They're vicious, ugly and smelly – and endangered by a mysterious disfiguring disease. But that hasn't deterred Australians from rushing to the aid of the Tasmanian devil, in an ambitious project that has been compared to Noah's Ark. Kathy Marks reports on a extraordinary evacuation
Less cuddly than the koala, less quirky than the kangaroo, the Tasmanian devil is not everyone's cup of tea. But the rare carnivorous marsupials, known for their blood-curdling yowls and their insatiable appetite for wombat carrion, may not be around for much longer.
A mysterious facial tumour disease is devastating the devil population, found only in Tasmania, the island state off the Australian mainland. Numbers have halved in a decade, and the fierce black furry creatures face extinction in the wild within 10 to 20 years unless a cure is found. There may be as few as 20,000 left.
Scientists are trying to preserve the species by sending a "Noah's Ark" population of healthy animals to zoos and sanctuaries on the mainland. Institutions in Europe and the US are also expected to play a part in Project Ark, aimed at conserving the creatures and, if possible, releasing them back into the wild if and when the disease is eliminated.
A total of 48 devils have been relocated to zoos around Australia, and four devils have been born at a Queensland wildlife park participating in the project. The size of a grain of rice at birth, they were the first babies produced under the captive breeding programme.
While the births were hailed as a rare snippet of good news, the prognosis for Tasmanian devils is bleak. The highly contagious disease – believed to be transmitted mouth to mouth when the cantankerous creatures fight over food – has spread across three quarters of the island.
The disease, which causes disfiguring tumours to grow on the face, first appeared on Tasmania's remote north-east coast, its provenance a mystery. The cancer takes root in the devil's mouth and pushes out its teeth. Many have died of starvation.
The fear is that the devil, which inspired the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes character Taz, will go the way of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which was hunted to the point of extinction in the 1930s. The tiger, Australia's equivalent to the dodo, is still mourned, with many people refusing to believe that it is extinct. "Sightings" are often reported.
The Noah's Ark programme may be one way to help save the species, with the aim being to hold about 1,500 devils, an "insurance population", in captivity.
Zoos taking part in the project include the Australian Reptile Park in Sydney, the Healesville Sanctuary in Melbourne and the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Queensland, where the babies were born. Other institutions are building special enclosures for the devils as they prepare to take their quota.
It is anticipated that up to 20 zoos on the mainland will become involved over the next three years. After that, according to Caroline Lees, who is co-ordinating the programme for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria, 15 to 20 overseas zoos may be sent healthy devils.
Ms Lees told the Sydney Morning Herald that it was the first project of its kind. "There are global programmes for species survival, with the red panda or golden lion tamarin," she said. "But there hasn't been a project set up at a global scale to save an animal from disease before."
It may not be enough, though. Scientists warn that animals begin to lose their natural behaviour after several generations in captivity – and it could take that long for the disease to be eradicated. So it is important, if possible, for a devil population to be maintained in the wild. Wildlife experts are considering the feasibility of relocating a number of creatures to islands off Tasmania, where they would be safe from the spread of the disease. One location being assessed is Maria Island, a former convict settlement off the east coast, now a national park.
Scientists are carrying out an evaluation of the environmental impact of devil refugees arriving on the island.
Eventually it is hoped that half a dozen islands and protected peninsulas could become home to healthy devils, which could then breed sustainable populations.
Hamish McCallum, the professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, told ABC radio: "At the moment we have no vaccine, we have no effective treatment, so the one thing we know we can do is take uninfected animals to a place that the disease can't easily reach.
"But one of the risks is that, after several generations in captivity, animals begin to lose their natural behaviours. We need to have more than just captive populations. It would be a tragedy if they were only in zoos." The professor said that, ideally, experts wanted to maintain a population of 1,000 in the wild. But that would probably not be feasible. As a start, he is hoping to put 30 on Maria Island; 30 creatures are waiting in quarantine in Hobart.
Such projects cost money, and there is not much of it around, despite the urgency of the problem. The Tasmanian government has pledged A$3m (£1.3m) to combat the disease over the next two years. A local Greens MP, Nick McKim, points out that the government is spending twice that sum to sponsor an Australian Rules football club, and says that tens of millions of dollars are needed to save the devil from going the way of the Tasmanian tiger.
Some funding has been provided by the federal government. But scientists criticise the slow official response to the disease. It was not until 2003 that funds were allocated for research, although the first case was identified in 1995. "We are now in a race against extinction," says Menna Jones, a leading devil biologist.
Devils are the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, but they may not be the most endearing of Australian native creatures. They are greedy and aggressive, fighting over scavenged food and carcasses, and eating just about anything they encounter in the forests. They have been known to consume an entire horse carcass, eating skin, bones and flesh, and leaving behind only the shoes.
Initial theories that the disease was caused by a virus have been discounted. Some scientists believe it may have started with rogue cancer cells in a single devil. Some observers have suggested that the spraying of pesticides by the farming and forestry industries, combined with genetic weaknesses, may have been the catalyst. Plantation forests in Tasmania are sprayed with chemicals, while the poison 1080, banned in large parts of the world, is used to kill rabbits.
As well as conserving healthy animals in zoos, wildlife experts are trapping and culling diseased devils in an attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Infected animals are being cleared from the Tasman Peninsula, south of Hobart. The project costs about $200,000 a year.
Scientists are also injecting healthy devils with disabled facial tumour cells to see whether they have an immune response. The hope is that this research could lead to the development of a vaccine.
But catching devils, whether to test or inoculate them, is a tricky job. Devils do not take kindly to being trapped, and respond by using their long white teeth.
One of the problems with the captive breeding programme is that devils have a very short fertility period, with females getting only about three chances to fall pregnant in their lifetime.
Perhaps because of that, females mate with multiple partners in a quest for the fittest, strongest father for their cubs.
While the devil is a symbol of Tasmania, few outside Australia might know it were it not for the cartoon character Taz, known for his habit of spinning like a tornado and for his chainsaw-like teeth, consuming everything in his path.
Like the Tasmanian tiger, the devil was hunted and shot by early European settlers. Conservationists say that it, too, was in danger of extinction at one time, but the population then bounced back. Before the cancer appeared, the species was abundant and thriving.
The disease is now believed to be within 30 miles of the west coast of Tasmania, where devils have so far been unaffected. Elsewhere, local extinctions have been recorded.
David Obendorf, a veterinarian and wildlife researcher, says: "It's not a good look for Tasmania to know that your iconic species, the Tasmanian devil, is walking around with a cancer growing on his face."