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The population of Australia's iconic koala has been rapidly declining in recent decades, and this year the Australian Koala Foundation declared the marsupials "functionally extinct." But one Queensland zoo is using proven breeding strategies to protect the animals, and starting a live genome bank to tackle some of the biggest threats to koalas. Special Correspondent Kirsty Johansen reports.
Few animals are identified as thoroughly with their home country as the koala is with Australia. But loss of habitat and other factors have caused the koala population to plummet — and most recently, bushfires burning on the country's east coast have killed as many as 350 of the animals. One organization is trying to protect the koala population by starting a live genome bank to tackle some of the biggest threats to their existence. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Kirsty Johansen has the story.
Australia is home to some of the most diverse natural landscapes. On the Gold Coast, a city in the state of Queensland, unspoilt coastline meets native bushland making it prime location for urban development. But as a consequence, deforestation is increasing, destroying or leaving in fragments the habitats of one of the country's most well-loved animal: the koala.
They are in imminent danger of becoming extinct, becoming endangered. The population is doing this, it's not doing this, it's not doing this, the population is doing this and every day that goes by means there's one less koala.
Al Mucci, from the Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation, a nonprofit that supports conservation, research and education in the wild, has been working with koalas for more than three decades. He says over the past 10 years he's seen the koala population on the Gold Coast dwindle from 10,000 to less than 2,000. It's that statistic that drove Mucci to start a world-first pilot program, the Living Koala Genome Bank project, that aims to address the increasing threat of local koala extinction due to habitat loss and disease and save the few koalas left for future generations.
When you've got five koalas here, ten koalas there, a freeway, an industrial area, sports fields, golf course, housing. How do these koalas breed with these? They can't fly. They need trees, they need help, they need support, so we grab females from this population, males from this population, bring them into our captive breeding facility, see how serious they are with disease, clean them up and put them back into the wild with a joey in its pouch from an unrelated male.
With their trees disappearing, koalas are spending more time on the ground in search of food and shelter and this is when they're most vulnerable to being hit by vehicles and attacked by dogs. Another reason for their population decline is the disease chlamydia, which is an epidemic among koalas. The stress of losing habitat can cause the symptoms of chlamydia to manifest – which can lead to blindness, severe bladder inflammation, infertility and ultimately death. Over the past 6-12 months, Mucci and his team have rescued 20 wild koalas and brought them into this quarantine facility. More than half have had to be euthanized because of illness. But the rest are being treated for chlamydia with antibiotics and will then be vaccinated against the disease. While the goal is to release the koalas back into the wild, a lot must happen before that can occur. It's currently mating season, and for University of Queensland Associate Professor Stephen Johnston who is the lead reproductive biologist on the project, this is crucial time. He is utilising new breeding and molecular technologies to map the genetic variation of wild koalas in different locations across the Gold Coast.
We have wild animals, we have a wild male and a wild female and those animals may have been from two different complete locations so we can bring those animals in together, into the same enclosure, we can test for the genetics and again we can do the same thing. We can actually see in their offspring whether we've got a representation of those genetics or have we increased the diversity.
The goal is to see whether captive koala populations could act as reservoirs of healthy genes to protect local wild koalas.
I guess what we are trying to do here in captivity is demonstrate that we can fine scale manage the genetics whichever way it might be, to either maintain a population, as a complete population or to bring new genes into that population to increase the genetic fitness.
One way koalas are crossbred is through artificial insemination. Johnston first stimulates the reproductive tract of a female called Cinnamon.
See she's settling down now.
Next, selected semen, with particular genetic characteristics is delivered via a catheter. The other way is more conventional.
Come on handsome
A male called Sully has been picked as the best prospect to be taken to meet the females today.
It's a process. First, he is introduced nose to nose.
Oh not happy with him or maybe you are?
The females get agitated before Sully is released onto the ground to pick his favorite. But for poor Sully it's not his day.
So it looks like Sully was keen today. He was very keen. You could tell he was keen to introduce himself to all the girls in here. Unfortunately, all the girls were giving him the wrong signs though, they were vocally and physically rejecting him which is a pretty strong sign they are not in estrus.
Pinpointing exactly how many koalas are left in Australia is a challenge for scientists because of the country's size and the koala's nomadic nature. In April 2012, the Australian government officially listed koalas as vulnerable – meaning numbers are in or at risk of steep decline – in the states of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. Deborah Tabart is CEO with the Australian Koala Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to the effective management and conservation of the koala and its habitat. In May this year she announced koalas were functionally extinct – meaning a species' population has declined so much that it no longer plays a significant role in the ecosystem.
Our research has shown that there's only 15 percent of the habitats of Australia left and we are confident there's no more than 86,000 animals more likely half that. And that's why she is lobbying the Australian government to enact a law called the Koala Protection Act which is based on the US Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. The Koala Protection Act says if there is a koala tree on your property you can't do anything until you prove your activity is benign, it's that simple.
Saving the koala is a personal mission for Tabart but also economically crucial for Australia.
Koalas are a major Australian tourist draw-card, and you can see why. National tourism figures show 75 percent of inbound visitors report they hope to see a koala when making the decision to travel here.
Australia Institute research has found koalas are estimated to bring in almost 2.2 billion US dollars annually to Australia and generate around 30,000 tourism industry jobs. Presidents, Prime Ministers, celebrities and regular folks all want to be photographed holding a koala during their visit. Al Mucci from the Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation says he doesn't want to ever see that change. His project already has a success story and we are going to look for him
The beeps are getting louder and a bit closer together so that's good. I haven't seen our little fella for about a week so I'm getting excited.
His name is El Yungo, and he's the first koala that the project has successfully released back into the wild. What's El Yungo's backgound?
He was a koala in imminent danger of dying in the Coomera area of the Gold Coast through development. When we brought him into the program he was riddled with chlamydia, so we've cleaned him up, vaccinated him, he's bred with some of our females as part of the program and now he's been released to another reserve so he is new genetics for this property here.
El Yungo wears a collar and can be tracked using GPS and VHF tracking devices. The tracking devices can pick up a koala within 12 kilometres so it can sometimes be tough to find their exact location, especially when they are perched at the top of the trees.
Alright the beeps are getting stronger, so he must be in one of these trees. There he is, got him. Yep the collar is on him. That's El Yungo and he's having a bit of a snooze. Good on you mate, you are looking good.
By collecting El Yungo's fecal samples each day the team are able to monitor his health and pick up any new risks of disease.
My vision is that the population stays stable. We've disrupted the bushland area so much now that we're not going to see this, we just need to make it stable. Managing the genetics, managing the disease, it's intervention and this is the only way we are going to save them.
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