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Tasmanian devils sent to Far North Queensland as part of effort to help save species from facial tumor disease

Far North Queensland may be an unusual location for a mammal that usually lives amongst the snow-capped peaks of Tasmania, but Rainforest Station in Kuranda has just taken possession of three male Tasmanian devil joeys.

Even though they are thousands of kilometers from Tasmania, the joeys are playing their part in the conservation of one of Australia’s most vulnerable mammals.

Wildlife team leader at Rainforest Station David Kelly said that the joeys can adapt to the tropics.

“The three joeys were born in captivity at the Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo.” he said.

“They are brothers, and they had their first birthday at the end of March, so they are young and vibrant and full of energy.

“We have plenty of ways for them to keep cool including fans, mist and ponds, which they love playing in.”

Rainforest Station’s David Kelly in front of the home for the three new Tasmanian Devil joeys.(ABC Far North: Phil Brandel)

The three joeys are part of the program that is hoping to replenish the species’ numbers after the emergence of devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), which was discovered in 1996.

Once the cancer has become visible, it is almost always fatal.

It has been estimated the Tasmanian devil population declined by as much as 80-90 per cent since the discovery of the disease.

“They are part of a breeding program currently running in captive facilities around Australia to help protect and conserve the devils who have had a pretty tough time over the past few decades,” Mr Kelly said.

Mr Kelly said Far North Queensland was favorable due to its isolation.

“When the captive breeding program was set up it was important that captive devils were isolated from one another so that if disease got into a captive population, we didn’t lose all the populations,” he said.

It is all in the genes

According to the Australasian Species Management Program (ASMP) studbook; “It requires certain animals to breed in order to maintain diversity of the captive population. Breeding is controlled by removing all males from social groupings, prior to the onset of submissive behaviour, in early March.”

“All captive Tasmanian devils have had their DNA mapped which is then stored and used later for the captive breeding program,” Mr Kelly said.

“One day we may get a call saying one of your boys would be a good match for a female devil down south, so we would send him there to breed.”

A Tasmanian devil getting ready to bite into a piece of raw meat
One of the Tasmanian devil joeys emerges for a bite to eat.(ABC Far North: Phil Brandel)

devil numbers

Dr Carolyn Hogg from the University of Sydney is also the co-lead of the Australasian Wildlife Genomics group, and she says that genes and captive populations are the key to saving the Tasmanian Devil from extinction.

“The Menzies Medical Research Institute in Tasmania is making a great headway in getting a working vaccine for FTD,” she said.

“But in the interim that is why we have the insurance population and other measures to keep Tasmanian devils from disappearing.”

Close up of Tasmanian devil with facial tumor
A Tasmanian Devil with the fatal Facial Tumor Disease which they pass to each other through biting.(Supplied: Rodrigo Hamede )

Dr Hogg said that wild populations of Tasmanian devils were at about 90 per cent below what they were before 1996.

“There are only two disease-free areas in Tasmania,” Dr Hogg said.

“The captive breeding program was essential when we didn’t know much about the disease in the early 2000s

“Since then, we do know a lot more about the disease, but we haven’t been able to eradicate it in the wild.”

DFTD not the only pressure devils are facing

“Devils are now living in much smaller populations, so they are now more susceptible to other threatening processes such as dogs, roadkill and small population pressures,” Dr Hogg said.

“That is why keeping an insurance population is still important.”

While Far North Queensland may not be the traditional home of Tasmanian devils, Dr Hogg said that every small population helps.

“These zoos are provided to committing space and opportunities, so that we can house some devils before moving them back for breeding.

She said it was a great opportunity for the people of Far North Queensland to see a devil and “be educated about what is happening”.

“Not just to devils but to a lot of native species and the declines that have been caused by different threatening processes.”

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