A rescue dog is offering a glimmer of hope for the koalas in Australia who are suffering from brushfires that have devastated their habitat and pushed them to the brink of extinction.
For the past few weeks, Australian brushfires have raged through parts of the country, devastating the forests koalas call home. Koala rescue groups are calling it the highest koala loss they have ever witnessed. The damage has been so catastrophic that scientists and conservations have just announced that koalas are “functionally extinct.”
Australian Koala Foundation chairman, Deborah Tabart, says that 80 percent of koala habitat has been destroyed and an estimated 1,000 koalas have been killed from the fires. Drought, deforestation and bushfires have all led the population of koalas to no longer be self-sustaining.
Search efforts are frantically underway to save the surviving koalas as they are still in extreme danger – that’s where Bear comes in. He is a dog trained in detecting the scent of koalas. He was trained to do so for research purposes, but his highly specialized skills are now being used to rescue surviving koalas in the scorched bushlands. He can track their scent and signal to rescuers if there is a koala in the area or in a tree. And he does it so he can play with a ball.
IFAW, who helps sponsor Bear’s training and care, posted on Facebook:
“Our koala detection dog Bear is bringing a glimmer of hope for koalas suffering from Australia’s deadly bushfires—but these animals need more heroes to save them from this ongoing disaster. Our koala detection dog Bear is an integral part of these rescue efforts. He was recently deployed to south east Queensland and one of the hardest hit areas of New South Wales where the bushfires decimated local koala populations. Bear is one of the few detection dogs who can locate live koalas through the scent of their fur.”
Bear began his training when he was one year old. He was surrendered by his owners because he was too high energy and was not interested in people. IFAW said in a released statement, “He is high-energy, obsessive, doesn’t like to be touched and is completely uninterested in people, which sadly means he doesn’t make the ideal family pet. But these qualities do make him a perfect candidate for a detection dog which is exactly why he was chosen.”
They added: “Bear is highly focused and brilliant at focusing on one thing – his ball which is his reward, which makes him perfectly suited for the job. He also has zero prey drive which is essential for a wildlife detection dog as they need to focus purely on the scent and not the animal, ultimately ignoring the animal.”
Photos and video of Bear wearing protective red booties and scouring the blackened ground to find koalas have spread across the globe and helped increase awareness of the koalas’ plight.
Coupled with a heartbreaking video of a woman rushing to save a koala singed and on fire, donations from around the globe are being raised for relief efforts.
However, even though the brushfires have died off in some areas, the danger to koalas is still high. “Wildlife is returning to their homes where there is nothing left, without the energy to go searching for food, many will just succumb to starvation or their injuries,” said Koala Rescue Queensland Inc. The group is urging people to call authorities if they see a koala in an affected area.
Although there are efforts to enact the Koala Protection Act (written in 2016), the act was never passed into law.
The Koala Protection Act would aim to protect habitats and trees vital to koalas and protect them from hunting. But as one koala rescue group pointed out, it will require a coordinated effort between industry, government and conservationists to save the remaining koala habitats.