March is the perfect month for koala spotting in Canberra. Sprinkled throughout the Botanic Gardens are 14 larger-than-life koala sculptures, each one painted with a conservation or nature theme. There are more at Tidbinbilla, the National Zoo and Aquarium, and ANU.
Seeking out the colourful koalas is a popular activity, with 2000 people passing through the Botanic Gardens Visitor Centre on the weekend to grab a map and get walking.
“We’ve had the whole age range, from teens taking selfies to older walkers and whole families,” says Megan Donaldson, from Visitor Services at the Gardens. “We’ve seen three generations going around together, which is lovely to see. And lots of dads and kids with maps too for this one.”
The fibreglass koalas stand out in the gardens at one metre high, each brightly painted by a different Australian artist. Their locations have been chosen to link with their painted designs.
Shelly, located at the Aquarium, glistens with native fish painted by Pauline Roods, while Alira in the Garden’s Red Centre area has an Indigenous pattern of waterholes and campfires, created by Indigenous elder Isabell Moran.
Bringing the koalas to Canberra came about as the Botanic Gardens looked for a way to celebrate Eucalyptus Day on 23 March. “I discovered the koala sculptures in Port Macquarie and asked if they could tour them,” explains Donaldson. “I knew the big dinosaurs had worked so well at the Gardens a few years ago.”
The koalas are certainly drawing the crowds, with some people on a mission to photograph all 20 around Canberra. To add to the challenge, Carramar Koala is not on the map, but is hidden somewhere at the Botanic Gardens, and Guula sat near Old Parliament House for Enlighten, but is back to the Gardens after that.
The koala sculpture quest is great fun – it’s a bit like orienteering with art and cuddly animals thrown in. But it does all have a serious message. “It is all about attracting people to the Gardens and inspiring and educating them to research and engage with the issues about native plants and reducing habitat and threatened species,” says Megan Donaldson.
Koalas are reducing in number due to habitat loss, and that habitat is made up of the native plants the Botanic Gardens promotes and nurtures. Each of the 20 koala sculptures in Canberra has a nature, plant or threatened species focus, reminding visitors how important our native flora and fauna is.
Buzzy by Lisa Burrell is a tribute to our 1600 native bee species and is sticking around in Canberra until world bee day on May 20. “Buzzy is just beautiful, decorated with the state floral emblems and was unveiled here for the first time,” says Donaldson.
Bringing the koala sculpture trail to Canberra has been a big hit. In fact, the Canberra visit has been so successful that the koalas are now booked in for a stint at Sydney Botanic Gardens, with a trip to New York after that.
“The koala trail combines art, education, native species and plants, the environment, and it is appealing to so many people,” says Megan Donaldson. “It is going really well and we’re getting great feedback from Tidbinbilla and the Zoo as well,” she adds.
The koala sculpture trail continues until Sunday 31 March.