The Tasmanian Devil is the world’s largest surviving marsupial predator. Once common throughout Australia, for thousands of years these iconic animals have been confined to the island of Tasmania. But even there they are now in big trouble due to a killer cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Conservation groups have been working tirelessly to protect the species, and a few weeks ago news began to circulate of a ground-breaking reintroduction programme in mainland Australia. The Devil is back!
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Exactly four years ago we were at the start of our first and only visit to Australia. At the heart of our adventure was a road trip through Tasmania, where we spent five blissful weeks feasting our eyes on magnificent scenery and feisty wildlife. And the wildlife doesn’t come any feistier than the Tasmanian Devil, the island’s iconic marsupial predator.
As well as visiting sanctuaries that are part of the captive breeding programme, we were privileged to see some truly wild Devils at the Mountain Valley Private Nature Reserve run by Len and Pat Doherty. Here’s how I described the experience in my blog of our Tasmanian road trip.
We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled. He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window. A light on the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin. We settle down and wait for the action to begin.
And wait … and wait.
At midnight we reluctantly decide to give up. Our quarry isn’t going to show tonight and, disappointed, we stumble off to bed. However we leave the outside light on, and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while laying in bed.
I’m soon asleep, but at 1.15am I wake up with a start. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement glimpse the unmistakeable sight a Devil tucking into chopped up roadkill.
I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil,” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”
She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.
“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.
At last, it sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera. The light outside the cabin isn’t great for taking photos and flash is out of the question, but Mrs P does the best she can:
We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through about 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a light snack.
The window is closed, of course. It’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin, clad only in our nightwear! But we ignore the discomfort, transfixed by the action just outside our window. And as we listen we can clearly hear our diabolical guest crunching ravenously on the bones, which he gobbles down together with the gory lumps of wallaby
The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am … only this time there are two Devils rather than just one. They bicker and snarl at one another, battling over the spoils.
On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.
Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights. They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.
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Devils disappeared from mainland Australia around 3,000 years ago. The reasons are thought to be the introduction of dingoes, as well as other human activity and an increasingly arid climate. However they hung on in Tasmania, where there are no dingoes and the climate is more temperate.
When Europeans arrived in Tasmania they encountered a healthy population of Devils, which they named for their unearthly screams, snarls and growls. But peaceful co-existence between settlers and the Devils quickly proved impossible.
Sheep farming was big business amongst the settlers, and – although scavenging is their preferred way of getting a meal – the Devils were identified as sheep killers. Persecution followed, and Devil numbers plummeted.
Devils became very rare, and were seemingly heading for extinction. But in June 1941 they were given legal protection, and for the next 55 years numbers gradually recovered.
However in 1996 it became evident that the animals were again under threat, this time from Devil Facial Tumour Disease. DFTD is characterised by cancers, generally around the mouth and head. It is invariably fatal, and has resulted in a huge decline in Devil numbers.
In recent years the Tasmanian government has invested heavily in its Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which includes advocacy, annual monitoring, captive breeding and active management of wild, disease-free populations on Maria Island and the Forestier-Tasman Peninsula.
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Meanwhile, back on mainland Australia the conservation organisation Aussie Ark has been building an “insurance population” of Devils. It says
To date, more than 390 devils have been born and raised at Aussie Ark in a way that fosters natural behaviour in the animals, preparing them for release into the wild. Aussie Arks ‘Rewild Australia’ strategy is a key component, alongside Species and habitat recovery, in returning Australia to it pre-European state.Aussie Ark website, retrieved 27 October 2020
During 2020 Aussie Ark have released 26 Devils into a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) sanctuary at Barrington Tops, around 120 miles north of Sydney in New South Wales. The animals won’t be living a completely wild existence: they will be confined within the boundaries of the sanctuary and receive supplementary feeding. Researchers will monitor them by remote cameras to learn more about how they adjust in their new environment.
However the long-term aim of the programme is to release Devils into targeted, non-protected areas in mainland Australia. Here it’s hoped they will contribute to keeping feral cat and fox populations under control, and thereby help protect native wildlife.
This is a bold, ambitious programme, and has been compared with the project to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the USA. Over the past 12 months the wildlife news from Australia has been bleak, dominated by the huge losses that resulted from the devastating bushfires, so it was great to come across this inspiring good news story.
Having been privileged to see Tasmanian Devils in the wild, they will always have a special place in my heart. Let’s hope Aussie Ark’s project is successful, and they quickly make themselves at home on the mainland.