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Media Statement - Verity Firth

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Minister for Women, Minister for Science and Medical Research, Minister Assisting the Minister for Health (Cancer)

Zoos Join Battle To Save Tasmanian Devils

27/3/2008

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A group of 12 Tasmanian Devils, sent from Tasmania to Taronga Western Plains Zoo, Dubbo as part of a national effort to save the species, are showing encouraging signs that they may be breeding in their first season at the Zoo.

Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Verity Firth said the breeding program is vital insurance as scientists race against the clock to find a cure for a terrible cancer threatening to wipe out the species.

The Devils are one of the breeding groups placed in mainland zoos by the Tasmanian Government as part of their program to stop the spread of Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFDT) which is devastating the iconic animals in Tasmania.

DFTD causes large tumours on the face and mouth which stop the Devils eating, condemning them to death by starvation (see attached fact sheet for more).

"The rapid spread of Devil Facial Tumour Disease has caused Tasmanian Devil numbers to shrink dramatically over the last 10 years," Ms Firth said.

"The Zoos are taking up a vital role in breeding a disease-free population as insurance against the real possibility this iconic creature may become extinct in the wild," Ms Firth said.

Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos, along with four other mainland zoos and wildlife parks, are working to establish an insurance population of150 Devils in Australia.

The insurance population will participate in a controlled breeding program with the hope of boosting Tasmanian Devil numbers in the wild when the risk of disease is arrested or diminishes.

The breeding season for Tasmanian Devils runs from February to June each year.

Zoo handlers believe there are positive signs that the Devils in their care have mated and if successful young will be born in late April.

"Our Zoos are at the forefront of global conservation efforts like this project, making valuable contributions through coordinated breeding programs, conservation projects, research and community conservation education.

"Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos last year provided conservation education lessons to 100,000 school students and community groups, while delivering conservation messages to over 1.5 million visitors to both Zoos," Ms Firth said.

Taronga Western Plains Zoo is holding 12 breeding animals in a specially adapted breeding unit and a further seven Devils arrived from Tasmania late last year at Taronga Zoo.

The breeding groups at Taronga Western Plains Zoo will be held in specially developed

breeding facilities off public display.

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, Co-ordinated by the Tasmanian Government, has developed a range of additional strategies to manage DFTD in partnership with wildlife and disease experts from wildlife parks, universities, zoos and research institutions in Australia and around the world.

Steven Smith, Manager of the Program said: "We're hopeful that with the continued growth of the community interest and support that we can continue to develop a range of methods to assist the on-going survival of the Tasmanian Devil in the wild." (More information about the Save the Devil Program is available at www.tassiedevil.com.au).

Qantas and Australian Air Express have provided significant support for research and transportation of the animals, with the animals for Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos being carried to Sydney by AAe.

Taronga and Taronga Western Plains Zoos' Director, Mr Guy Cooper said: "Our Zoos are well placed to assist with this national program. Our keepers have extensive animal husbandry knowledge backed by well-developed hand-raising skills to assist with the program. Zoos are now critical to many conservation and recovery projects because of the detailed scientific and husbandry knowledge of their keepers."

"There are no other agencies as well placed to hold, breed and eventually release these animals in the future. When such programs are coordinated with wildlife agencies, such as the DPIW in Tasmania and the DECC in NSW, the most effective response to such crises is ensured."


Taronga and Western Plains Zoos care for 4000 animals from over 350 species, provide conservation messages to over 1.5 million visitors and conservation education to over 100,000 school students annually. The Zoos also conduct a huge range of conservation research, breeding and in situ projects from Antarctica to Mongolia and throughout Australia and Asia, while providing wildlife health services to thousands of native animals each year.

Contact:

  • Minister Firth's office: Kate Meagher 0437 001 027
  • Taronga Western Plains Zoo: Mandy Quayle 6881 1413, M 0420 962 376
  • Save the Tasmanian Devil Contact: Warwick Brennan (03) 6233 3625, M 0438 042 610 

Tasmanian Devil Fact Sheet

Sarcophilus harrisii

The Tasmanian devil cannot be mistaken for any other marsupial. Its spine-chilling screeches and red ears are thought to have led the early European settlers to call it The Devil although it is only the size of a small dog.

Description

The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the devil has a thick-set, squat build, with a relatively large, broad head and short, thick tail. The fur is mostly or wholly black, but white markings often occur on the rump and chest. Body size also varies greatly, depending on the diet and habitat. Adult males are usually larger than adult females. Large males weigh up to 12 kg, and stand about 30 cm high at the shoulder.

Distribution

Devils once occurred on mainland Australia, with fossils having been found widely. Today, however the devil is only found in Tasmania. It is believed the devil became extinct on the mainland some 400 years ago - before European settlement of the continent. The dingo is commonly believed to have been introduced to Australia by South-east Asian fishermen as recently as 4000 years ago, ousting the devil from the mainland.

Habitat

Devils are widespread in Tasmania from the coast to the mountains. They live in coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll-rainforest - in fact, almost anywhere they can hide and find shelter by day, and find food at night.

Breeding

Devils usually mate between February and June with a gestation of 21 days. More young are born than can be accommodated in the mother's backward-opening pouch, which has 4 teats. Although 4 pouch young sometimes survive, the average number is 2 or 3. Each young, firmly attached to a teat, is carried in the pouch for about 4 months. Young spend 4 months in the pouch before venturing out into the den where they gradually become more adventurous, finally becoming independent 1 year after being born. They probably start breeding at the end of their second year. Longevity is between 6 and 8 years.

Diet

The devil is mainly a scavenger and feeds on whatever is available. Powerful jaws and teeth enable it to completely devour its prey - bones, fur and all. Wallabies, and various small mammals and birds, are eaten - either as carrion or prey. Reptiles, amphibians, insects and even sea squirts have been found in the stomachs of wild devils. Carcasses of sheep and cattle provide food in farming areas. Devils maintain bush and farm hygiene by cleaning up carcasses. This can help reduce the risk of blowfly strike to sheep by removing food for maggots.

Devils are famous for their rowdy communal feeding at carcasses - the noise and displays being used to establish dominance amongst the pack.

Behaviour

The devil is nocturnal (active after dark). During the day it usually hides in a den, or dense bush. It roams considerable distances - up to 16 km - along well-defined trails in search of food. It usually ambles slowly with a characteristic gait but can gallop quickly with both hind feet together. Young devils are more agile however and can climb trees. Although not territorial, devils have a home range.

The famous gape or yawn of the devil that looks so threatening can be misleading. This display is performed more from fear and uncertainty than from aggression. Devils produce a strong odour when under stress, but when calm and relaxed they are not smelly. The devil makes a variety of fierce noises, from harsh coughs and snarls to high pitched screeches. A sharp sneeze is used as a challenge to other devils, and frequently comes before a fight.

Many of these spectacular behaviours are bluff and part of a ritual to minimise harmful fighting when feeding communally at a large carcass.

Status

Since 1996, the Tasmanian Devil population has declined due to the increase of Devil Facial Tumour Disease and efforts are being made to resurrect the dwindling numbers.

Devils were considered a nuisance to the early European settlers because they raided the poultry yards and were soon driven away to more remote areas of the island. In 1830 the Van Diemen's Land Co. introduced a bounty scheme to remove devils, as well as Tasmanian tigers and feral dogs, from their northwest properties: 2/6 (25 cents) for male devils and 3/6 (35 cents) for females. Devils ate animals caught in snares, and were believed to take lambs and sheep. For over a century they were trapped and poisoned and became very rare. They seemed, like the Tasmanian tiger, to be headed for extinction.

Despite this the Tasmanian devil was not protected by law until June 1941.

Devils Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)

  • DFTD was first discovered in 1996 and now affects Devils in 59 per cent of Tasmania.

  • Field monitoring indicates a 53 per cent decline in the wild devil population since the emergence of the disease.

  • DFTD is transmissible within the species, and is contracted when an infected Tasmanian Devil bites another. Biting is a common behaviour among Devils especially during the mating season.

  • Tumours appear within 3-12 months of a Devil contracting the disease.

  • It is commonly thought that the low genetic variation among Devil populations has contributed to the spread of DFTD. The lack of genetic variation in the population means the cancer is not recognised as ‘foreign' by the immune system of devils it is infecting.

  • As a unique form of transmissible cancer, DFTD is the subject of several studies in Tasmania and America. Researchers hope to gain a greater understanding of other forms of cancer by studying the unique qualities of the disease in Devils.

  • Devils for the insurance population are sourced from different areas of Tasmania to maximise genetic diversity for future captive breeding programs.

    The reduction in the Devil population is likely to upset the predatory hierarchy and impact on the wider Tasmanian ecosystem by giving other carnivores more opportunities to prey on native animal species.

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