Using Detection Dogs in the Search and Rescue of Koalas

As threatened species decline in number, they become more difficult to detect and assess, decreasing our ability to make informed conservation management decisions. To combat this threat, the Science for Wildlife team have been testing and putting into action innovative survey techniques, focussed on scats. Prior to the fires these surveys were used to find and map new populations of koalas, now they are being used to find animals that need care and also to identify habitats where wildlife might have survived the fires.

Over the past two weeks the Science For Wildlife team have been running surveys for koalas in Kanangra-Boyd National Park. This involved deploying a team of koala spotter volunteers to search the canopy for koalas and using a scat detection dog to search for koala scats (poop). The use of wildlife scat detection dogs is particularly effective during bush fire seasons as there are fewer animals and so they can be harder to find, and this non‐invasive and highly efficient survey method increases the detection rates of these species in all environmental conditions.

Why we use detection dogs and our recent findings

After the devastating bush fire season, detection dogs have become even more critical in helping us find what is left of our koala populations. These dogs are trained to detect the scent of a particular animal and/or their droppings in order to locate it and can navigate terrain and conditions where people often find it difficult or impossible to survey wildlife. A dog can cover in 5 minutes double the area that 3 people would take an hour to search visually. Consequently, the value these animals have brought to our search and rescue efforts has been immeasurable.

Our detection dog team is made up of Dr Kellie Leigh, Kim Edwards (handler/owner) and Smudge. Smudge, originally trained as a search and rescue dog for people, has transitioned beautifully into his new role after significant training efforts by Kellie and Kim. Smudge is following a strong legacy set by Badger, Australia’s first spotted-tailed quoll detection dog trained to detect the poo or scats of large marsupial carnivore. Badger was able to detect quoll scats from the same distance in all habitats, up to 40 meters away in thick bushland. Humans would have no chance of finding a scat from that distance, in fact they might not even see it if they were right on top of it! Badger was then transitioned over to find koala scats in the Blue Mountains.

Featured above: scat detection dog Smudge

In our recent search at Kanangra-Boyd National Park it became very apparent that Smudge’s training had paid off because his nose was in overdrive. Smudge was able to locate fresh scats, burnt scats, and scats that were reduced to a smear of green fibres, all but dissolved from over 300mm of rain. From these scats we were able to deduce where koalas were before the fire, after the fire (but before the massive rains) and where koalas have been more recently. So far koalas have been found in both unburnt and burnt areas, but unfortunately in recent weeks we have not found many. Dr Kellie Leigh is in the process of analysing the scat data to work out trends or differences that may assist us in future search efforts.

Last week the Science for Wildlife team discovered very fresh scats in the burnt zone. This is evidence of not only use of burnt areas by koalas, but also that they have been eating epicormic growth only a couple of months after the fire. The team are not yet certain if the koalas were passing through the burnt area where the canopy condition is poor and tried the epicormic growth due to sheer desperation, in which case it might not do them any good, or if the new growth is a magnet that’s drawing koalas in because it’s nutritious and delicious. Once our radio-tagged koalas are released and we are able to monitor their movements, we hope to learn more about this interesting discovery.

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 3.02.18 pm

Epicormic growth is the term used to describe the new shoots you can see above, coming straight off the trunk and main branches of eucalyptus trees. This is one of the main survival techniques that trees use to recover after fire.

What was the purpose of the recent search and rescue effort?

Besides the rescue of koalas in poor condition, the aim of this exercise was to also compare koala numbers and scat densities in the unburnt areas versus the low intensity burn area (backburn area). This comparison will tell us if koalas are using the low intensity burn area, which is useful for two reasons:

1. It will inform where we return koalas that were taken out in front of the fire. If koalas are moving back into the burn areas, we might then be able to return these animals close to where we caught them. Currently, these koalas are being looked after by the amazing team at the Taronga zoo, with Taronga and S4W teaming up to keep them supplied with food (browse) from their local areas.

2. If we find koalas are using the low intensity burn sections, where the canopy is more intact, it will provide us with hope that more koalas might have survived the fires and also guide where we start to do more surveys. The team intend to work out how many koalas are left, and also predict where they might survive in future.

A key question surrounding bush fires is how soon can koalas move back into burn areas? Here Dr Kellie Leigh sheds some light on this topic:

“There are published accounts of koalas using epicormic growth (new shoots that come out directly from the trunk and large branches in eucalyptus species) after only 3 months, but those studies were in areas with good quality soils. After the 2013 fires, in our first study site in Wollemi, it took 2-3 years for koalas to move back into one area. This highlights the importance of our work in monitoring wildlife after the bush fire season ends, in some places after fires koalas have continued to die if the trees didn’t recover well. We need ongoing community support as we start the slow process of returning koalas to their natural habitats, mapping surviving animals over time and trying to assist populations to recover.”

Dr Kellie Leigh, Executive Director of Science for Wildlife


If you want to learn more about Wildlife Detection Dogs, you can read the research we published from Badger’s work in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution. Our results have encouraged more land managers to use wildlife detection dogs for surveys of elusive wildlife species.

For projects updates and to learn more about Science for Wildlife community, visit our projects page here.