Tasmanian devils, the carnivorous marsupials whose feisty, frenzied eating habits won them Looney Tunes cartoon fame, have returned to mainland Australia for the first time in 3,000 years.
“Seeing those devils released into a wild landscape — it’s a really emotional moment,” said Liz Gabriel, director of the conservation group Aussie Ark, which led the release effort in partnership with other organizations.
The 11 most recently released devils began exploring their new home once they were freed from cages at the nearly 1,000-acre Barrington Tops wildlife refuge about 120 miles north of Sydney, in the state of New South Wales.
Tasmanian devils — once called Sarcophilus satanicus, or “satanic flesh-lover” — went extinct in mainland Australia before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. Scientists believe that a surge in the indigenous human population, the introduction of carnivorous dingoes and a devastating dry season caused by a prolonged El Nino forced the animals to migrate to present-day Tasmania, said University of Tasmania ecologist Menna Jones.
“I think any one of those three factors alone probably wouldn’t have caused extinction, but the three of them together likely caused the devil to become extinct on the mainland,” she said.
Tasmanian devils have been protected in Australia since 1941, and conservationists have worked to bolster their populations for years, citing their importance as top predators who can suppress invasive species — such as foxes and feral cats — and in turn protect smaller species and biodiversity.
One of the biggest blows to conservation efforts came in the 1990s when a communicable cancer called devil facial tumor disease, which passes between the animals through bites while mating and causes large tumors that prevent them from eating, reduced the population from about 140,000 to as few as 20,000.
In response, researchers established a protected population of cancer-free devils in quasi-wild enclosures on the island state of Tasmania. The releases in July and September are the first time that the squat mammals have been released on the mainland in a protected wild landscape. All those released have tested negative for the contagious cancer.
Gabriel said Aussie Ark aims for Tasmanian devils eventually to live in non-protected areas in mainland Australia, with the hope that they contribute to keeping cat and fox populations under control.
Some experts question whether the introduction will achieve that.
Nick Mooney, a conservationist who has worked with Tasmanian devils for 40 years, said feral felines are likely to return to hunting for food rather than relying on carrion in competition with the devils.
“There is an argument that by putting devils into a situation where you stop the other carnivores scavenging … cats and foxes will simply start hunting. You could actually make a conservation problem where it didn’t exist before,” said Mooney.
There’s also a matter of reputation. While devils tend to feed on small mammals, they’re also known to eat the carcasses of cattle and sheep, potentially making them a nuisance to farmers.
“When you do big interventions like this, there needs to be buy-in from the community, particularly those who are affected in the community,” said Jones. “There needs to be consultation.”
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For now, the Tasmanian devils released this year and those expected to be released in coming years won’t go into the wild just yet. Instead, they will receive supplementary feedings and be monitored by remote cameras, with some devils tagged with trackers in order for researchers to learn more about how they adjust in their new environment, Gabriel said.
“We dream of many more sanctuaries with devils in them and really growing the numbers of the species to protect that species, but also the animals in the environment around them,” she said. “This is just the beginning.”