I’M face to face with a bunch of Tasmanian Devils but I am keeping my nerve. Partly because I’m just a tough hombre, of course. And partly because they look very cute frolicking over a guide in Bonorong Wildlife Centre and nuzzling gently at her fingers.
Still, they are not the prettiest animals and their fearsome teeth win them few friends. ‘People will swerve their cars to hit one,’ says reserve manager Greg Irons whose passion for them (and all Tasmania’s other animals) is totally infectious. When I meet him he is entertaining a group of school-children, an important part of his hope to bring the Tasmanian Devil back from the brink of extinction.
Regular free talks in schools helping to adults, too, with the kids telling mum and dad what to do if they see a dead animal on the roadside. ‘With marsupials, when mum is run over, a baby will often survive in the pouch,’ says Irons. ‘So it’s important to stop and check and those first few hours will save it or kill.
‘They die very fast from stress. Keep them warm, dark and quiet – don’t look at them every five minutes. Don’t feed them cow’s milk – they’re lactose intolerant. Then give us a call. We get calls throughout the night, almost every night.’
The size of a small dog, the Devil is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. A shy animal that relies on bluff for defence, it is named for the spine-chilling call it makes at night when it scavenges for food. Its fearsome teeth are needed to crunch the bones of the carcasses it finds and it has an important role in cleaning up the environment.
However, it now faces an even greater danger than speeding motorists. A highly infectious mouth cancer has been killing the animals, wiping out 95 per cent of the population in some areas. The cause is unknown and, although researchers made a breakthrough late last year in identifying the gene responsible, it is in danger of becoming totally reliant on refuges such as Bonorong in its fight against extinction.
‘Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world,’ says Irons. ‘Twenty-three mammals in 200 years. Four species that were on the mainland only a short time ago are now found only in Tasmania but most locals have never heard of any of them except the Tasmanian Devil – yet even they are still persecuted and misunderstood.’
Another refuge is the Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park, near the former infamous penal colony of Port Arthur. Owner John Hamilton says the population recovered from hunting by early settlers in the past but the effects are still to be seen: ‘The wild Devil population is suffering from genetic breakdown, a bottle neck indicating it rebuilt itself from a very small genetic base.’
No one likes to see such wild animals confined to a reserve but, with no cure or vaccine likely in the near future, buying time by isolating populations is vital. ‘The Devil is the wild is at risk and the Devil in captivity is safe. Our role is to breed healthy animals for release. Our funding comes from tourism, so tourism is vital for conservation.’
His goal is to learn from the best practise worldwide and turn the park, which he admits was lacking in the past, into a model for the future. The transformation in his thinking came from meeting zoo designer Joe Coe, who sketched out a plan on the proverbial paper napkin. ‘He had never dealt with anything so small but we have been working hand-in-hand with him on how to present wildlife,’ says Hamilton. ‘He believes we have to learn to live side-by-side with nature rather than treat it as something exclusive: excluding people from national parks or nature from cities. I call it the post-green era of conservation where we don’t just save them in their natural environment.’
Returning a healthy population of Devils to the wild remains the goal. ‘Not having such a high level predator allows weaker animals to survive, making for a much weaker species,’ says Irons. We need the weak and the sick taken out, which is part of what the Devil now does for us. Devils also kept the fox at bay by killing pups in their dens but, when they are the same size as Devils, the fox will win the fight. Now there are whole areas that are Devil-free. The fox is the most efficient predator on the planet after humans. If they get a foothold in Tasmania we’ll see mass extinction of species. I’d almost give up right then.’
Irons might say the words but you know his heart is not in them; his love for the Devil is too strong: ‘Devils can’t fight, can’t hunt, have the same top speed as a chicken and use bluff as a defence. They’re quite pathetic at looking after themselves. But their biggest problem is that they suffer from a lack of cuteness.’
Having seen them up close, that is one point I’d have to disagree with him on.
This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph’s Tasmania Guide.