Can a New, Improved Tasmanian Devil Escape Extinction?

A Tasmanian Devil stands on a tree trunk at Taronga Zoo's new Tasmanian Devil Breeding Centre in Sydney on June 30, 2010. The centre will play an important role in helping to save the world's largest remaining carnivorous marsupial, allowing visitors to the zoo to see conservation action, with an outdoor 'classroom' showing the difficulties the devil faces in the wild. 
National Journal
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Patrick Reis and Clare Foran
March 19, 2014, 1 a.m.

The Tas­mani­an dev­il is in trouble.

The dev­il, a car­ni­vor­ous mar­supi­al nat­ive to its name­sake is­land off the coast of Aus­tralia, is suf­fer­ing from a rare can­cer that can be spread by face-to-face con­tact. The dis­ease has killed off 85 per­cent of the an­im­al’s pop­u­la­tion since 1996. With­in a quarter-cen­tury, the spe­cies will be wiped from the wild com­pletely, sci­ent­ists pro­ject.

The dis­ease is in­cur­able, but Amer­ic­an con­ser­va­tion­ists and Aus­trali­an aca­dem­ics say they have a plan to save the creature non­ethe­less.

In step one, Uni­versity of Sydney re­search­ers will shep­herd a group of dis­ease-free dev­ils onto a smal­ler is­land off the east­ern coast of Tas­mania.

They will then track the healthy, isol­ated pop­u­la­tion with mi­cro­chips and GPS tech­no­logy fun­ded in part by a $500,000 con­tri­bu­tion from San Diego Zoo Glob­al. Re­search­ers plan to main­tain the di­versity of the spe­cies and hope to see the pop­u­la­tion flour­ish un­der their watch­ful eyes.

Step two, however, is bru­tal: the re­search­ers will safe­guard the chosen pop­u­la­tion while the dev­ils re­main­ing on Tas­mania die out com­pletely — hope­fully, tak­ing the can­cer out with them. Then, when the main is­land is both dev­il- and can­cer-free, the sci­ent­ists plan to re­in­tro­duce their safe­guarded stock to re­pop­u­late the is­land.

“Ul­ti­mately, the dis­ease will wipe out dev­ils in the wild,” Kathy Be­lov, pro­fess­or of veter­in­ary sci­ence at the Uni­versity of Sydney, said. “But these newly cre­ated dis­ease-free pop­u­la­tions will be used to re­pop­u­late the wild once it is safe to do so.”

At least, that’s the aim. If the plan fails, the dev­ils could go the way of an­oth­er car­ni­vor­ous mar­supi­al from down un­der: the Tas­mani­an ti­ger.


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