The Tasmanian Devil is going extinct: here's why

The Tasmanian devil is threatened by a transmissible form of cancer

by Lorenzo Ciotti
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The Tasmanian Devil is going extinct: here's why

The Tasmanian devil is threatened by a transmissible form of cancer. Currently this animal is widespread only on the island of Tasmania: however there is evidence of its past presence also in the rest of Australia, where this species died out 400 years before the arrival of the European colonizers.

Persecuted for a long time by the European colonists, as it is considered a great raider of chicken coops and implacable hunter of cattle heads, starting from the second half of the twentieth century, the species has been declared protected by the government of Tasmania.

Although it is a well-known animal and generally considered common in its homeland, the bear devil was decimated in the late nineties by a rare form of transmissible cancer, the facial tumor of the devil, which greatly reduced the number of specimens and put the very survival of the species at risk, so much so that in May 2008 the Tasmanian devil was officially classified as an endangered species.

Diagnosed for the first time in 1996 in north-eastern Tasmania, the devil's facial tumor has spread to 65% of Tasmania in just a few years, decimating the wild population of the Tasmanian devil: estimates of the impact of the disease speak of a reduction between 20% and 50%.

This disease is an example of transmissible cancer, as it can be passed from one animal to another. The disease manifests itself with the appearance of neoplastic formations around the eyes and mouth, which hinder the normal search for food and nutrition, leading in most cases to death from starvation within a few months.

It has not yet been possible to prepare a vaccine or an effective cure for this evil, so the only way to stem its effects on the wild population is to isolate infected individuals as soon as possible, to prevent them from spreading the infection.

Targeted captures of healthy specimens are also underway, quarantined to safeguard the biotype in the event of destruction of the species in the wild. Also supporting the rescue of genetic information are Melbourne's Healesville Sanctuary and Sydney's Taronga Zoo.

In January 2010, the number of Tasmanian devils housed in these facilities amounted to 277 individuals. In 2011, it was estimated that the cost of conserving the species would amount to about $11 million.