Are Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) doomed to extinction in the wild? The infectious cancer known as devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) has killed off as much as 90 percent of the world's Tasmanian devils since it was first observed in 1996 (up from 70 percent when we last wrote about the species nine months ago). Scientists now estimate that only 2,000 of these iconic creatures remain in the wild.
DFTD is highly infectious. Once it appears, the cancer destroys the animal's mouth, filling it with tumors that make it impossible for the animal to eat. Starvation and death follow within three to six months. Transmission is easy, because devils frequently bite one another on the mouth during mating or while fighting for territory.
No DFTD cure or vaccine exists, despite intensive research to try to stop the spread of the disease. It has apparently now mutated into 13 different strains, according to a report from Sky News.
Right now, the animals' only hope lies in isolating disease-free captive populations. A few such sanctuaries have been built in the last couple of years. The newest of these isn't even on the island of Tasmania: The 500-hectare Devil Ark in Barrington Tops opens this week in mainland Australia, and could eventually house up to 1,000 devils. The first 15—five males and 10 females—arrived at the new conservation site on Tuesday.
Devil Ark founder John Weigel told the Newcastle Herald that only the first stage of the project has been funded, and more money will be necessary to keep it operational and build more housing for additional devils. The first $350,000 to fund the program was allocated through the Australian government's Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which also provided grants to two programs on Tasmania.
Australia's Healesville Sanctuary, located 65 kilometers from Melbourne, already has one of the world's the largest breeding populations of captive Tasmanian devils, with 66 healthy (DFTD-free) animals. The sanctuary had 24 devil births last year and hopes to increase its population to 120 animals by the end of 2012. The devils at the site are all kept in pens, although larger, free-range enclosures are being built.
''If we keep on breeding these guys and maintaining their genetic diversity, we will hopefully be able to release them back into Tasmania one day,'' Healesville's Annalise McLeish told The Age. ''If they do become extinct in the wild, the idea is that those in captivity can go in and get the population up and running again.''
One can hope.
Image: Tasmanian devil afflicted with devil facial tumor disease, via Wikimedia Commons