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Tasmanian Devils

Photographer: Barbara Walton

 

A scream, like a devil, rings out, as two black, squat and fierce flesh-eaters circle a large leg of meat. It is Tasmanian Devils feeding time and tourists watch, as powerful jaws lock and tear at a wallaby leg, wielding a bite force that can be equal to that of a 40kg dog.

 

Tasmanian Devils weigh up to 12 kilograms, can consume up to a third of their body weight, and eat about every two to three days. They are nocturnal and can cover a range of up to 20 square km. Their jaw strength is legendary, equal to a dog’s four times their size and, comparative to body size, more powerful than a tigers. They live in dens and their life span is around six years. As hunter scavengers, they have an important role in clearing carcasses.

 

It is the Tasmanian Devils’ bite, used mostly during aggressive social interactions, that enables the transmission of the nearly 100 percent fatal contagious cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). The spread of this rare cancer has brought the world’s largest marsupial carnivore close to extinction in the wild, with an overall population decline of more than 80 percent since its first detection in 1996.

 

The cancer afflicting Devils is robed in an invisible cloak and cannot be seen by the animal’s own immune system; it evades, hides and suppresses the Devil’s response, and within months lesions and tumors grow around their face and mouth, leading to death by starvation.

 

Members of the Save The Tasmanian Devil Program (STTDP) are working to save the endangered species and are worried about the impact the reduction of another apex carnivore has on the environment.

 

The Tasmanian Devil Intensive Management Facility, the largest captive breeding facility of the Devil houses between 30 and 100 Devils. It is one of five sites that holds a disease free and diversified genetic insurance population to ensure the survival of the animals.

 

In the field, STTDP wildlife biologist Dr. Sam Fox carefully opens the mouth of a wild Tasmanian Devil, checking for any signs of tumors, kneeling in the dappled light of the scrubby bush floor of Narawntapu National Park. Her team is checking specially designed pipe traps in Narawntapu, and one reveals a sleeping Devil. It has been micro-chipped in the past and a quick health check shows the animal is in fine condition, there is no sign of the cancer and it is quickly released again. Twenty devils from the insurance populations were released into the wild at Narawntapu in 2015; 19 of them immunized with a laboratory tested vaccine against the cancer. The STTDP’s program focuses on rebuilding wild populations, establishing Devil recovery zones, population monitoring, field research and further development of immunization techniques including monitoring vaccine response in devils released into the wild. Later this month, an historic release of 36 immunized Devils will be made in the Mt William/Wukulina National Park area, where DFTD was first detected.

 

Tasmania was settled as a British penal colony in 1803, who named the feisty marsupials after their devilish screams. Devils were spread once all across Australia, as was their extinct distant relative the Tasmanian Tiger. But since about 3,000 years, they have only been found in the wild on the small southern island state of Tasmania. After centuries of living in co-existence with Australia’s first people, the Aborigines, times changed as the new settlers treated the Tasmanian Tiger and the Tasmanian Devil as pests, trapping, hunting and poisoning them, even placing a bounty on the Tasmanian Tigers, that resulted in the end of the species in 1936, though unverified sightings remain.

 

It is not only the cancer but also human interaction in the form of vehicles and the high number of Devils that have become road kill which also threatens the animals’ population. The STTDP and its partners are at war to save the Tasmanian Devil through a concerted response from government bodies, research institutes, conservationists, private fund raising and public involvement.