Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

In the last edition of the Tasmanian Conservationist we ran an article, ‘Questions regarding the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program’ (STDP). This was based on the TCT’s 1 September 2009 letter to the Manager of the STDP in which we asked a series of questions related to the performance of the program, and in particular the insurance population for the species. We wrote this letter seeking information because the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program Stakeholder Reference Group, on which we are represented, has not met since November 2008 despite us making several requests for a meeting.

Following the letter, at the end of September we attended a meeting with the STDP manager at which few of our key questions were answered. October passed and we still had not received a reply to our 1 September letter despite being promised one at the meeting.

Our frustration at the STDP’s apparent lack of performance and failure to answer our questions led to the 16 November TCT media release titled ‘Tasmanian devil doomed to extinction unless Government acts to establish an insurance population’. We followed this with a letter to both the Australian Government, which largely funds the program, and the State Government Minister David Llewellyn. All of a sudden, nothing happened! It took a provocative letter to the Mercury in the new year (‘Why donate to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program?) to finally get a response.

Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) spokesperson Penny Wells responded to our letter and, to her credit, provided up-to-date figures regarding the current insurance population. To date, 142 disease-free founder animals have been trapped from the wild by the STDP for the insurance population and the insurance population currently includes 277 animals. The insurance population target is a total of 1500 including 500 effective animals (able to contribute to the breeding population).

The DPIPWE spokesperson failed to state the number of effective animals in the insurance population. DPIPWE also failed to commit the program to putting devils on islands or virtual islands (securely fenced areas on the Tasmanian mainland) but confirmed it may take up to five more years (trapping for the insurance population started in 2005) to complete an insurance population.

If the department was serious about using islands, the job would have been done years ago. The department said in its letter to the Mercury that the government’s insurance strategy ‘has provisions for populations’ but failed to commit to islands. As we stated in our reply to the Mercury, the strategy states that when zoos and wildlife parks are full, which the STDP has confirmed is the case, animals will be put in managed enclosures and on islands or virtual islands. The free range enclosures (East Coast Nature World is the first of four) will not come close to housing all the required devils, the government must put devils on islands urgently oif its insurance strategy is not be become a sham.

Islands are essential to:

-          allow devils to express their wild behaviour and maintain associated organisms (symbiotic parasitic flora)

-          take the surplus devils from zoos and wildlife parks (otherwise they will be euthanased or returned to diseased areas)

-          provide a safeguard in case disease gets into the captive enclosures and wildlife parks.

Islands have been looked at since the STDP started and it will go on looking forever unless compelled to deliver by a certain date. Without islands it simply cannot complete the insurance population.

The reason the TCT has been so focused on this issue, even recommending that people withhold their donations to the STDP, is that there is arguably nothing else that can currently be done for the Tasmanian devil except to establish an insurance population.

Other strategies being explored by the STDP, such as development of a vaccine and suppressing the Devil Facial Tumour Disease, are long term and probably have a low chance of success.

The Mercury article ‘Giant step for devil cure hope’ (Mercury, 1 January 2009) sounded like it was reporting a major break through in the development of a vaccine but the article said a cure ‘could still be decades away’.

As we stated in response to that article:

-          with 13 different strains of the DFTD identified and it mutating in the wild, can an effective vaccine ever be developed?

-          if a vaccine takes decades, will there be any devils left in the wild to be cured?

-          if the cure comes too late, will there be an insurance population of healthy devils to repopulate with?

In a recent STDP newsletter, the article ‘Disease Suppression’ (page 5), reports that disease suppression trials (removing diseased animals from a relatively contained area) on the Forestier Peninsula are not proving successful. The article sums up the work over three years by stating that trapping and removal of diseased devils ‘is not, however, currently leading to the eradication of the disease’.

Despite best efforts, no cure or treatment is on the horizon and, with the disease spreading across the state, an insurance population of disease-free devils is essential to safeguard the species against extinction in the wild. It should be the highest priority and, unlike the other strategies being pursued, is almost certain to succeed.

The TCT believes that the Tasmanian devil is doomed to extinction if the STDP does not change its current strategy and re-focus on delivering an insurance population. The STDP’s inaction on this is inexplicable and inexcusable.

While the STDP (which currently received $3 million of taxpeyers’ money per year) fails to act on this vital strategy, the TCT advises its members and anyone concerned for the Tasmanian devil not to donate money. Instead, write to Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett urging him to withhold funding (in 2007 the Australian Government committed $10 million of your taxes to saving the devil) until the STDP commits to delivering an insurance population.

Peter McGlone