Warm, fuzzy welcome for G20 leaders in Australia

Everyone from US president Barack Obama to China’s first lady Peng Liyuan queued up to hold the koalas as the world’s press snapped away.

US president Barack Obama laughs as he holds a koala while the prime minister of Australia Tony Abbott looks on during a photo opportunity on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Brisbane, Australia.  G20 Australia, Andrew Taylor /AP Photo
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BRISBANE // Australia arranged a warm and fuzzy welcome for the world’s most powerful leaders at this weekend’s G20 summit with a campaign dubbed “koala diplomacy”, in which top politicians cuddled the shy native marsupials.

There may have been sharp differences during policy discussions but G20 leaders were unanimous in their desire to be photographed with the furry grey animals, specially brought in from a local wildlife park for the summit.

Everyone from US president Barack Obama to China’s first lady Peng Liyuan queued up to hold the koalas as the world’s press snapped away.

Even host Tony Abbott’s pre-summit threat to aggressively “shirtfront” Russian leader Vladimir Putin was temporarily forgotten as the pair smiled and posed side-by-side cradling koalas in their arms.

The well-travelled White House press corps, normally immune to the charms of “local colour”, were also enchanted by the iconic bush creatures when they met a two-year-old female named Jimbelung.

The koala, which will be sent to Japan as a gift, munched contentedly on eucalyptus leaves but her handler said she was too tired to pose with reporters after photo sessions with Mr Putin and Mr Obama.

However, there was time for one more round of pictures when local powerbroker Campbell Newman, the premier of Queensland state, turned up with a gaggle of media in tow.

Mr Obama noted during his visit that not all of Australia’s native fauna was so cuddly, recalling how authorities in the Northern Territory took out crocodile insurance for him when he visited the remote region in 2011.

He said US diplomats regaled him with tales of shark and crocodile attacks in Australia during his visit, warning “there are just a lot of things in Australia that can kill you”.

Koala handler Al Mucci, said bringing the animals to the summit was not just about ramping up the event’s cuteness factor.

He said Jimbelung, whose name means “friends” in the local Aboriginal dialect, belongs to a species struggling with declining numbers as human development encroaches on their habitat.

“As an Australian, I am proud of the fact that we are hosting the G20 and I’m proud that today we can share the koala story,” he said.

“Koalas and people aren’t learning to live together and their population is dropping. We want to share that with the global community, that more help is required to make sure that people and koalas live together for another 200 years here in Australia.”

While not listed as endangered, koalas are officially considered “vulnerable”, and efforts to increase their population have been stepped up in recent years.

A 2011 study estimated there were more than 10 million before British settlers arrived in 1788 but numbers had declined to less than 45,000 in the wild, though it noted their existence high in the treetops makes them difficult to count.

Koalas spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping. On the rare occasions when they are spotted in the wild, they are usually nestled in the crook of two branches either napping or chewing leaves.

While commonly known as koala bears, they are actually marsupials, meaning they carry their young in pouches and are more closely related to kangaroos than bears.

* Agence France-Presse