Devil of a disease

From Ecos Magazine, 25 February 2013:

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone involved with saving the Tasmanian devil could find much cause for optimism. Devil numbers are plummeting so drastically that if nothing is done, they could become extinct in the wild within two decades. But conservation efforts recently reached a significant milestone that may yet snatch the devil from the jaws of extinction.

The disease behind this wipeout – devil facial tumour disease – has baffled researchers with its ability to evade the devils’ immune systems and kill every animal it infects. While there are small pockets of disease-free devil populations left in Tasmania, the disease continues its unstoppable march of destruction across the island, advancing around 5-7 kilometres each year.

But there is still a sense of hope amongst devil researchers. For perhaps the first time since the disease was discovered in 1996, conservation efforts have achieved a significant victory with the establishment of a large, genetically diverse insurance population of captive devils in zoos and wildlife institutions around Australia.

‘We can be confident that we’re not going to see extinction of the Tasmanian devil because we’ve got this insurance population – it’s well maintained, it’s genetically representative of the wild population,’ said Dr Phil Bell, manager of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

‘It just gives us that degree of confidence and freedom now to think about how we approach other aspects, how we manage the disease and how we manage the animals in the wild.’

The captive insurance population consists of 500 disease-free devils representative of the genetic diversity of devils in the wild. The idea is that these captive animals can preserve the gene pool until such time as it is safe to release them back into the wild. (Interestingly, according to research published last year involving the University of Tasmania’s Dr Menna Jones, the species had a naturally low genetic diversity before the disease appeared, another possible factor contributing to the current crisis.)

Already animals from the captive insurance population have been relocated to a disease-free new home in the wild. In November last year, a small group was transferred to Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania. The island has the ideal habitat for devils, although until now has lacked a native population of these animals. Read more.

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