An attempt to safeguard Tasmanian devils by shipping them to Maria Island in Australia backfired when the devils killed a large number of seabirds including more than 1000 penguins.
Tasmanian Devils scientifically known as Sarcophilus Harrisii, are Marsupials of the Dasyuridae family. Tasmanian devil, the size of a small dog is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, after the extinction of Thylacine Marsupial in 1936. The Tasmanian devil is characterized by its muscular body, pungent odor, black fur, great sense of smell, and disturbing and loud screech. Just like a wedge-tailed eagle, it preys on the dead and decaying flesh of animals including humans. They are lone animals, but on rare occasions, they eat and excrete in groups in a common location. Tasmanian devils were only found on the island state of Tasmania, but recently they were reintroduced on New South Wales, mainland Australia, with small breeding inhabitants.
Why Were They Rehabilitated?
In 2012, a small breeding population of Tasmanian devils was shipped to Maria Island in Australia to protect them from a highly contagious and deadly facial cancer known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease(DFTD), which almost pushed them towards extinction. The efforts to save devils from DFTD were made under ‘Save the Tasmanian Devil Program(STDP)’, established in 2003, by the Tasmanian and Australian governments. STDP helps in repopulating the Tasmanian devil’s species by safeguarding them from road strikes and various life-threatening diseases, as reported by BBC. This highly contagious cancer spreads through bites when the devils get involved in fights with each other for mates and food. The tumor appears mainly on animals’ necks, faces, and inside of their mouths. Once an animal is affected by DFTD, it dies within a few months. Until now, DFTD has successfully wiped out 90 percent of the Tasmanian devil’s population since 1996. Due to this Tasmanian Devils are enlisted under Endangered species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Maria Island, which is a 116-square-kilometer wide island in east Tasmania, was home to 3,000 breeding pairs of Eudyptula minor(Little Penguins) in 2012. The population of 3000 Little Penguins has completely disappeared since Tasmanian Devils were placed on the island. In contrast, the Devils successfully recovered as planned under STDP. “Losing 3,000 pairs of penguins from an island that is a national park that should be a refuge for this species basically is a major blow,” said Dr. Eric Woehler, a researcher for the group, as reported by BBC. According to Woehler, this outcome was not surprising as research on the “introduction of mammals to oceanic islands” has already shown that.
As mentioned by BBC, in 2011, a report by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water, Parks, and Environment suggested that the introduction of Tasmanian Devils would have a negative impact on Shearwater colonies and Little penguin population on Maria Island and that’s exactly what has happened after the marsupials were placed on Maria island. In 2020, a research paper published in the Biological Conservation Journal stated that Tasmanian Devils had eliminated a species of a sea bird called Shearwater. Contrary to the research, initially, Maria island was deemed as an ideal location for the Marsupials, as the island was free of roads and public vehicles. Some Macropod species were also introduced to the island on which the Devils could prey.
The program would “continue to evolve in line with new knowledge in science and emerging priorities”, told a Tasmanian government spokesman to BBC.
He also said that “Maria Island remains an important part of the broader devil program to help restore and maintain an enduring and resilient wild devil population in Tasmania.”