The small marsupials with a ferocious reputation are highly threatened, and need a secluded new island refuge for the survival of their unique species.
Scientists in Australia have made a bold move to save a healthy group of Tasmanian devils from a fatal cancer that has been decimating their population since the 1990’s. Dubbed an “insurance population” by researchers, a plan has been devised to transfer uninfected animals to their own private island, where they can breed disease-free and sustain the health of the species. Their new home will be Maria Island, a vast national park of mountains and eucalyptus forests that will be perfectly suited to the devils’ liking.
Islands have a deserved reputation for being wonderlands of biodiversity – in particular, lack of human habitation and isolation from mainland predators can allow for the preservation of near-extinct animals. Countless islands around the world hold pockets of strange and beautiful species that have vanished elsewhere, like the lemurs of Madagascar, the giant tortoises of the Seychelles, or the clouded leopards that haunt the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.
Tasmanian devils may not be as majestic as a leopard or as sympathetic as a wise old tortoise, but nevertheless, their fighting spirit (in spite of their tiny size) gives them a certain charm – if one can ignore their blood-curdling screeches and terrible odor. They’re not exactly cuddly, but these rat-like marsupials are still an important part of Australia’s biological heritage.
Extinct on mainland Australia for 3,000 years, Tasmania and nearby Robbins Island are the only remaining habitats for the devils, and the highly-contagious cancer, characterized by large facial tumours and fatal within months, has spread through their numbers like wildfire. Their populations have dropped by an estimated 91% since the disease appeared in 1996, landing them a spot on UNESCO’s Endangered Species list in 2008.
On Maria Island, the devils will share space with other iconic Aussie animals like kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats. The sanctuary is also famous for its diverse array of birds, including brilliantly-colored parrots and the rare Forty-spotted Pardalote, earning it Bird Life International’s designation as an Important Bird Area. According to scientists in charge of the devil program, the release of these fearsome creatures won’t threaten the existing animals on Maria, however.
The relocation of the devils will cost around AUD $5 million, but according to Brian Wightman, Tasmania’s Environment Minister, the price is worth it. In a recent interview, he said the program was essential to not having to “face the possibility of the Tasmanian devil becoming extinct.”
Save the Tasmanian Devils program manager Phil Bell seemed optimistic about the move, and the prospect for their integration into a new environment. “We hope that they’ll race off and do what devils do in the wild,” he said. “What I would hope is that they’ll be happy little devils on Maria Island.”
Read more about this story: ABC News
Learn how to visit Maria Island: Maria Island Walk