The Devil is back! – Conservation programme enters new territory

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.

tasmania-devilscradle-2016-16

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Sanctuary, November 2016

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:

Encounter with the Devil: 1:15am, 23 November 2016

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.

The light’s not great and flash is out of the question, but who cares? What an experience!

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.

Tasmanian Devil at the Devils@Cradle Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

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.

Tasmanian Devil at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, November 2016

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.

The bear facts – watching grizzlies in Yellowstone

Grizzly bears are amongst Yellowstone National Park’s most iconic residents. With our wildlife watching in the UK and beyond currently limited by Covid-19, this post looks back on two grizzly encounters in September 2018.

The power and the glory

Americans have a complicated relationship with bears. On the one hand bears are the big, bad bogie beasts of the woods, creatures to be feared, shunned and if possible shot, stuffed and displayed somewhere prominent. On the other hand, the locals are in love with the power and the glory of these fearless beings, in awe of the magnificent apex predators with which they share the continent.

Most visitors to Yellowstone National Park want to see bears. Many – like the Platypus Man and Mrs P – are desperate to witness their undeniable majesty at close quarters. Bears are undoubtedly one of the most charismatic species living in the Park.

In the early days of Yellowstone National Park, the public’s desire to get up close and personal with both grizzly and black bears was fulfilled by allowing park visitors to feed them. While this satisfied the primeval urge for an ursine selfie, it did neither party much good. Bears that are fed quickly become dependent on man, and cease to be truly wild. They are also more likely to become aggressive towards humans if they expect to be fed but aren’t.

Above all, bears that are fed lose all caution in the presence of humans, which could easily become – quite literally – a fatal error for one side or the other. Equally, humans who see bears as reliant on their handouts fail to appreciate their true magnificence.

And to make matters worse, in the early days of the Park, waste food and other rubbish from the Park’s hotels was thrown into open garbage dumps. Naturally the bears were attracted to forage at these, and pretty soon watching them do so became a major visitor attraction in the Park. To avoid disappointment the dumps were topped up with tasty goodies, and an armed ranger was posted close to them to sort out any animal that became unacceptably arsey.

In all these ways the National Park was complicit in turning bears into performing animals in an open-air circus. For more on the history of bear feeding in Yellowstone, and some sickening photos, follow this link to the Yellowstone Insider website.

America as a society is built on the philosophy of giving the customer what he or she wants, so it was a brave decision by the National Park authorities exactly fifty years ago – in 1970 – to end the feeding of bears. In addition, more appropriate means of rubbish disposal were introduced, including the now-familiar bear-proof trash can.

With these changes, bears and humans in the Park could at last enter into a more equal relationship with one another. Seeing bears in Yellowstone is more challenging these days than it previously was, but at least we can take comfort in the fact that any bear successfully spotted is living out a natural and dignified life.

Bears remain dangerous, and the Park authorities are happy to remind visitors of this at every opportunity. It’s not, of course, good for business to have your customers mauled by the wildlife, and with this in mind the National Park has a rule that at least 100 yards (91 metres) must separate humans and bears at all times. As well as protecting the tourists, this also protects bears from unnecessary disturbance. Park rangers – bless ‘em all, I say – get very edgy if they see the 100 yards rule being broken, as we are soon to discover.

We’re way too close, but are we bothered?

It’s early morning. We’re driving though a forested area of the Park, pine trees huddled close to the road. We round a bend and see a number of cars stopped at the roadside with hazard lights flashing, and groups of people peering excitedly into the undergrowth. This can only mean one thing: wildlife, and probably something special.

I pull up, and Mrs P asks a guy what’s going on. Grizzlies, he replies breathlessly, grinning like a maniac. We’re out of the car in a flash, so quick that I forget to turn off the engine, something I don’t discover until we go to drive away more than half an hour later.

The road is built on a slight rise, and we go slip-sliding down the slope to join a couple of dozen other watchers spread out amongst the trees. Everyone’s trying to stay safe, crouching low and peering from behind reassuringly sturdy tree trunks to get a decent view.

A little way ahead is a small clearing littered with fallen trees. Rooting around in the grass, digging energetically, is a huge momma bear. Close by is a “teenage” cub, almost as big as her, and back to the right hidden at the edge of the tree-line, is its more nervous sibling.

Momma must know we’re here. Bears don’t have great eyesight but make up for this deficiency with an excellent sense of smell. All these frantic, sweaty bear-watchers must whiff a bit, affronting her super-sensitive nose. But even though we’re well inside the 100 yards exclusion zone, she’s not a bit bothered. She’s focussed completely on digging up her breakfast, although whether this is roots or grubs we can’t be sure .

The first cub also knows we’re here and is plainly a bit anxious, but hunger gets the better of him and he too digs like crazy. Only the second cub remains wary, watching from the safety of the trees, going hungry while momma and brother tuck in ravenously.

This is the best, closest view we’ve ever had of grizzly bears, and Mrs P’s camera is in overdrive, the shutter a blur as she takes shot after shot. It’s the chance of a lifetime, and she’s not going to miss it.

Suddenly there’s a commotion behind us. A ranger has arrived, glowing with self-importance. He does a quick calculation. “The bear is 41 yards from the road, and you’re all even closer to it than that. Therefore, you are all too close. GET BACK at once.”

He’s right of course. I reckon we are maybe 30 yards away from momma, and a number of folk are a bit closer than us. She’s not in the least bit worried, but rules are rules. After a brief pause the assembled bear-watchers start doing what they’ve been ordered to do…but very, very slowly and with as much bad grace as they can muster

By the time we get back to the road there’s a full-scale bear jam in progress, cars parked every which way, people milling around, desperately hoping the ranger will bugger off and annoy someone else instead. He doesn’t, and worse still, reinforcements have arrived, some of them armed with rifles “just in case.”

Another ranger is busily putting cones out on the road, making it abundantly clear that nobody is allowed to park in this vicinity for the foreseeable future. But we’re not bothered – we enjoyed half an hour of uninterrupted bear watching before the ranger rained on our parade, so we return to the car with a spring in our step. You can’t plan for an encounter like this, and it’s been brilliant.

You can enjoy the action highlights by following the link below to my short YouTube video (2 minutes).

A park ranger’s mission

Another day, another bear. Once again, as we’re driving along and minding our own business, we see cars parked where they shouldn’t be. It’s an obvious clue that something interesting is occurring in the neighbourhood.

I pull off the road where it’s safe, and we make our way down towards a parking lot a few hundred yards away where there’s a throng of people pointing cameras and scopes into an area of fallen logs and dead trees. Someone tells us that a female grizzly bear has been seen in this area over the last two or three days, and judging by all the activity she’s back again.

As we get closer we see that the people are all standing behind a line of traffic cones at the entrance to the parking lot which is, in effect, closed for business.

It’s a park ranger’s mission in life to ensure that no tourist ever gets closer than 100 yards to a bear, and they attack the task with gusto. When some brave soul tries to edge beyond the cones, a stern lady ranger warns him darkly about the dangers of crossing the line. He stays put, probably recognising that this young madam is a lot fiercer than any bear he’s likely to see today.

The rangers are out in force, and while madam is keeping the crowds under control, one of her colleagues is trying to locate the bear with his telescope. This place is a tree graveyard, charred trunks standing as silent witnesses to a forest fire that ripped through here a few years ago. 

Finally, the ranger confirms that he has the grizzly in his sights and tells everyone which tree she’s hiding behind. She’s some distance away, and we never get a really clear view of her. However, we can see she’s in good condition. She has a large hump on her back which, in grizzlies, is the tell-tale sign of a well-fed animal.

Everyone is captivated as she works her way between the burnt and fallen trunks. She’s snuffling around carefully, presumably searching for food, and soon disappears into a gully which totally hides her from view. The show’s over, and the viewers walk happily back to their cars, pick-up trucks and RVs, content that they’ve seen one of Yellowstone’s iconic animals.

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This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, in my 2018 blog describing a 24 days-long return road trip from Denver to Yellowstone National Park in 2018. During our adventure, which also took in – amongst other things – Glacier National Park, Utah’s Antelope State Park and an excursion on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, we saw lots of wonderful wildlife, including our first ever view of wolves. To read about our road trip, follow this link.

To learn a little more about grizzly bear conservation in the Lower 48, click here.

Isle of Man highlights – (2) Wallabies gone walkabout!

One of the unexpected pleasures of a visit to the Isle of Man is the opportunity to see wild wallabies without all the expensive and tedious nonsense that is inevitable when flying from the UK to Australia. Native to temperate areas of eastern Australia, the Red-necked Wallaby – a.k.a. the Bennett’s Wallaby – was a familiar sight when we visited Tasmania in 2016. Amazingly, it’s also thriving on Mann, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea between England and Ireland, around 15,000 km from its ancestral home.

Technically, the Manx wallabies aren’t wild but feral, being descended from captive animals which escaped from Curragh Wildlife Park on the north of Mann towards the end of the last century. The first escape happened in 1965:

“The first wallaby to escape from there was Wanda who escaped the first year the park opened. She wandered around the island for a year, true to her name, and returned apparently of her own accord a year later,”

Paige Havlin, quoted in Lucy Quaggin: Living In The Wild On The Isle Of Man, Huffington Post (Australian edition) 07/03/2017.

A pair of wallabies is reported to have escaped at some point in the 1970s, and in 1985 there was a mass breakout. In a daring exploit reminiscent of captured British servicemen escaping Nazi POW camps in World War 2, no fewer than eight animals are said to have dug their way under the fence, and disappeared into the swampy, wooded area surrounding the Park (curragh is Gaelic for willow scrub, the predominant vegetation type here.)

Seven were eventually recaptured, but the eighth remained at large. Maybe it joined up with 1970s escapees or their descendants, or perhaps with other intrepid adventurers that made successful but unreported bids for freedom? And in 1989 there appears to have been another sizeable escape, when storms brought down a tree that smashed part of the fence surrounding the wallabies’ enclosure.

I can only conclude that, in the Park’s early days, security was somewhat lax. Or to put it less charitably, the place leaked wallabies like water through a sieve.

The exact sequence of events will never be known for certain – and some of the accounts noted above definitely seem more fanciful than believable! – but clearly over the years sufficient animals escaped from the Park to establish a sustainable breeding population. In true Aussie style, the wallabies have gone walkabout!

The Isle of Man has few native terrestrial mammals: no deer to compete with wallabies for food, and no large predators that would threaten them. The climate is also agreeable, being quite similar to that of Tasmania where the species thrives. Conditions appear ideal, and the wallabies have taken full advantage of it.

Numbers at large on the island are difficult to determine. The animals are mainly active at dusk and during the hours of darkness, when they graze on grasses, willow and young shrubs. Counting them is therefore an exercise in educated guesswork. The best estimate is somewhere around 150 animals, but who really knows?

Although they have begun to move south through the island, the wallabies remain concentrated close to their original point of origin – Curragh Wildlife Park – particularly in and around the Close Sartfield Nature Reserve.

Joey!

The Reserve comprises hay meadows, grassland, willow scrub, woodland and bog habitats, and between May and July is graced with thousands of colourful orchids. It forms part of the Ballaugh Curraghs, a wetland of international importance and designated Ramsar site. Birds love it and so, apparently, do wallabies.

During our 2018 trip to Mann we made two evening visits to the Close Sartfield Reserve, and as the light began to fade we were pleased to see a number of wallabies going about their business. We thought we’d be lucky to see them at all, but in the event they proved impossible to miss.

Some wallabies were partially hidden in the long meadow grass, watching us curiously as they grazed. Others, including a mother with a large joey in her pouch, hopped happily through the woodland, stopping occasionally to peer at us through the undergrowth. My YouTube video offers a glimpse of the youngster, and captures some of the other action we witnessed.

As we made our way through the Reserve another wallaby bounded across the board walk directly in front of us, and then stopped to browse contentedly on gorse bushes. It seemed totally unperturbed by our presence. I guess the animals have become conditioned to camera-touting humans, and take us in their stride.

The Aussie ex-pats have become unlikely island celebrities, and any visitor with an interest in wildlife wants to see them. During our second visit we saw evidence of this in the form of a professional camera crew cruising the paths through the Reserve, hoping to get perfect footage of the Isle of Man’s most exotic residents.

At the end of our second visit to Close Sartfield, as we returned to our car in the gathering gloom, we spotted a wallaby chewing enthusiastically on the grass strip running down the middle of the unsealed track that leads back to the main road. It was a surreal experience: where else in the British Isles would drivers find their journey interrupted by a masticating marsupial?

I’m sure that any Aussies reading this will wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, wallabies are common and considered unremarkable Down Under, impossible to miss but easy to ignore. However, here in the British Isles they are other-worldly beings, improbable and exotic creatures one never expects to encounter outside zoos and wildlife parks.

And what Brit doesn’t want a glimpse of the exotic, to bring colour and excitement to his otherwise dreary existence?