Koala breeding programs like Riverbanks Zoo’s could become crucial in wake of Australian fires

Koala breeding programs like Riverbanks Zoo’s could become crucial in wake of Australian fires

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - With at least an eighth of the koala population already killed in the Australian wildfires, repopulation for that already vulnerable species will take the work of conservationists and animal advocates across the world.

It'll take breeding programs like the one in our backyard at Riverbanks Zoo, which is one of just 10 in North America. Because if the eucalyptus trees are gone and that’s the only source of food for koalas, how can they feed and repopulate? What would happen if they became endangered or “functionally extinct?”

“Basically, the animals will not be able to thrive and continue and rebuild their numbers and regain and rebuild their populations,” said Director of Animal Care at Riverbanks Zoo, John Davis. “They’ll be unable to do that and it’ll be the last number of animals that remain will either be in captivity in zoos or we will be finding isolated populations where they are living but unable to grow and recover.”

Riverbanks Zoo has been breeding Lottie, the 18-year-old koala, since 2002. She's had 11 joeys, which means she now has 14 grandjoeys, six great-grandjoeys, and now one great-great-grandjoey.

"She's an old lady, but she's still hangin’ in there,” joked Davis. "Getting koalas out of Queensland, Australia doesn't happen very often so this was a very unique special gift for us."

Our sister-state partnership with Queensland is how Lottie traveled to Riverbanks in the first place. She’s far exceeded her life expectancy and keepers said she is in great health. The Koala Barn at Riverbanks is also home to Lottie’s daughter, Charlotte, who is two-and-a-half years old.

"They do have a really cool natural history,” said Catherine Connell, the senior Cat/Bear Keeper at Riverbanks, “which is why I love talking to people about koalas because they have a lot of adaptations that help them survive in the wild.”

Connell has been caring for Lottie and facilitating the breeding process since she came to Riverbanks seven years ago. She said it’s an incredible process to behold because, when koalas have babies, they're only a month old and the size of a jelly bean!

They immediately climb into Mom's pouch, where they stay for six months while they grow.

"All of a sudden, you'll start seeing an arm or a head and then, you know, it's close and it's starting to come out and we get to see it for the first time,” Connell said.

Riverbanks Zoo is just one of 10 Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) programs for breeding koalas. Those joeys then go to other zoos across North America to continue breeding efforts there. It’s a critical program because, if koalas become endangered or functionally extinct in the wake of the Australian bush fires, repopulation in captivity could be the answer to koala survival.

“I’ve definitely been shedding some tears because there’s a sense of helplessness when it’s so far away and, when you work directly with animals, the species being affected by this it’s definitely hit home,” Connell said.

And while we don’t yet know the full extent of the impact to koalas in the wild right now, we do know the impact zoos like Riverbanks could have on the population as keepers now prepare Charlotte to become the next crucial piece in the conservation puzzle.

If you’re wanting to help fund efforts in Australia right now, whether it’s the fire service, or veterinarians donating their time to save wild animals, here are some places you can go:

Red Cross: redcross.org.au

Victorian Government: vic.gov.au/bushfireappeal

New South Wales Rural Fire Service: rfs.nsw.gov.au

Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital: azwh.blackbaud-sites.com

Wildlife Victoria: wildlifevictoria.org.au

Zoos Victoria: donate.zoo.org.au/donation

World Wildlife Fund Australia: donate.wwf.org.au

Australia Koala Foundation: savethekoala.com/adopt-a-koala

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