About 20 Tasmanian devils will be sent to overseas zoos in an ambitious escalation of the battle against a deadly facial tumour disease that has ravaged the marsupials. The Tasmanian government has launched a pilot project that will see up to three zoos in New Zealand and two in the US take about 20 devils to be exhibited to visitors.
Should the project prove successful, up to 100 devils will be dispersed to zoos across Europe, North America and Japan.The move follows the recent breeding of Tasmanian devils in Copenhagen Zoo where four animals, given as a state gift to Princess Mary of Denmark, who is originally from Tasmania, are kept.
It’s hoped that the delivery of Tasmanian devils to foreign zoos will raise awareness, and vital funding, for the conservation of the animals.
A deadly facial tumour disease has wiped out about 80% of Tasmania’s population of devils. In the north-east of the island, where the parasitic cancer was discovered near Mount William in 1996, about 95% of the carnivorous marsupials have died.
The facial tumour is spread by devils biting and gnawing each other, which is natural behaviour in the wild. The tumours, which cannot be treated, grow to a size that prevents the pugnacious animals hunting and eating.
Howel Williams, director of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, said that the devils sent overseas will be taken from an “insurance” population of about 580 animals, which have been bred in isolated areas of Tasmania such as Maria Island.
“People overseas will see them and understand the threat posed to them in the wild,” he said. “That might motivate some people to donate or help in some way.”
“The fact that Copenhagen has been breeding animals shows that they have transferred pretty well. They are robust animals. In a cage in an aircraft, they are more likely to go to asleep than become agitated or try to escape.”
“If you’ve got just the cartoon perception of the devils you may be a bit disappointed, but as display animals go, they are quite delightful.”
“They are curious, they interact with people and they have behaviours you can relate to, such as gorging themselves and then sunbathing.”
“They are quite engaging to observe and that can give a compelling story as to the work we are doing to protect them.”
Howell said that the state is looking to eventually eradicate the disease by quarantining affected devils and releasing healthy animals, with a diverse gene pool, back into the environment.
“We do feel the program has been tracking along well since 1996,” he said.
“There’s been a definite evolution in this program, going from not being sure what the disease was and how it was transferred, to now. It’s a long-term issue, so the security of funding is important. That’s why engaging overseas zoos is important to us.”
Brian Wightman, Tasmania’s environment minister, told Guardian Australia that state and federal governments have put significant funds into conservation and efforts to find a vaccine for the facial tumour disease.
“You can’t doubt the level of support given to the devil both [by the] state and federally, but you can’t be too precious about the funding and awareness you can get from large overseas zoos,” he said.
“People in North America may be surprised by the devil given that they have a view of it from a fictional cartoon character. This will be a good opportunity to expose them to Tasmania, too.”
Wightman denied that the conservation effort was undermined by the state government’s support for mining in the Tarkine, one of the few areas of Tasmania that is free from the facial disease. Conservationists recently lodged a second legal action against mining in the vast wilderness area.
“The disease’s front is moving 5-7kilometres a year, so it is moving towards that area in the western tip,” he said. “When it comes to mining, there are state and federal processes that are very stringent indeed. We put checks and balances in place so that the species is not impacted by development.”
“Let’s be clear – the biggest threat to Tasmanian devils isn’t mining, it’s the facial cancer. But the devil is at the forefront of our minds whenever we think about this kind of development.”
This article was written by Oliver Milman for the Guardian.co.uk