Devil refugees make Maria Island home
So read a text from devil team member Phil Wise minutes before the first of 15 healthy Tasmanian devils was freed into the wilds of Maria Island last November as part of the program to save the species from the deadly Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
The successful release was the culmination of three years of careful planning and preparation under the $480,000 Maria Island Translocation Project, arguably Australia’s most ambitious species translocation, which aims to establish a self-sustaining population of up to 120 devils on the island. Another 35 DFTD-free devils will be let loose on Maria in the future to complete the foundation of a breeding population.
The 9000ha island is a National Park and has never had devils. Most importantly it is free of DFTD, a unique, highly contagious cancer that spreads when devils bite one another on the face whilst mating or fighting and is invariably fatal. The disease has spread across most of Tasmania, wiping out about 85 percent of wild devils, and experts fear that the iconic endemic species, the world’s largest marsupial carnivore, is on the brink of extinction.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has removed hundreds of healthy devils from the wild and placed them in quarantine stations, zoos, wildlife parks and natural free-range enclosures in an attempt to create a breeding and viable insurance population. It currently numbers about 500 devils, providing a source of animals for future reintroductions in Tasmania and helping to secure the survival of the species.
The Maria Island release was a significant milestone for all involved in the Translocation Project, including staff from the Program, Parks and Wildlife Service, and others from the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. It was the first of several joint state-federal projects aimed at maintaining healthy devils in the wild, with plans also progressing to isolate healthy wild insurance populations on the Tasman, Forestier and Freycinet peninsulas, keeping out diseased devils with barriers.
The rationale of the projects is that the Maria devils and others roaming free in their natural environment are more likely than captive animals to retain the behaviours necessary to function competently in the wild. This makes them the ideal animals to repopulate Tasmania after the disease is either overcome or eliminates the species.
The 15 Maria Island pioneer animals were selected from the insurance population based on their genetic stock and behaviour, as well as their age, sex and breeding status to provide the best candidates for both survival and breeding potential. They could not be too closely related. Most were young, one to two year old devils of both sexes but there were several three to four year old males because female devils prefer to mate with older males. Seven came from the Program’s captive management facility at Taroona, while the others came from the Tasmanian Free Range Enclosures – five from Freycinet and three from Bridport.
In the preceding month, the selected devils underwent behavioural tests (to ensure their tendency to avoid humans) and were checked for pathogens and diseases. Five of the devils were also fitted with radio tracking collars so that their movement can be monitored remotely in the first few months after their release. In the week prior to their introduction to Maria Island, the selected devils received a special diet to eliminate internal parasites. They were also given a final health and biosecurity check on the morning of the release.
The animals were transported in cylindrical plastic containers via open-backed vehicles and boat to the remote release site on Maria Island. They were grouped separately for the release according to their captive origin so as to provide a degree of familiarity and to help reduce stress immediately after they were set free. All were allowed to leave the containers at their own will, undisturbed by humans. While most left quickly, a few remained in their containers for longer; staying hidden and motionless until evening. A few were spotted post release, rambling through the bracken and undergrowth, familiarising themselves with their new environment.
The establishment of the population on Maria Island will be the subject of ongoing monitoring by the Program in coming months. Information regarding their distribution and use of habitat, as well as individual health and breeding status will be collected via trapping, visual observations, remote cameras and radio-tracking. This will help inform decisions regarding subsequent devil releases, planned for next year. Supplementary feeding of the devils will be undertaken if necessary.
There has been concern from various sources about negative impacts on other species on Maria Island, which have never known Tasmanian Devils, but 18 months of impact assessments as part of the project suggested there would be no significant impacts and devil numbers will be reduced if monitoring pointed to serious problems.
Tasmania Online | Service Tasmania
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