IN 2003 the Tasmanian Government made the conscious decision to not give managing responsibility for Devil Facial Tumour program to the State veterinarians trained in animal disease investigation.

I believe this was another ill-conceived decision taken by the then Minister for Primary Industries, Water & Environment, Bryan Green and it effectively left the government veterinarians relegated to the back room jobs.

I, along with other wildlife veterinarians, tried to warn the State Government of the folly of this approach. All I received were angry, bullying emails and attempts at personal dressing downs. 

When Princess Mary gave birth to Prince Christian in 2005, someone in DPIW had the bright idea to send a pair of Tasmanian devils to Denmark. There were concerns raised by DPIW staff and independent scientists at this ludicrous decision. Although the concept of setting up insurance populations of disease-free devils interstate had been discussed as an important goal, the Devils to Denmark plan stepped right over wildlife facilities on the Australia mainland sending the first exported pair of devils to a zoo in Copenhagen.

At the time several scientists in the Department and the University were opposed this export plan which appeared to be more about Tasmania’s PR to the world than any long-term strategy to build healthy populations of devils outside the island state.

At that time, the Tasmanian Chief Veterinary Officer was called out of the back room to produce a document to support the export of devils from Tasmania to Denmark. A science-based risk assessment document was needed to smooth the progress of this political feel-good decision.  At the time, wild Tasmanian Devils were dying in their thousands. A new disease was threatening the survival of the species in the wild; there was no test to determine if an animal was ‘infected’ and there was no cure.

Authorities weren’t made aware

Despite questioning in the State Parliament the government got its way but the two exported devils didn’t come from any government run facility where perhaps DPIW could rely on its own disease prevention standards. The devils came from a private wildlife park with a long history of successfully breeding devils in captivity — Trowunna Wildlife Park at Mole Creek.

The trouble was the infectious cancer — Devil Facial Tumour — was spreading westward and by 2004-05 diseased devils were being found in the Mole Creek area. The Commonwealth authorities responsible for issuing export permits to move these animals to Denmark weren’t made aware of that risk.

Remember protected and threatened species of Tasmanian wildlife may only be held in captivity under permit from the State Government. They don’t belong to any private individual; they belong to the State or the Crown.

I believe it’s unlikely that this infectious cancer will develop in these two exported devils (now Danish Devils) but that should in no way absolve the State Government of their public responsibility for all the valuable Tasmanian devils currently held in private wildlife parks in Tasmania. 

Raised by John Hamilton

Separating potentially diseased wild devils outside parks from making physical contact with captive healthy devils inside parks was central to protecting the disease-free status of the Tasmanian wildlife parks. The biosecurity of wildlife parks was an issue specifically raised by John Hamilton, owner of the Tasmanian Devil Park, Taranna at a meeting convened by DPIW. John highlighted the need for urgent financial support from the State to erect devil-proof fencing for devil parks because of the unacceptable risk posed of wild infected devils entering the captive devil pens.

Escapes from the government devil holding facilities have occurred and now it appears highly likely that a wild devil with the infectious facial tumour might have had physical contact with devils at Trowunna Wildlife Park and transferred the infectious cancer to them.

If the occurrence of this disease at this park is shown to be through infected wild devils biting captive devils inside the park then the Government must take responsibility. Particularly because Trowunna Wildlife Park was invited by the State Government to be the supplier of the two devils which became the highly publicised gift from the people of Tasmania to the family of the Crown Prince of Denmark.

It would be more troubling to the State if authorities fail to determine the source of the exposure or if this infectious cancer developed in these captive devils by some other means. 

Now that Devil Facial Tumour has been declared a notifiable disease in Tasmania, it should give the government veterinarians the statutory authority to come out of their bunkers and engage directly in the serious biosecurity and quarantine issues facing these valuable populations of disease-free captive devils.

With no test and the ability of disease to remain undetectable for weeks or months, this is a very unfortunate for Trowunna and for the Government DFT program. This experience highlights the onus now on DPIW through its risk management protocols to ensure these important insurance populations of healthy devils are adequately safeguarded against known exposure risks …

First published, Oct 24; republished Oct 25

David Obendorf

David Obendorf

When Princess Mary gave birth to Prince Christian in 2005, someone in DPIW had the bright idea to send a pair of Tasmanian devils to Denmark. There were concerns raised by DPIW staff and independent scientists at this ludicrous decision. Although the concept of setting up insurance populations of disease-free devils interstate had been discussed as an important goal, the Devils to Denmark plan stepped right over wildlife facilities on the Australia mainland sending the first exported pair of devils to a zoo in Copenhagen.

At the time several scientists in the Department and the University were opposed this export plan which appeared to be more about Tasmania’s PR to the world than any long-term strategy to build healthy populations of devils outside the island state.