With their bemused expressions and adorably rounded bodies, it’s no wonder that koalas have climbed their way to the top of the “must-see” list for many of our visitors. People love the koalas’ teddy bear appearance, but our koala keepers consider them complex and sometimes challenging little creatures with a wide range of personalities and attitudes. Their sole sustenance is eucalyptus, making them hard for many zoos to keep, but perfect for San Diego, as our climate is great for growing the tall, fragrant trees. We have our own browse farm, where we grow and harvest fresh eucalyptus for our koalas to eat.
The San Diego Zoo received its first two koalas in 1925, as a gift from the children of Sydney, Australia, to the children of San Diego. They were named after characters in a famous Australian children’s story by May Gibbs—Snugglepot and Cuddlepie—and were soon major celebrities. Read about them in a blog post Snugglepot and Cuddlepie: Koala Headliners of Roaring '20s. Over the next 34 years, the Zoo received koalas in 1928, 1951, and 1959, but it was not until 1960 that the first koala was born here. It was such a momentous occasion that the Zoo received the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Edward Bean Award for the Most Notable Birth for the first birth of a koala in the US.
Our Zoo population took off from there, with 12 koalas born between 1960 and 1968, when breeding stopped. Australia had always been highly selective in regard to the export of any native wildlife, and a total ban on the export of koalas was enacted in the 1960s.
When our last male, Teddy, died in 1976, Australian airline Qantas offered to help us obtain more koalas. Teddy had appeared in some of that airline’s commercials. It also helped that 1976 was a bicentennial year for the US, and the Australian government waived the export ban for this one occasion. Later that year we received two male and four female koalas: Waltzing, Cough Drop, Matilda, Audrey, Pepsi, and Coke. At the time, we did not know how successful the San Diego Zoo would be in breeding this group of koalas. Today, the San Diego Zoo has the largest colony of koalas outside of Australia, with 20 living at the Zoo and more than 30 on loan to other zoos in the US and Europe.
It is our Zoo’s tradition to give the koalas an Australian Aboriginal name drawn from a characteristic or personality trait, or from a place. For example, Mundooie’s name means “foot,” because that’s the first part of him keepers saw in his mother’s pouch. Yabber’s name means “talk,” as her antics inspire much chatter among her keepers! One of our most famous koalas was Goolara, or “moonlight,” an albino koala born here in 1985. His birth surprised keepers and created a great deal of excitement because albino koala births are rare. In 1997, another albino, Onya-Birri, which means “ghost boy,” was born.
In August 2009, a tiny joey no larger than a gummy bear was discovered on the ground of our koala yard by one of the keepers. The baby was amazingly still alive but needed help quickly! The joey was warmed up on a rubber glove filled with warm water and then rushed, along with its mother, Nariah, to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine. The little one was attached to one of the nipples in Nariah’s pouch and the pouch was closed with a few loose sutures to make sure the joey didn’t fall out again. Five days later, Nariah was rechecked and we found that her joey was still alive and had visibly grown. Today, Tonaleah is a thriving female koala who survived a rough start with style!
Our Australian Outback opened in May 2013. It's a wonderful new habitat for our large koala colony, as well as for other Aussie animals. Some of our koalas are used as animal ambassadors. The koalas can be seen along spacious walkways around a Queenslander-style “house” that serves as the koala care center, where you can see keepers preparing eucalyptus browse for the koalas. Because male koalas can be territorial, they have their own perches in one area, while the more social females and their babies, called joeys, share another area. The elevated walkways bring you to eye level with the koalas as they perch in their forest of eucalyptus. Human children can practice their koala climbing skills on a play structure that features life-size koala sculptures.
Some of our koalas serve as animal ambassadors. You may see them with a keeper at special Zoo events or even on television, helping to spread the word about koala conservation. You may see them with a keeper at special Zoo events or even on television.
The koala is one of Australia’s most recognizable symbols, but its survival hangs in the balance. Formerly thought to be common and widespread, koalas are now vulnerable to extinction across much of its northern range. Despite their broad appeal, significant gaps in our knowledge of this species remain that create big challenges for the conservation and management of the koala and its habitat.
In the past, koalas were killed for their coats. In fact, from 1919 to 1924, eight million koalas were killed. Today, the koala is threatened by predation from domestic dogs and a disease that has spread through most of the population. In addition, some koalas get run over by cars. But the one thing that koalas and other wildlife can’t protect themselves against is the loss of their habitat. A combination of cooperative managed-care programs, research, and support for habitat conservation projects are needed to ensure the survival of koalas.
We also strive to learn more about wild koalas. We have a researcher studying a group on St. Bees Island, off the eastern coast of Australia, trying to learn how much land koalas need to find enough food and shelter and what their vocal communications may mean. Putting all the pieces together has provided a much deeper understanding of koala breeding biology. Our work has resulted in the Australian government declaring St. Bees a national park to further protect the koalas that live there.
Yet a primary objective of our research program has been to contribute to the successful conservation and management of koalas across their entire range, not just on St. Bees. As we have developed our knowledge base, we are proud to have achieved this goal. By investigating the seasonality of koala births on St. Bees and applying our knowledge to other sites, we have discovered a significant relationship between koala births and rainfall in central Queensland, Australia. This finding is crucial to understanding the impacts of climate change on many different Australian species and has highlighted the key factors needed to protect koala habitat and plan for the long-term future of wild populations. There is still plenty of work to be done!
Here at the Zoo, we’ve learned over the years that female koalas are choosey about mate selection. We can’t just pair koalas because they make a good match genetically! Ongoing research with our Zoo koala colony is examining male traits, such as scent and sound, in order to examine the effects that they may have on female mate choice and reproduction.
Since 1983, the San Diego Zoo has shared koalas with zoos around the world through our Koala Loan Program. To make sure the traveling koala is comfortable, a keeper journeys with the animal to its new home and stays there until the koala settles in. These furry travelers are so important they don't get checked into the baggage hold—instead, they often travel first class! If eucalyptus does not grow well at the koala's new zoo home, fresh eucalyptus branches are shipped to them from our zoo twice a week. These koala loans allow thousands of people to observe and enjoy these unique marsupials. Koalas in the wild benefit from the loan program, too; funds from this program are donated to koala habitat conservation in Australia.