Two Koalas climb a tree at a zoo in Sydney, Australia. Conservationists fear hundreds of koalas have perished in wildfires that have razed prime habitat on Australia’s east coast. File picture: Rob Griffith/AP
Sydney - Researchers Down Under have adopted a range of new technology solutions including virtual reality (VR) and drones, to track Australia's beloved koalas and to protect them from extinction.
Already facing declining populations due to loss of habitat, bushfires on the country's east coast have devastated the species' numbers even further in recent weeks.
In order to better plan for their future survival, a new study on Thursday by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Australian Research Council set out to develop more accurate statistical models so that conservationists and government can stay better informed.
"It's about building a model that tells us with confidence where koalas are and where they're not," lead author Dr Catherine Leigh said. "When you start building up a model with all of that data, you get a much better idea about where the koalas are likely to be."
As fires flared in the Australian state of New South Wales on Friday, carers at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital continued to nurse koalas rescued from the fire zone.
"If you can predict where koalas are, and the types of habitats they are hanging around in, then you know not only where to go to keep monitoring them but also the areas you need to protect."
Difficult to spot with traditional ground surveys, researchers have previously found a statistical bias of higher koala populations close to paths and other areas easily accessible to observers.
"When you're out in the field as an experienced koala observer or a citizen scientist, you really are restricted to where you can walk. And koalas are hard to see, even by trained observers," Leigh explained.
"They are slow moving and often hidden high in the canopy."
Looking to combat these challenges, the team took to the air with heat-seeking thermal drone cameras to pick out the animals amongst the vegetation. In addition, researchers travelled to 82 specific locations in areas where koalas are known to be and took high-resolution 360-degree images which were then shown to a panel of koala experts wearing VR headsets who were then asked to determine whether the environment they were viewing was "good koala habitat".
As sending experts into the field is often difficult, time consuming and expensive, Leigh said VR technology now gives researchers the ability to bring the field to the experts.
"They're called immersive experiences," she said.
"A lot of the research done on immersive experiences suggests that it helps to bring back the memories associated with when that expert has been in the field in the past, so they can be more cognizant of making the decision about the likelihood that a koala would be there."
By using this three-pronged approach of VR-prompted expert information in combination with thermal imagery from drones and traditional ground surveys, Leigh said their statistics models were 75 percent more accurate, allowing local councils and town planning authorities to obtain critical information that's desperately needed to protect koalas.