Living gene bank to help wild koalas repopulate in Queensland

19 Dec 2016
Picture: A Koala curls up for a nap CC Pexels 

The University of Queensland, QUT and Dreamworld have joined forces to protect wild koala populations across Queensland from local extinction.

A $1.8 million partnership will see the Gold Coast theme park’s zoological department used as a living koala genome bank. The goal is to save the threatened species, which has suffered extreme decline in population over the last decade from over 10,000 to around 2,000 due to loss of habitat and disease.

The project, the first of its kind for koalas, aims to enhance the genetic diversity of local koala populations by producing disease-free koalas for release into the wild.

UQ Associate Professor Stephen Johnston will lead the project that will involve researchers and academics from areas including genetics, reproductive biology, husbandry and captive animal management over the next three years.

He said the project combined proven koala breeding technologies developed by UQ and Dreamworld with UQ analyses of wild and captive Queensland koala population genetics, and QUT’s chlamydia vaccination to deliver a “living koala genome bank”.

The project will involve recovering sperm from dead or injured local male koalas. Those with chlamydia can even have their semen “cleaned up” with antibiotics. A wild female koala can then be extracted from the bush and inseminated at the captive-breeding research facility at Dreamworld before being released with a joey in her pouch.

“One of the important ideas of our project is that zoos be used as reservoirs to store the genetic material of threatened populations so they can be used in future breeding programs,” Associate Professor Johnston said.

Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation General Manager Al Mucci said a research facility that included a dedicated koala breeding centre was part of Dreamworld’s wildlife and Corroboree area.

“This project is about the stewardship of fragmented and dysfunctional ecosystems of wild koalas and using our captive husbandry skills to manage this and ensure more wildlife does not go extinct on our watch.”