Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires



david Mariuz/AAP

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast

The plight of koalas during the recent bushfire crisis made headlines here and abroad. But the emergency for our wildlife is not over. Koalas that survived the flames are now dying from starvation, dehydration, smoke inhalation and other hazards.

Over the past three weeks in one wildlife conservation property alone, our rescue team found koalas recently crushed under fire-damaged trees, and koalas with burnt paws after descending to the smouldering ground after the inferno had passed, hoping to change trees and find food. One of our most recent rescues was an orphaned, emaciated koala with all four paws burnt.

Koalas are also at risk of dying from infections associated with these injuries, or from the ongoing effects of smoke inhalation. Even uninjured koalas are struggling to find food in their burnt habitat and may soon starve.

There is still time to act to avoid losing more koalas. But we need the public’s help.

Romane Cristescu with a koala that survived the bushfires, but died afterwards.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

A critically urgent task

The fires in Australia’s southeast destroyed huge swathes of koala habitat in areas where they were already vulnerable – dehydrated and malnourished due to prolonged drought, climate change and land-clearing.

Adding to the pressures, an estimated 5,000 koalas died as a result of the recent fires in New South Wales alone – potentially two out of every three.

Our team at Detection Dogs for Conservation rescues, trains and deploys dogs to find wildlife that needs help.

Since November last year, we’ve deployed our dogs to fire grounds in NSW and Queensland almost every week, urgently searching for surviving koalas. One of our detection dogs, Bear, is trained to find the koala itself – not just koala scats, as our other dogs are.




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The International Fund for Animal Welfare (https://www.ifaw.org/uk/projects/koala-habitat-protection-with-detection-dogs-australia) helps coordinate our activities with local wildlife rescue groups and other koala conservationists.

After bushfires, a koala’s territory is often no longer able to sustain them due to lack of food – which for koalas also provides water – or lack of shelter. Without canopy cover, koalas simply overheat.

Finding koalas can be difficult. They camouflage well, they are quiet, and usually sit still. But dogs can smell what we can’t see, including koalas. These dogs, together with our drone equipped with a thermal camera, greatly increase koala detection rates.

Without canopy cover, koalas easily overheat in hot weather.
Ben Beaden/AAP

What we found

We believe most koalas that died in the fires were reduced to ashes, and so could not be counted among the dead. But since November, in 39 days of searches, we’ve found more than 40 injured, sick, dehydrated or starving koalas and, sadly, six dead ones.

We’ve also observed koalas returning to their favourite trees in their home ranges, only to find the canopies completely burnt. Others survived in a small unburnt patch but are now isolated and surrounded by vast tracts of inhospitable habitat.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog Bear. The program makes wildlife detection far more efficient.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

When we find live koalas in the fire grounds, we attempt to catch them and transport them to a local wildlife triage centre or koala “hospital” to be urgently assessed by veterinarians. Burns are obvious, but smoke inhalation is less so. Koalas in poor condition must stay in care until they’ve fully recovered.

In the past three weeks, we’ve made particularly tragic discoveries. In the Snowy Mountains, two koalas that survived the inferno had been crushed and killed under fire-damaged trees. We sighted one of these koalas three days in a row. The first two days, he was in trees he could not be safely rescued from. The third day, he was fatally crushed.

As recently as last week we found koalas suffering burns, predominantly on their paws. These animals would have continued to suffer severe pain trying to climb trees had we not rescued them. One of our last rescues was an 2kg orphaned koala with four burnt paws and the lowest possible body condition on the scale – emaciated.

We did expect to find koalas killed by the fires. But it was especially heartbreaking to find those that died afterwards. It’s hard then to not think, perhaps with more detection dogs and a bigger team, we might have saved them.




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We can do more

A full search-and-rescue team comprises Bear and his handler, a drone pilot and a koala-catching crew. These missions cost money. To date, our deployments have been entirely funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

We’ve established an online fundraiser to help pay for further rescue work. We are also learning from this year’s deployment how to be more efficient next year – including having the equipment, team and budget secured prior to the fire season, which we hope this fundraiser helps us achieve.

After the devastating fire season, rescuing and rehabilitating surviving koalas is critical. Koalas reproduce slowly. The more rescued and able to breed this year, the quicker the population will increase. And every koala we rescue comes with a specific genetic make-up; the genetic diversity we can preserve now will help the species cope with future challenges.The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Air-dropping poisoned meat to kill bush predators hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s unlikely to help now



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Justine M. Philip, Museums Victoria

After the summer’s devastating bushfires, the New South Wales government announced a plan to airdrop one million poisoned baits in the state’s most vulnerable regions over the next year. The plan is aimed at protecting surviving native animals from foxes, feral cats and wild dogs.

This isn’t the first time aerial baiting has been used in NSW recently. As the fire season got underway in September last year, the government’s biannual aerial baiting program scattered baits over nearly 8 million hectares in the Western Division alone – dispensing 43,442 aerial baits and 115,162 ground-laid baits over the drought-stricken region.

Biosecurity officers drying meat baits for the Autumn baiting program in Broken Hill last year.
NSW Government, Local Land Services, Western Region

In a study published this week, I explore Australia’s history as pioneers of this technology. The review raises serious concerns about the ethics and poor results of baiting programs, and the high uptake of baits by non-target species such as marsupials.

D-day for dingoes

Aerial baiting has been Australia’s foremost weapon against pest species for the past 74 years. The initial target was the dingo, to protect unguarded livestock from being killed.




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It started on Remembrance Day in 1946. Around 367,000 dry meat baits were airdropped across Queensland, each containing enough strychnine to kill an adult dingo. The campaign was considered a victory, despite only recovering one dingo carcass during the initial operation. Livestock predation apparently decreased; tracks in the sand vanished.

The following year, 1.5 million baits were distributed. Then in 1948 the quantity increased to 2.5 million baits across remote regions of Queensland and the Northern Territory.

Livestock predation decreased after airdropping baits, but at what cost?
CSIRO Science Image, CC BY

Thousands of baits to kill one dingo

The strychnine tablets took up to 12 tortuous hours for the poison to deliver its lethal kill. The baits used in research trials were still toxic after 14 weeks.

There was huge public criticism of the project at the time – much of it from graziers. They claimed ants and valuable pest-eating birds – magpies, small hawks, butcher birds, crows, ibis and curlew – were eating the baits.

In response, the Queensland government set up the first monitored trials. The 1954 report from the Chief Vermin Control Officer recorded:

In the dry season campaigns, the baits are dropped on water-holes, soaks, junctions of dried water courses, gorges in hills and all places where dogs must travel or gather in their search for water and game and in their movements with pups from the breeding areas.

The data recorded an average 14,941 baits dispensed for every dingo carcass recovered. Anecdotal evidence suggests the program was considered a success.

CSIRO research worker with young dingo, 1970.
National Archives of Australia

Then in 1968 – 21 years after aerial campaigns began – a four-year CSIRO study tested the effectiveness of aerial baiting. It found the 1954 report was far from conclusive – the dingoes may just have moved elsewhere. And it concluded: “clearly aerial baiting was not effective”.

But there was an important caveat:

It is important to emphasise that, though this aerial baiting campaign was a failure, such a conclusion does not necessarily apply to any other campaign.

On the strength of that, aerial baiting programs continued.

Not much has changed

Despite millions of baits applied annually to the environment since the 1940s, Australia’s biodiversity has plummeted.

What’s more, developments in the technology haven’t come far. Raw meat baits eventually replaced dry baits in some areas. Strychnine was superseded by 1080, a less harmful poison to non-target native species, and less persistent in the environment.

Trials in the 1980s brought the bait-to-kill rate down to 750 to 1 (baits per dingo carcass recovered). This was considered a cost-effective and successful outcome.

Soon after, aerial baiting found a new market, becoming the frontline defence against Australia’s plummeting biodiversity from invasive predators.

Baits are not benign to marsupials

In 2008, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority imposed a limit of ten baits per kilometre to reduce risk to non-target species.

Pest control agencies need four times that amount of poison to achieve a successful kill rate. Yet planes have been dispensing baits at this lower and ineffective rate since 2008.

Why? It seems a balance between wildlife safety and effective canine or predator eradication isn’t possible with this technology.




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In fact, it has been impossible to accurately trace the fate of baits thrown from aeroplanes into remote terrain. Even ground baiting trials have proved difficult to monitor. A 2018 trial found non-target species consumed more than 71% of ground-laid meat baits, including ravens, crows, goannas, monitor lizards, marsupials and ants.

Four young dingoes died during this trial, representing only a 1.25% uptake by target. Despite monitoring with cameras and sand traps, 599 baits out of 961 in the trial disappeared without a trace.

These baits are not benign. Repeat doses can kill marsupials; non-lethal doses can kill pouch young. Secondary poisoning can also be lethal. Applying this outdated technology to vulnerable bushfire regions is from a historical viewpoint, potentially hazardous.

Surely there’s another way

There are new technologies available to help protect and repair Australia’s fragile and broken ecosystems. Remote surveillance, drones, AI, heat sensing equipment, and more could locate populations and dispatch dangerous animals.




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If aerial baiting continues, aerial surveillance could at least follow the fate of the one million baits and tell us what and who is eating them – who lives and who dies in the stripped-bare landscape.

One thing is for certain: halting the program would prevent hundreds of thousands of these poisoned meat baits ending up in the stomachs of our treasured native animals.The Conversation

Justine M. Philip, Doctor of Philosophy, Ecosystem Management, Museums Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.