A forestry company in Victoria, Australia, is using drones to keep koalas safe by spotting them amongst dense foliage before felling.
Hazelwood Forestry, who are based in the La Trobe Valley, have chosen to use drones to assist them in their wildlife management program as an alternative to manual spotting.
Koalas are threatened in other states of Australia but not in Victoria – however Eloise Cluning, who operates the Hazelwood North company with forester and husband Russell, believes it is still important to do what they can to ensure the koalas safety.
At the Hancock Victoria Plantations in the Strzelecki Rage of the La Trobe valley, Hazelwood Forestry harvest blue gums and pines.
Blue gums are a favourite habitat of koalas, but before felling a tree they must check if there is a koala living in it, and if so, translocate it first.
Cluning explains the process. “Koala spotting – we do it every day before that day’s harvest. We actually capture and translocate koalas under a permit from DELWP,” she told the La Trobe Valley Express.
“Most of our work is koala management with Hancocks who have been on the front foot in managing koalas. We are really ramping up how to manage and protect them in forestry operations,” she explained.
Even young trees have quite dense foliage, but by using drones with thermal imaging capabilities, the company is able to locate and move the koalas much faster and more safely.
While using autonomous drones is not an option – Cluning says that without a pilot, the drone cannot be flexible or accurate enough to find the koala amongst dense leaves and branches – using drones allows them to spot the heat signature of the koala.
The process then requires a human check. “We have to stop the flight to check out every heat feature. Every heat signal looks the same to begin with – you need more time to identify it as a wombat, a koala, or a bird. Then you have to do some planning,” Cluning said.
The drone that Hazelwood Forestry use was chosen for its ability to handle a lot of wind, and is nearly 10kg in weight with a width of 1.66m and top speed of 65km/hr.
“It’s difficult to move around, and is probably the biggest off-the-shelf registered drone you can buy,” Cluning said.
Weather can still hamper the drone’s ability to spot koalas accurately, for example too much rain or fog.
However, eagles cause the most trouble in the mission to protect koalas being injured from the forester’s activities.
“Generally in the dark, the eagles leave us alone, but they definitely work in packs. Once, there were five eagles, I got chased as I brought the drone in to land,” said Cluning.
“A few have checked out the drone. It’s a bit too big and noisy for some; you have to be a brave eagle to take it on. One actually threw the drone into a tree. Eagles were circling as we retrieved the drone.”