COLUMBIA, S.C. (NBC News) – thousands of koalas have been killed in the Australian bush fires, and the trees that are their only source of food – eucalyptus trees – are also burning by the thousands.
With at least an eighth of the koala population already killed in the fires, repopulation for that already vulnerable species will take the work of conservationists and animal advocates across the world.
It’ll take breeding programs like the one at Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, which is one of just ten in North America.
The koala barn at Riverbanks Zoo is home to these two fuzzy marsupials; 18-year-old Lottie and her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Charlotte.
“They do have a really cool natural history which is why I love talking to people about koalas because they have a lot of adaptations that help them survive in the wild,” said Catherine Connell, Riverbanks Zoo Senior Cat/Bear Keeper.
Connell has been at Riverbanks Zoo for seven years, caring for Lottie so the koala can focus on her most important job: having joeys – as a part of the species survival plan.
Director of Animal Care John Davis says our sister-state partnership with Queensland is how Lottie traveled to Riverbanks in the first place.
“Getting koalas out of Queensland, Australia doesn’t happen very often, so this was a very unique special gift for us,” said Davis.
Lottie came to Riverbanks in 2002. She’s had 11 babies; those babies then had their own babies.
Lottie has 14 grand “joeys,” six great grand-babies and now one great-great grand-baby.
“She’s an old lady but she’s still hanging in there,” said Davis.
When koalas have babies – they’re only a month old and the size of a jellybean. They immediately climb into mom’s pouch, where they stay for six months while they grow.
“All of the sudden you’ll start seeing an arm or a head and then you know it’s close and it’s starting to come out and we get to see it for the first time,” Connell explained of the process.
It’s a critical program – because if koalas become endangered or functionally extinct in the wake of the Australian bush fires, repopulation in captivity could be the answer to koala survival.
“I’ve definitely been shedding some tears because there’s a sense of helplessness when it’s so far away,” said Connell. “And when you work directly with animals… the species being affected by this- it’s definitely hitting home.”
And while we don’t yet know the full extent of the impact to koalas in the wild right now… We do know the impact zoos like Riverbanks could have.
As keepers now prepare Charlotte to become the next crucial piece in the conservation puzzle.
So, where do the koala babies go once they’re old enough? They’re in zoos across North America taking part in other zoos breeding programs.
Davis says they’re currently working to find a male for Charlotte to breed with in 2020.