Tasmanian devils have long been circulating in the media for their demise at the hands of a contagious mouth cancer that pushed the species to near extinction. Now, a new project has taken its first step in rewilding disease-free, captive animals in the hope that they could again thrive on Australia’s mainland, something they haven't done for 3,000 years.
The project is a collaboration between Aussie Ark, Global Wildlife Conservation, and Wild Ark and has placed 30 healthy Tasmanian devils in a protected area in the Barrington Tops, just north of Sydney. Free to roam 5.2 square kilometers (2 square miles), the animals are sheltered from predators but otherwise returning to a naturalistic setting. Each of the individuals is fitted with tracking devices so that researchers can monitor their progress and gain an insight as to how the species might behave and influence their environment if released into a wild habitat.
While the release is a step in the right direction for a species that has suffered enormous losses in recent years, there’s more to Aussie Ark’s plans than simply restoring Tasmanian devil populations. Australia, like many countries, has accrued a rich variety of unwanted residents over the years in the form of invasive species that have hunted, outcompeted, and even wiped out native species to the region. Tasmanian devils represent an apex predator, and it's hopeful that their return to areas of the country ravaged by invasive pests could return balance to the ecosystem.
The prospective soldiers enrolled in the operation were bred by Aussie Ark as an insurance policy to conserve the species as it began to fall victim to devil facial tumor disease (DFTD), which ripped through Tasmania around a decade ago. Soon to be released from their football pitch-sized enclosures, the trial devils will be released but routinely assessed to gather data regarding their health and reproduction activity. Having been captive for so long, they will be fed to begin with, but the project hopes to wean them off handouts and push them back towards their natural hunting behaviors. If all goes well, the next step will be to return Tasmanian devils to the Australian wild.
The last time Tasmanian devils were roaming free in mainland Australia was somewhere around 3,000 years ago, when they likely disappeared due to the introduction of dingoes from Asia, but they remain extant in Tasmania to this day. How their return might affect the ecosystem remains to be seen, but as a country that has seen the devastation from newly introduced species time and time again, both the scientific and conservation community will be hotly following the situation as it unfolds within the Barrington Tops sanctuary.
Representatives from Aussie Ark, however, are confident that the change set in motion by the devils' rewilding will be a positive one. “In 100 years, we are going to be looking back at this day as the day that set in motion the ecological restoration of an entire country,” said Aussie Ark President Tim Faulkner.