The Tasmanian devil has been reclassified from vulnerable to endangered as scientists work against the clock to find a cure or vaccine to the predator’s deadly facial-tumour disease.
Story By Ken Eastwood
As the sun sets in the highlands of Tasmania, near Loongana, a man hacks into grisly, unrecognisable pieces of flesh and bone, distributing them across the verandahs of isolated log cabins like carefully placed art works. The nearby sinkhole, thick forest or dark, tannin-stained river would provide plenty of places to hide this carcass, but Len Doherty reaches into his oozing bucket and thoughtfully lays out another bit.
Len’s 60-hectare private nature reserve, Mountain Valley, is one of the few places in Tasmania where you’re almost guaranteed to see a wild Tasmanian devil. You can stay in the rustic old cabins and a couple of times a week, Len will pick up a road-killed wallaby and distribute it across the verandahs so you can get a close-up look at the quolls, birds and devils that come in across the lime moss for a feed. “We see the accommodation here as just somewhere to sleep,” Len says. “We encourage people to come here to see the wildlife.”
His method works a treat. Within three minutes of him leaving, a stocky Tassie devil with big pink ears is gorging like a glutton within metres of the faces peering through the glass. Soon a second devil arrives, and they squeal like pigs and hiss at each other, bare their teeth and snarl, before number two chases number one away. But there’s plenty of tucker for all, and during the next hour or so, a spell of devils cleans up every last skerrick.
But Len may not be able to keep doing this for much longer. Mountain Valley is near the edge of the expanding range of the facial-tumour disease that has been decimating devil populations for the past decade, wiping out up to 90 percent of devils in some areas. Although the spread of the disease appears to have slowed, it covers 60 percent of the state, is moving west and is expected to reach every last corner in the next five to 10 years.
In May this year the devil’s official status was changed from vulnerable to endangered, and if things keep going the way they are, it could be virtually extinct in the wild in 25–35 years. This has huge ramifications for the environment in which it has been a top predator for years: biologists are already noticing more untouched carcasses and that ravens and European wasps are increasing, and there are fears that foxes may become established in Tasmania for the first time.
This story excerpt is from Issue #60
Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2008