By Tony Moore May 2, 2019 — 6.31pm
Genetically-enhanced healthy koalas from zoos and reserves could become reservoirs of healthy genes to protect their cousins in the wild.
That is the science behind the release of two koalas from the Gold Coast’s Dreamworld wildlife centre into bushland at Coomera on Thursday.
The two healthy koalas – Amelia and El Yungo – were the first pair released back into koala bushland as part of the Queensland government’s million-dollar Living Koala Genome Bank project.
Queensland’s Koala Genome Project
A genome contains all the biological cell material necessary to “build” a plant or an animal. It is a complete set of DNA information.
The idea behind the koala genome project is to take diseased koalas from bushland under stress, care for them in koala hospitals, take their genetic information and then cross-breed them with healthy captive koalas.
One they are healthy, the cross-bred koalas are released into the wild where they can breed, spreading their genes.
Dreamworld Wildlife Sciences general manager Al Mucci, also on Queensland’s Koala Advisory Council and part of Queensland’s 2018 Koala Expert Panel, said the Living Koala Genome concept developed after he teamed up with genetic scientists at University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology disease specialists to expand animal husbandry care for koalas and bilbies.
Their focus is the fate of koalas living in urban areas with us.
“People are winning and koalas are losing, but they are still hanging around,” Mr Mucci said.
“They are hanging around by their fine hair.”
Their idea is to capture the genetics of the koala, or they will die within 10 years.
“So we had all these questions,” Mr Mucci said.
“Can we clean them? Can we vaccinate them? Will they still remain healthy in these fragmented populations?”
So they developed the plan to capture and manage the koala genetics.
Dreamworld’s Wildlife Sciences general manager Al Mucci.
“We get female koalas into the captive breeding facility, we get male koalas into the captive breeding facility, we clean them up, vaccinate them and then put a female back into the bushland, but with new genetics,” Mr Mucci said.
Mr Muccis said the idea was to breed healthy koalas to replace the disease-risk inbred koalas which are in ever-decreasing bushland areas where cars, dogs and freeways create stress and Chlamydia.
“Now we are out-breeding the in-breeding, because they are more virulent, they are stronger animals,” he said.
Amelia and El Yungo are the first two of young koalas, some with joeys, to be released back into the wild over the next 12 months into protected koala habitat around the Gold Coast.
There are around 80 koalas in the Coombabah Lakelands Conservation Area, near Coomera.
Amelia and El Yungo will spend the next week in a protected zone at the Coombabah park before being allowed to move in with the rest of the population, hopefully to add their genetics to the gene pool.
Dreamworld received $2.7 million Queensland government to build a state-of-the-art koala research facility expansion.
The Koala Genome Project’s chief investigator, University of Queensland associate professor Stephen Johnston, said the koalas would be monitored and the information used in other populations.
“It is a ‘living koala genome bank’ that provides practical mechanisms to improve the genetic diversity of populations and assist in developing disease-free koalas to release into the wild,” Professor Johnston said.
“There are currently five joeys growing in pouches that are potential future releases of the program, who will support and potentially improve, the genetic integrity of the smaller, fragmented populations.”
Gold Coast City Council has now raised $800,000 through its Australia-first koala levy paid by ratepayers to buy koala land, mayor Tom Tate said.