You may know the Tasmanian devil from the famous Looney Tunes cartoons. The hilarious Taz character is a wild, whirling force of nature. But real-life Tasmanian devils face a deadly disease that’s no laughing matter.
Devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is a cancer that has infected large numbers of the Tasmanian devil species. The cancer is unusual because it can spread like a virus. Tasmanian devils pass on the disease by biting one another during a fight or when they’re playing. The deadly illness causes tumors to grow on the devil’s face, especially around its mouth. These tumors swell to such a large size that it becomes impossible for the Tasmanian devil to eat, and the creature ends up dying of starvation.
Since the cancer was first discovered in 1996, it has killed almost 80 percent of the Tasmanian devil population and has spread across most of the island state of Australia that they call home. The Australian government has declared the species endangered.
HOPE FOR DEVILS
Wildlife experts and conservationists (people who try to protect the environment) at Zoos Victoria have been working to build up the Tasmanian devil population at their zoos as an “insurance” program. Increasing the number of Tasmanian devils housed at 18 zoos across Australia ensures that the species will not totally die out, or become extinct.
A special program has just begun to release four of these zoo-bred Tasmanian devils into a wilderness environment. The animals will be set free at a former Aboriginal (Australian native) reserve called Coranderrk. Wildlife experts will keep track of them to determine how they adjust to life outside the zoo.
This program represents a new approach to trying to save endangered species. “Up until now, conservation has been about a numbers game, popping out animals from breeding programs that don’t end up doing very well in the wild,” explains Dan Harley of Zoos Victoria. The new plan involves releasing small numbers of the endangered animals into a controlled environment—like Coranderrk—and following their progress.
If these four Tasmanian devils do well, scientists will likely reintroduce more of the zoo-bred animals into the Australian landscape, greatly improving the chance of survival for the species.