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  • Writer's pictureEmma Kay Bleakley

Healthy lil' Devils

Are Conservationists winning the battle to save the Tasmanian Devil from extinction?

Monarto Zoo in Adelaide, Australia announced via Twitter that their latest litter of three Tasmanian Devil joeys have had their first check-ups and are in perfect health. But what does this mean for this endangered species?

Tasmanian Devils are the National Animal of Tasmania and are very valuable to the Australian economy, especially to the island of Tasmania itself. Tourists and other visitors love to see the Tasmanian Devils and spend millions visiting Australian and Tasmanian wildlife parks/zoos to see them.

Today, the only surviving Tasmanian Devil populations are found on the island of Tasmania (Australia). They became extinct on mainland Australia over 3,200 years ago, along with their only natural predator, the Tasmanian Tiger. It wasn’t until 1941 that they became protected under Australian law. Prior to that, they were nearly hunted to extinction. They were accused of not only killing chickens, which they probably did, but also killing larger livestock such as sheep. Like all good villains, there was even a price on their heads. In the 1830s 25 cents was rewarded for every male Devil killed and 35 cents for every female. They are hunters and scavengers, hunting mainly lizards, insects and small mammals. They have been known to hunt and kill wallaby’s, but nothing as big as sheep.

It is their role of scavenger which make Tasmanian Devils a “keystone” species in Tasmania. Meaning, if they went into extinction there would be a dramatic change in the environment. They are the clean-up crew of the island. They eat dead animals, which keeps the maggot and fly populations down. This is especially helpful to the sheep farmers as it reduces the amount of fly strike in their animals. Fly strike is when blowflies lay their eggs in a sheep’s skin. Untreated this can cause deadly ammonia levels in the sheep and can eventually kill them.

Being classified by the IUCN as “Endangered” in 2008 means that a focus on saving the Tasmanian Devils has been established. But, this has not been without its own set of problems. In the last 20 years, the Devils population has been devastated by Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). This is a particularly infectious cancer which is spread by biting. Being a mainly solitary animal, they do a lot of fighting, and biting, when they meet each other. There is grumpy and then there is the Tasmanian Devil level of grumpy. The tumours grow rapidly, and the infected Devil will die within a few months of being bitten.

Scientists have been working on vaccinations against DFTD. These vaccinations are showing signs of success, although it is still early days. Unfortunately, during the trails for the vaccinations, a second type of the tumour (DFT2) was discovered. This new type of cancer is unaffected by the current vaccinations and scientists are now working on a new vaccine which will work on both types of cancer.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Devils. The news of DFTD and vaccinating against this infectious form of cancer has received international interest. Scientists from all over the world, are all working together to try and save the Tasmanian Devils.

The Australian Government has also stepped in and formed the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This is a wide-ranging programme with many different projects to help save the Devils and spread the word about their current situation. These projects include annual monitoring of wild Devils and a captive breeding programme. This programme concentrates on breeding healthy Devils from all over the country, which will keep genetic diversity within the population. A lack of genetic diversity could cause other health problems, which can be harmful to future generations of Devils. An Ambassador Programme has also been set up. This programme is placing healthy Devils into Zoo breeding programmes all over the world. Not only does this raise the profile of the Tasmanian Devils, it also ensures that there are healthy breeding groups away from the main population. Separate breeding populations are needed to re-populate Tasmania if the local Devil populations cannot be saved. These separate populations are known as “insurance populations”.

Looking to the future, there is also the Wild Devil Recovery Project. Again, this is one of the projects within the Australian government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Programme. This project specifically looks at different methods and locations to release healthy Devils. The project also monitors how they are surviving back out in the wild. In 2012, a separate, healthy population was established on Maria Island, one of the small islands off the Tasmanian coast. The whole island is a protected nature reserve and the only people who live there are the park rangers.

So, are Conservationists winning the battle to save the Tasmanian Devil from extinction? The answer is, not quite yet, but they are making great progress. The plight of the Devils has advanced our knowledge in transmittable cancers. Scientists from different backgrounds and governments, from around the world, have united to try and cure this disease. This in itself is great progress. The more the science community look outside of their own specialist subjects, join forces with other scientists, and work together to solve problems, the more beneficial to the whole world.

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