Australian scientists and wildlife experts have relocated a group of Tasmanian devils to an island “Noah’s Ark” in an attempt to protect them from an epidemic of contagious facial cancer that has been decimating the population.
The disease, which is spread through the animals’ bite, has wiped out 84 percent of all Tasmanian devils since first coming to scientists’ attention in 1996; some fear that it could obliterate the entire wild population within four decades.
But in a new initiative, designed to protect the species from extinction, 15 lucky individuals are being relocated to Maria Island, a mountainous, 12-mile-long national park three miles off Tasmania’s coast.
The hope is that the devils will breed and form a healthy colony free from the debilitating and deadly ailment. If the disease wipes out the general population on the mainland, the island will act as a lifeboat for the species, allowing their reintroduction to Tasmania at a later date.
“All indications are that they’re doing very well,” Phil Wise, the government biologist leading the scheme, told the New York Times.
The tumors appear on the devils’ faces or inside their mouths, and typically cause death within six months. The cases were originally discovered among devil populations in eastern Tasmania but have spread westward with each passing year.
Scientists initially presumed that the cancer was spread by a virus, but were surprised to find that the DNA from the tumor didn’t match those of their host animals. Instead, they matched tumors on other devils — which meant that the cancer was contagious and spreading from one animal to another.
While pockets of resistant Tasmanian devil colonies have been discovered, scientists believe the new project, along with the 500 or so housed in various zoos and sanctuaries, represents the best chance of ensuring the survival of this iconic marsupial.