April 11, 2007 in Nation/World

Tasmanian devil rescue plan has environmentalists worried

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
 
Associated Press photo

Researchers estimate the wild population of Tasmanian devils has fallen from 140,000 in the 1990s to 80,000.
(Full-size photo)

CANBERRA, Australia – Tasmanian devils – the marsupial made famous as a snarling cartoon character named Taz – are being relocated to an island off Australia to avert their extinction by a contagious cancer.

Some scientists fear the move could endanger rare birds and other animals on the island, but other experts say it is a last resort and should pose no problem since the devils are scavengers, not predators.

The fox-like animals with powerful jaws and a bloodcurdling growl are being wiped out on the island state of Tasmania by a contagious cancer that creates grotesque facial tumors.

Hamish McCallum, a professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, is among a group of experts who plan to transfer 30 devils off Tasmania’s east coast to Maria Island – a former 19th-century prison that is now home to several endangered species of birds.

The move, which state and federal governments are expected to approve within weeks, is controversial because scientists can only guess at the impact the introduced carnivores will have on the uninhabited island’s ecology.

David Obendorf, a veterinary pathologist who in 2000 sounded one of the first warnings of the threat to the devils, said several experts shared his concerns about the plan.

“It’s clearly an experiment and I think they are considering the need to act decisively and quickly because this disease is more important than the consequences,” Obendorf said.

Advocates hope that if devils are wiped out on the Tasmanian mainland the disease will die along with them, and the animals placed in havens can then be safely reintroduced.


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