Koala flies in from Japan

A MALE koala has been flown from Osaka in Japan to join Longleat’s koala programme. The 12-year-old marsupial was flown from Osaka Tennoji Zoo and accompanied on the flight by his Japanese keepers and vet who are helping him settle in to his new home.

His arrival means Longleat now has what is believed to be the only two male southern koalas outside of Australia and hopes are high he will boost the breeding programme for the iconic Australian animals.

After spending time in the koala care room, he will join the other male, Dennis, and the three females Maizie, Violet and Coorong in the purpose-built display, which features a running stream, climbing poles, naturally-themed indoor and outdoor habitats and a constant supply of fresh eucalyptus leaves.

“He seems to be settling in really well to his new surroundings,” said Longleat’s head of animal adventure, Graeme Dick. “He was born at Melbourne Zoo back in 2006 where he was named Burke, although in Japan he was known as ‘Ark’.

“His arrival is a major boost for our breeding programme as he will provide us with a greater genetic diversity. We know he has bred successfully in the past and the fact he is an older male is also a plus point.

“We have already seen early signs of courtship and breeding behaviours between the females and Dennis so we’re all cautiously optimistic we could have some positive news in the not too distant future,” he added.

In 2012 the koala was listed as “vulnerable to extinction” in some parts of Australia. Longleat is part of the International Koala Centre of Excellence (IKCE) – a ground-breaking joint initiative between Longleat, Cleland Wildlife Park in Adelaide and the government of South Australia to enhance the management and conservation of the koala.

• Scientists working with the Longleat koalashave discovered vital genetic clues which may help to secure their long-term survival in the wild. Koala numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate due to a combination of disease and habitat loss. It has been estimated there are now less than 100,000 koalas in Australia with the surviving populations becoming increasingly fragmented and suffering from a series of illnesses caused by their limited genetic diversity. This, combined with a loss of habitat, resulted in the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgrading their status from ‘least concern’ to ‘threatened’ in 2016.

Up to a third of southern koalas suffer from a form of kidney disease while their northern cousins have been decimated by cancers and a form of HIV. All three disorders have a genetic link and now researchers from the University of Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, working with keepers at Longleat, believe they have identified a genetic mutation and a retrovirus present in the southern koala population which may help to protect against all three of them. The research is being led Dr Rachael Tarlinton is Associate Professor of Veterinary Virology. Tragically one of Longleat’s southern koalas, a female called Wilpena, died as a result of the kidney disease known as oxalate nephrosis.

“In the case of koalas, it’s hard to get information on disease, health and reproduction when you have to catch animals that are up 50 metre tall trees as they are in the wild,” says Dr Tarlinton. “Much of our work can’t be done without animals held in zoological collections and, while Wilpena’s death was extremely sad, it does look as though the genetic information she has provided us with could provide vital clues to help save the population in the wild. “Koalas only live in Australia and only eat eucalyptus leaves so the maintenance of natural habitat and disease resistance are vital to the future of this most popular species.”

Dr Tarlinton and her team believe they have identified a retrovirus within the southern population that helps protect them from the diseases which have affected the northern koalas. Even more excitingly she also believes they have worked out the genetic mutation that causes the kidney disease which killed Wilpena.

“This has the potential to be a genuine scientific breakthrough which will allow us to design tests which could have taken us years to develop without the information gained from Wilpena,” she added.

Dr Tarlinton is also hopeful the new information will help to develop cross-breeding programmes with a view to eventually eradicating the genetic mutation which causes kidney disease and also spreading the retrovirus which helps protect against the cancers and HIV.

Graeme Dick said: “Wilpena’s death was a huge blow to the entire team here at Longleat and, while we always knew this disease was prevalent within the wider koala population, it was still extremely difficult for us to come to terms with. Dr Tarlinton’s work is incredibly exciting and, if it can help to protect and safeguard populations in the wild, it will be a real game-changer and also mean Wilpena’s legacy will live on.”

The koala population’s genetic problems can be traced back to mass culls in the 19th and 20th centuries where an estimated eight million koalas were killed. In 1890 conservationists rescued fewer than 20 animals and relocated them to islands in southern Victoria. Most of today’s animals are descended from this tiny population which is believed to have carried the genetic mutation.

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