Koala care: The Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie where volunteers work to treat injured and sick koalas before returning them to the wild. Photo: Ben Rushton
Dog training is the latest desperate measure in the battle to protect Australia’s endangered koalas, with estimates putting numbers in the wild below 50,000.
Although canines are a major cause of koala death and injury, training dogs not to attack is a weapon conservationists are using to protect the species.
The Australian Koala Foundation estimates 4000 koalas are killed each year by domestic and wild dogs, and cars. Australia has one of the highest land-clearing rates in the world and the koala’s habitat continues to be squeezed.
Training domestic dogs not to attack koalas is a topic that will be discussed by expert dog trainer Steve Austin at a National Koala Conference in May. The conference will be hosted by Port Macquarie’s volunteer-run Koala Hospital as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations.
Mr Austin and his colleagues have been recruiting puppy class instructors to sign up to their program, which will be launched after the conference. They will be training puppy class instructors wherever there are koalas under attack to introduce aversion training techniques as part of their regular classes.
They will use koala scent supplied by the Koala Hospital as well as live animals, including rabbits or cats, to teach dogs from eight weeks of age that, when they smell a koala, to come back to their owner to be rewarded.
“It’s all about positive reinforcement,” said Mr Austin, who will also educate owners about keeping their dogs inside and on leads when they’re in a koala area. “The education of the owner is paramount, so they can continue training their dogs once they leave puppy class.”
Twenty-five per cent of koala injuries that come in to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital are from domestic dog attacks. “Owners need to be aware that their dogs, no matter how nice they think they are, are really harming our koala population,” Mr Austin said.
But can enough dogs be trained to make a difference to the number of injured koalas? “You’ve got to start somewhere,” Mr Austin said. “If we just sit back and say, ‘Oh well, we’ll let the dogs rip up the koalas’, then one day we’ll wake up and there’ll be no koalas left, and it’ll be our fault.”
The Koala Hospital treats about 300 koalas a year, and aims to release all its patients back into the wild. It is also the world’s leading koala research centre.
The conference will focus on issues surrounding declining koala populations throughout Australia including disease, urban development, translocation and bushfires.
“It’s a chance for all people involved with wild and captive koalas to get to know each other and make great contacts, which will cement the ‘let’s do the right thing by koalas’ message,” said Cheyne Flanagan, supervisor of the Koala Hospital and organiser of the conference, which runs from May 17-19.
Koala numbers continue to dwindle despite federal Environment Minister Tony Burke listing the animal as a nationally threatened species last April, meaning developers have to account for koala listings when making building applications.
“All the listing has done is add another layer of paperwork for developers to have to go through,” said Ms Flanagan, who insists that koalas and humans can co-exist in urban environments if developers get on board with koala-sensitive designs.
The writer and photographer were guests of Greater Port Macquarie Tourism.