Koalas have been hit particularly hard by Australia’s raging bushfires. One Australian has turned to a familiar friend to help the animals – dogs.
CBS News followed three special canines, Tommy, Emma and Becky, and their trainer Steve Austin, as they searched scorched land for injured but still living koalas.
It is estimated that a third of New South Wales’ koala population has died, while numbers are higher in other states. With an approximate population of 100,000 to 200,000 in the wild before the fires, koalas were already on the verge of extinction. The Word Wildlife Fund now says that more than 30,000 may have perished, although the final toll won’t be known for months.
Koalas are also known to breed so slowly that it could take 100 years for the population to rebuild. This means that saving just one is crucial.
Austin, who has been working with dogs for 30 years, explained why dogs are perfect for the job. “The beauty of the dog is it’s got no bias. It won’t go, ‘oh well there can’t be a koala over there. There has to be a koala,'” he said, adding that the dogs’ noses are their best tool.
His team of three is specifically trained to find injured koalas by tracking the scent of their waste, known as scat. After one of the dogs finds a koala, Austin gives them what he calls their “ultimate reward” – a tennis ball worth less than a dollar.
Austin’s concern comes from koalas’ place in Australia’s cultural identity. He explained, “They’ve got that lovely ambience about them. They don’t hurt nothing. They just sit and eat. And they’re very Australian because they’re found nowhere else in the world so we have to look out for them, which is very important that we do.”
So far this fire season, Austin’s dogs have located 16 koalas. Experts are then called in to rescue the animals. Many hurt by the blaze are treated at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Sydney.
Hospital President Sue Ashton said she’s grateful for the dog teams, and that they streamline the whole rescue process. “Koalas are very discreet,” she noted. “They hide themselves very well, particularly if they’re being traumatized.”
Ashton called koalas “gentle, docile creatures,” and expressed fear about their ability to bounce back from their shrunken numbers.
“But there is a light. And the light is now people have seen the plight of the koala and maybe we can get off our backsides,” she said. “With the help of the government and like-minded people we can actually do something that will help them.”
Austin’s team represents just three of eight dogs in the entire country trained to do the job. He hopes that as conditions become safer, he can get as many dogs into as many areas as possible to continue rescuing koalas injured by the fires.