In a story of hope, special detection dogs have found seven koalas alive amid burnt out forest at Maryvale on Queensland’s Southern Downs, and evidence of even more survivors.
The search, which is ongoing, is being funded thanks to generous donations to the World Wide Fund for Nature from locals and people around the world and the support of online furniture company koala.com.
This area of forest was the scene of high drama two months ago when a fire front caused the evacuation of the five-star Spicers Peak Lodge.
But it was a much more uplifting scene this week as English Springer Spaniels Taz (brown) and Missy (black), who are trained to sniff out koala scats, discovered surviving koalas.
Olivia Woosnam, is a koala conservation ecologist and joint owner/operator of consultancy OWAD Environment which conducts koala surveys with their professional field detection dogs Taz and Missy. The dogs are 372% more effective than humans at finding koalas, and are also far quicker. OWAD Environment is absorbing some of the search costs.
On their first morning at the Maryvale property, Mrs Woosnam said Taz quickly located fresh koala scats and when they looked up, there was a mother and her joey.
“The joey was out of the pouch and independent. They were in the same tree and they were moving around and seemed ok, we did a visual check of them and we’ve got no immediate concern for their safety,” Mrs Woosnam said.
After searching more than 10km on that first day, the team found another adult male and nearby an adult female without a joey. This female appeared thin and may be malnourished and dehydrated. A dead male koala was found on the Cunningham Highway with clear signs of road trauma.
A second day of searching uncovered a further three koalas spotted, and evidence of even more survivors in the area.
Mrs Woosnam said the koalas haven’t found their way out of the burnt areas yet so Spicers Peak Lodge staff are leaving watering stations out for them.
“There isn’t much leaf and therefore not much moisture at all so they’d be getting thirsty,” Mrs Woosnam said.
She said on this property the fire did not burn all tree canopies leaving some green leaf which likely explains the survivors.
Amazingly, two months after the fire they found a stump still smouldering. There is also lush new leaf emerging in places and evidence that koalas are feeding on new growth.
Dr Stuart Blanch, Senior Manager Land Clearing and Restoration, for WWF-Australia, said WWF and koala.com will fund the dogs to search more bushland.
“Finding seven koalas alive amid the destruction in just two days is an encouraging start. It’s great to see that some koalas are surviving the fires and they can recolonise the forest as it regrows,” Dr Blanch said.
Dr Blanch said WWF had so far committed almost $1 million for immediate wildlife rescue, care and recovery and that was just the start.
“WWF sincerely thanks our supporters in Australia and around the world. Their generosity has funded efforts like this search for surviving koalas which crucially tells wildlife teams where to leave watering stations.
“We have an ambitious global appeal to establish a $30 million Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund so that WWF can help the people on the front line recover our wildlife and regrow our forests,” he said.
He said the bushfire crisis had increased awareness that our climate and wildlife is at a tipping point.
"Confirming koala survival on our property following the fires is wonderful news. We are grateful for the support from WWF and koala.com, the detector dogs are invaluable," said Jude Turner Founder of Spicers Retreats.
"Here at Spicers we have already started building koala drinkers with 15 set to be put in trees over the coming fortnight both here and at Spicers Hiddenvale where we have an active koala research project underway operating out of our Hiddenvale Wildlife Centre," Ms Turner said.
People can help WWF continue to deploy emergency funds to care for our injured wildlife and – when the fires clear – help restore the forest homes that our koalas, kangaroos and other animals have lost by donating at https://www.wwf.org.au/get-involved/bushfire-emergency