Fighting for the Tasmanian devil: photos, video

With casuarina trees whipping in the wind above him David Pemberton pointed towards a spread of grey-coloured animal scats, filled with little white shards of bone. 

This is a Tasmanian Devil latrine, the Save the Tasmanian Devil manager explained.

It is where many devils come to deposit their scats, acting like a visitor book of sorts letting devils know who else has come by in the night. 

“It’s a key lesson or example of how socially conscious [devils] are, they want to know who else is around,” Dr Pemberton said.

"Osprey" the Tasmanian devil getting a check-up. Pictures: Neil Richardson

"Osprey" the Tasmanian devil getting a check-up. Pictures: Neil Richardson

Since the release of 33 devils in the North East in May there has been a team from Save the Tasmanian Devil permanently stationed at the Parks and Wildlife house in Mount William National Park.

They have been monitoring the released devils daily using a range of technologies and methods, including GPS tracking, bush cameras, VHS tracking and setting traps. 

As part of the relocation of the devils, which were from Maria Island, the team laid their scats at the latrines, to “introduce” them to the incumbent devils. 

Since researchers first came to the Wukalina/Mount William area 20 years ago the population of devils has nose-dived to just 10 to 20 per cent of original numbers. 

Where once the population of devils numbered around 200, it now sits at around 20.

The rapid decline in the population is due to the rise of the deadly Devil Facial Tumor Disease, Dr Pemberton said. 

Dr Pemberton said the disease is now a part of the devil’s ecology, and is something that needs to be managed into the future.

The Wild Devil Recovery Trial is working to ensure Tasmanian devils continue to survive outside captivity.

Teams are learning the best methods to translocate devils back to the wild.  

Dr Pemberton said a wild population of devils is important for two reasons: genetic diversity and ecosystem impact. 

Ensuring genetic diversity in devils is vital in avoiding in-breeding and giving the animals the best chance of success.

“We can’t eradicate [DFTD], evolution might. To give evolution a chance you want genetic diversity and you want numbers, with those two in tandem then who knows what can evolve,” Dr Pemberton said.

The other key work of the trial is to reduce the impacts the loss of devils has on the entire ecosystem. 

The loss of such a large chunk of the devil population affects much more than just the animals themselves, it has ripple effects right down the chain. 

Such an example is the brush-tailed possum, a favourite food of devils, which has seen population booms following devil decline. 

Where once possums in the open were vulnerable to attack, Dr Pemberton said in recent times he has gone into a paddock and seen “a possum on every fence post”.

“The simplest way to treat that conundrum and that problem is to get [devil] numbers back up in the wild and let devils do what they’re designed to do.” 

The post-release monitoring of the devils has shown they are settling in well.

Each time devils are released, the team gathers important information about which methods secure the best results, and this has paid off in the most recent release.

White cylindrical traps are loaded on the back of a ute, the final preparations for the team heading out to check the monitoring traps. 

With the slamming of doors and the growl of an engine they are off to see if they caught any devils overnight. 

Just an hour later the call comes through, they’ve got a devil at Cape Portland, 45 minutes away. 

Tasmanian devils have an extensive range, they can travel up to 20 kilometres in a night, and tracking has shown many of the released devils have roamed far. 

Just as people do, in their travels devils use roads as the most efficient means of getting from A to B, which puts them at risk of becoming road kill.

At key points along the road, small plastic boxes about the size of a glasses case are fixed to posts. They are virtual fences that emit a blue light and loud noise when car headlights land on them, warning devils about the oncoming traffic.

These have been overwhelmingly effective, with none of the recently released devils succumbing to roadkill so far. 

At Cape Portland wildlife biologist Drew Lee worked with Jodie Elmer to carefully transfer the caught devil into a brown hessian bag. 

Mr Lee said they use the white tubular traps as they are less stressful for the animals than traditional wire traps. 

The white traps are less stressful for devils than traditional wire traps.

The white traps are less stressful for devils than traditional wire traps.

They found devils in wire traps would try to bite their way out, often causing damage and even losing their teeth. 

In contrast, devils are usually curled up asleep in the end of the modern traps, he said. 

Mr Lee attached a set of scales to the hessian bag, lifting it devil and all into the air. 

“Seven point zero kilograms,” he read to Mrs Elmer who was taking notes on a clipboard. 

Sitting down Mr Lee placed the bag on his lap, opening it just enough to reveal the top of the devils head. 

It was a new devil to the team, not one they have released or trapped before. That’s exciting. 

Mr Lee then took a blood sample for testing while he explained, “The only way we can pick up a tumor is when we see it.”

As DFTD doesn’t ignite an immune response in the devils they are not able to test for this in the blood, making early detection difficult. 

A microchip was then attached to the devil, so researchers know when they come across it again. 

Next a pair of calipers were used to measure the devils head width, which reveal its sex and age. 

A check over of Osprey shows a devil in good health.

A check over of Osprey shows a devil in good health.

The prognosis is a one-year-old female. 

Pulling her snout out of the bag a check of her teeth revealed an impressive set of ivory fangs bedded in pink gums. 

Mr Lee then flipped her over, her spiky black tail poking out of the bag, and checked her pouch for babies. 

“One, two, three… four,” he counted out as he spotted the little pink young. 

Three little pouch young are discovered in Osprey's pouch.

Three little pouch young are discovered in Osprey's pouch.

Devils are able to reach sexual maturity in their first year, and their ability to breed while still so young is helping the species continue. 

“[Tasmanian devils] are persisting ... they are tough and tenacious and they are breeding young and that's what's making this happen,” Dr Pemberton said. 

“DFTD kills them, but some of the mums wean their young before they die and those young breed.

“Because they can breed young they are surviving in the wild.”

All that was left was to name the young mum, they’re running with the theme of birds.

Osprey. 

Devil populations have plummeted, here Save the Tasmanian Devil manager David Pemberton points out a devil den.

Devil populations have plummeted, here Save the Tasmanian Devil manager David Pemberton points out a devil den.

The check-up was a success; a young female devil with four babies (the maximum a devil can support) who was in excellent health. 

“Because there’s such a surplus of food it’s a great place to be a devil out here,” Mr Lee said. 

Kneeling, Mr Lee opened the bag. Osprey took a few tentative steps out of the hessian sack before making a break for it.

Running into the bush, she was gone. 

While the rise of DFTD has had a significant impact on Tasmanian devil populations, the evidence is they continue to persist. 

This can in large part be credited to the work of an international team, who all work to improve our understanding of the disease, develop vaccines and create insurance populations. 

People like the very dedicated Save the Tasmanian Devil team, who get up at 5am in the dark and cold to translocate devils to a new home and then spend weeks tirelessly monitoring their progress. 

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