Drones and tech keeping track of koalas

·2-min read

When the Black Summer bushfires tore along Australia's east coast, authorities were left to guess the death toll for koalas and other threatened species.

The disaster exposed a lack of data about what was living where - a consequence of how expensive and time consuming it is to gather such information on a large scale.

On Sunday's World Environment Day, news has emerged of a three-way collaboration using drones, an artificial intelligence algorithm and dedicated volunteers, to make a difference.

Drones fitted with cameras and thermal sensors will be given to trained Landcare groups and regularly flown over local patches of koala habitat.

Footage will be sent to the Queensland University of Technology to be scanned by the AI algorithm, which essentially allows computers to "see".

Highly accurate data about the location and number of koalas is then returned to volunteers, who can use it to inform their conservation work.

University ecologist Grant Hamilton developed the algorithm with colleague Simon Denman and says involving Landcare groups is the perfect way to scale up the use of the technology and start generating big data sets.

"As the Black Summer bushfires showed, we simply don't know what's out there. The huge benefit of this is being able to cover a lot of ground quickly," he said.

It also removes the challenge of scaling rugged terrain and offers more accurate information.

The $1.5 million project has been funded by WIRES, Australia's largest wildlife rescue organisation and Landcare with in-kind support from the university.

Landcare Australia CEO Shane Norrish says the project will start with five groups from Victoria north to Queensland but quickly expand.

The same approach could be used to monitor threatened species other than the koala.

WIRES CEO Leanne Taylor says better data should mean a better wildlife response when future disasters strike.

"The lack of baseline data on wildlife we had during the bushfires meant that during the emergency critical habitat could not be identified and prioritised for protection," she said.

More than 60,000 koalas were killed or injured in the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfire disaster, WWF Australia calculated.

Nearly three billion animals - including mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs - were impacted.

Meanwhile, the 2022 Queensland budget will allocate almost $40 million to help protect the state's native flora and fauna.

Treasurer Cameron Dick says $24.6 million will go to the further implementation of the South East Queensland Koala Strategy 2020-2025.

"This ... will underpin critical actions needed to help stop the decline of our koala population, protecting and restoring key koala habitats as we work towards increasing koala numbers over time," he said on Sunday.

A further $14.7 million will be invested to support Queensland's Threatened Species Program, with 243 animals and 783 plants currently listed as such.

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