NEXT Monday a special symposium will be held on the Devil Facial Cancer afflicting the now endangered Tasmanian Devil.

It will be held in conjunction with the Australian Veterinary Association’s week long national scientific program.

Hobart veterinarian, James Harris will be chairing the symposium with presentations from government staff in the Devil Facial Tumour teams and some UTAS researchers.

Since its detection by Dr Menna Jones in 1999, this cancer has now been recorded from all the high density populations of devils. The State government took an interest in the disease in late 2002, but, in my opinion, the pace of research has been far too slow. This has been due to the political interference and a reluctance to allow biological material out of the state for research. Such control and filtering of scientific research has been apparent to many individuals watching the years roll on.

Normally when a new and emerging disease of the severity and effect as devil facial tumour occurs, it creates immediate international interest and offers of collaboration.

Money didn’t pour in

When the largest marsupial carnivore in the world goes from hyper-abundant to endangered in the space of 10-15 years as a direct consequence of a fatal tumour condition that affects up to 30% of devils in some populations at any one time, one would suspect that the Tasmania would be buzzing with collaborating research teams.

Sadly, no.

For some reasons best known to the State Government they have chosen to go it alone … money didn’t pour in.

The State Government largely controlled the research dollar up to the last federal election when John Howard committed $2 million.

We have been told that Warner Brothers — the owners of Taz, the devil cartoon character — have been playing coy for years but maybe it was the Tasmanian Government who would not let them get involved.

Local community funds (of which there are now several) try to provide monies to support university-based research efforts, but with the long-established financial and staffing arrangements between the State Government through its lead natural resource agency, DPIW and the University, on Devil Facial Tumour matters they are one. Paid staff and researchers of the DFT teams are aggregated in the same amalgam and scientific independence from the university has been rarely seen or heard.

My guess is …

‘Devils to Denmark’ was a politically stage-managed sideshow, not supported by the state DFT scientists or vets but I never expected those people who vehemently disagreed would speak out.

Keeping the research into DFT a ‘slow game’ was a calculated State Government decision; after all it’s not an internationally listed disease like Bird Flu or SARS or Foot and Mouth Disease and it only affects a wild animal that used to be treated as vermin — its cousin was exterminated.

By slowing the research down and keeping any outside players at bay, it has taken the pressure off any investigations into how this unusual disease emerged and what triggered it. Why should that be? 

My guess is the State Government realises what a powerful paradox — this contagious cancer is to the ‘clean, green & clever island state’ image.

Healthy wildlife in Dave Watts’ images sell Brand Tasmania — a hideous, raw cancerous mass growing off the faces of the second largest predator in Tasmania is too much.

And we all know what species is the largest predator in Tasmania, it is the Human. 

David Obendorf  is an independent, non-aligned scientist and thinker who works voluntarily on matters of quarantine, biosecurity and wildlife conservation. 

The Perspective paper is entitled: Researching the Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour It is not accessible electronically because of the journal copywrite. The senior author is Professor Jack Harington of the School of Animal. Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photo: Christo Baars, see comment below