When Romane Cristescu was doing her PhD on land rehabilitation and its benefits for Koalas, spending days upon days searching through the leaf litter for Koala scats (poo), she thought to herself, “If only there was a sniffer dog for Koala scats, this field work would be so much quicker.” It wasn’t long before wondering turned into searching and Romane found herself calling dog trainers and other ecologists to find out if this had been done before. Her enquiries were met with a resounding “no” almost to the point of disapproval. But if dogs can sniff out narcotics, track missing people, even detect prized truffles more efficiently and effectively than people then why not a threatened species? That’s where Romane’s journey with Maya started and she is now one of the trail-blazing researchers pioneering this new method of ecological data collection.
Maya was a border collie cross, abandoned and alone in a RSPCA shelter and on deathrow, when her ball-crazed tendencies caught the eye of dog trainer Gary Jackson. Gary trained Maya to seek out Koala scat and she became the first Koala detection dog in Australia. Not only did Maya have to learn to find Koala scats, but she also had to learn not to react (chase or bark) to wildlife, given that her work would be in Conservation Reserves and National Parks.
So what’s the use of finding all these Koala scats? The presence of Koalas and Koala habitat can have significant implications for development and land clearing applications. Given that Maya is over 20 times faster at finding Koala scats than a trained ecologist and 150% more accurate, she is a valuable tool in the fight to protect remaining Koala habitat. Maya’s supporting research team from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) state,
“We hope soon no-one attempts to look for Koala habitat without a trained detection dog. Because each time humans survey Koala habitat and make a mistake, we lose a little bit more of Koalas’ home.”
Not only do scats tell us whether there is a presence or absence of Koalas in a particular reserve or property, but analysing Koala scats can also tell us about their health, genetics, diet, reproductive status, stress and sex. All that from a bit of poo!
The Detection Dogs for Conservation team at USC are training other dogs in detection of Koala scats, Koalas and water dragon eggs. They have also had enquiries about training detection dogs for frogs, tree kangaroos and even death adders. In other parts of Australia, dogs have been trained and used for numerous conservation projects. Gary Jackson (who trained Maya) also trained Angus (a black labrador) to sniff out Red-eared Slider Turtles and their eggs to help eradicate these pests from South East Queensland waterways. He trained and donated Sparky the first Northern Quoll and Spotted-Tail Quoll detection dog to ecologist Amanda Hancock. Gary trained the first three Cane Toad detection dogs, including one that is used on Moreton Island to ensure it stays toad-free.
Mareemas (Italian sheepdogs) are used on Middle Island in Victoria to protect Little Penguins from foxes – a story recently made famous through the Australian movie ‘Oddball’. Dogs are being used to detect invasive plants and animals too. The possibilities are endless and the mind boggles!
Around the world dogs are used for a broad range of ecological conservation purposes. Detection dogs are used in the fight against illegal poaching and trafficking in Africa. In New Zealand, dogs are used to locate Kiwis and Kakapos to relocate them to safer islands. In North America scat detection dogs are used to monitor Grizzly Bear and Black Bear populations. It’s not only terrestrial animals that these canine conservationists help researchers with – in the United States, dog trainer Heath Smith trained Tucker (a labrador cross) to detect Orca scats from a boat! Romane has a dream of one day training a dog to detect Dugong scats here in South-East Queensland There are many ways Land for Wildlife members can get involved with Detection Dogs for Conservation. Firstly, if you live in the Sunshine Coast, Noosa, Gympie and Fraser Coast regions there is an opportunity to nominate your property as a potential site for a Koala scat survey. Contact [email protected] if you would like to express interest. Secondly, the team at USC is wanting to rescue more dogs from shelters and train them to be conservation detection dogs. You can help give a dog a home and a career by donating to the project – see more on www.usc.edu.au/DDC.
By Danielle Crawford
Land for Wildlife Officer
Sunshine Coast Council