They are cruel, ugly and stinking - and threatened by a mysterious disfiguring disease. But that hasn't stopped Australians from rushing to help the Tasmanian devil in an ambitious project that has been compared to Noah's Ark. Kathy Marks reports an extraordinary evacuation
Less cuddly than the koala, less quirky than the kangaroo, the Tasmanian devil isn't for everyone. But the rare carnivorous marsupials known for their blood-clotting screams and insatiable appetite for wombat carrion may not be around much longer.
A mysterious facial cancer disease is ravaging the demon population, found only in Tasmania, the island nation off mainland Australia. Numbers have halved within a decade, and the ferocious black furry creatures are on the brink of extinction in the wild within 10 to 20 years unless a cure is found. There may only be 20,000 left.
Scientists are trying to conserve the species by sending a population of healthy "Noah's Ark" animals to zoos and sanctuaries across the continent. Institutions in Europe and the US would also have a role in Project Ark, which aims to conserve the creatures and, if possible, release them back into the wild once the disease is eradicated.
A total of 48 devils were transferred to zoos across Australia and four devils were born at a Queensland wildlife park participating in the project. The size of a grain of rice at birth, they were the first babies to be bred in captivity as part of the captive breeding program.
While the births have been hailed as rare good news, the prognosis for Tasmanian devils is bleak. The highly contagious disease, believed to be spread by word of mouth when the quarrelsome creatures fight over food, has spread across three-quarters of the island.
The disease, which causes disfiguring facial tumors, first emerged on Tasmania's remote northeast coast, and its origins remain a mystery. Cancer takes root in the devil's mouth and pulls out his teeth. Many died of starvation.
The fear is that the demon that inspired Taz, a character in Warner Brothers' Loony Tunes, will follow the path of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. it is mourned and many people refuse to believe that it is extinct. "Sightings" are frequently reported.
The Noah's Ark program could be a way to save the species, aiming to keep about 1,500 demons, a "safe population", in captivity.
Zoos participating in the project include Sydney's Australian Reptile Park, Melbourne's Healesville Sanctuary and Queensland's Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where the babies were born. Other institutions are building special enclosures for the demons as they prepare to receive their share.
Up to 20 mainland zoos are expected to participate over the next three years. After that, 15 to 20 overseas zoos could send healthy devils, according to Caroline Lees, who runs the program for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.
Mrs. Lees told the Sydney Morning Herald that it was the first project of its kind. “There are global survival programs for species like the red panda or the golden lion tamarin,” she said. "But there has never been a project on a global scale to save an animal from disease."
However, it might not be enough. Scientists warn that after several generations in captivity, animals lose their natural behavior - and it can take that long to eradicate the disease. Therefore, it is important to conserve a demonic population in the wild whenever possible. Wildlife experts are considering relocating several creatures to the islands of Tasmania, where they would be safe from the spread of the disease. One site being evaluated is Maria Island, a former prison settlement on the east coast, now a national park.
Scientists are conducting an environmental impact assessment of the devil's fugitives arriving on the island.
Eventually, it's hoped that half a dozen protected islands and peninsulas could become home to healthy devils, who could then produce sustainable populations.
Hamish McCallum, professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, told ABC radio: "Right now we don't have a vaccine, we don't have an effective treatment, so all we know is we can move uninfected animals to a place where this may be possible, the disease cannot come easily.
“But one of the risks is that after several generations in captivity, the animals start to lose their natural behavior. We need more than just captive populations. It would be a tragedy if they only lived in zoos.” The professor said that, ideally, experts want to maintain a population of 1,000 in the wild. But that probably wouldn't be possible. First, he hopes to place 30th on Maria Island; 30 creatures are waiting in quarantine in Hobart.
These projects cost money, and despite the urgency of the problem, there isn't much. The Tasmanian government has pledged $3m (£1.3m) to help fight the disease over the next two years. Nick McKim, a local Green Party MP, points out that the government is spending twice as much to sponsor an Australian rules football club and says tens of millions of dollars are needed to stop the devil from getting in the way of the Tasmanian tiger to go .
Some resources were provided by the federal government. However, scientists are critical of the slow official response to the disease. It wasn't until 2003 that funds were made available for research, although the first case was identified in 1995. "We are now in a race against extinction," says Menna Jones, a leading diabolical biologist.
Devils are the world's largest carnivorous marsupials, but they may not be the loveliest Australian Aborigines. They are greedy and aggressive, fighting over the food and carcasses they capture, and will eat just about anything they can find in the forest. They have been known to eat an entire horse carcass, eating skin, bones and meat, leaving only the hooves.
Initial theories that the disease was caused by a virus have been disproved. Some scientists believe it may have started with malignant cancer cells in a single demon. Some observers have suggested that agricultural and forestry pesticide spraying, along with genetic deficiencies, may have been the trigger. Forest plantations in Tasmania are being sprayed with chemicals, while poison 1080, which is banned in much of the world, is being used to kill rabbits.
In addition to keeping animals healthy in zoos, wildlife experts are trying to capture and kill sick devils to stop the disease from spreading. Infected animals are culled from the Tasman Peninsula south of Hobart. The project costs around $200,000 a year.
Scientists also inject healthy demons with deficient facial tumor cells to see if they have an immune response. The hope is that this research could lead to the development of a vaccine.
But capturing demons, either to test them or vaccinate them, is a tricky task. Demons don't like to be caught and respond by using their long white teeth.
One of the problems with the captive breeding program is that devils have a very short fertility period, with females only having about three chances to conceive in a lifetime.
Perhaps this is why females mate with multiple partners in order to find the fittest and strongest father for their young.
While the devil is a symbol of Tasmania, few outside Australia would know about it if it weren't for the cartoon character Taz, known for his habit of spinning like a tornado and for his chainsaw-like teeth that consume everything in its path.
Like the Tasmanian tiger, the devil was hunted and shot by early European settlers. Conservationists say it was also once threatened with extinction, but the population has since recovered. Before the canker appeared, the species was abundant and thriving.
The disease is now believed to be within 30 miles of the west coast of Tasmania, where devils have not previously been affected. Local extinctions have been recorded elsewhere.
David Obendorf, a veterinarian and wildlife researcher, says: "It doesn't look good for Tasmania to know that its iconic species, the Tasmanian devil, is walking around with a cancer on its face."