If you live in Australia- chances are you have seen these little devils at your local Wildlife Park or Zoo. The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the devil has a thick-set, squat build, a relatively large broad head, short, thick tail and cannot be mistaken for any other marsupial. Its spine-chilling screeches, black colour, and reputed bad-temper, led the early European settlers to call it The Devil. Although only the size of a small dog, it can sound and look incredibly fierce.
Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, but it is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 400 years ago – before European settlement. But did you know that these unique creatures are now facing extinction across Tasmania due to Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)?
DFTD is a term used to describe a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils which is characterised by the appearance of obvious facial cancers. The tumours are first noticed in and around the mouth as small lesions or lumps. These develop into large tumours around the face, neck and sometimes even in other parts of the body. Adults appear to be most affected by the disease - males the first affected, then females. Badly affected devils have many cancers throughout the body.
As the cancers develop, they find it hard to ingest food and the devil weakens further. Affected animals appear to die within three to five months of the lesions first appearing, from starvation and the breakdown of body functions.
The first signs of DFTD were observed in the mid 1990s. Since this time, sightings of the Tasmanian devil have declined by more than 80%. As at October 2009, DFTD can be found at 64 locations across more than 60% of the Tasmanian State.
The transmission of Devil Facial Tumour Disease is still being explored. Preliminary results support the increasingly accepted hypothesis that we are dealing with a transmissible cancer and that cancerous cells are passed directly between devils as an allograft. DFTD is extremely rare and is one of only three recorded cancers that can spread like a contagious disease. When a healthy devil is infected with DFTD from another animal, the infected devil's immune system assumes that the new cancer cells are the same as its own cells and fail to reject them.
The daunting task ahead is to learn how to persuade the devil's immune system to recognise the cancer cells as hostile infectious agents, which will then alert the devil's immune system to destroy these cancer cells.
It is difficult to estimate exactly how many Tasmanian devils remain in the wild, but the best approximation is between 20,000 - 50,000 mature individuals.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program began to establish an Insurance Population of Tasmanian devils in 2005, gathering animals from areas of the State where there had not been evidence of DFTD. The Insurance Population is designed to ensure the survival of the species and these animals could play an important role, if ever needed, in helping to re-establish healthy wild Devil populations in Tasmania.
Tasmanian devils in the Insurance Population were initially isolated and housed in purpose-built quarantine enclosures before being sent to wildlife institutions in mainland Australia and overseas approved by the Zoo and Aquarium Association.
There are approximately 610 devils in the Insurance Population, including 132 joeys born in 2013–14. It appears that efforts to secure the species in captivity have well and truly succeeded.
The decision to remove Tasmanian devils to the mainland of Australia was based on the need to ensure that a healthy population of devils that was at absolutely no risk of infection from diseased wild devils. As it became clear that DFTD was not airborne, and therefore the risk of infection to captive populations was much lower than first thought, the Program instituted a locally-based Insurance Population that is housed at facilities in Tasmania.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program used Free Range Enclosures (FRE) as an economically and behaviourally sustainable alternative to intensive management for devils. The benefit to the Insurance Population of these animals housed in the FREs is that they tend to retain wild behaviours because of their less intensive management. The first of the Devil Island FREs was constructed on land donated by the Devil Island Project in 2008.
The Program is also exploring options and implementing projects to isolate and protect populations of healthy devils within the landscape. The first translocation of a population of Tasmanian devils to Maria Island (an off-shore island on Tasmania's East Coast) took place in November 2012. This island was chosen as the first island translocation for a number of reasons, including its large area, the fact that the habitat appears to be suitable for Tasmanian devils and that it is solely managed by the State Government.
The Program is also looking at the feasibility of ‘virtual islands' - fencing off peninsulas or other geographically suitable areas of land in Tasmania. These geographical landscapes lend themselves for use as virtual islands for the protection of healthy populations or for the reintroduction of healthy animals to areas that have been decimated by Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
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