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The Endangered Tasmanian Devil: Why This Unique Marsupial is on the Brink of Extinction

The Tasmanian devil, with its iconic cartoonish appearance, is one of Australia's most recognized mammals. But this unique carnivorous marsupial is currently battling a deadly facial cancer that has already decimated populations across Tasmania.

The Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial in the world today. It is found in the wild exclusively on the Australian island state of Tasmania.

Once widespread across mainland Australia, the Tasmanian devil is now listed as Endangered and its population has declined by over 80% in the last 20 years. Its future survival is under threat.

Introduction

The Tasmanian devil is an iconic animal that holds a special place in Tasmanian culture and biodiversity. With its stocky build, black fur, loud screeching vocalizations and feisty temperament, the Tasmanian devil has inspired everything from Looney Tunes cartoons to its use as a mascot for the Tasmanian National Hockey team.

But sadly, the Tasmanian devil has been experiencing a rapid population crash over the last two decades. Its numbers have declined by over 80% since the mid-1990s, with the species now listed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The current total population is estimated to be between 10,000-25,000 mature individuals scattered across Tasmania. Specific population estimates include:

  • 3,000-12,500 mature individuals in North-Western Tasmania
  • 1,000-5,000 mature individuals in Eastern/South-western Tasmania

This drastic decline is primarily driven by a highly infectious facial cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which has decimated devil populations across Tasmania.

The Tasmanian devil is in crisis, with its future survival now dependent on dedicated conservation efforts to halt the spread of this deadly cancer and recover devil numbers.

Main Reasons the Tasmanian Devil is Endangered

The Tasmanian devil faces a range of threats, but by far the largest is the emergence of Devil Facial Tumour Disease.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)

First observed in 1996 in north-eastern Tasmania, DFTD is an unusual transmissible cancer that passes between Tasmanian devils through physical contact. Tumors develop rapidly around the mouth, face and neck. The cancer cells are able to evade the immune system, and DFTD almost always leads to death within just 3-6 months after the tumors first appear.

Over 95% of devils die within a year of contracting DFTD. The disease has spread rapidly across nearly the entire range of the Tasmanian devil. Population monitoring suggests local devil populations can collapse by over 90% within 10 years of DFTD arriving in an area.

DFTD has been described as the most severe cancer ever recorded in a wild animal population. The Tasmanian devil has a very low genetic diversity, which has likely accelerated the spread of DFTD. At this stage, a vaccine or treatment for DFTD remains elusive, posing significant challenges for conservation.

Habitat Loss and Fragmentation

While not as severe as DFTD, habitat loss and fragmentation poses an additional threat to the Tasmanian devil. Land clearing for agriculture, forestry and urban expansion has reduced and fragmented native forest habitats across Tasmania. This isolates devil populations and reduces available den sites and food sources.

Road construction through wilderness areas has also increased habitat fragmentation. Smaller and more isolated populations are at greater risk of extinction. Habitat loss also increases contact between devils, facilitating the spread of DFTD.

Roadkill Deaths

Tasmanian devils will scavenge roadkill and are also at risk of becoming roadkill themselves. Vehicle collisions are a frequent cause of death, especially in areas with high road density. Their scavenging habits mean devils will persistently return to roadkill sites, increasing their risk of being hit multiple times.

Climate Change Impacts

Climate change presents a long-term threat to the Tasmanian devil. Projected hotter and drier conditions may reduce habitat suitability and food availability. Increased bushfires, storms and flooding from climate change may also impact devils. A warmer climate could potentially accelerate the spread of DFTD.

Conservation Efforts Underway to Save the Tasmanian Devil

A range of conservation initiatives and programs are underway to protect the Tasmanian devil from extinction.

Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is an integrated conservation effort run by the Tasmanian state government. It aims to ensure the long-term survival of the Tasmanian devil in the wild. The program focuses on researching and managing DFTD, monitoring wild devil populations, developing a vaccine for DFTD, and maintaining captive insurance populations.

Captive Breeding and Wild Population Management

Captive breeding programs are being used to establish insurance populations of healthy devils. The Tasmanian government maintains a captive population to support the recovery of wild devils. A wild devil population was established on Maria Island off Tasmania's east coast. This island population is isolated from DFTD and is used for research and future reintroductions.

TreadRight Foundation

The TreadRight Foundation, established by The Travel Corporation, supports efforts to combat DFTD in the wild. TreadRight raises awareness and funds for organizations working to save the Tasmanian devil. They also provide grants for research into a vaccine or treatment for DFTD.

NGOs and Research Programs

Several NGOs like the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal run by the University of Tasmania are helping fund research into DFTD and Tasmanian devil conservation. Zoos and wildlife parks have breeding programs. Scientific research into DFTD epidemiology, vaccine development, and devil ecology and genetics is underway to support conservation efforts.

Outlook and Importance of Saving the Tasmanian Devil

While conservation initiatives are underway, the situation for the Tasmanian devil remains dire. However, there is still hope the species can recover with continued dedicated management.

The Tasmanian devil is culturally iconic in Tasmania, attracting significant tourism. It also plays several important ecological roles as Tasmania's largest surviving marsupial carnivore.

As a scavenger, it helps clean up carrion and prevent disease spread. The Tasmanian devil also regulates populations of smaller predators and herbivores through predation. Their decline may have cascading impacts across ecosystems.

Losing the Tasmanian devil entirely would be devastating for Tasmania's natural heritage. Ongoing conservation efforts are crucial. The public can support Tasmanian devil conservation by donating to reputable organizations.

When visiting Tasmania, be sure to not feed or handle devils in the wild. Report any devil sightings to authorities and drive carefully at night to avoid collisions. Be mindful of devils when bushwalking and camping. Follow fire regulations to protect devil habitat from bushfires.

Conclusion

The Tasmanian devil is a unique and iconic animal that is currently facing a crisis due to the emergence of Devil Facial Tumour Disease. This transmissible cancer has led to a greater than 80% decline in devil numbers over the last 20 years.

DFTD now threatens the long-term survival of the species in the wild. Habitat loss, roadkill deaths and climate change pose additional risks to the endangered Tasmanian devil.

A range of conservation initiatives such as captive breeding, wild population management, and DFTD research and monitoring are underway. But the Tasmanian devil still faces real risks of extinction without continued dedicated recovery efforts.

Losing this iconic carnivorous marsupial entirely would be devastating for Tasmania's natural and cultural heritage. Ongoing conservation action and public support are essential to ensure the survival of the Tasmanian devil.

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