The decline of the devil
I came around the corner and jammed on the brakes. Staring at me, from a few centimetres in front of the car’s bumper, were three pairs of eyes. Each belonged to a wallaby, a sort of small kangaroo. They tilted their heads. I hooted my horn. They glanced at each other. I honked again. After a thirty-second standoff, they backed down. Or, rather, they bounced off, and I continued up Tasmania’s A1 forest highway.
Dusk is the not the best time to drive through Tasmania’s forests. You’re outnumbered, many times over, by the wildlife. Those wallabies survived. As did the wombat that waddled across the road in front of me a few kilometres further up. But on either side of the road were animals which did not. Wallabies, wombats, possums. I stopped counting at fifty carcasses; road-kill – ironically – a sign of prolific populations.
What I didn’t see - at all – was a dead Tasmanian Devil. They are not regularly hit by cars because there are hardly any left to hit.
Warner Brothers thought the animal cute enough to make a cartoon character out of it.
"Taz", the lovable rogue of the Looney Toons series, has undoubtedly been seen by many millions more people than his real-life counterparts have.
Because seeing a real Tasmanian Devil in the wild has become near impossible.
It was not always so. The Devil was prolific across Australia's island state of Tasmania when European settlers first arrived. They gave it its name because of the piercing cry that would penetrate the night’s sky.
But that cry is less and less common. For two decades now, numbers of Tasmanian Devils have been in steep decline. The cause: a cancerous facial tumour. It spreads when Devils scratch or bite during fights - which they do a lot.
Devil populations are down more than 90 per cent. If people weren’t more aware of what was going on, they would soon be extinct. In the wild, they soon will be.
But this is not a story of despair. Rather than fight the inevitable, conservationists have decided to accept it, and plan for what happens next. A breeding programme is underway. Healthy Tasmanian Devils live in an wild-like captive complex. When all wild Tasmanian Devils have gone – every last one – the healthy ones will start to be released.
That will not be soon. Probably the great-great-great-offspring of those featured in my TV report will be the first to cry in freedom. But the hope is that Tasmanian Devils may yet get a second chance.