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Friday, June 5, 1998 Published at 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK

World: Americas

Albino baby koala - aaaah!

Albino koalas are rare but they do occur in the wild in Australia

The San Diego Zoo has unveiled a precious new arrival, an albino koala called Onya-Birri.

The world's only albino koala in a zoological facility was born as part of a breeding programme because the koala's natural habitat in Australia is endangered.

[ image: Banjeeri, the mother]
Banjeeri, the mother
Ten-month-old Onya-Birri was named after an Aboriginal phrase meaning "ghost boy". He has no skin pigmentation, which gives him his white fur, pink eyes and pink nose.

Because he is still young, his fur has an orange tinge to it, which is also common in grey koala babies. As he matures, he will lose this colouring.

Onya-Birri was born in September last year but spent the first six-months of his life in his mother's pouch. When the cute little fellow emerged in his snow-white coat in early March, he surprised everyone because both his parents are perfectly normal.

[ image: The weight of the rare baby is monitored carefully]
The weight of the rare baby is monitored carefully
"The appearance of the albino trait in our koala population was unexpected," said Valerie Thompson, associate curator of mammals.

"We had no idea that either of Onya-Birri's parents carried the recessive gene for albinism. We had a male albino koala in our San Diego Zoo koala colony a few years ago, but Onya-Birri isn't directly related to that animal. They do, however, have common ancestors," she said.

Onya-Birri made his first public appearance with the loving support of his mother Banjeeri and will remain with her until he is about a year old. He is just starting to nibble on the koalas' sole food, eucalyptus leaves, but still ducks his head into his mother's pouch on occasion to nurse.

[ image: Getting used to the koala diet of eucalyptus leaves is important]
Getting used to the koala diet of eucalyptus leaves is important
Although albino koalas are rare, they have been known to occur in the wild in Australia.

The San Diego Zoo has the largest koala colony outside Australia. Through its koala loan program to zoos in North America and Europe, San Diego contributes funds to a koala habitat-conservation effort in Australia.

Zookeepers now say this new arrival will be a valuable addition to their breeding and research programme.

They hope that the little white bear will help to boost funding towards protecting the koala's natural habitat.

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