New Hope for the Devil

The devil you know: young Tasmanian Devil at a sanctuary near Port Arthur (James Fallows)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

No, despite the title, this is not a U.S.-politics item.

Three years ago I did an Atlantic piece called “Maybe the Most Unforgettable Place Ever,” about the removed-from-time Australian island of Tasmania. It mainly talked about the chillingly beautiful restored prison camp at Port Arthur, of which I can still recall almost every scene and detail. The name Port Arthur also has modern political significance. After a mass-shooting slaughter there in 1996, of the sort that happens repeatedly in the United States but was considered a national trauma in Australia, the conservative government of Prime Minister John Howard dramatically tightened gun-ownership laws. No remotely comparable killing has happened in Australia since.

Another theme of our Tasmania report was the tragedy of the devils. As I said in the story:

The roads through Tasmania’s mountains and glades are scenic and twisting, and shockingly littered with roadkill. Rabbits, wombats, Australian “possums” (marsupials that look like oversize ground squirrels), even wallabies and a kangaroo—we saw these and other battered corpses practically every mile we drove. We never ran over anything ourselves, but that was because we drove only by day: Tasmania’s dimly lit country roads and slow-moving nocturnal fauna account for the carnage.

Some of the animals on the road were black, with a white stripe across the chest, and an appearance combining aspects of a dog’s, a large rat’s, and a small boar’s. These were the famous Tasmanian devils, whose main peril now comes not from cars but from an odd, infectious form of cancer, which one devil transmits to another when biting it in the face. This happens so frequently, and the disease is so deadly, that an “insurance population” of cancer-free devils has been established in protected sanctuaries, in case efforts fail to control the disease. We visited a sanctuary near Port Arthur and watched baby devils hiss.

Now the NYT brings welcome news of progress against the devils’ devastating infectious-cancer epidemic. You can read the brief item here; the scientific paper it is based on is here. Its gist is that populations with a cancer-resistant gene variation are showing up and expanding. Go devils!

“Baby Devils on Display”: I assume this was written with wry intent. (James Fallows)

Yet another theme of the report was the cunning audacity of the wallabies. Whenever you turned your back, one of them would start sneaking up from behind to grab some food. For instance:

The population of these wallabies has been growing in Tasmania. Hope that will soon be true for the devils as well.