The Devil of a Problem

26 05 2009

Tasmanian devil

             “Psst…gimme 5 bucks and I’ll dish the dirt on Bugs’ carrot dependency.”

My head is like a refrigerator. Not because it’s square, white and cold – which it is, especially in winter – but because it’s a great place to stick lists.

One of the most frequently consulted of these is the one that details the places I most want to visit. Some are fairly easy and inexpensive to reach, others will likely remain unfulfilled for quite sometime due to cost or difficulty. Some are there because of an appetite for the untouched – like Angola or the Northwest Passage. Others for culture – like Vietnam and Cambodia. While another good chunk have earned their positions on my list because they are home to wildlife that I would really like to see. These could be creatures that have long been of interest – like orcas or orangutans – or because they are endangered and I want to see them while I still can, like tigers or polar bears. Sadly, the endangered list has a new member today: the Tasmanian Devil.

Late last week, the Australian government upgraded the devil from vulnerable to endangered. This change not only assures that the small marsupial gets greater legal protection and increased funding, but is also an indication of the challenges that the species is currently facing.

Just over ten years ago, scientists on the island state of Tasmania discovered a disease ravaging their most famous animal. The disease was diagnosed as a form of cancer which spreads through bites and causes grotesque facial tumours which prevent the devils from eating and eventually kills them. Since 1996, the island has lost more than 70% of its devil population and scientists are struggling to prevent it from wiping out the wild species entirely.

Tasmania is the only place where the creatures live in the wild. Aggressive captive breeding programmes have been introduced in zoos on the Australian mainland in an effort to prevent the species from becoming extinct and with the hope of reintroducing them into the wild at a later date. In Tasmania itself, efforts are underway to protect isolated populations of devils which have so far remained unaffected by the rampant disease.

Visitors to Tasmania have long sought glimpses of the devil. Although not quite as ferocious as their Looney Tunes’ namesake, the devils do possess powerful jaws and a terrifying growl. While extremely violent amongst themselves, they pose little threat to humans, and many local tour operators offer night-time excursions into the bush hoping to spot the shy and elusive animals. For many visitors, such a sighting usually ranks amongst the highlights of their trips.

Today, these opportunities are obviously more limited than before but places do still exist where the chance of a sighting is still quite good…and some of these reinvest the proceeds from tourism into conservation programmes.

A decade ago the thought that the Tasmanian Devil might be wiped out within our lifetime was unthinkable. Although there is nothing yet to suggest that their plight can be tied to human encroachment or Global Warming, it is a sobering example of just how vulnerable our Home Planet and all of its species truly are.

Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2009

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