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Tasmanian Devils fight hardest battle yet

By Colin Ricketts - 05 Oct 2011 13:21:0 GMT
Tasmanian Devils fight hardest battle yet

Given a ferociously funny second life as a cartoon character, one of Australia's most iconic animals the Tasmanian Devil could vanish in the next quarter of a century according to new research which despairs of defeating a form of cancer that is spreading in the wild. Writing in the British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, scientists Nick Beeton from the University of Tasmania and Professor Hamish McCallum of Griffith University, warn that the facial tumour is so widespread that culling infected animals is no longer an option.

While culling of diseased livestock is a relatively common agricultural practice, it remains controversial where wild animals are concerned. The culling of badgers in the UK to stop the spread of bovine TB has been the subject of heated debate for decades both on moral grounds and because opponents argue it is ineffective.

In Tasmania, cull trials have been used to try to tackle the infection on the isolated Forestier Peninsula, but failed to halt the spread of Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). Tasmanian Devils have a ferocious reputation and, indeed, DFTD is spread when animals bite each other during mating.

Beeton and McCallum tested what would happen if culling were stepped up, but found that so many animals would have to be killed it was not a practical proposition. Beeton said: "For all the models we used, we found the removal rate required to suppress disease was higher than that which would be feasible in the field. Disease suppression can only work if you can catch enough of the infected animals in the population to make sure the disease won't bounce back. Our models show that even for a trappable animal like the Tasmanian devil, catching enough of them to eradicate disease is a tall order."

The position of the devil is such that there is now an Australian and Tasmanian state government campaign: Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which will now consider alternative methods to keep the animal going in the wild.

Vaccines are a long shot according to McCallum and the best hope seems to lie in finding those populations which have a natural resistance to the disease or establishing and releasing into the wild disease free captive devils.

Beeton added: "It is important also to establish disease-free wild living populations on islands or in very large fenced landscapes. Wild animals are more suitable for reintroduction to the Tasmanian mainland if needed."

Top Image Credit: Tasmanian Devil © ozflash

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