Collaborative approach to chital research

SSAA provides vital funding

Matt Amos

The early morning midwinter sun is a welcome warmth on my back as the chopper disappears from view below the not-too-distant treeline, the regular ‘wokka-wokka’ replaced by the roar of the engine on full revs. Attention straining on every detail coming from the direction of helicopter, the crackle of the UHF radio nearly makes me jump. “Dart in, dart in,” says pilot Dave over the radio, as cool as a server reading back your order in a McDonalds drive-through. Not the tone you expect from someone chasing a chital hind flat-out across a patchily-treed plain at low altitude with only seconds to get into position for a dart to be fired.

SSAA volunteer Keith Staines and project leader Tony Pople discuss the likely whereabouts of the darted deer, trying to work out what track or fenceline we could use to get as close as possible. Wildlife veterinarian Jordan Hampton and I triple-check the kit in our backpacks to make sure we have everything ready to process the deer once sedated.

Meanwhile Mike Brennan is talking to the pilot on the radio and has already started the vehicle, ready to leave as soon as we pile in. “Animal slowing up,” comes the latest update as we head off. So begins another day of operations on the Queensland Northern Chital project (to be continued . . .)

We were working together north of Charters Towers on a collaborative research project trying to fit satellite GPS tracking collars to chital deer hinds. The project started in 2017 with the aim of increasing our knowledge of the ecology, spread and management of chital deer in the Burdekin Dry Tropics and fitting tracking collars was an important step in monitoring their use of habitat, reproduction and population dynamics.

Tracking collar deployment started in August, 2018 with a trial of helicopter darting of chital to fit collars. The trial was a steep learning curve for all involved as, while our New Zealand cousins have conducted lots of helicopter darting and net-gun capture of deer, there’s no documented methodology for aerial darting deer in Australia. That August trip resulted in 15 deer being successfully collared.

From the literature, anecdotal evidence and my limited experience in ground-darting chital, red and rusa deer, chital appears the toughest of the four deer species in Queensland on which to do this type of work. They’re easily stressed and prone to hyperthermia (abnormally high body temperature) and contract myopathy, a disease associated with capture of wild animals which causes muscle damage - linked to extreme exertion or stress - often resulting in death. To add to this complexity we were darting from a helicopter which adds another stress level.

The trip this winter (June, 2019) saw us implement strategies and protocols learned the previous year. We monitored body temperature and applied water externally if needed to cool sedated deer. Helicopter chase time was limited to less than 10 minutes and, if a dart bounced, the deer was not pursued further to avoid the possibility of a double dose of darting drugs. Jordan the vet was on hand to help keep sedated animals alive, provide expert advice on drug doses and combinations and had some additional equipment - a pulse oximeter and some medical-grade oxygen. With his help we switched to a new darting drug combination this year with great results.

The 2019 trip was hugely successful, fitting 19 collars, and with the 15 from the previous year a total of 34 chital deer are being tracked, providing us with one-hourly GPS fixes. These deer have been monitored by the project’s PhD student Catherine Kelly to track when they fawned and if the young survived. This work can be trying as the deer are flighty and difficult to monitor at close proximity, hard to see in long grass and even harder to assign young to mother when in a group. However, the satellite GPS collars have been a crucial part of the project during this time, recording a GPS location hourly and supplying information on home range and habitat use.

Biosecurity Queensland (part of Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries - DAF) sends its sincere thanks to all our project partners including the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia, James Cook University (JCU), New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI) and Ecotone Wildlife Veterinary Services (EWVS).

Special thanks go to SSAA president Geoff Jones for his support in getting this project off the ground and to SSAA National who bought some of the satellite GPS tracking collars, helicopter hours and supported Catherine with an academic bursary in 2018.

Mention also goes to Keith Staines (SSAA volunteer and deer hunting/darting expert), Jordan Hampton (EWVS), Ben Hirsch (JCU), Dave Forsyth (NSW DPI), Sean Reed and Chrissy Zirbel (DAF) and a special nod to pilot Dave Fox and aerial marksman Jamie Molyneaux of Fox Helicopters, Richmond. The skill, teamwork and dedication of this pair must be seen to be believed, working at very low altitudes chasing such small, fast-moving animals.

This chital deer research collaboration will continue for at least another 12 months and the crucial information gathered will inform our greater understanding of the basic ecology of chital outside their native range, population growth and spread, habitat use and factors that will help with management and control into the future.

Research findings will be published in Catherine Kelly’s PhD thesis, peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and presented at the Australasian Wildlife Management Society Conference and the Australasian Vertebrate Pest Conference. For further information email [email protected]

Continued . . . The vehicle slows to a halt on direction from the chopper, we grab our kit and walk straight towards the helicopter about 300m from the track. Directions from above steer us to the deer, impossible to see from even 15m in the thick grass and scattered shrubs, and on making visual contact the chopper pulls back to allow the deer a couple of minutes to settle.

Backpacks are stashed to free up our movements. Keith and I, crouching, make a slow and low approach through the grass which ends in a co-ordinated tackle on the hind, just in case. Experience has taught us that a seemingly dopey deer can still make a remarkably quick getaway, especially from a tentative approach and just one pair of hands.

Thankfully this hind is well sedated and Keith quickly puts a blindfold in place while supporting her head and rolling her on to her chest. I grab the collar and kit from the bag while Jordan cuts the dart out with a scalpel and cleans the wound with Betadine then we fit the collar and take some body measurements.

Meanwhile Jordan is checking her pulse, breathing and blood oxygen saturation with a pulse oximeter. Oxygen levels are a bit low so he administers some via a nasal tube. Rectal temperature is slowly rising meaning it’s time to douse her with water to keep that in check. Time from darting less than 30 minutes, time from approach less than 10 minutes.

We settle back to take stock and double check all the processing has been done and recorded properly - still another 10-15 minutes to administer reversal. The time drags as we’ve been busy and running on adrenalin but eventually the reversal drug is given and we move all the kit back and away from the deer in case she kicks and flounders. After 20 minutes of periods of struggle to regain control interspersed with rest intervals, the hind (that we named Skye) finally stays on her feet and wanders off with the occasional stagger.

We exchange high fives and report to the rest of the team that all’s well with the final collared deer. We’ve tagged out and successfully fitted all the collars we had available - what a great way to finish the week.

• Matt Amos is a scientist with Biosecurity Queensland.

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