—“RENDITION” seems an appropriate term to apply to the crisis response of establishing a disease-free Tasmania devil population on one of the larger off-shore islands.

Based on uncertain science about this serious wildlife disease, it’s been decided to round up a band of West Coast devil (presumed to be DFT-disease free) and transport them to an island reservation.

It turns out that DPIW had done a ‘desk-top’ assessment of several off-shore islands and Maria Island was the highest ranked choice. [The other islands considered included Schouten Island off Freycinet NP; Badger Island (the island that recently had devils removed from it); Clarke Island, Prime Seal Island, Hunter Island and Three Hummock Island.]

On 5 March 2007 the federal Minister for the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull already knew that Maria Island was to be the destination for these devils. He told ABC TV Stateline:

“We’ve recently approved a proposal by the Tasmanian Government to capture 30 disease-free animals, ahead of a possible move to Maria Island.”

And yet the State Government — through their Media Liaison Office — was telling ABC News & Current Affairs journalists that the Environmental Impact Assessment of the various off-shore island options was still two weeks off being finished.

Then two days later on 7 March the media are told the EIA has been completed! Now that is fast work. More likely more spin used to soften up a ‘fait accompli’ decision made months ago! And yet the department was committed to developing ‘timeframes for decision making’ and ‘to communicate openly with the public and politicians’ on this island sanctuary concept.

It seems there is now profound urgency to get devils onto a secure island.

According to the report’s author, Professor Hamish McCallum, the advantages for Maria Island will be that the free-ranging devils will act as a natural predator helping to reduce the need for culling the over-abundant kangaroos; the devil would also control feral cats on Maria Island by eating young.

Of course the main justification for putting the devils on Maria Island will be to create a so-called ‘insurance population’ of tumour-free devils and hopefully protect them from whatever it is that is the ‘cause’ of this fatal disease.

Is this final solution an attempt to try to keep alive a healthy wild — as opposed to a captive — population for Tasmanian devils?

Will it work?

Maria Island National Park was set aside as a potential refuge for any thylacines discovered in Tasmania. Disastrously for the island ecology, Tasmania’s largest marsupial herbivore, the Forester Kangaroo was placed on Maria Island in late 1960s along with a number of other wildlife species. Initially Foresters were placed in a purpose-built enclosure, until they got out! Today the NPWS needs to regularly cull Foresters to reduce their impact on the environment.

The plan is based on the current understanding of the disease and assumes that the infectious facial tumour should not spontaneously re-occur on Maria Island, unless someone maliciously introduces a DFT-diseased devil from the mainland Tasmania. Even Professor McCallum accepted that at the recent forum.

The cancer is thought to only transmit horizontally from a cancerous devil to a healthy devil through biting. It’s believed that a particular type of tumour cell from one devil is THE ‘infectious agent’. So the island-theory is that by ensuring the devils come from cancer-free populations and the relocation site has no devils (and therefore no disease), then the devils will remain DFT-free.

It’s come down to this sort of decision-making because as DPIW devil scientists and their collaborators are now saying, time is running out for devil.

Without a test to diagnose the disease in wild devils it relies on taking animals from populations where it is believed the disease doesn’t occur.

Two disease modellers working with the capture-recapture demography data from populations where this tumour has been endemic for nearly a decade independently concluded that the disease continues to be transmitted at low animal densities and that local extinctions would be likely in those populations in 11 to 16 years. Monitoring of DFT spread across Tasmania suggested that there was unlikely to be any geographical barriers to impede its spread to all parts of Tasmania in the next 5 years. In addition there is no field evidence to suggest that any cohort of devils within DFT-affected populations is showing signs of resistance, resilience, recovery or immunity to DTDT. It’s also believed that the slight genetic differences evident in the devil population of western Tasmania are unlikely to improve the chances that these populations will thwart the advancing spread of DFTD.

After the recent scientific forum of DFT held in Hobart, DPIW told Primary Industry Minister Llewellyn (not Environment Minister Paula Wriedt):

“The disease will occupy all the current range of the Tasmanian devil within five years.”

“… extinction over a timeframe of perhaps 15 to 20 years is a real possibility and an unacceptable risk.”

Despite some useful research suggesting that the principle route of transmission is via DFT-affected devils transferring tumours cells to susceptible devils through deep penetration wounds caused by biting to the face, the underlying ‘cause’ for what appears to be the spontaneous appearance of this fatal cancer is still unknown.

Of particular concern is the slow progress of research into the aetiology and pathogenesis of DFT principally via the restrictions imposed by the Tasmanian government on the availability of biological material from devils for national and international researchers. The government has effectively controlled all the research investigation and outputs both in the field and in the laboratory. These restrictions have been in place for several years now and I believe they have delayed progress in the understanding of this serious wildlife disease. This is particularly disappointing as several leading research institutes with state-of-the-art technologies in molecular and genetic techniques have offered their services to the Tasmanian government.

The slow progress in understanding and controlling this disease was of concern to many visiting scientists at the recent forum. Several areas of research that were considered priorities three years ago —  such as the assessing the role of environmental triggers such as man-made chemicals — have languished and still no results are available.

As a result of this inertia, the Tasmanian government has little alternative than to crisis-manage the continued survival of the world’s largest living marsupial carnivore. In the 1990s the Tasmanian devils numbered up to 170,000 yet in just a decade the species is now listed as vulnerable and on current assessments by DPIW itself the species now faces extinction in the wild over the next 15-20 years.

It is imperative that the survival of this species becomes a national priority and that Australia-wide expertise and Commonwealth funding is offered immediately. Offers of international research collaboration from leading research institutes must no longer be impeded.

To lose two carnivorous marsupials [the thylacine and the devil] would be inexcusable!

David Obendorf

Of particular concern is the slow progress of research into the aetiology and pathogenesis of DFT principally via the restrictions imposed by the Tasmanian government on the availability of biological material from devils for national and international researchers. The government has effectively controlled all the research investigation and outputs both in the field and in the laboratory. These restrictions have been in place for several years now and I believe they have delayed progress in the understanding of this serious wildlife disease. This is particularly disappointing as several leading research institutes with state-of-the-art technologies in molecular and genetic techniques have offered their services to the Tasmanian government. The slow progress in understanding and controlling this disease was of concern to many visiting scientists at the recent forum. Several areas of research that were considered priorities three years ago — such as the assessing the role of environmental triggers such as man-made chemicals — have languished and still no results are available.