The Devil's Advocates

Article excerpt

Beelzebub's pup, the diabolical bear, satanic meat-lover. Dogged by a series of spine-chilling names, the Tasmanian devil has long had a woeful public image. But when news came to light that the species was facing extinction from a mysterious facial cancer, scientists from across the state rushed to its defence. Jo Sargent travels to Tasmania to meet the people battling to bring the world's largest marsupial carnivore back from the brink

Pulling out a pocketknife, Geoff King reaches down and deftly slits the roadkilled pademelon from gullet to groin. As the wallaby's innards spill out onto the warm ground, he slips a rope around its throat and hitches it to the back of his track. We head off clown the makeshift track, the carcass bumping along behind us.

We eventually draw to a halt beside the small wooden hut that will be our base for the night. Untying the battered pademelon. King stakes it out on the ground. Scent trail laid and bait in place. we head into the hut to watch and wait.

An alarming discovery

Geoff King's family have been farming in Marrawah, a township on Tasmania's northwestern tip, since the 1880s. In 1997, aware of the impact his 336-hectare cattle farm was having on the local landscape, King made the decision to turn it into a wildlife sanctuary. Now, five nights a fortnight, he brings out here to his 'devil restaurant' for the chance to see Tasmanian devils feeding in the wild, which is dominated by coastal heath, is perfect for devils. And in this isolated bay, we stand a far better chance of seeing one than we would elsewhere in Tasmania, because the once-abundant marsupial is under threat, its numbers cut by two thirds in just ten years.

The first inkling that the species was in trouble came in 1996, when Dutch photographer Christo Baars made an alarming discovery. Working in Mount William National Park on Tasmania's northeastern coast, he photographed devils suffering from gaping facial sores.

Initially, Baars' reports of a mysterious devil disease received a muted response, but it soon became clear that this wasn't an isolated incident--farmers elsewhere in the northeast reported that devil numbers were dropping, and an increasing number of those killed on the roads exhibited similar facial lesions. But it wasn't until marsupial specialist Menna Jones encountered her first infected animal in Freycinet National Park in 2001 that things really began to gain pace.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), as the infection was eventually named. is an overwhelmingly visual disease, causing bloody, festering tumours on an affected animal's face. It initially manifests itself as a series of lesions or small lumps around the mouth that quickly develop into full-blown tumours. These spread to cover large portions of the devil's face and neck, making it increasingly difficult for it to feed. Most infected animals die within three to eight months of the lesions' appearance, primarily due to starvation.

Jones was understandably horrified by what she saw. She contacted local vets, who confirmed that devil numbers had been declining for several years. By 2003, her research had confirmed that numbers were crashing dramatically. A year later, it was apparent that the disease was present in devil populations throughout the eastern half of Tasmania.

Backed by evidence of the disease's spread, Jones secured AU$1.8million (0.7million [pounds sterling]) of government funding to investigate further. At the end of 2003, she helped to establish the Devil Disease Project Team (DDPT), which is broken up into three sectors--pathology, monitoring and management.

The search for answers

Clare Hawkins, the head of the monitoring team, is trapping devils across the state in an attempt to establish the distribution of the disease and its potential impact. "We've got trapping sites that we keep coming back to, to see if numbers are changing and how they relate to the presence of the disease and the timing of its first sighting in the area," she explains. …