I was deeply saddened by the recent passing of Riverbanks Zoo and Garden’s famous koala, Lottie. Before her death, she was the oldest koala in the world at age 19. Her arrival in October 2003 marked the end of the most complex animal acquisition in my 40 years as Riverbanks’ president and CEO. It began innocently two years earlier at a cocktail party in the botanical garden. The party was hosted by former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges in honor of Peter Beatie, then premier of Queensland, Australia, and the former sister state relationship between South Carolina and Queensland. During the evening’s festivities someone boldly declared, “Riverbanks Zoo should have koalas!” While I was flattered by the offer, I knew something that no one else in the room knew, not even the Queenslanders. This would not be easy.
The Commonwealth of Australia is very protective of its wildlife, even declaring they are “national treasures.” This is appropriate given the fact that some of the world’s most unique animals live only in Australia, from koalas and kangaroos to the bizarre duck-billed platypus. In order to protect these species from exploitation, the government adopted an Ambassador Agreement in 1997 to control international trade. The terms of the agreement are so strict that most other zoos had long since given up on acquiring Australian animals, especially koalas.
Between November 2002 and the arrival of Lottie on Oct. 13, 2003, Riverbanks and representatives of the commonwealth government exchanged more than 300 emails. Riverbanks was required to produce a video and Power Point presentation for review by the Australian government in order to meet the requirements of the Ambassador Agreement. A number of last-minute challenges occurred, including making arrangements for the Los Angeles Zoo to deliver fresh eucalyptus to the Los Angeles International Airport during their stopover. An Australian veterinarian and a koala keeper were also required to accompany the animals on their journey across the Pacific.
In spite of my initial cynicism, Lottie and a companion, Killarney, finally arrived in Columbia in 2003 to join two males previously acquired from a Japanese zoo. After settling into her new Columbia home, Lottie and the males began doing what koalas do — having babies. And Lottie was particularly good at it. Before her death earlier this year, she gave birth to her 11th joey, averaging approximately one every year. In turn, her joeys produced 15 grand joeys, seven great-grand joeys, and three great-great-grand joeys. She also lived a good, long life. At age 19, she lived almost double the median life expectancy of 10 years, a testament to the excellent care she received at Riverbanks.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. As adorable as koalas are, they are not particularly bright. They can spend more than 20 hours a day sleeping in the same tree. The remaining hours are spent eating eucalyptus and, on occasion, breeding. It’s little wonder that some zoo managers fondly refer to them as “fur on a stick.”
It wasn’t Lottie’s personality that was important. It was the fact that she and her companions served as ambassadors for their wild brethren. Koalas are in decline in nature. Due to habitat destruction, bushfires, and disease, the 2019 koala population was estimated to be between 43,000 to 100,000 (there is a dispute between government officials and some private koala organizations about the actual number). By comparison, Australia was home to 8 million koalas at the beginning of this past century.
Lottie represented many things to different people. For millions of Riverbanks visitors, she was a source of wonderment, a true animal celebrity rarely seen outside of Australia. For her wild counterparts, she stood as a reminder that in nature, life is fragile and needs our protection. For me, she represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring one of the world’s most iconic animals to South Carolina. May she rest in peace.