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Can koalas handle close encounters with humans?



Andrea Bagley
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 11:55 AM - Despite being a main tourist attraction, experts question how well koalas can handle close encounters with humans.

According to a study from the University of Melbourne, "Understanding human-animal interactions is particularly important for institutions that display animals to the public due to the frequent, and sometimes intense, interactions with unfamiliar humans. Past research has shown that visitors can have a negative impact on the welfare of a wide range of captive zoo species through an activation of the stress response, which influences energy metabolism."

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Because they survive on an extremely low energy diet, scientists say the animals are particularly susceptible to stressful incidents including noisy human encounters.

"Our study showed that up-close and noisy encounters with human visitors resulted in koalas showing so-called ‘increased vigilance,’ which is a common response to stress," says Jean-Loup Rault from the University of Melbourne’s Animal Welfare Science Centre.

With almost non-existent knowledge of visitor effects on captive koalas to date, researchers are testing the impact of visitor numbers, visitor noise, and visitor proximity on koalas at the Koala Conservation Centre in Australia.

Experts say the research also "highlights the value and importance of behavioral observations as a monitoring tool to assess visitor-related stress in koalas."

According to Rault, it's extremely important to understand the impact of visitor encounters especially since some wildlife parks offer hands-on experiences with koalas.

"The welfare implications of these behavioural changes remain to be determined, as well as adequate management strategies to minimize negative visitor effects," the university adds.


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