Koalas Tracked by Smartphone App; Scientists Ask Australians to Record Encounters Using Mobile Phone Technology

Koalas Tracked by Smartphone App

Scientists Ask Australians to Record Encounters Using Mobile Phone Technology


Updated Nov. 13, 2013 12:09 p.m. ET

The Koala’s Australian habitat is gradually shrinking, thanks to wild dogs and wild fires. Now, citizens are being asked to help account for the bear population by sending in spottings via smartphone app. Via WSJ’s Foreign Bureau.

CANBERRA, Australia—Former Beatle Paul McCartney once sang an ode to them, while tourists jostle to have their photographs taken holding them. Now, scientists hope to save Australia’s endangered koala using mobile phone technology. With numbers of the furry marsupial falling due to a combination of wild dog attacks, habitat loss from land clearing, wildfires and the impact of chlamydia infections, Australians have been asked to take part in the Great Koala Count, running until Nov. 17.Using a new mobile phone application, farmers, bushwalkers and members of the public can use GPS to record the location of koalas they encounter, while also answering questions about the animal and its habitat. The app uses locally developed software called “BioTag” and is available on several mobile phone platforms.

The phone app will allow scientists to collate koala numbers onto the Atlas of Living Australia database, which is already used to map many of Australia’s globally unique plants and animals.

One of the koala project leaders, Irish-born ecologist Grainne Cleary from Australia’s National Parks Association, says the count caps a six-year quest to try to save one of Australia’s best-known and internationally beloved wild inhabitants.

“It is such an iconic Australian species. I grew up in Dublin with a koala teddy bear. So to be able to come over here and work to help them is amazing. People really care,” says Dr. Cleary, whose passion for koalas runs so deep that she has their guttural grunt as her cellphone ring tone.

Opinions are divided as to how endangered the koala is. The Australian government listed the animal as “vulnerable” in April 2012. Conservation group Australian Koala Foundation has urged the government to upgrade that to “critically endangered” in parts of the tropical eastern Queensland state, where it is estimated between 43,000 and 80,000 animals remain in the wild.

Dr. Cleary says millions of koalas lived in the Australian bush when European settlers first arrived, some finding them “fierce and menacing.” As late as 1983, former Australian Tourism Minister John Brown gained international notoriety by describing koalas as “flea-ridden, piddling, stinking, scratching, rotten little things.”

In the most populous New South Wales state, counting Sydney, estimates now run as low as 28,000 animals remaining.

Dr. Cleary, who moved to Australia to work with koalas after studying badgers in Ireland, said the BioTag phone app would allow people to say whether adults were accompanied by young joeys, or even whether they were male or female, provided they could tell past the fur.

“If we see lots of young around, then we know that the population is breeding. We can also tell how much impact there is from chlamydia, because females with chlamydia won’t breed. We also ask people to tell us whether it was in an isolated tree or whatever,” she said.

Dr. Cleary said the count was monitored constantly for suspicious entries in case of pranksters, with ecologists checking out suspicious entries as necessary by following them up on the ground and deleting them.

“We’ve already had one koala reported off the coast of Nigeria. We thought that one was pretty suspicious. But people are mostly pretty good.”

Wildlife experts hope the mobile phone count will become a yearly event and population snapshot, although access to the technology also poses a challenge in the sprawling country, where telecommunications reach is an issue for many Australians.

Climate warming appears to be hurting koala numbers, Dr. Cleary said, with Australia already the driest inhabited continent and thought by some scientists to be particularly at risk.

“With temperatures getting hotter, today we had a koala in somebody’s backyard in western Sydney. It is compounding the existing threats they face,” she said.

“Koalas can’t go into a hollow, they can’t fly away. They just have to sit in a tree, and when the heat is beating down they have to find a tree with good shade.

“That will often force them to move around on the ground during the day, and they get attacked by dogs or knocked down by cars,” Dr. Cleary said.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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