Estimated reading time 4 minutes 4 Min

Koala breeding no girl-meets-boy affair

Work has started on a new facility that will support the world’s first wild koala breeding program on NSW’s mid-north coast.

September 8, 2022
By Tracey Ferrier
8 September 2022

Australia has long bred koalas in captivity but a world-first bid to produce wild ones will be no simple girl-meets-boy story.

“It’s not a matter of putting a couple of animals together and away we go,” says Cheyne Flanagan, the manager of research and breeding for Koala Conservation Australia.

“It’s very, very complicated and it’s about really understanding the landscape, where these animals have come from, and where they are going to go to.”

As the koala conservationist rattles off the “ginormous” to-do list, she jokes that she’s slightly terrified by its scale and complexity.

There’s the painstaking job of finding and collecting genetically robust, disease-free breeders – no easy task given the chlamydia crisis that has devastated wild populations.

UQ RESEARCHERS SAVING KOALAS It's hoped the project will boost koala numbers, benefit landholders and help the environment.
The breeding itself, that will happen at a forested site in the Guulabaa Tourism Precinct that’s taking shape in the Cowarra State Forest between Port Macquarie and Wauchope, on NSW’s mid-north coast.

Areas with good habitat but few or no koalas must also be identified on NSW’s mid-north coast to serve as future homes for the joeys that will be bred from next year.

Then there’s the forensic work.

It turns out not all eucalypt species are equal when it comes to sustaining koalas.

“Research has shown that even in quality koala habitat, with the right tree species, some trees can be genetically poor with high toxin loads,” Flanagan says.

“They’re just not palatable and the koalas can’t eat them.

“So we’re going to be looking at the toxin loads in the leaves, and the microbiomes of the koalas because the bacteria in their gut is very much married to tree species. We have to make sure they go to the right environment, with the right tree species.”

It’s a lot, but Flanagan is confident the program will succeed with the help of partners like the Australian Museum, which unravelled the koala genome, Taronga Zoo, and universities that study eucalypts, soil health, and how the bacteria and fungi in koalas’ guts varies with their diet.

As for the breeding itself, that will happen at a forested site in the Guulabaa Tourism Precinct that’s taking shape in the Cowarra State Forest between Port Macquarie and Wauchope, on NSW’s mid-north coast.

“They’ll really have minimal to no interaction with humans. We want them as feral as we can possibly make them, so that they are true wild koalas,” Flanagan says.

On Wednesday, to coincide with National Threatened Species Day, the first sod was turned on a new facility that will support breeding efforts.

It’s been largely funded with the $8 million that Australian and international donors gave to a Go Fund Me campaign set up in the wake of the devastating bushfires of 2019-20.

Reuters
A mother koala named Kali and her joey are seen in their natural habitat in an area affected by bushfires, in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, near Jenolan in September 2020. (Loren Elliott/Reuters)

Most Australians would recall the heartbreaking footage of Lewis the koala being rescued by a woman after flames tore through bushland that black summer. Lewis was taken to Koala Conservation Australia’s koala hospital at Port Macquarie but was in such a bad way he was put down.

Images of his plight were credited with the overwhelming response to the Go Fund Me appeal which only set out to raise $25,000 to offset the costs of caring for burnt koalas.

For Flanagan, it’s deeply satisfying to see that money being funnelled towards raising a new generation of koalas to boost wild populations.

A report by WWF Australia found the 2019-20 bushfires caused the loss of 71 per cent of koala populations in fire-hit areas at six locations on NSW’s north coast.

More in The Planet