A groundbreaking breeding program to safeguard the long-term conservation of koalas in Australia is being hailed as a success after the birth of four joeys at Cleland Wildlife Park.
They are the first generation to be born as part of an innovative state government-led initiative to breed genetically diverse koalas, free from chlamydia and koala retrovirus - diseases of concern for the conservation of the species.
The joeys, which were born in March, are doing well after spending time in their mothers’ pouches.
The breeding program is based on a colony formed by about 20 koalas originally from Kangaroo Island, as well as four male koalas from the Strzelecki Ranges in Central Gippsland, Victoria.
It is planned that these disease-free, outbred animals will be available to support the conservation of koalas, particularly the populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT that are considered endangered under federal government legislation.
Bushfires across the country, including the 2019-20 blazes on Kangaroo Island, have reduced koala populations and contributed to the species being listed as endangered in those eastern states.
The main challenges to the survival of koalas and their forest homes are habitat destruction, climate change with drought and fires, diseases, and the impact of humans, such as traffic accidents and attacks by dogs.
South Australia’s koala populations are not of conservation concern but do have a lower genetic diversity compared to those from the Strzelecki Ranges.
The breeding program aims to create a healthy and genetically diverse captive population of animals that will also provide opportunities for research to support long-term conservation of the species.
The program is a partnership between the Department for Environment and Water and Koala Life – an independent not-for-profit organisation established for the science-based conservation of koalas.
Cleland Wildlife Park General Manager Michelle Hocking said she was thrilled by the arrival of the joeys.
"We are fortunate to have koalas at Cleland that are free from both chlamydia and koala retrovirus to help produce a genetically diverse and healthy captive population in South Australia," Ms Hocking said.
"Cleland’s strategy is to engage, learn and conserve, and this breeding program is a perfect example of that.
"It is vital that we safeguard the welfare of this iconic species and research ways to protect them from the diseases that have an impact on their conservation.
"This successful breeding program is an example of the high calibre of wildlife research conducted in South Australia."
Koala Life Director Chris West said the koalas have performed exceptionally well to produce four joeys.
"Koala Life is a voice for koalas, an active advocate for their long-term conservation and wellbeing, and the future security of their gum forest habitat," Dr West said.
"If koalas die out in certain parts of Australia due to natural disasters, climate change or disease, this breeding program is the insurance policy we need to reintroduce the species."
Koala Life and the department are working with researchers at Flinders University and The University of Adelaide to create a genetic profile of the koalas and address any health and disease issues.
The breeding program is continuing and it is hoped more joeys will be born in 2024.
The program has been made possible through contributions from the state government and community donations.
To support Koala Life’s work to safeguard the species, visit koalalife.asn.au/donate