April 10, 2007

Australia Mulls Tasmanian Devils Rescue


CANBERRA, Australia - Scientists are planning to move Tasmanian devils - the Australian marsupial made famous as a snarling, whirlwind character in Warner Bros. cartoons - to an island sanctuary to avert the animals' threatened extinction from a mysterious cancer.

But some scientists fear that in their haste to save the species, authorities could wreak further environmental damage and risk the survival of other endangered animals by introducing the devils into a habitat unaccustomed to them.

The devils - fox-sized animals with powerful jaws and a bloodcurdling growl made famous by their Looney Toons namesake, Taz - are being wiped out on the island state of Tasmania by a contagious cancer that creates grotesque facial tumors.

The disease was first noticed in the mid-1990s in the state's northeast, where 90 percent of the devils have since perished. It is relentlessly spreading south and west.

Scientists estimate that within five years, there will be no disease-free population in Tasmania - the only place in the world where the devils exist outside zoos.

"I think there's a real risk of extinction within 20 years across the whole of Tasmania," said Hamish McCallum, a professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania.

McCallum is among a group of experts who plan to transfer 30 devils off Tasmania's east coast to Maria Island - a former 19th century prison that is now home to several endangered species of birds.

The move, which state and federal governments are expected to approve within weeks, is controversial because scientists can only guess at the impact the introduced carnivores will have on the uninhabited island's ecology.

"This is a very unusual situation and very unusual situations require unusual action," McCallum said.

"I don't want to get into an argument about whether a devil is worth more than a forty-spotted pardalote," he said, referring to an endangered bird species that has made the island its home. "But in my opinion, the risk posed to endangered species by devils would be minimal."

David Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist who in 2000 sounded one of the first warnings of the threat to the devils, said several experts shared his concerns about the Maria Island plan.

"It's clearly an experiment and I think they are considering the need to act decisively and quickly because this disease is more important than the consequences," Obendorf said.

Maria would be the first of about half a dozen islands to become quarantined colonies of wild devils, which are currently not found on any of the thousands of Tasmanian islands.

Advocates hope that if devils are wiped out on the Tasmanian mainland the disease will die along with them, and the animals placed in havens can then be safely reintroduced.

Maria island has been identified previously as a potential species-saving haven.

In the 1970s, authorities said it would be an ideal sanctuary for the devils' cousin, the Tasmanian tiger - a striped, Labrador-like carnivore that like the devil carried its young in a pouch - and stocked it with kangaroos and wallabies that could be prey for the animals.

But the last known tiger died in a zoo in 1933, and long-held hopes of finding some in the wild never materialized.

Kangaroo numbers on Maria have exploded, and hundreds have to be shot at regular intervals to prevent them starving through overgrazing.

Supporters of the devil colony note that Maria is far from a pristine ecosystem and that the kangaroos and wallabies present potential food sources that have no rightful place in the island environment.

Critics argue that the devils might threaten the endangered stag beetle or bird nesting areas on the island.