Friday, August 21, 2009

ADELAIDE, Australia

It has teeth that a vampire would envy, a reputation for viciousness and a spine-chilling shriek, but the Tasmanian devil is being idolized in Australia these days with an intensive drive to save it from extinction.

An aggressive form of infectious facial cancer, spread by the devils biting each other, has landed them in the endangered category. Since it was first identified in 1996, the illness has killed an estimated 70 percent of the devils in Tasmania, Australia’s southern island and the only place where these animals live in the wild.

Scientists say the entire population of devils - the largest surviving marsupial carnivores in the world - could be wiped out in less than 20 years, suffering the same fate as a distant cousin, the Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct in 1936.

Early European settlers gave the devil its name because of its nightly rants and ferocious looks.

For those familiar with “Taz,” the crazed Looney Tunes character Warner Brothers modeled after the devil, the likely extinction of the breed might not seem such a bad thing. But conservationists maintain that the nocturnal, fox-size animal has gotten a bad rap.

They say it’s a timid creature that would rather run than fight and that it plays an ecological role by controlling non-native pests such as foxes and feral cats and by eating and removing dead and injured animals. It is also an important tourism revenue earner for Tasmania.

The Australians’ attachment to their native mammal, however, goes beyond the pragmatic; the “Tassie” devil is regarded as embodying the very essence of the country’s wilderness.

The cause of saving the devil has received wide public support, ranging from scientists to more than 300 schools and businesses, including a soccer team and the Australian airline, Qantas.

Donations have also come from some overseas fans, including Warner Brothers and CNN founder Ted Turner.

The Australian federal government has pledged $8 million and is being pressured to increase that amount, while Tasmania recently announced another $320,000. The money is financing dozens of management and research projects, some focusing on the animal’s genome.

Scientists think that the disease - one of only three known contagious cancers - is rampant because devils are so genetically similar that their immune systems don’t recognize the malignant tumors as foreign cells and fight them.

“We want to understand when, where and why Tasmanian devils lost their genetic diversity,” said University of Adelaide evolutionary biologist Jeremy Austin, who is analyzing DNA samples, some going back thousands of years.

Meanwhile, University of Tasmania scientists are pursuing a vaccine. Their efforts suffered a setback a few months ago when Cedric, a 3-year-old male inoculated with a preparation that seemed promising, developed the disease.

“Our program is not relying on one single strategy such as a vaccine,” said Andrew Sharman, manager of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. “We have a range of responses in place.”

The responses include barriers to stop the infected animals from carrying the disease into healthy populations. There’s one free-range enclosure of healthy animals on Tasmania’s east coast, appropriately called Devil Island, and there are plans to build three more.

Feasibility studies are under way on an even more ambitious plan - a fence sectioning off parts of Tasmania to stop the animals in the disease-ravaged regions of the island from moving into the relatively disease-free northwest. There is a precedent: In 1961, two borders of the Kruger National Park in South Africa were fenced to stop wildlife from transmitting foot-and-mouth disease to cattle.

A key aspect of the preservation program has been to ship healthy devils to other parts of Australia where they can breed and multiply. There are now 145 disease-free devils in zoos and wildlife parks on mainland Australia in addition to 48 quarantined on the island.

An experimental blood test that can detect the illness before it manifests itself as tumors around the mouth is being hailed as potentially a vital tool in managing these healthy colonies.

“This insurance population is the final backup,” Mr. Sharman said.

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