This past week-end I learned a lot about how to breed devils – Tasmanian devils, that is!
I visited the Healesville Sanctuary – a not-for-profit conservation organisation dedicated to fighting wildlife extinction – where there is a large and extremely interesting area dedicated to Devils. It was there that I learned that their ears go brilliantly red when they are excited or angry because of increased blood flow. Indeed, even when the sunlight shines through them the redness is startling. If the evolutionary advantage is to increase the impression of ferocity, I can state that I am one mammal who gets the message, and respects it!
Sarcophilus harrisii has a global reputation as the fierce cartoon creature ‘Taz’. According to Wikipedia, he was developed by Warner Brothers as a Looney Tune character, but later got his own sitcom ‘Taz-Mania’. He has appeared in video games, and has his own facebook page. The ‘Taz’ legend is a great story of how a feisty little animal from a small island in the Southern Ocean became an international star.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is very bad indeed. Over the past twenty years or so, Tasmanian devils – the real ones who live in the Tasmanian wilderness – have become afflicted with a highly contagious cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). It is 100% fatal. Infected Devils die within a year or two. Death is painful, as their face becomes swollen up and eaten away. Many of them die of starvation because they cannot eat; many others die of organ failure and other effects of cancer. The cancer is transmitted from individual to individual by direct contact. As everyone who has followed Taz the cartoon character would know, Devils are combative creatures. They do a lot of scavenging, and as they gather around a dead body (often road kill, these days), they fight and bite. Their aggression is face-to-face. Every time a diseased Devil is bitten on the face, cancer cells are transmitted to the biter. Without biting, there would be no Devil social life. But bites lead to cancer, and the disease continues to spread.
Devils were given that name by early settlers in Tasmania who encountered a creature that to them was way out of the norm: a carnivorous marsupial with fierce teeth and fierce behaviour, with little red ears and very large mouths and teeth … you get the picture. According to a government website, which also includes a clip of their eerie calls, Tasmanian Devils were disliked by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and a bounty was placed on them. Over a period of more than a century, Devils were trapped and poisoned. On account of human action, they were headed for extinction. Then in 1941 they became protected by law, again by human action, and populations started to recover – until the 1990s outbreak of cancer.
Now the Tasmanian Devil is listed as endangered. With an 80% population crash over the past twenty years, Devils will become extinct in the wild within a decade or two unless the disease can be stopped. Interestingly, the disease is spreading across Tasmania from east to west. This means that populations still free of DFTD are mostly on the rugged west coast, an area that includes one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth – the Tarkine (pronounced tar-kine [as in mine]).
While life in the wild is dire, rescue operations are thriving. Numerous disease-free Devil populations have been airlifted to safe zones. One such population lives at the Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley of the state of Victoria. My visit to the Sanctuary brought me face-to-face with Devils (thanks to a strong glass barrier between us), and face-to-face with an institution that is committed, in the most intelligent and compassionate ways, to ensuring that Devil populations remain viable. When the day comes that the cancer is eradicated and Devils can return home, there will be healthy populations ready to go.
Signage at the Sanctuary announced that as of this year’s breeding season, 101 pups have been born. The breeding is carefully managed, as it must be when working with a small gene pool. Some of the young ones have become habituated to humans and are brought out as ambassadors. The event I attended on Sunday was a symposium on the theme ‘Animate/Inanimate’. It was jointly organised by the TarraWarra Art Museum, which was hosting a show with the same name, and by the Healesville Sanctuary itself. For our education and delight, the Sanctuary folks organised a petting session with a baby Devil named Mulana.
It is a long and ethically twisty path from the Tasmanian wilderness to a Sanctuary with a baby that people can actually touch. Devils belong in the bush. They are not pets. They need to grow up learning to be Devils, not huggable cuties. But given the mortality factors, and the damaged life expectancies, refuge areas where individuals can live without contracting cancer, and where new, viable populations can be established, are central to the longer-term survival of the species.
Another side of captive breeding is the question of release. As long as the captive populations breed well, their numbers will outgrow the capacity of zoos and other refuges to house them. Where will all the Devils go? The Healesville Sanctuary is establishing a number of sites on mainland Australia that will be fenced against invasive predators such as foxes, and will be large enough for the Devils to live well on their own. Young Devils learn how to live the Devil life as they interact with others; they need the right conditions to be able to do this. The plan is that in due course the Devils will go home to Tasmania.
The possibility of return raises another question: will there be any wilderness left to return to? A series of national and state governments and ministers have made it clear that although protection of wildlife would be a nice thing to do (perhaps), humans come first. Of course this rhetoric is deceptive: not all humans come first. Mining companies come first; the timber industry comes first; jobs in primary industry come first, ahead of other human interests, activities and modes of employment. It is not just forests, heaths and animals who come last; it is also the people who love the bush, love bushwalking, love animals and wildlife, who spend money to travel to places that are wild and free in order to be able, if only briefly, to interact with ecosystems that have not been massively altered, and who donate generously to rescue programs. Among those who come last in the zombie politics of cruelty, consumption and fear, are all the people, and there are many, who believe that the earth is a better place when the multitude of lives and ecosystems are not all perverted by being classed as resources to be consumed or impediments that are best destroyed.
The Tarkine is a region of western Tasmania that is wonderfully wild, in the sense of being relatively free from resource extraction. It contains the largest area of Gondwanan cool-temperate rainforest in Australia, as well as vast and staggeringly beautiful heaths and headlands. It isn’t wilderness in the sense of being a place without humans. The Tarkine also holds a large concentration of Aboriginal Australian archaeological sites; it has been inhabited for millennia. It also contains some mines that are operational, but are geographically contained.
It was a shock to many of us earlier this year when the federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke rejected the advice from the Australian Heritage Council that 433,000 hectares be heritage listed. Instead, he applied National Heritage Listing only to a small area along the coastline. The decision also rejected a UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommendation that the entire region be protected. He thus opened the Tarkine for mining and logging, and he was very clear in saying that he put the needs of people ahead of environmental needs.
And so the question leaps out: if the people whose statutory duty it is to protect the environment fail to do so, who shall?
Bob Brown was for many years the Green Senator from Tasmania. He was, and continues to be, one of the few great moral figures in Australian politics. He wrote about the Tarkine decision in the Sydney Morning Herald:
“To extract iron ore, Shree Minerals will cut a hole one kilometre long and deeper than sea level through the terrain. Never mind the fact that there are 16 threatened species at the site or that it is a state protected area. The next, bigger, project likely to get Burke’s nod is Venture Minerals’s proposed series of open pits for tin and iron ore through the lovely Mount Lindsay rainforest.
There are 57 more exploration licences on the go. So the area recommended for National Heritage status will instead end up looking like a lump of roaded Swiss cheese. As Christine Milne (Greens Senator from Tasmania) put it: ”Minister Burke’s decision to abandon the Tarkine to the mining industry is not only a disgrace, it’s a crime against the environment.”
The decision is terrible for Devils, too. They will be okay in captivity, but will they ever be able to go home?
The cancer in the Devils is mirrored by a cancer in the politics of the nation. It is a social disease that erupts into voracious consumption of ecosystem health and stability, and violently destroys life, ecological integrity and beauty.
September 7 is Threatened Species Day in Australia. It commemorates the day in 1936 when the last Tasmanian tiger known in the world died in the Hobart Zoo. Tasmanian tigers had been vilified by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and hunted to extinction. The day is an annual reminder that Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinctions in the world, and might be thought of as a ‘lest we forget’ kind of day. It is an annual wake-up call to the fact that many Australian species are already extinct, and many more are vulnerable to extinction.
This year Threatened Species Day is also the day Australians go to the polls in a national election. What if members of threatened species actually had a say in human elections? Wouldn’t Devils vote to go home again?
©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)
For more on Devils (including sound and video clips): http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/webpages/bhan-5358kh
For information on Devil Facial Tumour Disease: http://devilislandproject.org.au
For information about the Healesville Sanctuary: http://www.zoo.org.au/healesville