Thanks to an unusual, unrelenting and contagious cancer, the global population of Tasmanian devils is declining at an alarming rate, and the only way to save them seems to be removing the animals from their eponymous island. Just a couple of months ago, a team of scientists carried 15 healthy devils to Maria Island, three miles of the Tasmanian coast and released them into the wild. They're the first devils ever to inhabit the land.
The goal is to breed a separate, cancer-free population of the endangered animal in an attempt to save the species should the rapidly spreading illness continue to claim the lives of the animals on Tasmania. The cancer epidemic went from being stable to completely out of control in the past couple of years, and now, the elusive strain of cancer has claimed 84 percent of the Tasmanian devil population. As Katherine Belov, a biologist at the University of Sydney, put it in a recent interview with The New York Times, "We have very little time to save the species."
The Tasmanian devils' health troubles are not a new problem, but it appears to have hit its tipping point. Beginning in the mid-1990s, scientists started noticing that large numbers of the animals were dying from a disfiguring cancer that caused large tumors to form around the mouth and nose. When they noticed that the DNA in the tumors didn't match the infected Tasmanian devil but rather other devils, they realized that the cancer was in fact contagious and would continue to spread throughout the population.
The only real option to prevent a complete annihilation of the species was to quarantine a large population of Tasmanian devils on another island and wait for the epidemic to run its course. (A vaccine would take years to develop.) And it'll be an expensive effort -- $11 millions dollars, at the very least. The Maria Island transplants are just the first of many on the island. If all else fails, the Australian and Tasmanian governments are working together on an "insurance population" of about 500 devils that are being kept in zoos and sanctuaries. Meanwhile, it's a race to save those in the wild. "Will we make it in time?" wondered geneticist Janine Deakin last year in a Smithsonian Magazine article. "I don't know."