Tasmanian devils, unique marsupials that disappeared 3000 years ago from mainland Australia, were recently released into the wild on the huge island continent, a “historic” step in an ambitious program to protect the species.
The Aussie Ark Association revealed on Monday that 26 of these carnivorous mammals had been released from a 400-hectare sanctuary in Barrington Tops, three and a half hours north of Sydney (south-east).
Aussie Ark President Tim Faulkner explains that this “historic” operation, carried out in July and September, is the first step in an ex-situ conservation program aimed at creating a preserved population, with the devil threatened on the ground. island of Tasmania with a serious form of contagious cancer.
After 16 years of work, which involved setting up the largest devil breeding program in mainland Australia, Faulkner considers it “incredible” to have come to this.
“It’s like a dream,” he said. “The largest native predator on the continent is the spotted-tailed marsupial cat, which weighs just over a kilo. Bringing back an animal of this size is something huge. “
The devil, which can weigh up to eight kilos, generally hunts other native animals or feeds on the carcasses of dead animals.
“Sarcophilus harrisii” is not dangerous for humans or livestock but defends itself if attacked, which can cause serious injury.
This nocturnal marsupial with black or brown fur, which gives off a strong odor when stressed, has been stricken since 1996 by a disease, the transmissible facial tumor of the Tasmanian devil (DFTD), almost 100% fatal, which has decimated 85% of its population.
Danger of extinction
The species is now in danger of extinction.
This contagious cancer – cancer normally is not, except in certain animal species – is transmitted through the bites inflicted on each other by devils, very aggressive and with powerful jaws, when they mate or fight.
In particular, animals die of hunger when the tumor reaches their mouths, preventing them from eating.
There are an estimated 25,000 devils still living in the wild, compared to 150,000 before the onset of this disease.
In mainland Australia, on the other hand, they probably disappeared 3000 years ago, a priori decimated by dingoes.
The program aims to create a “reserve population” facing a disease that is currently incurable, while participating in the restoration of the native environment.
“Devils are one of the only natural solutions for controlling fox and cat populations, responsible for the vast majority of the 40 extinctions of mammalian species in Australia,” says Faulkner. “The stake here goes beyond the Tasmanian devil.”
This project is reminiscent of the emblematic one of the reintroduction of the wolf in the American park of Yellowstone in the 1990s, which, according to experts, had a cascade of positive effects: regeneration of bushes along rivers, stabilization of water courses. water, return of birds and beavers …
Aussie Ark selected the reintroduced animals for their reproductive abilities and placed them in this screened sanctuary to protect them from various threats, such as disease or automobile traffic.
“We have introduced young and healthy specimens now, which gives them six months to find their marks, establish their territory and prepare for the breeding season,” which usually comes in February, says Faulkner. “The terrain was chosen because it looks like a piece of Tasmania.”
For the first time, the reintroduced animals will have to fend for themselves to find water, food and shelter. They will be closely watched, which makes Faulkner confident about the chances of success.
His association aims to release more devils in unfenced areas, where they will face more threats, including the forest fires that ravage Australia every year.
The devil is only one of seven species that Aussie Ark plans to reintroduce to the continent in the coming years, along with the marsupial cat, peramelid (or bandicoot) and petrogal (or rock wallaby).