Tasmanian Devils at Devil Ark, Barrington Tops, NSW

The Australian Reptile Park in Somersby, NSW has teamed up with leading conservation organisations to develop Devil Ark which is being build in the Barrington Tops of NSW and will provide a major component of a coordinated Australia-wide Tasmanian devil breeding program. From an initial founding group of 48 Tasmanian devils scheduled to arrive at the facility in November, a captive bred population of 360 devils is anticipated by 2016. A second stage of the development will see the population increased to 900 Tasmanian devils by 2020.

The Tasmanian devil is suffering a dramatic population decline due to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) – a rare contagious cancer that threatens the survival of one of the world’s most charismatic animal species. DFTD began affecting the devil population of northeast Tasmania from the mid-1990s. The rate of decline in devil numbers has accelerated as the disease front marches westward. In the last four years the total devil population has crashed from about 60% of the pre-disease estimates, to less than 20% of the pre-disease population at the end of 2009. Despite the continuing efforts of researchers, veterinarians, and government agencies to find a solution to the problem, there remains little cause for optimism for the future of the Tasmanian devil beyond the establishment of a large-scale breeding program away from the disease.

Since the development of the Devil Ark concept in 2006, the managers of the Australian Reptile Park, in partnership with the Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species (FAME) have been busy working with a range of partners and stakeholders to bring about the physical creation of one of the most ambitious breeding programs for an endangered predator species ever undertaken.

The Zoo and Aquarium Association and the Tasmanian Government ‘Save the Tasmanian Devil Program’ (STTDP) first partnered in 2004 and have been working toward ensuring the persistence the Tasmanian devil. A long-term strategy was developed to establish and maintain an ‘insurance population’ of disease-free Tasmanian Devils to safeguard against their demise in the wild. The Devil Ark Project, which is an exciting development in expanding this strategy, has secured funding, with work on its construction to begin imminently.

The Barrington Tops location is absolutely ideal for the project and the 350 ha site has a similar climate and vegetation to that found in Tasmania.

Devilish Facts:

  • ‘Tasmanian’ devils were widespread and common on the mainland of Australia until the introduction of the dingo some 3,000 years ago. Populations of devils persevered in cooler NSW locations, possibly including the Barrington Tops region until approximately 400 years ago.
  • DFTD is one of the only cancers known to spread as a contagious disease. The cancer is spread from devil to devil primarily through biting. Transmitted tumour cells are not rejected by the recipient animal’s immune system.
  • DFTD cannot be spread to any species other than the Tasmanian devil. It is one of only two diseases involving ‘infectious’ cancer cells – the other one is a venereal disease affecting dogs and foxes.
  • All of the Tasmanian devils maintained on the mainland as part of the Insurance Population are DFTD-free. All founders must pass through a strict quarantine process in Tasmania prior to importation.
  • The unfolding demise of the Tasmanian devil has exceeded ‘normal’ worst-case epidemics and continues to do so. Its status as an endangered species has been designated only recently: in Tasmanian legislation in 2008, and nationally and internationally in 2009.
  • Within a decade of the detection of DFTD in the northeast of Tasmania, the devil population had decreased to 60% of the original population. By late 2009 devil numbers had plummeted to a level equivalent to 20% of the original (pre-disease) level – with no sign of a slowing down of the crash.
  • Although there is hope that genetically resistant Tasmanian devils may exist in the few areas where the disease has not yet struck, the infectious tumour cells causing DFTD are mutating and in effect adapting to ‘local conditions’ as the disease ravages across the island State – perhaps more quickly than any sort of natural resistance will be able to cope with. It is
  • Losing the devil from the Tasmanian environment would open the way for feral pests, including foxes and cats, to proliferate in the arising ecological vacuum to mainland proportions, thereby putting at risk numerous native animal species that have already succumbed to extinction or dramatic decline on the mainland because of fox and cat predation.
  • Despite extensive ongoing research into the disease and its transmission, there is no level of confidence that any sort of cure will be found soon enough to matter, and there is now wide agreement that an ‘insurance population’ of Tasmanian devils on the mainland should be established as the highest priority.

The Devil’s in the details – more about Devil Ark:

  • The Devil Ark website provides considerable additional background on the project at www.devilark.com.au
  • The overarching program that Devil Ark operates within is the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STTDP) – an initiative of the Tasmanian government.
  • The Devil Ark concept was developed by Australian Reptile Park Director John Weigel in consultation with the Australian Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) in early 2006, before being formally presented at the four-day Tasmanian Devil IUCN workshop held in Hobart in July, 2008.
  • The provision of relatively natural conditions at Devil Ark will provide a range of advantages to the devils – biologically, behaviourally, and reproductively.
  • The greatest practical advantage offered by Devil Ark is the dramatic cost efficiency achieved. The annual maintenance cost per devil at Devil Ark will be less than $900 per year, a dramatic improvement over the existing costs that zoos are incurring in the present one-devil-per-pen ‘intensive’ breeding component of the program – which range from a low of $4,000 per year at the Australian Reptile Park, to as much as $20,000 per devil per year at participating statutory zoos.
  • The facility will be initially seeded with a combination of wild-caught devils from Tasmania and zoo-bred young animals in late 2010. The individual pens will be escape proof, and the entire breeding compound will be surrounded by a high-security feral animal proof fence that is also devil-escape proof.
  • An initial carrying capacity of 360 Tasmanian devils will be adjusted upwards to as many as 1,500 devils, at the direction of the program manager – STTDP.
  • The Tasmania-like climate and complex bushland habitat of the site provides an ideal environment for the devils – which will be maintained in small groups in spacious breeding pens. The facility will be will be contained within an electrified feral animal proof perimeter fence.
  • The lifespan of Devil Ark will depend upon what happens in the wild population in Tasmania. When appropriate, perhaps only after total extinction in the wild, the insurance population devils will be translocated to targeted areas in Tasmania for release.

Information provided by

Marilyn Scott
Snake Ranch Pty Ltd

Related posts:

  1. Devils@Cradle, Tasmanian Devil Sanctuary, Cradle Mountain
  2. Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, Taranna, Tasmania
  3. Tasmania Zoo, Devils Heaven, Launceston Lakes
  4. Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, Brighton, Tasmania
  5. Trowunna Wildlife Park, Mole Creek, Tasmania

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