A WILDLIFE ecologist says Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harrisii), that disappeared from continental Australia 4–5,000 years ago, could be released in WA’s South-West to ensure a healthy mainland population free from Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
While not representing the views of an interstate insurance breeding program for devils, University of Tasmania’s Dr Menna Jones says enough animals could become available to begin a release program somewhere outside of Tasmania within 5–10 years.
As the devil’s numbers decline due to DFTD, Jones says feral cat populations are increasing, concurrent with a decrease in smaller marsupial numbers due at least in part to predation.
She says a movement to re-introduce extinct species on the mainland includes the fascinating possibility of re-establishing Tasmanian devils, which were probably wiped out by dingoes when they first arrived in Australia.
She says this should have ecological benefits.
“In Tasmania we are looking at the role of the devil in potentially controlling populations of feral cats,” she says.
“Devils may [also] play a role in suppressing populations of foxes.”
“As Tasmanian devils decline, the numbers of feral cats we are seeing is increasing.”
“At the same time we seem to be losing some of our medium sized marsupials, such eastern quolls which are disappearing right across their range in the state.”
She says a viable wild breeding population would need 100–150 animals and a range of at least 100 square kilometres, free from predatory dogs.
The cost of exclusion fencing would be prohibitive anywhere other than a peninsula or offshore island.
Dr Jones says re-introduction programs tend to succeed when about 50 animals are first released, with further staged releases over about five years.
She says the biggest challenge to reintroducing any predator is socio-political.
It would need to be stated very plainly that some stock losses – of lambs and young sheep – would occur, but she says the benefits of reduced fox and cat numbers may balance this out.
She says Tasmanian farmers tend to favour lambing paddocks well away from the forest edge where they can be regularly checked.
Luckily, healthy captive breeding programs are helping preserve the species and each of these tends to result in surplus offspring which would make a wild release feasible.
Dr Jones says an environment such as WA’s South West could provide an ideal habitat.