Can a New, Improved Tasmanian Devil Escape Extinction?

A Tasmanian Devil stands on a tree trunk at Taronga Zoo's new Tasmanian Devil Breeding Centre in Sydney on June 30, 2010. The centre will play an important role in helping to save the world's largest remaining carnivorous marsupial, allowing visitors to the zoo to see conservation action, with an outdoor 'classroom' showing the difficulties the devil faces in the wild.  (National Journal)

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4824) }}

The Tasmanian devil is in trouble.

The devil, a carnivorous marsupial native to its namesake island off the coast of Australia, is suffering from a rare cancer that can be spread by face-to-face contact. The disease has killed off 85 percent of the animal's population since 1996. Within a quarter-century, the species will be wiped from the wild completely, scientists project.

The disease is incurable, but American conservationists and Australian academics say they have a plan to save the creature nonetheless.

In step one, University of Sydney researchers will shepherd a group of disease-free devils onto a smaller island off the eastern coast of Tasmania.

They will then track the healthy, isolated population with microchips and GPS technology funded in part by a $500,000 contribution from San Diego Zoo Global. Researchers plan to maintain the diversity of the species and hope to see the population flourish under their watchful eyes.

Step two, however, is brutal: the researchers will safeguard the chosen population while the devils remaining on Tasmania die out completely — hopefully, taking the cancer out with them. Then, when the main island is both devil- and cancer-free, the scientists plan to reintroduce their safeguarded stock to repopulate the island.

"Ultimately, the disease will wipe out devils in the wild," Kathy Belov, professor of veterinary science at the University of Sydney, said. "But these newly created disease-free populations will be used to repopulate the wild once it is safe to do so."

At least, that's the aim. If the plan fails, the devils could go the way of another carnivorous marsupial from down under: the Tasmanian tiger.