The Tasmanian Devil is an Australian icon and is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial. With the very real possibility of Tasmanian Devils becoming extinct in the wild within the next 15 to 20 years, captive breeding programs are vital in preserving the species.
From the Taronga Zoo, Sydney website:
“Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)
Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a fatal cancer which can kill devils within six months of presenting with the disease. The cancer causes tumours to develop around the mouth, face and neck stopping infected devils from being able to feed. It can also present anywhere the animal is bitten by another devil with the cancer. Unlike most cancers, DFTD is one of only 3 truly contagious cancers and can be spread from devil to devil through biting during mating and at group feeding sessions. Since the disease was first reported, latest counts indicate a decline of 89% of the previous population.
DFTD is now confirmed across more than 70% of the devil’s overall distribution, and there is evidence for continued geographical spread of the disease. The currently affected region covers the majority of the formerly high-density eastern management unit, involving what was perhaps around 80% of the total population.
Taronga Zoo Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo are involved in an Australia wide Insurance breeding program to try and save the devils from the very real threat of extinction caused by the Devil Facial Tumour Disease. (DFTD) Our aim is to breed enough healthy, disease free devils so that if they go extinct in the wild – a possibility in the next 15 to 20 years – we will be able to re-populate Tasmania and save the devils from extinction.
To establish the breeding program approximately 150 juvenile devils were collected in the wild, distributed to around 18 zoos across mainland Australia and in Tasmania with the aim of breeding up to 1500 devils. Currently, the insurance devil population stands at over 500 animals. 1500 is the ideal population number to be able to maintain the genetic diversity of the insurance devils at 96% or above wild levels.
Initially, this has been achieved in very intensive breeding situations. The next stage of what could be a 20 to 30 year program has already begun. Much larger free range enclosures have been created allowing more insurance devils to live together. The hope is that the devils will maintain their natural behaviours by living and socialising in a more natural environment.
In the mean time, research is on going in the field, in the laboratory and in Zoos to learn more about this disease, how it effects wild devil populations and maybe even find a cure.
To date, Taronga Zoo has experienced great success with the breeding program for this endangered species with 16 healthy joeys being born (as of June 2012). This is a huge boost to the regional zoo-based insurance population.
Zoos play a vital role in the conservation, ensuring there is a healthy and diverse insurance population in a zoo-based environment that can be released into the wild should an animal become extinct. The national effort to save the Tasmanian Devil involves controlled breeding with the hope of boosting Tasmanian Devil numbers in the wild when the risk of disease is arrested or diminishes.”
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