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South Australians in London: Q&A with a Koala Keeper

On October 11th five southern koalas made history when they landed at Heathrow and became the first of their kind to reside in Europe. Travelling with these trailblazers was Koala Keeper, Ashleigh Hunter, who was selected by Cleland to work on the project and in her words ‘spread the koala love’.

Ashleigh graduated with an Honours and Animal Science degree from the University of Adelaide before joining the Cleland koala team where she has been caring for 70 of these unique creatures for the past three years. She is currently living at Longleat Safari Park where she’s tasked with settling the koalas into their new home for the next six months. We caught up with Ashleigh after her first couple of weeks in the UK to get the low down on how they’re all relaxing into British life.

What makes the koala such a special animal to look after?

Koalas are such unique creatures, they all have very different personalities which require specialist care. Koalas react and behave differently to each keeper so it’s important to learn about each individual animal. We build relationships with the koalas through lots of positive reinforcement, we need to ensure we handle the koalas gently and carefully to build trust. The new growth at the top of the eucalyptus branches is like chocolate for koalas so when we know what species of gum each koala enjoys we can spoil them with a nice treat.

 

How were the koalas selected?

Starting back in May, we selected candidate koalas for the Longleat programme based on the federal guidelines supplied. The koalas needed to be between 12 and 48 months of age and in perfect health, candidates could not have any pre-existing medical conditions. As it was a breeding programme only non-castrated males were up for selection. From the pool of eligible candidates, we took their personalities and how well they did in the training programme into consideration until we had a group we were confident could cope with the flight.

How did you prepare for the koala’s journey to England?

Koalas are highly sensitive animals and easily stressed so it was imperative that we were as prepared as possible. We undertook many months of training which started with me holding the koalas near a training crate built to the exact same dimensions as the ones they would be travelling in. We then eased them in by letting them spend a bit of time in the crate and worked up to shutting the crate door for periods of time until they were desensitized to the space. These regular training sessions ensured they were used to this environment and would not stress while in transit. In the crate there was a wooden perch which provided a nice seat, we then surrounded them with as much eucalyptus as we could fit to encourage the koalas to keep eating.

How are the koalas adapting to their new home?

The koalas are doing very well, we are slowly transitioning them off the Australian gum and onto the English gum instead. Koalas do not drink regularly, they get moisture from the eucalyptus so it’s’ imperative that they keep up their intake. We do not want to mess with their food so for the meantime we are receiving 2 shipments of Australian gum a week and 2 weekly crates from the Eucalyptus forest grown specifically for these koalas in the UK.

What does an average day look like for you at Longleat?

I check on the koalas first thing every morning, we then need to do a faecal count, measuring their output helps us measure their input so we know whether they are eating enough. We then have a general clean, feed the koalas again and spend time in the enclosure to monitor their behaviour and habits. The koalas are currently in the inside section of Koala Creek, in around six to eight weeks when they are settled we will slowly introduce them to the outside portion of their home.

Why is it so significant to have these koalas in the UK?

Koalas are a great ambassador species, they are an iconic Australian animal which people love to look at and will no doubt be a big draw card for Longleat. The real significance of this group is that they will act as conservation diplomats for the species and promote conservation and education. There are a number of threats in the wild coming their way and giving the koalas an international home presents a great opportunity for conservation which will benefit the entire species.

For further information on the Longleat Koalas please contact Kate Bifield, you can read more on the koalas here.