The iconic ‘Tassie devil’ (Sarcophilus harrisii), Australia’s largest extant marsupial carnivore, is in big trouble. Believed to have become extinct on the mainland some 400 years ago, the devil is now endemic only to Tasmania. In 1830 the Van Diemen’s Land company placed bounty on their heads but over a century later, ecological and ethical sense prevailed and they became a protected species. This protection saw their population rise to an estimated 250,000 devils in 1995. Yet now they face their biggest threat of all – Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
What is this disease and can the devil survive it?
This fatal cancer is found exclusively in devils in the wild. It is deadly and has decimated the population by over 80%. Researchers, conservationists, zoos and governments all hope (with fingers crossed) that ‘insurance’ populations on the mainland can prevent the devil’s predicted extinction in the wild. To show how serious this is for the devils, some population models predict that if nothing is done all the wild Tasmanian devils may be lost!
What is DFTD?
DFTD was first identified in 1996. It begins as small lumps around the mouth, then large tumours appear on the face and neck which kill the devil by starvation and collapse of bodily functions within 3-8months. In addition to this horrible death, this cancer is ‘contagious’ – meaning it can be passed from one devil to another when they interact, for example fighting, and devils love to fight!
DFTD is one of only three cancers in the world recognised as being able to spread in the same manner as contagious disease.
Is there a cure?
At the moment there is no known cure or vaccine. There is a lack of genetic diversity among Tasmanian devils, perhaps because of their earlier culling. Scientists think that this is the reason that the devil’s immune system is unable to reject and fight the live tumor cells. Consequently, increasing the genetic diversity of the captive populations is a prime objective of institutions establishing devil breeding programs on the mainland.
Captive breed and release programs have successfully helped a number of critically endangered species around the world, one example being the Przewalski’s horse in Mongolia or on a smaller local scale check out Malherbe’s parakeet. Long established quarantine areas situated across Tasmania house young devils sourced from genetically diverse areas, acting as the basis of ‘insurance’ populations. These devils are confined for 12-24 months to ensure they are DFTD free then taken to breeding facilities on the mainland.
Dr Carolyn Hogg (Sydney University) and Associate Professor Kathy Belov (Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia) say the program aims to capture and maintain 95% of the genetic diversity currently found in the wild for the next 30 years. During this period they hope that either a vaccine will be developed and the disease beaten, or, they expect the wild devil’s will become extinct (read more here). This in itself is ironic as only then will the captive insurance population be able to be released because the disease would have died off with the wild devils. A scary plan! But with the current captive insurance population standing at over 500 healthy animals housed at 26 locations it may just be the best answer. One of these captive insurance populations is a place called Devil Ark.
What is Devil Ark?
Devil Ark rose from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STTDP), an initiative of the Tasmanian Government. The program embodies the ultimate approach to conservation, comprising national and state representatives and coordinates research in combination with conservation efforts. The idea for a large devil sanctuary was first discussed among zoos in 2006 and formally presented at the Tasmanian Devil IUCN workshop in 2008.
Devil Ark was founded by John Weigel the director of the Australian Reptile Park. One of James Packer’s companies donated 340 hectares of land at an elevated property at Barrington Tops, NSW and Devil Ark began. The site has ‘Tasmania-like’ characteristics and climate and is intended to be home to 360 devils by 2016 with scope to expand to whatever population required by the Save the Tasmanian Devils Program in the future.
The devils range freely on the property and breeding and housing the devils in this natural environment provides them with social interactions similar to those they would experience in the wild. Obviously it has significant advantages for the animals that are to be released – compared to smaller more restrictive enclosures. To try and conserve the natural genetic diversity Devil Ark aims to retain the devils’ wild characteristics and avoid unintended artificial selection for adaptation to captivity. They are trying to avoid falling into a genetic trap which is regarded as a serious fault in some endangered species breeding programs of the past.
Devil Ark has had huge breeding success in its first year and now plans to expand its facilities to enable it to be a refuge for more devils. Operations manager Tim Faulkner says that “Stage two will go ahead, which is ten pens, and I’d suggest it’s somewhere up around the million dollar mark to get that up and established.” The New South Wales government has provided a $600,000 grant but Devil Ark now looks towards you to help ensure Tasmanian Devils can survive this tumor.
So where do we stand now?
The implications of losing the devil from native Tasmania will have cascading and wide-ranging effects. The loss of a vertebrate predator will doubtlessly negatively impact on the rest of the ecosystem, lead to an increase in carrion and facilitate the possible expansion of the invasive fox throughout the natural environment. Not only this, if we fail to act then Australia loses an internationally recognised icon of Tasmania. Devils are additionally integral to the branding of a wide diversity of products and services within growing ecotourism industry.
One further viable option approved in August this year was the introduction of 50 devils on Maria Island, off the east coast of Tasmania. Yet as in all conservation efforts, it remains surrounded in controversy as to the impact this reintroduction will have on the local bird life. However the scheme will be staged over a period of two years to ensure wildlife officers are able to monitor the consequences and also offer critical insight into how well captive-bred animals survive when released.
When faced with such a vicious, effective and fast acting disease, representative insurance populations at places such as the newly established Devil Ark in the Barrington Tops are vital in avoiding the complete extinction of Australia’s most iconic predator. Remember, the Tasmanian tiger has already been lost.
There are many ways to get involved in Devil Ark, the home of which is in the Hunter Valley. To help donate to the cause for the cute Tassie Devil – please visit the Devil Ark for more information.
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- 2008 listed as Endangered under State legislation; Threatened Species Protection Act 1995
- 2008 listed as Endangered under International legislation; IUCN Red List
- 2009 listed as Endangered under National legislation; EPBC Act 1999
Hawkins, C, Baarsc, C, Hestermana, H, Hocking, G, Jones, M, Lazenby, B, Mann, D, Mooney, N, Pemberton, D, Pyecroft, S, Restani, M, Wiersma, J, DEL, 2012. Emerging disease and population decline of an island endemic, the Tasmanian devil Sarcophilus harrisii. Biological Conservation, 131, 307-324.
Lachish, S, Jones, M, McCallum, H, 2007. The impact of disease on the survival and population growth rate of the Tasmanian Devil. Journal of Animal Ecology, 76, 926-936.