Thursday, April 17, 2014

Council enlists poo-sniffing dog in fight to save koalas

A highly specialised detection dog trained to sniff out koala droppings is on the case in Logan, south of Brisbane, Australia, in a bid to boost protection for the vulnerable species. Logan City Council enlisted conservation canine Maya to help identify koala habitats in the area. Maya's owner is Dr Cristescu, an ecologist who specialises in koala research. "I've spent a lot of my life looking for animal poo, specifically koala poo," Dr Cristescu said. "The reason we look for koala poo is because that gives us where they live, the koala habitat.

"But it's really inefficient for us humans to look for koala poo because we rely on our eyesight, so that takes a lot of time to look for really small koala poo in a really big habitat." On the other hand, specially trained dogs like Maya can canvass a large area of land in a relatively short period of time. Dr Cristescu says using sniffer dogs is an emerging trend in the areas of conservation biology, ecology and pest control. "There are detection dogs from everything from drugs to border security - so why not a koala poo dog?" Dr Cristescu said. Trainer Gary Jackson says Maya represents "the future" of conservation efforts.

Mr Jackson rescued Maya from the pound several years ago before training her to be a detection dog. "These detection dogs do so much better and so much quicker than humans. She's had about three months of solid training to look for koala poop," he said. "And not only to look for koala poop, but also to ignore so many other things in the environment. The dog had to go in a very scent-contaminated area and only be interested in locating the koala poop and showing you exactly where it is." In Maya's case, the behavioural traits which made her a less-than-desirable pet have meant she was a perfect candidate for training as a detection dog.

"You need a dog basically with an OCD on a tennis ball, an absolute nutcase on a tennis ball," he said. "Then you scent-associate the tennis ball with the target odour - which is a koala poop - and then the dog will search for ages just to try to find that odour. She will go into an open area and she just has to find one little koala poop and she will just hit the deck. Maya will do a drop and then when you go up to her she'll go and put her nose over the top of it and pinpoint exactly where it is. You've got a whole acre and you've found one tiny piece of koala poop." The information Maya is able to provide Logan City Council will be used to inform the Koala Conservation Strategy, which is used to manage and improve prospects for koalas. Maya will search for signs of koalas across an area of almost 500 hectares of bushland over a period of two weeks.

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