Thermal drone technology boosts koala monitoring in the Northern Tablelands

Local Land Services is making significant progress surveying and detecting accurate koala population trends in the Northern Tablelands region of NSW using thermal drone technology.

Local Land Services has been monitoring koala populations since 2016, after they found that very little surveying had been done on the tablelands compared to other parts of NSW.

While sniffer dogs have largely been used to find koala scats and log their distribution, this year Local Land Services is also using thermal drones to find out the density and concentration of koala populations.

Working with University of Sunshine Coast (USC), specialised thermal drone pilots are conducting thermal imaging surveys around the Drake, Carol’s Creek, Boorook and Maryland areas as part of Local Land Services’ Cool Country Koala Program.

Romane Cristescu, koala expert and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at USC said the greater accuracy of thermal drone technology allows Local Land Services to monitor koala population trends more quickly than other methods.

Land Services Officer, Northern Tablelands Local Land Services, Elsie Baker said we are also able to cover more area with highly accurate monitoring, as opposed to other methods used to calculate density like line transects and distance sampling.

“These other methods require more years of monitoring before scientists could be certain a trend was real and not just due to detection and natural variability,” Elsie said.

“Having the power to detect koala trends from one year to the next means we can react to a decline in numbers more quickly, as well as measure whether management actions to stop populations declining are working.

“The technology has also previously been used both to find injured and starving koalas to rescue after the bushfires”.

Like any other monitoring techniques, increased rain and flood has produced survey challenges as drones and thermal cameras can be affected by light rain and wind. The roads to sites where also frequently closed with saturated soils.

“Hats off to the USC researchers who’ve had to be incredibly flexible, coming down at short notice when a few weeks of sunshine were predicted,” said Elsie.

“The State and National Parks rangers have been great organising access while roads were destroyed”.

The researchers were also collecting fresh scats while doing thermal imaging, to gather data on koala genetics, levels of disease and population connectivity.

“We only realised there was a strong koala population around those sites a few years ago, so we’re trying to gather as much data about them as possible.”

While Local Land Services and USC Detection Dogs spend lots of time in the field, the Northern Tablelands is a big place, so it’s still vital for community members to report koalas and keep an eye on their health, so koala population trends can be monitored.

You can report koala sightings on the iNaturalist app and report sick koalas on 1300 094 737.

For more information on Local Land Services’ Cool Country Koala project, visit our website.

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