Australian diplomats more koalafied than ever: Singapore welcomes four furry ambassadors

When it comes to world politics, it’s a jungle out there.

That said, one country sure knows how to tame the beast of foreign relations. Enter Phascolarctos cinereus, a.k.a. the koala.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Jimbelung the koala as G20 leaders meet Australia koalas before the start of the first G20 meeting. Photograph by Andrew Taylor/G20 Australia (Creative Commons license).
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Jimbelung the koala at the 2014 G20 summit. (Photo by Andrew Taylor/G20 Australia, Creative Commons license)

Koala diplomacy shot to fame last November at the G20 Summit in Brisbane, Australia. From Barack Obama to Park Geun-Hye, world leaders had the opportunity to take turns holding their marsupial friends. Even the unflappable Vladimir Putin cracked a smile as he hugged one.

Using cuddly animals to win hearts is nothing new. Starting in the 1950s, the giant panda became China’s unofficial goodwill ambassador. Since then, Chinese pandas have made their homes in zoos across the world, including Singapore’s own Kai Kai and Jia Jia.

Back in the 1940s, Australia used a similar strategy to charm their friends – except they sent platypuses instead of pandas to represent their country. These strange creatures made great talking points, but they were difficult to care for outside their natural habitat. One died en route to England, to the distress of Winston Churchill. Platypus diplomacy was soon abandoned.

But the recent circulation of pandas and koalas suggests the old tradition has been revived. Encouraged by the G20 success, Australia has decided to continue the trend by sending a special envoy of furry friends to mark 50 years of relations with Singapore.

Zookeeper Rachel Yeo hand-feeds Pellita, the pickiest eater of the lot. (Photo by Sheyna Cruz)
Zookeeper Rachel Yeo hand-feeds Pellita, the pickiest eater of the lot. (Photo by Sheyna Cruz)

Hailing from Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, four adorable ambassadors – Idallia, Chan, Pellita and Paddle – will be housed in the Singapore Zoo for the next “six to nine months,” according to zookeeper Rachel Yeo.

In celebration of the new arrivals, the zoo launched a website where visitors can learn more about “Koalamania” and read blog posts from a koala point of view. One SAS junior (who prefers not to be named) admitted she has “been stalking them for a while now.”

Since opening on May 20, the Koalamania exhibit – located in the Australian Outback section of the zoo – has attracted public enthusiasm. Those willing to brave the 30-minute wait can gain access to the air-conditioned enclosure, but be warned: koalas spend about 20 hours sleeping every day. Yeo suggested scheduling visits in the mornings, when they are awake for feeding time.

Stuffed toys, caps, T-shirts, key chains...every shelf in the souvenir store is lined with koala merchandise. (Photo by Sheyna Cruz)
Stuffed toys, caps, T-shirts, key chains…every shelf in the souvenir store is lined with koala merchandise. (Photo by Sheyna Cruz)

While the koalas were a gift to Singapore, they certainly didn’t come free. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian taxpayers spent $130,000 funding the koalas’ medical and living expenses.

Meanwhile, Qantas Airlines is paying for transportation as well as twice-a-week deliveries of koala food. Yeo explained, “We don’t have eucalyptus trees in Singapore, so 4-6 varieties of leaves are flown in from Australia.”

It’s a pricey investment, but one that Tony Abbott’s administration hopes will pay off. And if the adoring crowds are any indication, koala diplomacy is working as planned.

Author: Sheyna Cruz

Sheyna Cruz is a senior and Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Eye. This is her second year on staff and her third at SAS. She loves Model UN, murder mysteries, mangoes, milk tea and other things that don’t necessarily start with M. She can be contacted at cruz45489@sas.edu.sg.

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