Tasmanian devils have a real problem, and it's called devil facial tumor disease — a contagious form of cancer that is decimating populations and threatening the entire species. So, in an effort to save them from complete annihilation, a special "insurance population" of devils will be relocated to the private Maria Islands where they'll be safe from the disease — and where an entirely new self-sustaining colony can now hopefully thrive.
Devil facial tumor disease is spread when the rat-like marsupials fight over food and territory. The cancer causes horrible disfigurations — which eventually result in the death of the animal, after only three to six months. It's a particularly unique and highly virulent form of cancer in which the tumorous cells are transferred from animal to animal.
The disease was first detected in Tasmania in 1996, and since then the devil populations have plummeted by 91% to the low tens of thousands. And what's worse, affected high-density populations suffer up to 100% mortality over a period of 12 to 18 months.
There are basically no regions of the island state where the disease cannot be found — hence the urgency to get a new population started elsewhere.
Maria Island, which is off the east coast of Australia, can only be reached by plane or boat. It's also free from vehicles and shops. But it's also never hosted a Tasmanian devil population before. That said, experts are confident that the devils will not impact on the island's native species. Conservationists also plan on monitoring the ecosystem very carefully, just to be sure.
The experiment is also very small scale — at least for now. Only 14 Tasmanian devils will be released on the Island, but that could increase by another 50 over the next two years if everything goes as planned.
The 14 devils were carefully selected from captive breeding programmes across Australia and have never had contact with another animal carrying the facial tumor disease. And at the same time, Maria Island has no history of the disease — which it wouldn't, given that it's never hosted Tasmanian devils before — and they're the only known carrier of the disease.