Japan shows yen for koalas

HAVING become some of the biggest takeover merchants in property, hotels, tourist resorts, cattle farms and golf courses, the Japanese are now moving in on one of Australia's last unsullied national symbols: the koala bear.

The Lotte corporation, one of Japan's biggest biscuit-makers, this week put its money where its merchandise is and sent a cheque for 100,000 Australian dollars ( pounds 50,000) to the Australian Koala Foundation, a non-profit-making conservation group devoted to saving koala bears from extinction. It was the biggest donation the foundation has received, and at least two- thirds more than any single contribution from an Australian company or government.

Koalas have served Lotte well for a decade. That is how long it has been making koala- shaped, chocolate biscuits which produce an income of 57bn yen ( pounds 367m) a year. Over the same period, Australia has had an explosion of Japanese tourists, among whom one of the most popular activities is now a 'Save the Koala Tour'.

This involves each visitor planting at least one eucalyptus tree to regenerate koalas' natural habitats. Since the bush fires which devastated New South Wales in January, and killed up to 5,000 koalas, more money for koalas' welfare has poured in from Japan than anywhere else. Another Japanese corporation is reported to be ready to match Lotte's Adollars 100,000 soon.

All of which has led Deborah Tabart, executive director of the Australian Koala Foundation, to conclude sombrely that the Japanese have learned the value of koalas more than Australians have. The foundation recently sought donations from about 400 Australian companies which use koalas in their logos and products. The response rate was 0.03 per cent. 'The Japanese have developed a great bond with koalas because they have so little contact with animals,' Ms Tabart said. 'They buy plastic birds to sing to them and live in cities where nature seems to have disappeared.'

Ms Tabart and her colleagues have earmarked the Japanese money for a project using satellite technology to produce urgently Australia's first national map of remaining koala habitats.