1. Is all of Australia on fire?
Devastating fires continue to burn across Australia, having burned more than 24.7 million acres so far. Two of the biggest, most devastating fires are in New South Wales and Victoria, which happen to be two of Australia’s most densely populated 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 insects, 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.
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 £20 could supply lifesaving food for a koala recovering from a bushfire
- A gift of £40 could purchase a feeding station for kangaroos and wallabies, or a nest box for surviving wildlife like gliders and possums
- A gift of £75 could purchase veterinary supplies like burn cream, fluid, and supplements
- A gift of £100 could go towards the cost of deploying Bear, the koala sniffer dog, and his handler for a 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 started back in September 2019, working with local partners to help animals affected by the devastating bushfires. In the early days of the disaster, we purchased an off-road wildlife rescue vehicle that is being used by our partners at Friends of the Koala, we have purchased emergency enclosures for animals including koalas, kangaroos, birds and bats, as well as possum nesting boxes. In addition, we've purchased 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 and UHF radios and food.
Funds donated to IFAW allow us to pay for Bear, the koala detection dog, deployments into firezones, and the sponsorship of a veterinary nurse at Friends of the Koala and a vet at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary’s clinic in Tasmania. We are in constant partnership with local wildlife groups to assist and meet their needs.
As the fires have escalated in scale and intensity in the first days 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.
10. What happens once the fires stop?
We have been working with local wildlife groups here in Australia for over 30 years. That work has included helping set up the New South Wales Wildlife Council, sponsoring National Wildlife Care Conferences, providing grants and medical supplies to groups to assist with the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of animals, and have supported veterinary care positions to deliver fast and expert care to sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.
When the fires subside, our teams and support will remain. IFAW will continue to work to rebuild and restore damaged habitats. This includes ongoing endeavors to plant thousands of eucalyptus trees with our partner Bangalow Koala and restore a vital wildlife corridor in the Northern Rivers Region of NSW.
Every problem has a solution, every solution needs support.
The problems we face are urgent, complicated and resistant to change. Real solutions demand creativity, hard work and involvement from people like you.