Shared from the 10/10/2020 The Denver Post eEdition
Rob Griffith, The Associated Press
Tasmanian devils, the carnivorous marsupials whose feisty, frenzied eating habits won the animals cartoon fame have returned to mainland Australia for the first time in some 3,000 years.
“Seeing those devils released into a wild landscape — it’s a really emotional moment,” said Liz Gabriel, director of conservation group Aussie Ark, which led the release effort in partnership with other conservation groups.
The 11 most recently released devils began exploring their new home once they were freed from round, white cages at the nearly 1,000-acre Barrington Tops wildlife refuge in New South Wales state, about 120 miles north of Sydney.
Tasmanian devils, which were once called Sarcophilus satanicus or “Satanic flesh-lover,” went extinct in mainland Australia before the arrival of Europeans. Scientists believe the introduction of carnivorous dingoes, a surge in the indigenous human population, and a devastating dry season caused by a prolonged El Niño caused the devil 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.
Devils have been protected in Australia since 1941, and conservationists have worked to bolster their populations for years, citing their importance as 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 devils through their bites while mating and causes large tumors that prevent them from eating — reduced the population from 140,000 to as few as 20,000.
In response, researchers established an insurance population of cancer-free devils in wild-type enclosures in Australia’s island state of Tasmania. But the releases in July and September are the first time the squat mammals — all of which have tested negative for the contagious cancer — have been released on the mainland in a protected wild landscape.
Aussie Ark aims for devils eventually to live in nonprotected areas in mainland Australia.
— The Associated Press