Tasmanian Devils (Sarcophilus harisii) are facing extinction because of the highly contagious Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) which was first diagnosed over 20 years ago.
Since then it has been estimated that populations affected by the spreading disease have declined by more than 90%. DFTD is characterised by cancers around the head and neck which make it difficult for the animals to eat with death resulting from starvation and the breakdown of bodily functions from the cancer.
The rapid spread of the disease led in 2005 to the development of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program – an initiative of the Federal and Tasmanian Governments. A major component of the program has been the establishment of captive populations of Devils in around 30 wildlife parks and zoos around the country and a few overseas in New Zealand and the United States. The Devils in these facilities will serve as insurance populations which it is hoped can be used to repopulate Tasmania once the disease has run its course.
Devil Ark at Barrington Tops about three hours north of Sydney is one of these facilities. It was founded in 2011 with 44 animals on 25 hectares of donated land which replicates the natural Tasmanian environment.
Devil Ark’s success in breeding has led to an increase in population to 180. In 2015 22 Devils bred there were reintroduced to Tasmania on the Forestier Peninsula which is fenced off from the mainland. Since then some of these animals have bred and weaned young.
Devil Ark is seeking to double its population by 2020. To do this it needs to raise $1.5 million. It has already received a $250,000 grant from Global Wildlife Conservation, a US organisation, and is hoping to raise more through donations.
The insurance populations in facilities like Devil Ark are reasons for optimism about Devil survival. Other reasons for optimism are research into a vaccine to immunise against the disease and evidence that some Devils have recovered from the disease. Another is precocial breeding where Devils in their first year breed and wean their young before they catch the disease and die.
This article was originally published in the VOICES FOR THE EARTH column in The Daily Examiner on March 6, 2017.