Australia: World’s first koala sanctuary bans koala cuddles

For what feels like an eternity, cuddling a fluffy koala has been an Australian rite of passage for celebrities, tourists, and locals alike. A wildlife park in a leafy area of Queensland has been the place where these dreams come true for many.

The Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary has welcomed everyone from pop star Taylor Swift to Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, as of this month, the small zoo—an iconic Brisbane establishment that promotes itself as the world’s first koala sanctuary—has decided to discontinue its “koala hold experiences.”

Lone Pine stated that this decision is in response to increasingly strong visitor feedback. “We love that there is a shift among both local and international guests to experience Australian wildlife up close, but not necessarily personal, just doing what they do best – eating, sleeping, and relaxing within their own space,” said General Manager Lyndon Discombe.

Animal rights groups hope this signals the phasing out of what they deem a “cruel” practice nationwide. Studies indicate that such encounters stress koalas, who are solitary, mostly nocturnal animals that sleep most of the day.

Koalas are a beloved national icon, invaluable in biodiversity terms and a significant draw for the tourism industry. A 2014 study estimated they contribute A$3.2 billion ($2.14 billion; £1.68 billion) annually and support up to 30,000 jobs. However, the species is in dramatic decline due to land clearing, bushfires, drought, disease, and other threats. Some estimates suggest only 50,000 koalas remain in the wild, and they are officially listed as endangered along much of the east coast. There are fears the animals could become extinct in some states within a generation.

Protecting koalas, both in the wild and in captivity, is a complex and emotional issue in Australia. All states have strict environmental protections for the species, and many have already outlawed koala “holding.” For example, New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, banned it in 1997, stating that a koala cannot be “placed directly on… or [be] directly held by any visitor for any purpose.”

However, in Queensland—and a few select places in South Australia and Western Australia—the practice continues. For a fee, visitors can still take pictures cuddling a koala, such as at Gold Coast theme park Dreamworld for A$29.95 or the internationally renowned Australia Zoo for A$124. The late conservationist Steve Irwin even argued that these experiences help conservation efforts, saying, “When people touch an animal, the animal touches their heart. And instantly, we’ve won them over to the conservation of that species.”

The Queensland government states there are clear rules around this practice. For instance, koalas cannot be used for photography for more than three days in a row before requiring a day off. They can only work for 30 minutes a day and a total of 180 minutes each week. Females with joeys must not be handled by the public. “I used to joke, as the environment minister, that our koalas have the best union around,” said Queensland Premier Steven Miles.

Rights groups have welcomed Lone Pine’s decision but some advocate for the complete removal of such attractions. “The future of wildlife tourism is seeing wild animals in the wild where they belong,” said Suzanne Milthorpe of the World Animal Protection (WAP). Wild koalas avoid interactions with humans, but in these attractions, they have no choice but to be exposed to unfamiliar visitors, sights, and noises. “Tourists are increasingly moving away from outdated, stressful selfie encounters,” added Milthorpe.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Australia also believes “in the ideal world, koalas would never have contact with humans,” hoping this approach is “adopted across the board.” “As cute as they are, koalas are still wild animals in captivity and are extremely susceptible to stress,” Oceania director Rebecca Keeble told the media. “Their welfare is paramount and as they are an endangered species, we need to do all we can to protect them.”

Despite hopes that Lone Pine’s move would prompt a state-wide ban, a government spokesperson said there is no intention of changing the law, and Lone Pine itself supports the current regulations. However, WAP continues to pressure other venues to leave the koalas on their trees, stating, “Ultimately, we need the Queensland Government to consign this cruel practice to the history books.”

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