From: Michael Byrnes, Reuters
Published March 15, 2007 12:00 AM

Battle To Save Tasmanian Devil from Extinction

HOBART -- The Tasmanian Devil, a rare carnivorous marsupial found only on Australia's southern island state of Tasmania, faces extinction in 10 to 20 years without a cure for the facial cancer now decimating the population.

With half the population of this fierce, black furry animal now wiped out, leaving less than 75,000 devils, Professor Hamish McCallum at the University of Tasmania is battling to establish offshore colonies of healthy devils.

"We might be looking at a 10-15 year cap down to extinction," McCallum told Reuters in an interview in Hobart, state capital of Tasmania, on Wednesday.

Nobody knows how many of the rapidly-diminishing devils are left, but McCallum says the minimum would be 20,000.

The disease is most likely spread during ferocious mating.

The speed with which it is now spreading across Tasmania has created an urgent series of deadlines in a race to save the animal, which inspired the Warner Bros Looney Tunes cartoon character Taz.

The Hollywood studio has donated funds, but limited Australian government funding is not enough to save the creature, say those fighting to save the devils.

The mystery disease first emerged on the remote northeast Tasmanian coast 10 years ago. McCallum estimates that the disease is now only 50 km (30 miles) from the west coast.

"This year we can take animals from the west coast and be pretty confident that they'll be disease-free. Next year, with less confidence. And the year after that, with very little confidence," McCallum said.

More than 40 devils have been moved to zoos on the Australian mainland and 30 or so have just arrived in Hobart quarantine. The plan is to transfer them to an offshore colony on Maria Island, a former convict settlement off Tasmania's east coast.

McCallum will complete environmental risk assessments in a few weeks and devils could be on the island in three months.

Maria Island is seen as the first in half a dozen or so islands and protected peninsulas to take healthy devils, which could breed sustainable populations.

Clearing of infected animals from the Tasman Peninsula, near Port Arthur about 100 km (60 miles) south of Hobart, is also slowing the spread of the disease.

Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries and Water, said that as a result of the decline in devil numbers there has an increase in foxes, an introduced species.

"If the devil goes down it will not only have a massive ecological impact but have a major economic impact on the way we market (Tasmania) as clean, green and clever," Tasmanian Greens deputy leader Nick McKim said.

Source: Reuters

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