Image rights unavailable

Examples of the artificial koala diet developed by Lester Pahl and Ian Hume. (Taken from Phillips (1990))

maintenance of koalas, and it does not appear to have been used since.40

Fifty years previously, Ambrose Pratt had noted that few naturalists could boast of having kept a koala in captivity longer than a few years. The normal pattern seemed to be that the animals would flourish for several months, before dying mysteriously, with no identifiable cause of death. This apparently happened despite the animals being offered a 'generous selection of food they liked'. Pratt also noted that 'other Australian zoos were encountering troubles as bad as and often worse than our own'.41 Despite these early unexplained setbacks, which led many to assume that the koala's normal lifespan must be only four or five years, captive koalas now enjoy very long lives, reaching an average of some 12 to 14 years. The oldest resident at Brisbane's Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary was 21 years old when it died.42 There seems to be little difference between the lifespans of captive and wild koalas, as wild koalas typically live to approximately 13 years of age, with records of up to 18 years of age.43 As we have seen, the koala enjoys undisputed 'star' status at zoos and wildlife parks around the world, but how popular is it in its own country? The Census published by the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (ARAZPA) gives us some idea of the importance of koalas to Australian zoos. ARAZPA does not include every one of the region's zoos and fauna parks, but it does include almost every major zoological institution, and shows that the koala is the most commonly held mammal in Australian zoos, closely followed by the echidna and the red kangaroo. With very few exceptions, the only ARAZPA institutions that do not hold koalas are those found overseas, such as in New Zealand, aquariums or those that specialise in fauna outside the koala's natural distribution. The only species found in more institutions than the koala is the emu, although in terms of numbers, there are nearly three times as many koalas as emus in Australian zoos.44 When we consider just how time-consuming and expensive it is to keep koalas in captivity, it is obvious that Australian zoos must consider that koalas are good for business—indeed, the koala's continued popularity would seem to bear this out as 85 Australian zoos currently hold this species.45

While the general principles for the management of captive koalas are now well established, both throughout Australia and elsewhere in the world, there are still differences in approach between countries and, in Australia, between individual states. In Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia, visitors to zoos and fauna parks are allowed to hold koalas. In contrast, in January 1997 the New South Wales Government banned members of the public from holding captive koalas, even under the supervision of the koalas' keeper. This action came as a result of concerns from industry members (i.e. the zoos and fauna parks themselves) that the practice of placing koalas on people represented an excessively stressful life for the koalas. Worried about possible negative effects on the tourism industry, the Tourism Council of Australia lobbied the state government to reverse its decision, claiming that a number of tours had already been cancelled and more cancellations would follow. The state government held firm, however, and there seems to have been no long-term downturn in New South Wales' koala tourism industry. Subsequent changes to state legislation mean that members of the public now cannot hold koalas in Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania. Members of the public are still allowed to have their photos taken with a koala, but they must stand next to the animal's tree and leave it, comparatively speaking, undisturbed within the fork of its branch.46 The zoos in states that still allow koala handling appear to overcome the issue of koala handling by having many animals in order to minimise the time they are used.

Is it possible to establish just how much a koala is worth, financially, to the zoo that holds it? It is almost impossible to arrive at an exact figure, but what is clear is that despite the difficulty and expense involved in keeping them, nearly every zoo and fauna park in Australia either already holds koalas or plans to do so. This is despite the logistics of feeding koalas: each institution has to establish and then maintain a Eucalyptus plantation and then harvest suitable branches on a daily basis. The maintenance of the food source trees and harvesting of the browse is labour intensive and, generally, requires the undivided efforts of at least two full-time staff. To date there has been only one comprehensive study of the koala's value to the Australian economy, which was commissioned by the Australian Koala Foundation and undertaken by Tor Hundloe from the University of Queensland and Clive Hamilton from the Australian Institute in Canberra. Hundloe and Hamilton provide the first real insight into the true value of the koala to the Australian economy.47

The koala plays an important role in foreign images of Australia. Hundloe and Hamilton suggest there is considerable evidence of the koala's importance to some segments of the inbound tourism market, and propose the koala's iconic status is even higher than previously thought. One of the means by which they came to this conclusion was by asking inbound visitors at Sydney and Brisbane airports which animals they had wanted to see while in Australia, to which 72 per cent responded, 'koala'. They also found that 75 per cent of inbound tourists said that the hope of seeing a koala was part of their decision to come to Australia, and 70 per cent of departing tourists reported that they had actually seen one.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment