Willie the koala bear, whose parents were a gift to Nelson Mandela, has died at the National Zoological Gardens (NZG) in Pretoria in what some people claim is the result of the protracted strike at the sanctuary.
Zoo spokesperson Craig Allenby confirmed yesterday that Willie died on Saturday, but said they believe his death could have been caused by a chronic liver condition.
They are awaiting histopath – examination of tissues for signs of diseased cells and tissues – reports.
Staff at the zoo, apparently including the conservationist in charge of the koala care, are affiliated to the National Trade Union Congress and have been on strike for more than a month.
Union organiser Vusi Msiza alleged Willie would not have died if the conservationist had not been on strike, adding management would rather sacrifice the lives of animals than meet the workers’ demands, which include equal pay for all employees doing the same job, as well as improved working conditions.
He claimed the conservationist “was the only person who was taking care of the koalas at the zoo and Willie died because the person who takes care of him is on strike”.
Named after the then NZG executive director Willie Labuschagne, the koala was no ordinary animal. Not only were his parents among the first pair of four donated as a gift to Mandela by Australia and the Taronga Zoo in Sydney in 2001, Willie was the first koala born on African soil.
The arrival of his parents marked the sanctuary’s centenary, making it the only one in three zoos outside Australia to have this rare animal. The others were in Los Angeles in the US and Tokyo in Japan.
Willie, who was born in January 2006, hid inside his mother Renee’s pouch when he was introduced to the public in August 2006.
The sanctuary denied that the strike was responsible for Willie’s death, saying he was old and that not every worker was on strike.
“There are currently one conservator, one animal attendant and a student present in that section. Assistance is available from other sections when need be.
“The majority of the NZG’s staff members are not on strike. Our veterinarians do daily checks on all the animals to ensure the welfare of our animals has not been compromised,” Allenby said.
He said they were saddened by Willie’s death but that they had given him the best possible care, adding “he was, indeed, a very special animal”.