The following was published in The Weekend Australian of 5-6 November, 2016. A strong case for reintroducting the Tasmanian Devil to the Australian mainland.
Feeding time for Tasmanian Devils is a frenzied affair. A hind quarter of kangaroo is torn apart in minutes as a jumble of the energetic marsupial predators snarl and growl and snap at each other as they fight over titbits.
Dinner is swiftly dispatched. The animals behave as if starved, but the 160 devils at the Devil's Ark facility at Barrington Tops in the hinterland of the NSW Central Coast are well catered for, chomping their way through 75kg of kangaroo and rabbit daily.
In what looms as one of the most significant developments in natural history management in Australia since European settlement, preparations are being made for a trial introduction of Tasmanian Devils to the tall eucalypt forests and subalpine woodlands of the World Heritage-listed Barrington Tops area.
Victoria may join NSW in re-establishing the iconic marsupial in its natural role as a top-order native predator on the Australian mainland, where the species was widespread as recently as 1000 years ago: a relative microsecond in the history of evolution. Authorities in both states are keen for progress on the ground-breaking proposal.
The aggressive feeding behaviour of the Tasmanian Devil on display at Devil's Ark is responsible for the catastrophic decline in devil numbers in Tasmania. Over the 20 years since it was detected, the fatally contagious facial tumour disease, spread by animals biting each other during feeding, has wiped out more than 90 per cent of the state's devils.
There are indications that the tide in the war against facial tumour disease is turning, however. Work on a vaccine is progressing and animals in some places in Tasmania remain disease-free, sparking hope that populations may evolve genetically to resist the cancer.
Moreover, the mainland breeding program has been highly successful as devils breed freely in captivity. Reintroductions to the island from the mainland are under way. Last November, 23 animals from Devil's Ark were released on Tasmania's Tasman Peninsula; they are doing well, with three females breeding. Others have been released on Maria Island and elsewhere in Tasmania.
A question is now being asked. Feral cats and foxes are responsible for the extinction of about 30 mammal species in Australia and threaten many more. Devils are known to have kept cat numbers in check in Tasmania and are likely to have prevented foxes from gaining a foothold on the island. Why not restore the Tasmanian Devil to its natural place in the bushland of mainland Australia?
Devil's Ark, a project of the Australian Reptile Park near Sydney, is one of 36 mainland zoos and sanctuaries participating in the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. Disease-free animals from Tasmania are bred in captivity with the twin aims of re-introducing healthy animals to the island and establishing a second population on the mainland.
A disease-free mainland population will likely travel down a different evolutionary trajectory, providing insurance for the future of the species in case devils are ultimately unable to survive in Tasmania. Wildlife experts say there is no reason for a mainland population to remain exclusively in captivity.
Devil's Ark is the biggest and most successful of the facilities participating in the mainland program, with more than 200 joeys born since it was established with 44 animals in 2010. Operating on 500ha of land donated by the family of media mogul James Packer amid forest resembling the wilds of Tasmania, Devil's Ark is home to more than half the mainland insurance population. The facility plans to more than double its Tasmanian Devil population to 360 and is advocating a trial introduction of up to 30 to the wild in the Barrington Tops area.
With the species breeding prolifically in captivity, experts say there would be no difficulty supplying surplus devils for mainland reintroductions. Devils were probably wiped out on the mainland primarily by the spread of dingoes. Dingoes may have competed with devils for prey or introduced a disease that was fatal to the marsupials; it is no coincidence that the devil survived only in Tasmania, which was never colonised by dingoes.
Dingoes are largely absent these days from the two main sites being touted for reintroduction: Barrington Tops in NSW and Wilson's Promontory in Victoria. While both state governments are quietly supportive, Tasmania has legal ownership of all devils in the breeding program and signals it will try to block proposals for mainland reintroductions.
That's a mindset that needs to change, says Devil's Ark keeper Abe Tompkins. “Tasmania claims these animals as its own and wants to continue marketing them,” Tompkins says. “They need to understand that things have changed over the years and it's time for a change in the rules.”
Wildlife experts question why Tasmania should benefit exclusively from the substantial resources being expended on mainland breeding programs when there are powerful reasons for reintroductions in other states.
A paper prepared by a team of NSW experts says the devil could play a crucial role in controlling feral cats and foxes on the mainland. With their keen sense of smell, devils could track down and kill the young of foxes and cats in their dens. Says one of the paper's authors, University of Sydney professor of ecology Chris Dickman: “I would be extremely enthusiastic to see the Tasmanian Devil back on the mainland.”
The Devil's Ark animals are held in spacious enclosures but a large devil population will be housed next year in a newly fenced 500ha reserve of wet eucalypt forest. In 2018, under the trial proposal, between 24 and 30 devils of both sexes will be released in the wild in two or more areas around Barrington Tops. The sites would be selected to safeguard animals from motor vehicles; road kill is a major problem with devils reintroduced to Tasmania.
The Barrington Tops devils would be sterilised so a wild population could not be established if the experiment falters. The animals would be monitored using remote cameras and trapping to examine daily activity, movements and use of habitat. The trial would operate for three years, based on the life expectancy of the young adults that would be involved. If successful, fertile animals would then be released to establish self-sustaining, wild populations.
The trial would run as part of an expanded Aussie Ark project in the Barrington Tops. Free-ranging populations of other endangered mammals, such as the Eastern Quoll and Brush-tailed Bettong - once common in south-east Australia but now extinct in the region - would be kept in large, fenced enclosures of forest. Some may also eventually be reintroduced to the wild.
Proponents argue that in addition to the environmental benefits of containing feral predators on the mainland, reintroducing devils there would be a more cost-effective way of sustaining an insurance population than the existing captive breeding facilities, where each devil costs as much as $10,000. They say research personnel are in place at Devil's Ark to monitor a trial; that animals will be accustomed to the local climate and habitat; and that the project has strong backing from local communities. The Packer family has donated an extra 2000ha of forested land to help Devil's Ark.
The scope of trial reintroductions may be limited by funding restrictions: Devil's Ark operates on an annual budget of $330,000 raised through public donations.
In Victoria, state authorities have examined the prospects of reintroducing Tasmanian Devils to Wilson's Promontory National Park, which is isolated from the landmass of Victoria by a narrow isthmus, so animals could be contained during a trial. Zoos Victoria would oversee the project.
“We believe every humane and effective option needs to be explored in the fight to save the Tasmanian Devil from extinction,” says Zoos Victoria biologist Marissa Parrott. “We have looked at the feasibility of a mainland population where the disease does not occur in the belief that it may be needed in the future.”
Former federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt ignored a letter from 14 wildlife experts last November which said reintroducing devils to the mainland could address “environmental dysfunction” in Australia; provide a solution to the “seemingly inexorable threat” facing mainland wildlife; and save mainland states millions of dollars in environmental management costs. The letter suggests Canberra take over funding of Tasmania's expensive devil management program as a way of inducing the state to accept mainland reintroductions. The Devil's Ark board resolved this week to make a fresh approach to Hunt's successor, Josh Frydenberg.
The Tasmanians are unmoved. Tasmanian Environment Minister Matthew Groom maintains there is no need for mainland reintroductions because the species is longer at risk of extinction. “There is now a wealthy, genetically diverse population of more than 700 animals housed in both captive and semi-wild establishments around the country that are isolated from the disease,” Groom says.
“The focus of the Save the Tasmanian Devil program is about securing the future of the devil where in belongs – in the wild in Tasmania. Consistent with that, the Tasmanian Government does not support any proposal to release devils into the wild on the mainland.”
Australian Reptile Park manager Tim Faulkner believes that attitude could endanger the future of the species in the wild. “By having two geographically isolated colonies of devils, in Tasmania and on the mainland, devils have a higher chance of avoiding an extinction event,” Faulkner says. “People should worry less about losing the devil from Tasmania and more about losing it from the entire planet.”
|Tim Faulkner with Tasmanian Devil: Pic The Australian|
Tasmania has declared that the Tasmanian Devil is no longer threatened with extinction by the deadly facial tumour disease.
The declaration by the Tasmanian Government, in a statement to The Weekend Australian, was made in response to mounting pressure for the reintroduction of the iconic marsupial predator to the wild on the mainland.
Researchers are planning a trial release of up to 30 devils in the forests of the Barrington Tops in NSW. Another introduction is under consideration on Wilson's Promontory in Victoria.
The Tasmanian Devil was once native to the mainland but disappeared between 1,000 and 4,000 years ago when it was displaced by the dingo, which never reached Tasmania.
The Australian Reptile Park near Sydney and its Devil's Ark project on the Barrington Tops, which houses more than half the mainland's “insurance” population of 300 Tasmanian Devils, are spearheading the push for reintroducing the species to the mainland.
Proponents of a trial reintroduction, proposed to be launched in 2018, say re-establishing the devil as a top-order native predator on the mainland would be an effective means of controlling feral cats and foxes, which have wiped out 30 native mammal species and threaten many more.
They argue that a wild mainland population would be further insurance against the extinction of the species in the wild, with Tasmanian animals remaining under threat.
The mainland captive breeding population was established in response to the facial tumour disease, a contagious cancer that has killed 90 percent of Tasmania's wild devils.
The governments of NSW and Victoria are quietly supportive of trial reintroductions but they are opposed by Tasmania, which legally owns the mainland animals and jealously guards its claim to sole possession of the species.
In a letter last November to Devil's Ark manager Tim Faulkner, Tasmanian Environment Minister Matthew Groom warned that Tasmania would block mainland reintroductions.
“I continue to be concerned that activities outside the program create a risk of diverting valuable resources from the conservation effort, and weaken the broad community support that exists for the insurance population initiative,” Mr Groom wrote.
However, Mr Groom has now declared that mainland reintroductions are not necessary because the devil is no longer threatened in Tasmania.
“I am pleased to report that extinction of the species is no longer considered likely,” Mr Groom said in his statement to The Weekend Australian.
Contradicting a widely held view, Mr Groom insisted there had been “no local extinctions” of wild devils in Tasmania. He said remnant populations and genetic diversity were being boosted by introductions from captive breeding programs in all states.
“The focus of the Save the Tasmanian Devil program is about securing the future of the devil where it belongs – in the wild in Tasmania. Consistent with that, the government does not support any proposal to release devils into the wild on the mainland.”
Devil's Ark's Tim Faulkner said Tasmania's position was contradictory. “According to the minister, a year ago the situation was dire and mainland releases would detract from Tasmania's initiatives,” Mr Faulkner said.
“Now he is portraying everything as being rosy. As good as things are in Tasmania, they’re still fragile. Things could accelerate rapidly for the worse.
“A mainland reintroduction achieves two things: a more robust population away from the disease but more importantly, natural control measures to protect native species from feral pests on the mainland.”