How Tasmanian devils were saved from the brink of extinction

Photo: Aussie Ark / AFP  

The disappearance of the Tasmanian devil

Though they are called Tasmanian devils, these marsupials were once found widely in mainland Australia too. Sadly though, early human settlers in Australia introduced dingoes (a canine) at least 3,500 years ago. Gradually, the canines outcompeted the marsupials, and about 3,000 years ago, the latter were wiped off the mainland. Since then Tasmania has been the only place where the Tasmanian devils have lived in the wild. However, due to several factors, including loss of habitat, accidents, and attacks by dogs and foxes, their population has been dwindling. Further, the devil facial tumour disease, a contagious cancer found only in these animals, has been killing the adults in recent years. The disease has been so severe that the creatures are facing extinction - prompting action to bring back a population to mainland Australia.

Born wild now!

A few conservation organisations came together in 2011 to bring back Tasmanian devils to mainland Australia. They brought more than 40 of the animals to a captive breeding site in Australia, “where more than 390 joeys have since been born under human supervision”. After close to a decade of monitoring, in 2020, as many as 26 of these captive animals were released into a 1,000-acre sanctuary in Australia. This included “seven reproductive-age females” too, and they all became the first wild Tasmanian devils in mainland Australia since they were wiped out all those years ago. Last month, at least seven joeys were born; conservationists say the numbers could be higher.

Why is this great news?

• The reintroduction of species in the wild has always been fraught with risk, including disease, predator attack, and lack of survival skills. However, in this case, the captive animals released into the wild seem to have adjusted well to their surroundings, as is evident from the fact that they have given birth to young ones.

• Now a whole generation of Tasmanian devils has the potential to grow in the wild in a region where devil facial tumour disease does not exist.

• Tasmanian devils are predatory animals but feast on carrion left behind by other animals and roadkill. As scavengers “they help keep ecosystems clean and free of diseases that sprout up in decaying corpses”. Also, they may be able to keep pests such as mice and feral cats under control.

• The project has kept invasive dingoes out of the sanctuary where the Tasmanian devils have been reintroduced. This means other animals and plants affected by the presence of dingoes have a chance at thriving. In the larger context, one species has revived the hopes of an entire ecosystem.

• The fact that this reintroduction has worked sparks hope for similar initiatives with other species too.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 1:37:53 AM |

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