The Tasmanian devil is a deeply misunderstood animal, for which we have a soft spot the size of Tassie itself. These shy, highly adapted animals are currently declining at a terrifying rate because of a strange facial cancer which is afflicting devils across the state.
The Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease (DFTD):
- Appeared in the early 1990s
- Is a very unusual cancer because it spreads through contact (and devils often squabble, meaning lots of facial contact)
- Kills around 97% of devil in affected areas
- Has now spread across most of the state (with the exception of the west coast and Tarkine wilderness area)
The Tasmanian devil is now on the endangered species list, even though it was common and stable just two decades ago. We are very, very worried about this special animal. For more information on the disease and the devil, you can visit the Save the Tasmanian Devil Programme website.
At Bonorong, all of our keepers develop long lasting bonds with the individual devils we care for. Just like people, they can be grumpy, comical, sooky or incredibly sweet depending on their mood. We are absolutely committed to the continuing survival of the devil.
The numbers of wild Tasmanian devils are in sharp decline due to the effects of the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). DFTD is an infectious cancer spread by the transfer of tumour cells from one individual to another, usually through biting, with the majority of tumours found around the mouth, neck and face. Once infected, individuals have a 100% fatality rate and no animal has yet been recorded to recover or show immunity.
With the disease now found in over 60% of the devil’s natural habitat, DFTD represents the single greatest threat to the Tasmanian devil. Prior to the discovery of the disease in 1996, the devil population was estimated at 150,000 individuals. Now, the best estimates place the current population at around 10,000-50,000 individuals. This means that the number of devils in the wild is thought to have declined by up to 95% in some areas of the state. The impact of DFTD is such that in 2008, the conservation status of the Tasmanian devil was revised and it is now listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List.
With the continuing spread of the disease, added pressures from habitat loss and degradation, and large numbers of devils being killed by cars each year, the outlook for the Tasmanian devil is grim. While research is being conducted to better understand the disease and to search for a vaccine, the number of devils in the wild continues to decline.
The Insurance Population
To safeguard against this possibility, Bonorong houses a permanent population of healthy devils and conducts a successful captive breeding program as ‘insurance’ against extinction. It is hoped that this breeding program, in tandem with similar programs around Australia, will ensure that sufficiently large and genetically-diverse groups of devils exist to enable future reintroductions into areas where devils are safe from the disease.
Captive-bred devils have already been released onto a Tasmanian off-shore island free of the disease and it is hoped that one day more can be released into mainland Tasmania. However, this is not possible until the disease has been eradicated or controlled.
In 2010 we approached the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program with the offer to build 15 high-level quarantine enclosures to assist with their captive-breeding efforts. We were told that in all honesty they had enough enclosures, but a lot of those enclosures were accommodating older devils that were past breeding age and therefore limiting the possibility of breeding more devils. As a result, we decided to build a luxurious retirement home for these older devils.
‘Devils Run’ was completed in 2011. This huge enclosure stretches from one end of the sanctuary to the other and can house up to 15 devils. We are very proud to help such a worthwhile project so please enquire about it the next time you visit the sanctuary!
The Tarkine Devil Project
Bonorong and our sister business Tarkine Trails operate walking tours in the remote and wonderful Tarkine forests, which also happen to house one of the last disease free populations of devils. We operate motion-sensitive cameras throughout the rainforests and coastlines of the Tarkine in order to monitor hitherto unknown and increasingly precious devil populations. Our guests can participate in the collection and viewing of the camera data – getting a rare insight into the secret behaviour of the Tarkine wildlife. Bonorong and Tarkine Trails fund the ongoing costs of this project (after an initial grant from the government). All data is collated and sent to the devil research teams at the Tasmanian Government and the University of Tasmania.