Extinction Showdown

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

Others disagree. Species should be protected when at risk for extinction, if only for the simple reason that they are vital contributing facets to our own ecosystem. Responsibility lies in protecting any species that is endangered, not only for their livelihood, but for our own.

No one knows this reality more explicitly than those involved in the largest conservation program now underway in Australia – The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. Its Director, Andrew Sharman, is passionate about the Program and the Tasmanian environment. He didn’t hesitate in joining the Program in 2008, four years after its inception. “When you have an opportunity to change a situation like we have here with the Tasmanian devil and deliver a better outcome for the entire system as a whole, I think you’re obliged to make every effort you can to do that.”

What Andrew is referring to is the Tasmanian devil crisis, specifically, devil facial tumour disease, (DFTD). Devils were first photographed with facial tumours in 1996 by a wildlife photographer in Mount William National Park in northeast Tasmania. Since then, it is now known that the disease is a new, fatal, cancerous disease characterised by tumours around the mouth and head of the devil. The disease is unusual in that it is contagious. Research indicates that this rare cancer acts as a virus that transmits between individual devils through biting. The genetic sequencing of DFTD is similar to that of the Tasmanian devil itself. Consequently, the devil’s body doesn’t perceive the virus as a threat, and its immune system is unresponsive until the cancer dominates. The cancerous tumours make eating impossible, leading to starvation. It’s estimated that DFTD has reduced the devil population by 80 per cent in Tasmania.

The largest of the carnivorous marsupials, the Tasmanian devil was officially declared an endangered species by the Australian government in 2008. To lose the devil to extinction would prove detrimental. Tasmanian devils play an important role within the Tasmanian landscape and specifically, its ecosystem. As such, one of the challenges for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is the management of the ecological impacts of a reduced devil population and the minimising of adverse repercussions.

Evidence verifies the consensus that feral cats and foxes are increasing in areas that have lost Tasmanian devils. The increase in these predators could lead to the demise of dozens of other species such as birds and lizards. “Many people think of devils as being scavengers. They are very opportunistic,” says Andrew. They are active predators, so they play an important role on top of the food chain… We feel that their role in suppressing feral cats and foxes is significant… The effect of the increase in the number of [these predators] on the landscape is significant to a whole range of different species, and agriculturally as well.”

Already, Australian farmers have noticed an increase in sheep flystrike in areas of reduced devil populations. Tasmanian devils decrease blow fly numbers by cleaning up carrion and dead animals from the landscape. “They have a positive influence on keeping flystrike down in sheep, reducing the amount of food available for flies, says Andrew. “So they keep the landscape a bit cleaner.”

Viewed as an iconic species in Tasmania, the devil’s loss would compromise Tasmania’s image as an environment rich in both natural resources and values. Explains Andrew, “The Tasmanian devil is so closely linked with the Tasmanian environment that not having them in the wild, perhaps more so in the psyche of the Tasmanian people, does detract from how we view the landscape.”

Attempts at saving a species such as the endangered Tasmanian devil require funding to adequately address the urgency of the situation. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program core activity is funded by the Australian and Tasmanian governments who have committed $25M for the five year period from 2008-2013. In early 2013, “Ideally, what we hope to do is develop a business case for a funding bid,” says Andrew. “We put that to the state and commonwealth governments to identify what the core costs will be for the program for those years.”

Coordination of the Program is achieved through the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, (DPIPWE). The Department also supports contributions and research from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, (CSIRO), and universities such as Queensland, Murdoch and Sydney to name a few.

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal, the fundraising arm of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, receives funding for project grants and scholarships through the Tasmanian Devil Research Advisory Committee in support of research, community and management programs. Other activities are funded through not for profit entities such as the Devil Island Project, “which has been very successful in raising funds to support the Program,” says Andrew. The Devil Island Project is 28 acres of private land donated to the Tasmanian government to enable a biosecure environment for disease-free devils to breed and thrive. Recently, the Maria Island Devil Relocation Project was approved by Parks and Wildlife Service to establish a healthy population of devils on the Island. Explains Andrew, “We have a well funded program that has given us the opportunity to put infrastructure and systems in place now. The expenditure has been larger up front for establishing strategies; hopefully, there are cost effective and sustainable strategies that can be funded in the future.”

Key strategies implemented by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program in hopes of ensuring the devil’s chances of survival include: population monitoring, disease diagnostics, wild management and insurance population. Maintaining an insurance population is probably the most significant of these strategies. An insurance population aims in securing healthy, genetically robust devils that may be reintroduced into the wild over the next 50 years. Currently, the Program has a number of captive breeding centres, including those in wildlife parks. Andrew enthusiastically adds, “We do have a disease free insurance population… we’re retaining 99 per cent genetic diversity within the population.”

Andrew also indicates that the insurance population will be expanded to include devil positioning into isolated landscapes and peninsulas to increase their numbers in a secure, disease-free state. He adds, “If those initiatives are completed by the end of 2013 that would be an outstanding achievement. It will put us in a position to say that we’ve secured the long term future for the devil.” Additionally, the insurance population can be exported to international institutions that would offer a positive conservation outcome and will “allow us to raise awareness and funds overseas for other activities of the program.”

Support continues to come in for the Program, both national and internationally. Copper Mines of Tasmania, (CMT), just recently donated 17 tons of used conveyor belt rubber, with a market value of $6000, not including cost of shipment and the labour involved to facilitate required lengths. The rubber will be used around captive breeding enclosures as barrier proofing along fence lines, blocking gaps caused by soil erosion.

Kong Dog Toy Company in Colorado, USA, has also recently donated the Kong Wobbler, a food filled toy for dogs, now used as an enrichment tool for devils in the captive management centre in Hobart. The toy encourages the devil’s natural foraging behaviour and stimulates mental activity – an important management tool for captive breeding.

Andrew remains optimistic about the Tasmanian devil’s survival as a species namely because, “The government funded the programs very quickly, identifying the key information that needed to be resolved… They put in place clear strategies such as the insurance population so that we don’t lose the Tasmanian devil as a species. We will be able to maintain the genetic diversity and maintain the species in captivity.”

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal continues to foster consultation and communication with stakeholders, both government and non-government. “It is our responsibility, when we are enabled by funding, to do our best to not make the situation any worse. Not acting is just as bad as doing something detrimental,” concludes Andrew.

To learn more about the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program or to donate visit: www.tassiedevil.com.au

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:43 AM AEDT