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30 April 2008

Cradle Mountain Devils

Wade Anthony: Devils @ Cradle is quite a new facility. We've been open about two years now. It's quite a unique facility in the fact that we focus specifically on Tasmanian devils, and this allows us to invest a lot of our energy into conservation. And we cover various aspects of conservation from tourism, which relates to the viewing of the animals and the educational side of things through to a captive breeding program and various types of research work, such as camera monitoring.

Throughout the day, people wander around and they can see the animals just sunbaking and doing what devils do throughout the day. Of a night, we offer two feeding tours, which is quite a spectacular experience for people. They get to see the devils socialising and feeding as a group.

A bit more behind the scenes, I guess, we operate a captive breeding program. Now, this involves intensively managing the animals so we can selectively breed males with certain females to maintain some diversity in the population. This is quite important because, down the track, we hope to be able to release our captive-bred animals back into the wild.

One of the current threats that devils have, and it's something that's really infecting their population at the moment, is devil facial tumour disease, or DFTD. Now, this is a facial cancer that's passed on through contact within the animals. The disease front is probably 50 kilometres west of Cradle Mountain now. So what the Government are doing at the moment is trapping some animals off the west coast, which is still believed to be disease-free, and putting them into captive populations such as this one to assist with breeding diversity. Therefore, down the track, we may be able to release these animals back into the wild. DFTD has had quite a large impact on the population of Tasmanian devils over the last 10 years and the species is now classified as endangered.

Now, that means their population has declined by more than 50% over a 10-year period. So we're talking around 150,000 animals 10 years ago to about 70,000 animals in the wild now. So it is a real concern.

Devils are considered to be quite an aggressive little animal. Most people believe because of the noise that they make - their name, the devil, of course, which comes about from the noise that they make, their behaviour, which some people interpret as aggression and viciousness - that they're a savage little beast. Where, in fact, you can see here with young Maxwell it's not the case. Devils are a very shy animal.

Devils live, in the wild, for about five years. In captivity, we tend to get a couple of years longer out of the animals. They breed once a year. They have up to four young. Generally, the four don't get through. The mother might only be able to raise two or three. And they only breed probably three times in their life. They're a carnivorous marsupial - the largest carnivorous marsupial left on the earth. And they're quite an adaptable creature. Whilst primarily they feed on meat, they will also take small insects, birds' eggs, a range of different things to survive.

They're a very appealing little animal. They have such different personalities. They don't in any way show any affection, like a dog or a cat, as such, but they're such a unique little animal that you just can't help but like them.

This little guy here I've raised as an orphaned young. His mother was killed... His mother was killed on the road and he was found wandering along the edge of the road. He'd obviously crawled out of the pouch. So he was handed in to me and I've raised him for the last three months and become... ..become very...very attached to him, I guess. And in the last week, he's been put into one of these enclosures. And he's now ready... he's fully weaned and now ready to be integrated into this population. He's on meat and water, and that's primarily what he'll stay on for the rest of his life. He's gradually integrated himself in with this other animal, and they do what real devils do and that's chase one another around and growl and feed together and make whole lots of noise. But he's doing really quite well. He seems very happy.

We have a lot of visitors here. And the perception that they have when they come in is this is an aggressive little animal. One of the rewarding things that we find when the tour is finished and the people are leaving, that they have a totally different perception of the animal. They see it's not a vicious creature and they go away with a real understanding of the facts and the current threats about the animal, so that's really quite rewarding for us.