- Scientists have been striving to establish populations of Tasmanian devils in the wild that are immune to the contagious and fatal devil facial tumor disease.
- In September, researchers released 19 immunized Tasmanian devils into the Narawntapu National Park in northern Tasmania.
- A few days after the immunized devils were released, four were killed in road accidents.
On September 26, scientists released 19 Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii) — immunized against the deadly devil facial tumor disease — into the Narawntapu National Park in northern Tasmania. This is the world’s first vaccine trial for the endangered devils in the wild.
However, just a few days after the immunized devils were released, four were killed in road accidents.
“Sadly, yes, it is true,” David Pemberton, Program Manager of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP), told Mongabay.
The contagious devil facial tumor disease was first recorded in 1996, and has wiped out over 90 percent of devils in some areas.
Since its discovery, scientists have been striving to establish disease-free populations of Tasmanian devils in the wild. So this vaccine trial in the wild is a big step forward, especially since the park is home to known populations of diseased devils.
“We hope that this vaccination strategy will allow the devil’s immune system to work as it should, and destroy tumour cells before they can cause disease,” James Murphy, a researcher fromthe Walter and Eliza Hall Institute who was involved in the vaccination project, said in a statement.
However, while the devil facial tumor disease is the biggest threat to Tasmanian devils currently, roadkill remains a close second, Pemberton said. “In the 2014-15 financial year 317 individual devils were reported to the Program as roadkill.”
Such frequent accidents occur because Tasmanian devils often stray onto roads lured by other road kill. Moreover, they have dark fur, which makes it difficult for speeding motorists to spot them at night, according to Pemberton.
“The ideal habitat for devils corresponds with areas where an interface of agriculture and native bushland exist, and unfortunately this is also where people, roads and cars are found,” Pemberton said. “The ultimate goal for the STDP is to return most captive devils to the wild, but to return devils to areas where they were once abundant also involves releasing them into areas where other threats, such as roadkill, exist.”
The roadkills have been a bump in the devils’ road to recovery. But the STDP team is still hopeful about the vaccine trial, especially since attempts at creating disease-free protected populations of the Tasmanian devils in the wild has been successful in the past. However, these have been in places where there were no pre-existing populations of cancer-ridden devils, and so threats due to diseases were low.
In 2012-2013, for example, scientists released 28 devils to Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania to establish the first protected population of healthy Tasmanian devils in the wild.
This initial population bred successfully, and multiplied to around 90 individuals. In fact, success of this predator is threatening native bird populations on the island.
“We know from the Maria Island translocation that captive devils can settle, reproduce and survive when released into the wild in the absence of any threats,” Pemberton said. “Our trial release into Narawntapu will focus on learning how to provide the best outcome for the released devils in an open environment in the presence of many threats.”