Koala resting in the fork of a tree. (Photo: Jenny Rollo)
Australian species that they may never see otherwise. It is a self-perpetuating relationship—where zoos want koalas because of their popularity with visitors, but where zoos themselves are also, almost certainly, a driving force behind the koala's continued popularity. Keeping koalas in captivity is not without its challenges, not the least of which is feeding such a fussy animal. Here we explore the popularity of the koala within zoos and fauna parks, the difficulties of keeping it in captivity and the economic rewards that this animal brings, not only to the zoos that house them, but also to the Australian economy.
Although there are earlier anecdotal records of koalas being sent overseas, the first official record of a koala being purchased by a zoo dates from 1880 and describes an animal bought from a dealer by the then Zoological Society of London (which opened London Zoo at Regent's Park in 1828). The koala's arrival at the Zoological Society was reported by William Flower:
A Koala or native Bear of Australia (Phascolarctos cinereus), purchased April 28, being the first example of this peculiar Marsupial that has been brought alive to Europe. Many attempts have been made by the friends and correspondents of the Society in Australia to induce specimens of this animal to live in captivity; but all have hitherto failed. The present example, which was purchased of a dealer in London, was brought home fed upon dried leaves of Eucalyptus, and had been several weeks in this country before it was acquired by the Society. 2
To the keepers' great credit they kept the koala alive for 14 months by feeding it on dried leaves initially and, later, fresh eucalypt leaves brought from Australia. Unfortunately the koala came to a tragic end on the night of 14 June 1881. The animal was allowed to roam free in the superintendent's office at night and, on this particular evening, it caught its head between the top and bottom rails of the room's fixed washing-stand. Despite or perhaps during its struggle to free itself, the koala died from asphyxia.3
A second animal received by the Zoological Society on 23 May 1882 was fed leaves of Tasmanian blue gum and a 'little bread and milk', but its longevity is not recorded.4 Lee Crandall's history of the management of captive animals tells of several koalas being shipped to England in 1908. The animals refused to eat the eucalypt leaves once they had withered, but ate a mixture of bread, milk and honey, and even Eucalyptus throat pastilles 'which they ate with every appearance of joy!' Unfortunately the ship ran into extremely cold weather in the Great Australian Bight off southern Australia, and the koalas perished. Two more koalas were purchased by the Royal Zoological Society of London on 10 November 1927, but neither survived for little more than a month.5
In Australia the first zoo to display koalas was Sydney's Taronga Zoo, whose first animals arrived in 1914, two years before the zoo's official opening. Brisbane koala enthusiast Claude Reid founded the city's Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in
1927 because of his fears for the survival of the koala, and its first two animals were called Jack and Jill.6 Five years later, two of Lone Pine's koalas were the first to travel by plane when they were transferred to Taronga Zoo. Now with over 130 koalas, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is officially recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's first and largest koala sanctuary.
Sydneysider Noel Burnett, like Claude Reid, feared that the koala might not survive the wholesale slaughter of the fur trade and, in 1927, he established Sydney's Koala Park. (The park was opened officially in 1930.) Burnett obtained his first four koalas under permit when he was only 26 years old. Six years later, a successful breeding programme and the purchase of additional animals meant that there were 65 residents in the park.7 Burnett would dedicate his life to protecting and researching the koala, and to creating a safe environment in which the animals could live and breed as if in the wild.
In Victoria, Healesville Sanctuary opened in 1934 (initially known as Sir Colin MacKenzie Sanctuary) and was home to koalas, among other Australian animals. In the same year, Melbourne Zoo established a special Australian section to display a wide range of Australian animals, including the platypus and the koala. The zoo had been keeping koalas for some time, as Australia's first recorded births of captive koalas were at Melbourne Zoo in 1925. Two joeys were born (although only one lived to maturity). Sydney's Koala Park and Brisbane's Lone
Pine Koala Sanctuary recorded successful births in 1927, followed by Taronga Zoo in 1938.8
After its relocation to a site opposite Adelaide Zoo, the Adelaide Snake Park and Koala Bear Farm, later to be known as the Koala Farm, first held koalas in 1936.9 The park had been opened in 1929 under the name 'Snake Park'. Alfred Minchin, then Director of Adelaide Zoo, had founded the park because the zoo's trustees would not allow him to hold venomous reptiles. Indeed an old reptile house at the zoo had been empty for several years and was converted eventually into a stable for the new giraffe.10 Despite the protests of nearby North Adelaide residents, who had visions of their gardens being overrun by escaping reptiles, Snake Park proved immensely popular with the public, with 3000 tickets being sold on the first Sunday after opening. Minchin had asked a South African friend, Cyril French, to help him run the park. French had been a schoolteacher in Cape Town, although he was described as the park's 'curator'. He put on a good, if rather reckless, show, in which he allowed the snakes to wrap themselves around him. One day in May 1927 he was bitten by one of his charges and, despite being treated in hospital with the park's own antidotes, died. After its move in 1936, the Koala Farm remained a well-known Adelaide feature until 1960, when declining public attendances and staffing problems forced its closure.
Koalas are known to have arrived in California in 1918 but the details are unknown. The New York Zoological Park, now known as the Bronx Zoo, received a koala on 30 October 1920. During its journey the koala was fed dried and refrigerated leaves, but by the time it arrived at the zoo there were no leaves left, and it died five days later. On 10 May 1925, as a gift from the children of Sydney to the children of San Diego, San Diego Zoo received its first two koalas, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. These animals were fortunate that California could offer them leaves from the abundant Eucalyptus species that flourished there. One of these koalas was the personal property of the zoo's director, Tom Faulconer, and lived in his home until its death in October 1925. The other specimen lived in a cage in the zoo's reptile house until March 1927.11
Why does California have so many species of Eucalyptus growing in the wild? The first seeds seem to have arrived during California's gold rush in the mid-19th century, along with the many Australians who travelled to the United States in the hope of making their fortunes. There is some debate as to who was the first person to plant Eucalyptus in California, but W.C. Walker, owner of San Francisco's Golden Gate Nursery, is generally held responsible. He is supposed to have planted the first seeds—from 14 different species—in 1853, and he was definitely a driving force behind the propagation of eucalypts in California. An 1857 issue of the California Farmer carries Walker's advertisement of eucalypts for sale. Another important San Franciscan was the German-born botanist H.H. Behr. He had been to Australia twice, where he had worked with the renowned Australian eucalypt expert Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. It is not known whether Behr himself brought eucalypt seeds from Australia to California, or had the seeds sent to him, or passed his seeds to Walker for care and nurture at his nursery. What is known is that in Behr, California had a resident eucalypt expert. Another possible source of California's eucalypts is Captain Robert H. Waterman, who bought land in Suisun Valley for his retirement and is known to have planted eucalypts in 1853. He apparently commissioned an ex-first mate to bring the seed from Australia. Waterman not only planted seed on his own ranch, he gave some to his neighbours as well. Regardless of their origins, it is estimated there are between 70 and 100 eucalypt species in California today, which provide a valuable source of fresh leaves, not only for the koalas in Californian zoos but, as we will see, for those in many other zoos.12
Koalas had been travelling to overseas zoos for many years, then, before their indiscriminate slaughter for the fur trade in the early 20th century (see Chapter 9) led to such a massive public outcry that their export was, effectively, banned by the Australian Government in 1933. From this time on, the export of koalas, platypus and lyrebirds, or any parts thereof, was restricted to exceptional circumstances only. The embargo appears to have been strictly enforced, and from 1973, until subsequent legislation was introduced, the administrative practice has been to seek the advice of the minister holding the environment portfolio on any application for the export of native fauna. Each applicant had to satisfy the Australian Department for the Environment that they had complied with the individual state conservation laws in obtaining the fauna concerned.
Koala exports are regulated under federal legislation, which was initially the Customs Act 1901, until the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982 came into effect in 1984. The development of this legislation meant the end to the ban on koala exports. The Wildlife Protection Act 1982 was subsequently incorporated into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Wildlife Protection) Act 2001. Today, koalas can be exported only on the completion of a detailed set of conditions formulated by a group of zoo and nature conservation authorities experienced in koala husbandry. These conditions were first introduced in 1980 and have been revised on various occasions, most recently in May 2004.13
Every rule has its exceptions and, despite the official ban on koala exports, Australia's marsupial ambassadors were still being sent on overseas postings until the ban was officially lifted in 1982. Various Australian governments despatched koalas to the United States as gifts to the people of America as zoo-to-zoo transfers. In January 1952, San Diego Zoo received two males and two females from Taronga Zoo. The animals came from the private reserve of Sir Edward Hallstrom, then president of the Taronga Zoological Park
Trust, and all four acclimatised easily to life in California as the zoo's grounds were densely populated with a variety of eucalypt species. As a result of the plentiful, good-quality food, the koalas lived for a period of five and nearly seven years of age after arriving at the zoo. In April 1959, Taronga Zoo sent two trios of koalas, each consisting of a male and two females, to San Diego Zoo and San Francisco Zoo. Each trio contained a female with a pouch young, but only the San Diego Zoo joey was reared successfully. It left the pouch for the first time on 9 December in what appears to be the first koala 'birth' in North America. San Diego Zoo's adult male koala died in September 1960, leaving them with four female koalas. As San Francisco Zoo had two males and two females, a successful exchange resulted in two thriving colonies, each with a male and three females.14
San Diego Zoo's real success with their koala breeding programme can be seen between 1976 and 1981. During these five years, the zoo obtained five males and ten females from the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and changes in their koala husbandry practices resulted in numerous births.15 In 1982, Melbourne Zoo sent several koalas to Los Angeles Zoo. American zoos were taking their koala husbandry very seriously—months before the transfer, Los Angeles Zoo sent branches of Californian euca-lypts to Melbourne, to ensure that on their arrival in California, the Australian koalas would adapt easily to the locally grown browse.16
San Diego Zoo's successful breeding programme, and several additional exchanges with other zoos, means the zoo now has some 30 koalas. Indeed, the zoo's koala husbandry has been so successful it is now the main source of koalas for both breeding loans and short-term loans to American zoos, and the sole source of koalas for the 14 European zoos that have held koalas since 1988.17As part of the loan process, San Diego Zoo sends the koala's keeper with them, who stays with the animal until they have settled into their new home. To date, 54 zoos in the United States have held koalas from San Diego Zoo under short- or long-term loans, although only ten zoos throughout North America appear to have established long-term koala populations.
Despite San Fransisco Zoo's undeniable achievements in koala husbandry, the zoo also holds the less enviable distinction of being the only one from which koalas have been stolen. During the Christmas holidays in 2000, two teenage boys managed to steal two female koalas. The boys tried to give the koalas to their girlfriends, neither of whom was enthralled with the gift and, thankfully, an anonymous tip-off allowed local police to recover the animals within 24 hours. The two teenagers were subsequently arrested and charged. The zoo subsequently implemented much stricter security procedures!18
Not many zoos outside Australia have the easy access to numerous wild Eucalyptus species enjoyed by the Califor-nian zoos, although some now have their own plantations.
Germany's Zoo Duisburg (which has the largest European eucalypt plantation, with 18 species) and Belgium's Wild Animal Park Planckendael were the first European zoos to establish eucalypt plantations for their koalas. Zoo Vienna and Edinburgh Zoo have more recently established their own plantations.
As eucalypts stay dormant (that is, grow no new foliage) during central Europe's cold winters, most zoos in the region have to rely on deliveries from overseas eucalypt plantations. Zoo Duisburg gets its leaves from Koala Browse Inc., a eucalypt plantation in Miami, Florida. This plantation also supplies a number of zoos in the United States with browse for their koalas. Once a week, Zoo Duisburg's leaves arrive at Düsseldorf (a mere 15 minutes from Duisburg). The German airline LTU is one of the zoo's main sponsors and transports the browse free of charge.19 Zoo Vienna supplements food from its plantation by importing 200 kilograms of foliage a week from a specialist Eucalyptus supplier in the south-west of England, MacFoliage. Austrian Airlines sponsor Zoo Vienna's koalas and transport the leaves for free, so it is actually cheaper for the zoo to import the browse than to grow their own.20 MacFoliage also supplies the other European zoos with additional browse, with the exception of Zoo Duisburg.
Spain's Madrid Zoo and Portugal's Lisbon Zoo have arrangements with local eucalypt pulp plantations, so they do not need to import leaves. In addition, Portugal's sunny climate means that Lisbon Zoo is the only European zoo to have access to a plantation guaranteeing a year-round supply of leaves. Other European zoos are currently investigating the feasibility of establishing their own plantations, as purchasing browse on a long-term basis can be very costly, especially when shipping charges are taken into account.21
San Diego Zoo does not provide browse to other zoos on a regular basis, but will provide emergency shipments—if leaves are available—for short-term loans. The zoo has a seven-acre browse farm that supplies most of its own needs, although they also source extra foliage from the zoo grounds, their sister facility the Wild Animal Park and other areas in San Diego where Eucalyptus species are found.22
Despite the official ban on exports, then, koalas had been travelling between Australia and the United States on a regular basis during the mid-1970s to early 1980s. Formal relaxation of the ban came into effect in 1982, with the implementation of the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1982. This lifting of restrictions created an almost immediate demand for the animals, especially from Japan. When the regulation was introduced in 1984, a number of koalas were almost immediately en route.
The twenty-fourth of October 1984 saw the arrival of the first koalas in Japan, when two male koalas arrived at Tama Zoo in Tokyo, from Taronga Zoo, which were joined by four females over the following two years. The following day, on
25 October 1984, two male koalas were received by Hirakawa Zoo, Kagoshima, from Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, with a further four females being received on 14 May 1985. On 25 October 1984, Nagoya's Higashiyama Zoo received two male koalas from Taronga Zoo. Sydney has a sister-city arrangement with Nagoya and the koalas were a present to the Japanese from Australia. (It has to be noted that most of the koalas who travelled to Japan were labelled as 'gifts', so that no government could be accused of selling or trading in this species.)
In preparation for the animals' arrival Higashiyama Zoo built the world's biggest koala house, with a floor area of 950 square metres. The zoo also established a plantation of 28 eucalypt species, 45 000 trees in all. In April 1986, the zoo received five more koalas, two males and three females. By the end of 1986 a total of 19 koalas had been sent to five different Japanese zoos, as Saitama Children's Zoo in Saitama and Kanazawa Zoological Gardens, Yokohama, had also received koalas. The koalas' arrival in Japan made news headlines around the world. Such was the animals' status that one group of koalas was escorted by a government minister and the then premier of Queensland. Nearly all of these initial animals settled in well and subsequently thrived, although three died from what would become known as 'Koala Stress Syndrome'.23
Those first koalas to arrive in Japan were treated as superstars. They were monitored 24 hours per day, either by their keepers and/or by remote cameras. Every detail of their behav iour and health was noted, down to how many branches of leaves they ate and how many droppings they produced. In 1993, as a goodwill gesture, and in recognition of the upcoming tenth anniversary of the first koala's arrival in Japan, a male koala born and raised in Higashiyama Zoo was exported back to Taronga Zoo. (Perhaps the gesture was also designed to show that Japanese zoos had mastered the management of captive koalas.) Twenty years after the first koala was sent to Japan, ten Japanese zoos have received Australian koalas, and all ten still have thriving koala populations.
There were, however, some who criticised the export of koalas to Japan. Opinion was divided between those who wanted to maintain the prohibition on koala exports, such as the State National Parks and Wildlife Services, and those who wanted the exports to go ahead. Those in favour of the exports included the New South Wales and Queensland governments, who recognised the koalas' role in facilitating trade contacts with Japan. Many of those who wanted the ban to remain in place claimed that exporting the koalas would be detrimental to the Australian tourism industry, as the Japanese could now see koalas without travelling to Australia. On the fringes of this debate were the animal welfare groups, whose primary concern was the koalas' welfare, but who carried little political weight. The relaxed restrictions remained in place, however, and Australia's koalas were soon on their way to postings further and further afield.
Despite the widely held interest in the koala by these overseas zoos there were many Australians who did not share the fascination. In particular, the then federal Minister for Tourism John Brown caused a stir in 1983 when he said that they stank, scratched, piddled on people and were covered in fleas.24 There were even doubts expressed at this time as to whether it was appropriate to retain such an animal as Australia's 1984 Olympic mascot, which was named Willy the Koala. In recoil to these comments politicians, including the prime minister, came to the koala's defense. Ironically, 18 months later when Mr Brown was at Healesville Sanctuary a koala named Narrumpi bit Mr Brown on the stomach as he endeavored to scratch it on the head.
In 1991, Taronga Zoo agreed to loan Singapore's Zoological Gardens four koalas, for a period of six months initially that was later extended to eight months. To ensure that the animals' dietary needs would be met during this time, browse had to be packed and flown to Singapore, initially on a daily basis, until the storage of the leaves assured their quality, and, subsequently, every two to three days. At the end of the loan period the four koalas, all in good health, were cleared by the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service and became the first Australian koalas to return home after a trip overseas.25
In 2001, South Africa received its first koalas when two males and one female from Taronga Zoo were sent to Pretoria's National Zoological Gardens. The koalas were a gift to the
South African Government and in 2000, before the koalas left Australia, President Nelson Mandela visited Taronga Zoo to give his thanks for the animals. The koalas established readily on leaves provided from Pretoria's National Zoological Gardens own eucalypt plantation and have since bred successfully.
These were not the first koalas to visit the African continent, however. During the First World War, an unnamed army unit had a koala as its mascot. In 1915, the mascot travelled with its unit on the long sea journey to Egypt. It somehow survived the voyage on a diet of apples soaked in Eucalyptus oil but, perhaps not surprisingly, was ill by the time it arrived in Egypt. Thankfully, the region was rich in eucalypts, and the koala regained its health on a diet of fresh leaves. When its unit received its embarkation orders for Gallipoli, the koala was given to Cairo Zoo.26
The only koalas in the Middle East today are at Israel's Gan Garoo Park Australia. As its name would suggest, this park specialises in Australian fauna, and in February 2002 Melbourne Zoo sent the park two female koalas, Cindy and Mindy. It was estimated that the park spent AU$50 000 to obtain the koalas. In December of the same year, a male named Didgee, also from Melbourne Zoo, arrived. The park had begun preparations for acquiring its koalas as early as 1996, when Eucalyptus seeds were given to the Jewish National Fund for nurturing. In 1998, Tu B'Shevat, Australia's ambassador to Israel, helped plant 2500 developed saplings in the park, with a further 1000 being planted in 2001.27
Despite the number of transfers that have taken place over the years, it is not easy for any zoo, let alone an overseas one, to acquire a koala. The biggest issue is, of course, the provision of adequate food. Today, the lead-in time before any overseas zoo can acquire a koala is up to five years. Before the koala's export is approved by the Australian Government, the receiving institution must demonstrate that it can provide sufficient and varied food, from at least two sources. Generally speaking, this necessitates the establishment of a plantation of at least 1000 eucalypts per animal, although if a zoo can prove that it has access to two reliable commercial suppliers, the requirement for a plantation can be waived. In addition, in the event that one of their food sources fails, the zoo must demonstrate a viable contingency plan.
Under Australian federal legislation a legally-binding Ambassador Agreement' must be signed for the export of iconic native species such as the koala, platypus, wombat, Tasmanian devil and any species threatened with extinction. The Department of Environment and Heritage (now the Department of Environment and Water Resources) initially developed the Ambassador Agreements in 1995 for koalas, with only the importing and exporting zoos being required to sign the agreement. After 2002, when the wildlife trade provisions were incorporated into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the number of species covered by the agreements was increased and the Department of
Environment and Heritage was required to be a cosignatory to any agreement.
Under the terms of an Ambassador Agreement the Australian Government, theoretically at least, retains control of the animals and their progeny. The importing zoo guarantees that the koalas will not be handled for commercial or publicity purposes and that the animals will not be traded with, loaned or moved to another organisation or locality without prior written agreement from the Australian Government. The Australian Government also places an additional condition on the export permit that prohibits the commercial use of these animals. The signatory Australian exporter and the overseas importer of koalas must agree on the treatment and disposal not only of the animals being exported, but also their progeny.
Many zoos have now signed one of these agreements, although the zoo holding the most koalas in the United States has not done so as it now holds koalas whose ancestors were acquired prior to the agreements establishment. The reluctance to sign an Ambassador Agreement may be a fear that it will limit the loaning of koalas to other zoos.28 Currently San Diego Zoo routinely loans koalas throughout North America and Europe, and has a department dedicated to koala loans. The limitation of such potentially commercial use of koalas under the Ambassador Agreements has not been tested so it is difficult to know if these transfers would be affected. In addition to the Ambassador Agreements, the listing of the koala as 'threatened' under
US legislation (see Chapter 11) also prohibits the commercial use of threatened wildlife and requires US zoos to demonstrate some conservation rationale for an animal's relocation before a movement permit will be granted.29
It could be argued that increasing public awareness of the koala through inter-zoo loans is a successful fundraiser for koala conservation. Therefore, despite the stipulated limitations on the 'commercial' use of koalas, and the restrictions of the US endangered species legislation, if it is shown that money raised is going to non-profit, conservation organisations then the activity may be considered 'non-commercial'. Every year, the Australian Koala Foundation receives significant donations and support from European and North American zoos ,30 which may assist in that endeavour.
Despite legislative safeguards and the stringent conditions of Ambassador Agreements, the export of koalas can still raise considerable controversy. For example, the proposed transfer of koalas from a zoo to Thailand resulted in a lot of media. In February 2006, The Sydney Morning Herald31 reported that French film star and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot was backing the campaign against the transfer of koalas from Australia in exchange for Asian elephants that were destined for Taronga Zoo and Melbourne Zoo. The newspaper claimed that, in November 2005, after the application had been made to export the koalas, the project director of the new Chiang Mai Night Safari, Dr Plodprasop, had provoked outrage by telling reporters that the 'zoo will be outstanding, with several restaurants offering visitors the chance to experience exotic foods such as imported horse, kangaroo, giraffe, snake, elephant, tiger and lion meat'. It was also reported that Kenya had suspended a planned donation of 175 African animals after learning of the Night Safari's restaurant's plans. Resounding international condemnation caused the Night Safari's director to scrap the idea of offering exotic species on its restaurant menu 'in order to avoid confusion and misunderstanding'.32 Reports also claimed that, in addition to its inappropriate menu, there had been considerable concern over the high death rate of animals at the zoo.33
The reality was that the applications for the Chiang Mai Zoo, to obtain koalas only, and the Chiang Mai Night Safari, to acquire koalas and other native animals, had been made at about the same time to the federal government but were being considered separately. Upon assessment, the application of the Chiang Mai Zoo not only met all the export criteria, but the zoo was part of the well-established Zoological Park Organization of Thailand (that includes five zoos) under the Royal Patronage of His Majesty the King.
Despite the lively debate over the export of koalas to Thailand, on 7 December 2006 two males and two females were officially welcomed at Chiang Mai Zoo. The animals were officially a gift to mark the 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne of His Majesty the King, and to mark his 79th birthday.34 The Australian Government is currently considering the application of the Chiang Mai Night Safari to house koalas from Australia.
Another transaction that aroused considerable debate, for different reasons, was the proposed export of six koalas from the Gold Coast's Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary to China's Xiangjiang Safari Park in Guangzhou Province. The Chinese offered the sanctuary AU$650 000 as a 'donation to support conservation and research in Australia'.35 Approval to export the animals was granted by the federal environment minister despite the concerns of the Queensland environment minister who raised reports of kangaroos taking part in boxing matches at a circus adjacent to the Safari Park that had the same owner. The coordinator of Australians for Animals said the facility was unfit for koalas and that there were no laws to protect animals in China.36 In late April 2006, three male and three female koalas left Queensland for the Xiangjiang Safari Park and appear to have settled in well. The three female koalas at the Safari Park have already bred, with one of the females producing twins, which is very rare.37
The success of all of these transactions to overseas zoos, despite the public debate at times, suggests that the stringent requirements and the establishment of formal relationships between the exporting zoo, importing zoo and the federal government have been effective in ensuring the optimal health and welfare of the animals being exported.
As we have explored earlier, one of the biggest difficulties and expenses faced by any institution wishing to hold a koala is its highly specific diet, or 'fussiness'. The possibilities of replacing or augmenting its natural food source have been explored ever since Europeans first captured the koala. For example, in 1803, the Sydney Gazette reported that the animal caught by Serjeant Packer 'also eats bread soaked in milk or water'.38
Despite the reporter's optimistic tone, not many captive koalas adapted readily to foodstuffs other than Eucalyptus, and the early history of koala management in captivity is distressingly full of records of animals dying shortly after their capture, due to a lack of suitable food. In 1940, zoologist Bassett Hull began to explore the development of an artificial food for koalas and recalled a letter he had received from a prominent Sydney architect, Mr H. Ruskin Rowe, who surely must have been mistaken in his observations:
Following up on our conversation with reference to the food that native bears eat, I have noticed frequently at Avalon [in Sydney] . . . They fight with the possums for almost any scraps of food such as lettuce, and banana peelings, which they are very keen on. I have definitely seen several bears very keen on these banana peels. This taste, whether recently acquired or not, I do not know, but I was amazed to see them eating these things, as I understood they would only eat Grey Gum leaves . . . On one occasion a bear was seen eating scraps of potato.39
In the mid-1980s, Lester Pahl and Ian Hume, then at the University of New England, began to explore the potential for an artificial diet for koalas. They took as their starting point the physical characteristics of the Eucalyptus foliage preferred by koalas, which led them to develop a thin, flexible biscuit and a thick paste. The biscuit's moisture, nitrogen and fibre contents were similar to those of the preferred leaves. The biscuits also resembled the leaves in size and shape, being only two millimetres thick, 15 millimetres wide and 60 millimetres long. The thick paste that was offered with the biscuits contained 'Presbo' powder, a constant amount of ground Eucalyptus foliage and water. The biscuits were dipped into the paste before being offered to the koalas, although the paste could also be administered via a syringe. At first the koalas showed absolutely no interest in the artificial diet, probably because they did not realise that what they were being offered was edible. Pahl and Hume persisted and eventually persuaded their study koalas to eat the biscuits, but none could be weaned completely on to the artificial diet. Pahl and Hume were able to reduce the koalas' natural diet by up to 40 per cent and established that the artificial diet would sustain the koalas' weight for a limited period of time, but only in conjunction with fresh leaves. They also found that feeding the koalas was very time-consuming and, as time went on, the koalas became less and less willing to eat the artificial diet. Accordingly, Pahl and Hume recommended that their diet was not suitable for the long-term
Was this article helpful?