Tasmanian Devils under Threat

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Devils under Threat

The greatest threat to Tasmanian devils is a disease called Devil Facial Tumour Disease, or DFTD for short:

Devil = it only affects Tasmanian devils
Facial = it tends to occur on the face
Tumour = cancer/neoplasm/growth
Disease = illness/sickness/disorder​​

Devil Facial Tumour Disease ​

​Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a very rare form of cancer that can be spread when devils bite one another while they are fighting or mating. There are now two known types of DFTD that affect Tasmaninan devils - DFT1 and DFT2. Both appear to have the same way of spreading and are similar in appearance.

Devils that have this disease usually have lumps or lesions (areas where the skin is swollen, broken or bleeding) in the face or on the neck. These lumps grow into ugly, larger tumours and the cancer can spread throughout the body.

Adult devils are most commonly affected by this disease. Devils with DFTD usually have problems eating food once the lumps are bigger, especially if they are in and around the mouth. Affected devils then grow weaker because they can't eat enough food. Once they show signs of the disease, devils usually die in about three to six months.

How does the disease affect the devil population?

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) was first noticed in the north-east of Tasmania in the mid-1990s. Since its discovery, DFTD has become a big problem - the disease has spread to almost all devil populations across the state and devil numbers across Tasmania have declined by 80% or more. 
The disease mostly affects devils that are older than two years, although sometimes devils as young as one can also become infected.  Once diseased, females often only live long enough to breed once (= up to 4 young).  Scientists fear that if we lose too many adult devils, the devil population will take a very long time to recover and is the reason scientists are working so hard to find out how to limit the spread of the disease to help save the Tasmanian devil.

What is being done about the disease?

Research – Scientists continue to investigate and learn more about what DFTD is and how it works.  For example, study has shown that the disease can “hide” from the devil’s immune system and so special scientists are doing research to invent a vaccine that will help the devil fight the disease.  

Insurance population - Experts have ensured that large numbers of healthy devils are protected from getting DFTD, no matter what happens. This management plan includes separating healthy devils from devils that do have the disease in special quarantine areas. These devils are being used in a breeding program called the Insurance Population. There are more than 600 healthy devils all around Australia as part of this population including a disease free population on Tasmania’s Maria Island.

Monitoring - Wildlife officers are monitoring devils in the wild. For example, researchers conduct catch and release surveys where they capture devils in special traps and record details of their health before letting them go again. They also use remote sensor cameras to take pictures of them.  This all helps to identify both healthy devils and ones that may be sick. This helps us understand how many devils are affected by the disease in certain areas, the age of the animals and whether they are male or female. It can also tell us how the population is managing in the face of disease.

Wild devil recovery – Healthy devils from the insurance population are carefully selected and released back into the wild as part of specially managed operations to increase the numbers and diversity of wild devil populations.  

Education – Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and other associated organisations put a lot of effort into educating about Tasmanian devils and their plight against DFTD.  This includes having ‘retired’ insurance population devils placed in zoos and wildlife parks across Australia and the world as ambassadors of their species.  Raising awareness and understanding plays a big role in saving the Tasmanian devil.  ​

How you can help

If you see a roadkilled devil please report it using our online form​. If you see an injured or sick devil, please contact Bonorong Wildlife Rescue on 0447 264 625.

For more information see the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program ​(adult) website.