Written by Andrew Darby, published May 11, 2012 in Sydney Morning Herald
A GOVERNMENT plan to turn Tasmania’s Maria Island national park into a last refuge for the disease-plagued Tasmanian devil has sparked strong opposition from wildlife advocates.
Attempts to safeguard the marsupial against extinction in the wild are focusing on the island after rejection of a plan to fence healthy devils into Tasmania’s north-west corner.
”We decided a single breach by a diseased devil would have negated that whole project,” said Chris Boland, science manager for the federal-state Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, ”so Maria becomes of critical importance.”
But conservation groups are worried that releasing devils on Maria Island could be too costly for birds and other animals on the island.
The 115-square-kilometre island, five kilometres off Tasmania’s east coast, is rich in wildlife.
A fatal facial tumour disease has cut wild devil numbers across Tasmania by 84 per cent in around 17 years, according to the most recent surveys.
Starting in Tasmania’s north-east, the disease has ripped through the devil population and is now found only 20 kilometres from the west coast, near the mining town of Zeehan. Late last year it entered the remaining stronghold of healthy devils in Tasmania’s north-west.
More than 500 healthy devils are now held at 22 zoos and wildlife parks around Australia, in what Dr Boland said was world-class co-operation to maintain an insurance population against the complete loss of wild devils.
But unlike these captive devils, on the island the animals would eventually be left to their own resources.
Dr Boland said scientists saw the introduction of the marsupial carnivore as a chance to learn how to maintain wild devil behaviour if, as predicted, the species becomes extinct in the wild within 25 years.