Tasmanian devil — radical experiment to rescue a radical animal

Not a real Tasmanian devil / Looney Tunes

By John Upton

The Australian island state of Tasmania is home to two famous species of marsupial, both of them carnivorous dog-like creatures. The striped Tasmanian tiger went extinct in the 1930s. And now the Tasmanian devil, a stockier creature with mostly solid black fur, is staring down a similar fate.

The species is dying from a face cancer that kills swiftly and spreads from one devil to another when the creatures bite during fights. More than 90 percent of the wild population has been killed since scientists first noticed the contagious tumors in the mid-’90s.

In a desperate bid to save the species, Australian officials are embarking upon a radical experiment: Some of the few remaining healthy specimens, bred in captivity, will be introduced into an environment where they will become an invasive species.

The 14 healthy devils will be released Thursday on Maria Island, a tiny island off Tasmania’s eastern coast that is wholly comprised of national parkland. More than 100 of the animals could eventually be released there.

A real Tasmanian devil / Flickr: rogersmithpix

“The Maria Island translocation is designed to establish a self-sustaining population of healthy wild devils in a safe haven where they are protected from interaction with the deadly facial tumour disease,” Tasmania’s environment minister, Brian Wightman, told the AFP.

Although the devils can swim, they have never before reached the 22,000 acre island. When they get there, they will feast on penguins, geese and other native animals that are unaccustomed to their vicious presence. They will compete with wedge-tailed eagles for prey; they could help an invasive population of rats flourish by killing off the invasive population of feral cats; and they might damage World Heritage–listed buildings by burrowing under them.

That said, most of the Australian conservation movement and political establishment appears to support of the project, with the widespread caveat that it is done carefully and with extensive monitoring.

The risk of the devils going the way of the dodo is too much for most Australians to bear.

“Translocation is one of the methods of last resort,” Australia’s environment minister, Tony Burke, a supporter of the project, told Fairfax Media. “It has to be done carefully, with good scientific oversight.”