Sympathy for the Devil

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From inside the hessian sack comes a low growl. Wildlife biologist Nick Mooney reaches in and carefully pulls out a Tasmanian devil, the largest carnivorous marsupial, a halo of stiff whiskers framing bright brown eyes and rich, dark fur; an open mouth revealing sharp teeth. Tasmania is famed as much for its creatures as its landscapes, and chief in this unique menagerie is the devil, reportedly so named by early settlers, who were rattled by its ferocity and the ungodly sounds of its squabbles over food. Few ever get this close to the stocky, dog-like creature, which scavenges by night, cleaning the bush and farmlands of dead and dying animals, then retreating with daylight to dens among the ferns and heath. But the animal settlers once feared is now one of Tasmania's favorite symbols, adorning souvenir key rings and sports-club logos. Unlike the extinct thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, devils survived decades of now-banned hunting, and are still considered common. But perhaps not for long.

A grotesque disease is striking devils down, just as a new predator readies itself to seize their place at the top of Tasmania's ecological pecking order.

It's dawn on a January morning, and the sky is streaked vivid pink as a team from the state's Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment heads into state forest bordering the Wilderness World Heritage Area in Tasmania's rugged Central Highlands. The logging road crosses the Nive River, running silver in the early light, and winds among snow gums covered in creamy blossoms. Plenty of ground cover makes this perfect devil country, home to a daily smorgasbord of wallabies and other treats. That's why Mooney, scientific officer Billie Lazenby and conservation officer Andry Sculthorpe are here, hoping to catch enough devils to help them unravel the cancer-like disease that's believed to have halved the devil population and is still spreading.

Precisely how it's doing that is baffling experts, for the killer, known as devil facial tumor disease (dftd), is as mysterious as it is disfiguring. Today Mooney's team are checking their 50 traps - lengths of PVC pipe pierced with air vents and nestled in shady spots - measuring, weighing and attaching microchips to healthy and sick devils as part of a new statewide monitoring program. There's still no diagnostic test, so the team must check the face and gums of every animal, disinfecting each trap as they empty it. But there's no missing the disease in its advanced stages, when faces are ravaged by huge, weeping tumors. Before she saw it, says Lazenby, "I couldn't imagine anything so horrific." Of the 50 devils the team has found in five days, 14 have shown clear signs of dftd - perhaps a sign that the disease is only just moving into the area. These animals will almost certainly die within months, some starving to death as tumors block their mouth or throat. Autopsies on other devils have found their internal organs riddled with tumors. The disease, confined so far to the state's eastern half, is believed to have cut the animals' population to about 70,000 from a peak of 150,000 in the early 1990s.

The first hints of dftd surfaced eight years ago, when a photographer contacted Mooney to tell him of terrible tumors he had documented in devils in Tasmania's northeast. Then, in 1999, one of the world's few devil experts, zoologist Menna Jones, reported similar tumors among animals she was studying on the east coast. But it wasn't until late last year that a statewide snapshot survey revealed the full extent of the epidemic. Despite the Tasmanian devil's iconic status and its key ecological role as a super-efficient scourer of the bush, requests for a program to monitor the species have been refused for more than a decade, says Mooney. "If something isn't endangered or threatened, no one wants to spend any money on it," he says. "A lot more fundamental monitoring used to be done - and without it, you get caught with your pants down." Gordon Grigg, professor of zoology at the University of Queensland and a member of the Commonwealth's Threatened Species Scientific Committee, has been monitoring kangaroos since 1974. He says long-term monitoring usually happens only if a species is commercially harvested, a pest or attracts the interest of scientists or hobbyists. Grigg's colleague Tony Pople, a population ecologist, agrees: "Monitoring is a luxury that we can't afford with limited conservation and management dollars - you're forced to monitor only when you need to." When Mooney and a visiting ecologist, Marco Restani of Minnesota's St. Cloud State University, carried out that first snapshot survey last year, Restani paid for the hire of their trailer. Since then, Tasmanian Labor premier Jim Bacon, promising that the devil will not follow the thylacine into extinction, has committed $A1.8 million. The federal government has provided no funding: Environment Minister David Kemp says that while he would be "open to any approach for assistance," managing wildlife is a state responsibility. The Commonwealth usually gets involved only once a species is listed as threatened - a move that may not be far off for the devil.

So sparse is information on devils in the wild that scientists at the state-run Animal Health Laboratory in Launceston are trying to figure out just what a healthy devil should look like. Performing an autopsy on a diseased devil, veterinarian Robyn Sharpe painstakingly cuts out pieces of tissue. "We have to take everything because we know so little about devils," she says. The animals "have been like seagulls," says her pathologist colleague Richmond Loh, "so common that no one's really studied them." Now Loh and others are racing to determine whether the disease is caused by a virus, how it's transmitted and how it progresses. Until such questions are answered, radical options such as relocating devils onto offshore islands remain too risky. No one knows if dftd could jump to livestock or people, and it's so cryptic, Loh says, that pathologists cannot agree on what sort of tumor it is: "The only things we're certain of are that it's spreading and that it's affecting animals in the prime of their lives."

As the devil's numbers fall, a rapacious predator is waiting to inherit its niche. At midnight in a cold field south of Launceston, Fox Task Force members Oliver Breeze and John McConnell begin yet another search for an animal that hides as well as it hunts. Several days ago, a young boy reported seeing a fox here. Now the spotlight swinging across the dark paddocks catches the glinting eyes of possums, wallabies, quolls and wombats in the midst of their nightly foraging. But, as on countless other nights, there's no sign of the so-called "white diamond" - the unmistakable gleam of a fox's eyes.

Tasmania's wealth of wildlife, which amazes visitors from the mainland and from overseas, owes much to the absence of foxes. But in an act some are calling eco-terrorism, police believe up to 20 European red fox cubs were brought into Tasmania in February 2000, reared and released - probably for hunting - near Longford, south of Launceston. Thirty-three native species - including endangered birds and endemic fauna like the Tasmanian bettong - are judged to be at very high risk from an established fox population. "People who haven't lived on the mainland haven't seen the destruction foxes cause," says Chris Emms, manager of the task force set up to find the foxes. There have been 110 quality sightings, and scats and tracks have been found. But despite hundreds of hours spotlighting and the laying of 13,000 toxic baits, only two fox carcases have been found: one shot by hunters in 2001, and another run over last October at Burnie on the state's north coast.

Some farmers have refused to have the baits laid because of controversy surrounding the toxin they contain, 1080, which can kill dogs and is widely used (in higher doses) to kill the native possums and wallabies that feed on seedlings in plantation forests. But others simply don't believe foxes have arrived, despite the sightings, the carcases, and warnings that an established population could see lamb production fall by 10%. Two station hands working for Gwendolyn Adams saw a fox 18 months ago on her farm near Perth, a hot spot of sightings south of Launceston. She says the pair were treated locally "like pilots claiming to have seen a ufo - they got a lot of stick about it." Farmer Colin Lindsay, who's seen a fox twice, says the problem is that apart from the task force, no one's out looking: "We need to enlist some die-hard bushmen and hunters who don't mind walking in ditches and getting on their knees to look in culverts." But local deer hunter John Upton says most hunters wouldn't participate. Has he ever seen a fox? "I've never been that drunk," he says. The task force has had to deal with plenty of skepticism, false leads and pranks, such as a fox nailed to a cross, its gut missing so tests on its origin were impossible. It's even been accused of planting the Burnie fox to ensure its funding continues. Yet there's no time to waste, says Emms: "If we wait for everyone to see a fox, then you can guarantee it will be way too late to do anything about it."

The 22-member task force is also battling inadequate funding, which means the 300,000-hectare area identified as likely fox habitat has been baited only once, instead of the target three times, in the past year. While the Tasmanian Conservation Trust rates an established fox population as a bigger disaster for Tasmania than the high-profile issue of clear-felling native forest, "the momentum has definitely gone," says Craig Woodfield, the Trust's representative on the task force's steering committee. "If the state government were really serious about it, they would be putting in at least twice the amount." The Bacon government has provided $A1.2 million a year over two years and, says a spokesman for Environment Minister Bryan Green, "the skepticism's only in the pubs - the government is convinced." Federal Environment Minister Kemp says while the fox in Tasmania is "a threat to biodiversity of national importance," fox control is a state matter, though the federal government has spent $A2.6 million on national research into a virus that would render the animals sterile. But the federal government has declined a request to match the state government's direct assistance, limiting its contribution to $A400,000 a year. The lack of funding has wildlife experts shaking their heads. "It's bizarre," says devil researcher Menna Jones, "because with foxes we could see the extinction of 15-20 species, and the devil disease probably won't cause one extinction."

The fox hunt has never been more urgent: devils are considered a buffer against foxes, eating their cubs and competing for food, and their falling numbers could give Vulpes vulpes the foothold it needs to out-compete Tasmania's other predators, from eagles to quolls. What's more, if an expanding fox population keeps depleted devil numbers low, the species will become genetically less diverse, leaving it more vulnerable to future disease outbreaks and possible extinction. And without devils to remove dead and sick animals from the system, diseases could make inroads on other species, too. "You couldn't script it any worse than this," says Craig Woodfield. At stake is more than the fate of a tourist attraction - on the fortunes of the unique devil could hang the entire balance of an ecological refuge found nowhere else on the planet. n