Renewed Hope as Tasmanian Devils Return to Mainland Australia

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer 

The Tasmanian Devil, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, has set foot on mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years. Conservationists led by Liz Gabriel, the director of Aussie Ark, released 11 Tasmanian Devils into Barrington Tops wildlife refuge north of Sydney in the state of New South Wales. 

Conservationists hope this new beginning in the 1,000-acre refuge will help to grow the population of Devils and bring them out of their “endangered status”–that’s been caused in part by a highly transmissible disease. Aussie Ark, which has bred 400 Devils, plans to release 20 more Devils next year, and 20 the year after that. 

Why This Matters: Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world; in the past 12 years, the continent has lost 2 mammal species and over 1,800 species of plants and animals, and ecological communities, are at risk of extinction. Australia has lost more species over the last 200 years than the rest of the world combined. It’s one more jarring reminder that the world’s biodiversity is in crisis and we must work diligently to protect it. 

The Plight of the Devils: Tasmanian Devils migrated to Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia, over 3,000 years ago, when a perfect storm of conditions drove them off the mainland. Despite escaping extinction on the mainland, a transmissible form of facial cancer has ravaged the Devil population, threatening it with extinction. The absence of Devils on the mainland has inadvertently led to the unchecked growth of invasive species such as rabbits, feral cats, and foxes. Conservationists hope that reintroducing the Devil to the wilds of Australia will not only balance ecosystems but also save the species.

A Troubled History: Scientists believe that Tasmanian Devils were driven out of mainland Australia before the advent of European settlers. Even so, surges in the human population, combined with a historical drought and being hunted by dingoes, created a set of conditions that threatened the species with total extinction. Menna Jones, and ecologist at the University of Tasmania, said, “I think any one of those three factors alone probably wouldn’t have caused extinction, but the three of them together likely caused the devil to become extinct on the mainland.”

The species has been protected under Australian law since 1941, but efforts to increase their populations were thwarted by the onset of disease in the 1990s. Since then, the Devil’s populations have declined by over 70%, from around 140,000 to about 20,000

The disease threatening the Tasmanian Devil, a transmissible form of cancer, travels through Devil populations through bites often sustained during mating. When a sick animal bites another, it plants living cancer cells, a copy of the first animal’s tumor, into the recipient, causing the growth of facial tumors that prevent the Devils from eating. Scientists and conservationists believe that all wild Devils may already be infected, sparking captive breeding programs like the one at Aussie Ark. As a precautionary measure, the Devils recently released on the mainland have been tested to ensure that they do not carry the contagious disease.

 

Still Facing Doubt: Some conservationists are doubtful that the return of the Tasmanian Devil will help ecosystems. Nick Mooney, who has worked with Tasmanian devils for 40 years, worries that invasive species like feral cats will adapt to find new sources of food to avoid competing with Devils. “You could actually make a conservation problem where it didn’t exist before,” he said. Others believe that while Devils may quell fox and cat populations, they won’t have much effect on rampant rabbit populations. Jones also acknowledges potential consequences of the program, explaining that Devils are known to feast on the carcasses of farm animals, and may become a nuisance to farming communities, “When you do big interventions like this, there needs to be buy-in from the community.” 

Gabriel remains hopeful for her organization’s mission, “We dream of many more sanctuaries with devils in them and really growing the numbers of the species to protect that species, but also the animals in the environment around them,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”

 

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