Many people are aware that Tasmanian Devil numbers in the wild are dwindling, but not so many people are aware of the efforts being made to save this beautiful species of animal. Dean Reid, Manager at Devil Ark – a Tasmanian Devil breeding facility in the Barrington Tops – takes us for a walk behind the scenes at this amazing sanctuary …
Hi Dean. The Devil Ark Facility was founded in 2011 at the Barrington Tops, with the aim of helping to prevent the extinction of the Tasmanian Devil. How has the facility grown in the past five years?
Devil Ark has gone from strength to strength since 2011. Stage 1 was nine enclosures being built on 25 hectares of land donated by the Packer family; we started off with 44 founder Devils. Since then, stage 2 and stage 3 have happened. For Stage 2 we built three more enclosures to house our ever growing population of Devils. Stage 3, we built an Interpretative Centre (education centre) for tours, so people can come up and experience the only place in the world that you can get close to 10 feeding Devils in a natural environment.
From 44 founding Devils, we now have 170 devils at Devil Ark, with 180 joeys born in four years. We hope to have some accommodation built in the future so we can do night tours.
As the manager at Devil Ark, what’s involved with your job on a day-to-day basis?
My job as Devil Ark Manager is very varied. My day starts very early at 7:30am, on-site to do a perimeter check to make sure no trees are down on the fences and also to check five traps we have around the perimeter in case of any escapees.
At 8am I start my rounds, cleaning the water dishes for 13 enclosures, or as we call them, MEEs (Managed Environmental Enclosures). I also pick up all the old bones left over from the feed the night before, and I check the fence lines for any Devils digging.
At 10:30 I have a quick break before I start a small job, which could be many things, like fixing a fence, changing the food stations around, spraying weeds, bone collection, filling in holes that the Devils dig, cleaning yards, removing Scotch Broome – a weed – or cleaning the utes.
Then it’s lunch time. After lunch I start food preparation, which takes about one hour, and then I feed out and watch my Devils in each yard; it is a great time to see all the Devils as they come in for food, and to check for any injuries.
Introduce us to the Tasmanian Devil. They’re very unique little creatures … What are some of their traits that you most admire? Are they as fierce as they sound?
Tasmanian Devils get a bad rap, unfortunately. Maybe I am a little biased, as I love them, but working so closely with them you get to see another side of them. I have never been bitten seriously in the four years I have worked with them – maybe a little love nip here and there though!
I have be fortunate to see some amazing things they do; one such thing is after they have eaten, they will sit up on their back legs and clean their face and whiskers with their paws ever so gently.
They are very curious and mischievous and if you leave anything laying around, they will run off with it; I have lost a few gloves and a camera trap in the past.
Hand raising a joey has to be one of my favourite things to do; you get a real bond with them, and I can still hold Angel – one of the joeys from two years ago. Their fierce sound is mainly all bluff, and you rarely get any injuries amongst the Devils.
Tell us a little about Devil Facial Tumour Disease and the threat this poses to Devils in the wild …
DFTD is a fatal condition in Tasmanian Devils, characterised by cancers around the head and neck. DFTD is extremely unusual: it is one of only four known naturally occurring transmissible cancers. It is transmitted like a contagious disease between individuals through biting and other close contact. Animals usually die within a few months of the cancer becoming visible.
Tasmanian Devils with facial tumours find it difficult to eat. Death results from starvation and the breakdown of body functions as a result of the cancer. In diseased areas, nearly all sexually mature Tasmanian Devils (older than two years of age) become infected and succumb to the disease. Juveniles as young as one year old can also be infected.
This is resulting in populations with a very young age-structure in which females have only one breeding event; whereas, they would normally have three.
Populations in which DFTD has been observed for several years have declined by up to 97% (approximate, due to low sample size in recent years). There is no evidence to date of the decline in Devils stopping or the prevalence of the disease decreasing. In spite of this, Devils are persisting in the landscape due to precocial breeding and the capacity of females to wean their young before succumbing to the disease.
Devil Ark has been able to successfully breed quite a number of genetically diverse, disease-free joeys to date. How many animals (roughly) have you bred in total … and how many of these have been successfully been relocated to Tasmania?
Devil Ark has been very successful in breeding Devils, due to the natural environment we replicate. To date we have had 180 joeys born at Devil Ark. Twenty-two Devils went back to Tasmania Forestier’s Peninsular, which is fenced off from the mainland. We just had conformation that one of our females, Bree, was caught in March and had four joeys (the first confirmed pouch young on Forestier post-reintroduction), so you can imagine we are very proud and excited. We have another eight planned to go back to another site in August that are part of the immunisation trial.
Why do you feel you and your team have achieved such success with your breeding programme to date?
Devil Ark is a unique facility. I think it is so successful because we replicate a wild environment for the Devils. We don’t interfere with the Devil in their breeding season; we let them do what they do naturally.
The enclosures are large, 2.5 hectares and have 4:4 Devils in each enclosure, so that is four males and four females, ages ranging from two to five in the males and two to four in the females.
Plus, all the love and care that goes into it from the keepers’ diligence.
The Devil Ark facility offers tours to the public on certain dates of the year. What are the next tour dates, how much do the tours cost … and where can people book?
Devil Ark’s “Devils in the Wild” tours are available monthly throughout the year. The tour is fully escorted by our Devil Ark supervisor and runs for 2.5 hours and starts off with introduction of the project and the Tasmanian Devil over morning tea at our Interpretation Centre.
The tour will then take you on a journey, where you will see the Devils in our free-range enclosures. You will be privy to enter a huge free-range enclosure and experience a rare opportunity to really get up close and personal in the Devil’s natural enclosure to witness a communal feed to encourage wild behaviour.
Finally, you will even get the chance to hold and interact with our Ambassador joeys, Diva and Levi, who were born at Devil Ark earlier this year. The Devils in the Wild Tour costs $150 for adults and $100 for children between the ages of 8 – 15 years old. Tours are capped at 12 people, and you can head to our brand new website www.devilark.org.au to check the next tour dates and to book.
Why do you feel it’s so important that the work you’re doing at Devil Ark continues?
Tasmanian Devils are in serious trouble. A second DFTD has been discovered, completely different to the first and with 97% of the population already gone, our work at Devil Ark is ongoing; it’s a 20 to 30 year project. With a lot of funds going to the research into the DFTD cancer, we struggle to raise funds for what we think is the most important part of the picture – a genetically diverse insurance population on the mainland of Australia.
How else can the general public help support the breeding programme at Devil Ark, or find out more info?
Devil Ark is always looking for support, donations, adoptions, fundraising and exposure. You can help by going online: www.devilark.com.au and donating to this unique facility, sign up for one of our newsletters, or you can also go to our Facebook page and follow us by liking the page – https://www.facebook.com/TassieDevilArk/
It costs $280,000 a year to run Devil Ark.