The burrowing, tree-climbing animals known as Tasmanian Devils are in a battle for survival against a contagious facial cancer that experts fear could see them extinct in as little as five years
It’s been hundreds of years since the Tasmanian devil last lived on the Australian mainland but, in the misty hills of Barrington Tops, a pioneering group is being bred for survival. Rat-like in appearance but with a marsupial pouch and carnivorous jaws that can crack bone, Tasmanian devils are an enigmatic Australian species.
They are reclusive creatures who sleep by day and forage by night, and are best known for the guttural cries which saw the early British settlers call them “devils” and inspired a Warner Bros. cartoon character. But the burrowing, tree-climbing animals are in a battle for survival against an aggressive and contagious facial cancer which experts fear could see them become extinct in the wild in as little as five years.
“Its viability at present seems critical,” said conservationist Tim Faulkner of the animal. “In 1996 the disease was first found — since then you’ve had a 91 per cent population decrease,” Faulkner, who is based at the Australian Reptile Park, said.
“There’s no sign of a cure, there’s no sign of a vaccine and there’s no sign of the disease slowing up.” Devil facial tumour disease has seen the animals plunge from a pest species to endangered in a very short period, with Faulkner estimating their numbers —once in excess of 250,000 — in the “low tens of thousands.”
They once roamed Australia but since about 1,600 have been isolated to Tasmania, an island state south of the mainland, where a series of disease outbreaks has seen their genetic stocks severely diminished. The cancer, which typically causes death within three to six months, is spread during fighting over food and territory, when a healthy devil will bite an infected devil’s face and pick up cancer cells says geneticist Kathy Belov, who describes the animals as “immunological clones”. Belov’s team at the University of Sydney are studying the tumour in search of a vaccine or cure, but she believes cataloguing the genes of healthy animals and selectively breeding them in captivity is the devils’ best hope.
“In 30 years’ time, a few generations down the track, we want devils that we can release back into the wild that can hunt and can fend for themselves,” Belov said. Devils are kept in densely vegetated pens of between two and three football fields in size enclosed by a climb and burrow-proof fence, and their pen mates are chosen by experts from a genetic “stud book” to optimise breeding at Devil Ark. Social dominance is a constant battle in the wild and Devil Ark is no different — having to share their territory with others forces the devils to fight for their food and mating rights, skills they can quickly lose in a zoo.
There are currently just under 100 devils living at the Ark and keepers are targeting 350 by 2016, with plans for as many as 1,000 in the years after that to be trickled back into Tasmania once the wild population dies out. The Australian Reptile Park’s Faulkner is overseeing the project and said it was unique in the world because unlike most other endangered species captive-bred devils would be able to be returned to their habitat. Belov says, “It’s a warning for us because we have a lot of wildlife populations that are isolated… and that’s where you have problems.”
The most famous devil of them all: Taz
The Tasmanian Devil, often referred to as Taz, is an animated cartoon character featured in the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes series of cartoons. As the youngest of the Looney Tunes, he is generally portrayed as a dim-witted carnivore with a notoriously short temper and little patience. He will eat anything and everything, with an appetite that seems to know no bounds. He is best known for his speech consisting mostly of grunts, growls and rasps, and his ability to spin and bite through just about anything.