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Fence could help Tasmania save its devils

Tasmania is trying to save the devil. The Tasmanian devil, a ferocious, snarling fox-sized marsupial, is in danger of going extinct because of a contagious facial cancer.
Image: Tasmanian devil
Scientists believe that building a double fence could stop the relentless spread of a contagious facial cancer plaguing the ferocious, fox-sized marsupial. Torsten Blackwood / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tasmania is trying to save the devil.

The Tasmanian devil, a ferocious, snarling fox-sized marsupial, is in danger of going extinct because of a contagious facial cancer. In the meantime, its biggest rival — the European fox — is thriving, and may become so dominant that the devil never comes back.

Scientists now want to build a double fence standing more than three feet tall to stop the cancer's relentless spread toward the rugged northwest of the island, home to disease-free devils and World Heritage-listed rain forest. Devils spread the cancer when they bite each other during mating or squabble over food.

But for any chance of success, the fences would have to be completed within two years, said Hamish McCallum, the senior scientist in the devil rescue program. He predicts the devil will go extinct in the wild within 20 years.

The Australian island state of Tasmania is the only natural home for the world's largest marsupial carnivore, made notorious by its Looney Tunes cartoon namesake Taz. Its Latin name is Sarcophilus harrisii, or "Harris' meat lover," after the scientist who first studied devils.

Scientists had hoped to find a genetic solution to the disease through Cedric, a young devil who showed signs of natural immunity in laboratory tests. But last month Cedric contracted a second, mutated strain of the cancer.

Warner Bros., which owns Taz, and CNN founder Ted Turner, who started the Cartoon Network, are helping the Australian and Tasmanian governments bankroll the fight against the disease.

In the past three years, Australian zoos have bred 170 devils as "insurance populations." Plans to establish a wild colony on uninhabited Maria Island off Tasmania are controversial because of fears that devils could endanger rare birds and beetles.

The Tasmanian government says it is considering offshore islands as well as fenced areas up to 12 miles long, but its first priority is the populations in mainland zoos.

McCallum, professor of wildlife research at the University of Tasmania, said the only fence precedent he knew of was in South Africa, where the Kruger National Park was fenced on its southern and western borders in 1961 to prevent foot-and-mouth disease spreading from wildlife to cattle. The Tasmanian fence would be built in selective areas, such as some corners or a peninsula.

"This isn't going to be a huge barrier like the Berlin Wall across all of Tasmania," McCallum said.

Government wildlife biologist Nick Moonie noted that fences would also trap other animals such as wallabies and echidnas, some of which may need to move or migrate. Moonie, who advises both the devil rescue and fox eradication programs, suspects cancer won't wipe out devils, but foxes just might.

Scientists say it is no coincidence that devil numbers have halved in the same decade that foxes have finally gained a foothold in Tasmania, with potentially disastrous consequences for the island's unique wildlife. For example, penguins and the kangaroo-like bettongs have lived with the devil for thousands of years but are easy prey for foxes.

Devils and foxes are the top predators in Tasmania. But until now, foxes have faced tens of thousands of devils competing for food and devouring their litters.

Foxes and rabbits were first brought to Australia about 200 years ago by British settlers. Unimpressed by Australian wildlife that hopped on hind legs and carried young in pouches, the newcomers hoped to recreate an English landscape Down Under. Since then, 25 mammal species have become extinct, giving Australia the world's worst extinction record, according to the Tasmanian government.

Only one of these extinctions occurred in Tasmania. The devil's larger cousin, the dog-like Tasmanian tiger, was wiped out by farmers determined to protect their lambs and encouraged by a hefty government bounty.

A three-year-old, $3.3 million a year program is under way to poison an estimated 150 foxes. Tony Peacock, chief executive of Canberra University's Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center, said eradicating foxes is a question of will.

"We, in Australia, are the best in the world at driving animals to extinction," he said. "It's just in the past that we haven't wanted to."