Located on the Barrington Tops plateau in NSW, Devil Ark provides Australia’s largest haven for a disease-free ‘insurance population’ of the species. Devil Ark was the brainchild of the Australian Reptile Park’s John Weigel, and was made possible by the Packer family’s generous allocation of a parcel of land from their Ellerston Pastoral Station property. Devil Ark was launched in January 2011 with the arrival of 44 founding devils from quarantine facilities in Tasmania.
Thirteen free range escape-proof enclosures ranging in size from 1ha to 8 ha now provide sanctuary to the devils, which are being decimated in the wild from a transmittable cancer first detected in the wild Tasmanian population in 1996. And from what Tim has to say, the devils have certainly settled in. “When you’re up at Devil Ark you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in Tassie”. Tim is speaking of the suitable environmental conditions for devils within the Barrington Tops. Tim’s enthusiasm for Barrington Tops as a potential site for a trial reintroduction of devils is supported by recent scientific research from the University of NSW and the University of Tasmania, which has identified the Barrington Tops region as within the mainland range of climatic conditions that are similar to those in Tasmania.
While Devil Ark was built for the purposes of maintaining a captive insurance population of Tasmanian devils, the concept of just how the Ark can help the devil has grown beyond its original concept, to embody a vision that seems the only logical conclusion of the sorry tale of the Tassie devils demise. “The primary purpose of Devil Ark will always be to help to save the Tassie devil from extinction in the wild in Tasmania, and this won’t change”, says Tim. Tim goes on.“Science is telling us is though, that Devil Ark can play a far bigger role. Devil Ark has the capacity to breed a lot more devils than are required by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. We’ve been discussing with conservation groups and government agencies the role Devil Ark could play in trialing the reintroduction of devils to suitable environments on the mainland”.
And it would be a ‘re’ introduction. “Devils roamed south eastern Australia certainly in the past few millennia, and perhaps even in the past few hundred years”, says Tim, with skeletal remains, cave paintings and even necklaces made by aborigines from Tassie devils teeth, turning up across vast areas of the Australian mainland.
When I ask Tim how he thinks reintroduced devils would go on the mainland, he seems optimistic. “Devils put their young into the very bottom of a hard to reach den. Even their mums struggle to access their babies. Only the lure of their mother’s milk draws them into the wider part of their den so they can have a feed. I feel they’d certainly have more than a fighting chance against fox predation”.
But here’s where the concept of fox-devil interaction gets really interesting. Nick Mooney, a former Tasmanian Government wildlife biologist and the Tassie wildlife ‘go-to-guy’ recently said, “I don’t think there’s any coincidence at all that we had a spate of fox evidence through the early 2000s when devil [facial tumour] disease was impacting, in fact most of the evidence of foxes was in places where devils were suppressed by disease”.
Perhaps the Tassie devils feistiness provides a chink in the armour of a healthy fox population? Just what if devils in the landscape meant that foxes found it that little bit harder to get by on mainland Australia? What would this mean for our native mammal populations that are devastated by fox predation on a nightly basis?
Perhaps the difference between survival and extinction.
And Tim and Nick aren’t alone in their thinking.
Associate Professor Mike Letnic, a University of NSW researcher thinks that “bringing devils back to the mainland is a really exciting idea. It might be a step towards restoring our mainland ecosystems. They [Tasmanian devils] give us an approach that might be acceptable for farmers, but also, financially, we can afford it. We don’t need to be investing huge sums of money in poison year in year out, to suppress fox numbers”
Professor Mike Archer from the University of NSW says he’s absolutely committed to the view that we should reintroduce the devil. “I think its nuts not to think about it”, says Mike. “If we could bring these animals back, they would inevitably start to restore the balance of our biota. This is a key step we should take very seriously. They were on the mainland until very shortly before Europeans arrived…why shouldn’t we consider bringing them back, allowing their numbers to build up, and not only consume some of the really problematic introduced carnivores, but take their rightful place in the ecosystems where they were operating before Europeans arrived”.
Associate Professor Menna Jones, from the University of Tasmania also supports the two Mike’s theories. When asked by PhD candidate and filmmaker, Daniel Hunter recently if we should reintroduce the devil, Jones answered, “Yes, absolutely. This is not even a new concept in Australian conservation”…”In areas where devils declined by 90% we have seen a doubling in feral cat activity”.
Dr Marissa Parrot, a reproductive biologist from Zoos Victoria, has also lent her support to the concept. ” By having a mainland insurance population you could have a large number of devils that were disease free and still functioning as a proper, wild group. It’s believed this could also assist with suppressing cats and foxes, which are a major disaster for our local species”.
In 2013, Dr Euan Ritchie, an ecologist and conservation researcher at Deakin University wrote that “we know Tasmanian Devils have been on the mainland before, and that moving them might help save the species from extinction. But what could devils offer the mainland? One of the biggest benefits devils could offer is in the control of the red foxes, feral cats and overabundant herbivores (such as wombats, rabbits and wallabies). Evidence for this comes from Tasmania. Following the decline of devils due to DFTD, species such as the feral cat have been increasing. This in turn is associated with a halving in population size of a smaller, native predator, the Eastern Quoll”.
And Professor Chris Johnson, ecologist and conservation biologist from the University of Tasmania says “I think rewilding is something we have to think about really seriously, and, be bold and take the plunge. Putting the devil back onto mainland Australia could be a very useful ecological step, or tool for ecological restoration. It’s a very sensible thing just on the simple grounds that we want to conserve the Tasmanian devil, and the best way to do that is to have a big population somewhere”.
So the science is certainly behind the push to trial the concept of reintroducing the devil into suitable mainland habitats.
Like a person who doesn’t yet realise they are destined for great things, Devil Ark is perhaps the embodiment of this concept – currently playing a role to save the devil in the wild in Tasmania, but perhaps also playing a leading role in paving a future for healthier mainland ecosystems.
For more information on the trial reintroduction of the Tasmanian devil to mainland Australia CLICK HERE
Thank you to Tim Faulkner of Devil Ark for hosting Rewilding Australia. This article has reproduced quotations provided by ecologists from the documentary ‘Battle in the Bush‘.