Here in the environmental science department at Wheaton College, we all get pretty jazzed about wildlife conservation efforts. Every ES major has their favorite endangered charismatic megafauna (a threatened animal that has mass appeal, i.e. pandas). Mine just so happens to be the Tasmanian devil, which has made headlines recently. An Australian conservation group is reintroducing Tasmanian devils, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupials, to mainland Australia.
For the past 3,000 years, Tasmanian devils, as their name suggests, have been found exclusively on Tasmania, an island off the southern coast of Australia. But it is believed that Australia is where they originated. The population began to decline when dingos, a type of wild dog, were introduced to the continuent around 3,500 years ago. Conservation biologists have been working for a decade now to eradicate the invasive dingo population so that Tasmanian devils can inhabit their native habitat once more.
Dingos aren’t the only challenge facing the devils. Tasmanian devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) is a contagious cancer transmitted through bites. An infected Tasmanian devil will transfer their living cancer cells from their mouth into the bite wound on another specimen. As you can imagine by the name, DFTD causes large tumors to grow on the face and inside the mouths of Tasmanian devils. There is no treatment for DFTD and it is fatal in most cases. According to Global Wildlife Conservation, DFTD has decimated the devil population by 90%, leaving only 25,000 in the wild.
Because the devil population in Tasmania is facing extinction, the survival of the species is contingent upon planting a new one elsewhere. The devils reintroduced to mainland Australia have never been exposed to DFTD.
In September, 11 devils were released into the forests of eastern Australia. Since then, 15 more devils have been introduced to the population. Aussie Ark, the conservation organization overseeing this project, selected the specimens for their genetic health and reproductive viability. Over the next two years, Aussie Ark will release two more groups of 20 devils each. They will be continuously monitored by researchers to see how they fare in this new environment.
Like the reintroduction of wolves into our own Yellowstone National Park in 1995, this new population of Tasmanian devils will have a major impact on the ecological health of Australia.
“In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country,” said Tim Faulkner, president of Aussie Ark. “Not only is this the reintroduction of one of Australia’s beloved animals, but of an animal that will engineer the entire environment around it, restoring and rebalancing our forest ecology after centuries of devastation from introduced foxes and cats and other invasive predators.”
Let’s hope Tasmanian devils will thrive in the Land Down Under. I’m eager to see how my favorite endangered charismatic megafauna like their new, old home.