Japan Welcomes Six Australian ‘VIPs’
By “Awake!” correspondent in Japan
ONE hundred reporters eagerly waited in the morning twilight at the Narita Airport in Tokyo, Japan. After the jumbo jet rolled to a stop, six special passengers were quickly escorted to their luxurious, newly built homes. Who were these long-awaited ‘VIPs’?
Six Australian koala bears! Since 1975, there had been talk about sending koalas to Japan. Much work had gone into preparing for the future of these cuddly goodwill ambassadors who finally arrived on October 25, 1984. But adopting koala bears is not as easy as it may sound.
In their homeland, these semi-nocturnal, or “twilight,” animals spend almost all their time in eucalyptus trees. It is no wonder that eucalyptus leaves are the sole diet of koalas. They derive both nourishment and moisture from the leaves, and it is very unusual for koalas to drink water. The name koala was given it by the Aborigines, the natives of Australia, and means “not drink water.” But not just any eucalyptus leaves will do!
Although there are as many as 600 varieties of eucalyptus trees, koalas relish only about 10. So large groves were grown in each of the cities to which they were to be sent. But would Australian koalas eat the leaves of the eucalyptus trees grown in Japan? Fresh leaves were packed and flown to Australia. There they faced a stiff test but passed with flying colors! The koalas happily munched on the eucalyptus leaves that had been “Made in Japan.”
Since the koalas traveled over 4,000 miles (6,400 km) from their native home to a different environment and climate, special housing arrangements were made to keep them healthy. The koala house in Tama Zoo is a bright, brown- and cream-striped new building situated near the top of a hill. It is comprised mainly of three dome-shaped sections of varying sizes.
In the first dome, visitors learn about Australia’s features and its marsupials by looking at pictures and reading explanations. The second dome houses many small Australian animals, and visitors get an added thrill when they look up into the dome and see the Southern Cross glittering in the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere. But most excitement comes in the largest dome, The Koala Display Area.
Here, visitors watch the koala through a big glass window. There are 15 trees for these cuddly creatures to climb. Each tree has a number attached to it and the numbers of the trees that the koalas are in are displayed on a board. This makes it easier to spot the koalas. Artificial lighting creates a semi-nocturnal effect, since these animals are more active during the dusk of dawn and evening hours. In this way, they may be seen moving about.
There are many other rooms included in these facilities, such as a clinic and rooms for quarantine, for storing eucalyptus leaves, and for food preparation; and there is even a private living room for the koalas. All of this cost 550,000,000 yen ($2,200,000, U.S.) and shows how eager Japan is to ensure the success of the koala project.
Interest in the koalas heightened considerably with the help of publicity through the media. Since its opening day, many thousands of people have visited the koala houses. On one Sunday, more than 15,000 saw the koalas in Tokyo. And on one day during the New Year’s holiday, 22,000 crowded into the koala house in Kagoshima and 46,000 in Nagoya.
Visitors may have to wait in line for about an hour and a half on holidays before they can see the koalas in Tokyo’s Tama Zoo. But just what makes koalas so popular among people here?
Living Teddy Bears
The secret of their popularity lies in their fluffy dark-gray fur, beady little eyes, distinctive noses, ears that are covered with long fur, their gentle expressions and cuddly bodies. The koalas really are lovable animals. They look just like living teddy bears.
These charming creatures are found in the eastern and southeastern parts of Australia, and, like kangaroos, they are marsupials, that is, they have a pouch for carrying their young. When a koala is born, it is only two thirds of an inch (17 mm) long. The tiny baby climbs by itself into its mother’s pouch, and there it grows as it feeds on its mother’s milk. When six or seven months have passed, it finally leaves the pouch and begins feeding on eucalyptus leaves that its mother has half digested and discharged. After this, the young koala progresses to eating tender eucalyptus leaves. It is at about this time that the mother begins carrying her baby on her back when she moves about. What a delightful picture they make!
Although there may still be many things not known about the habits of these ‘VIPs,’ it is hoped that much will be learned through study and observation in their new homes in Japan.
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
Tokyo Zoological Park Society photos