Wild Devil Recovery Update

Wild Devil Recovery Update

Tasmanian devils released into the wild are persisting despite a range of threats including disease and roadkill. 

The latest monitoring, as part of the Wild Devil Recovery Project, has found devils have survived translocation, settled into release sites, put on weight and have started to breed.

Program Manager, Dr David Pemberton, of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP) says the first birth to a translocated devil in the wild with wild devils was recorded during monitoring at Stony Head in the state’s north last month. 

“This is a major milestone for the Wild Devil Recovery Project (WDR),” Dr Pemberton said. “As part of our monitoring, biologists trapped a four-year devil with three pouch young. 

“This shows that devils can be released into the wild and they are breeding. The tracking data is suggesting that the introductions provide an influx of genetic diversity into an area up to 20km from the release site. Increased genetic diversity and numbers of devils gives evolution a chance.” 

The Wild Devil Recovery Project is a trial to bring devils back into the wild and to trial the development of a vaccine.
One of the biggest challenges is rebuilding wild devil populations in areas where Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is present. The WDR is looking at whether vaccination can successfully provide an immunity boost to devils against DFTD while studying the impacts on resident devil populations. 

Routine monitoring at Stony Head in the past few weeks has found that three of the translocated devils released into the area in 2016 have small tumours. 

Professor Greg Woods from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania said that this was a risk. 

“Although all the immunized devils produced an immune response, a trial in the wild was the only way to determine if the immunisation would protect against DFTD,” Professor Woods said. 

“The findings are valuable as they indicated that the immunisations were not completely protective.  

“Success often requires taking risks. Vaccine research is complex and is confronted with many challenges. Our next challenge is to determine why three devils were not protected and to modify the immunisation procedure to provide full protection,” Professor Woods said. 

The Menzies Institute for Medical Research and the STDP are working closely with other partners such as the University of Sydney to understand devil and tumour evolution in the face of translocations.  

Professor Kathy Belov from the University of Sydney says the impact of genetic rescue on tumour genetics is being investigated. 

“DFTD has led to a drop in the number of wild devils. Because resources are plentiful devils stay closer to home and we are seeing local increases in inbreeding,” Professor Belov said. 

“Translocations allow us to carry out ‘genetic rescue’ and move extra genetic diversity into small isolated populations. Genetic rescue is really important as it makes wild populations more resilient to future challenges, including threats from disease and climate change.” 

The vaccine trials as part of Wild Devil Recovery will continue, as a successful vaccine is useful for the management of the Tasmanian devil population. 

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and Menzies Institute for Medical Research has worked incredibly hard to maximise the success of the Wild Devil Recovery Project and a great deal has been learnt from the previous releases that will inform how future releases are managed.  

In May this year, 33 devils were released into the wild at wukalina/Mount William in the state’s northeast as part of WDR. This follows on from the release of 33 devils at Stony Head in the north of the state in 2016, 20 devils at Narawntapu National Park in September 2015 and 39 devils on the Forestier Peninsula in November 2015. 

Another key learning has been adaptive management mitigation to reduce the number of released devils being killed on nearby roads.  

Dr Sam Fox from the STDP said no devils have died from roadkill from the wukalina/Mount William release in May this year.  

“This is encouraging news as data from previous releases found captive devils are particularly vulnerable in the first two to four weeks as they disperse away from the release site and transition back to wild living,” Dr Fox said.

Some of the mitigation steps that the Program has put into place for the translocation into the wild included:

 Only releasing devils from Maria Island because it is clear that captive born devils are more vulnerable to road kill;

 Positioning feed stations at different locations on the release site to ease the devils’ transition from captive to wild living and reducing the need to disperse;  

 Working closely with the Department of State Growth, local councils and Stornoway to erect road signage on the main roads and local roads reminding people to slow down and be aware of wildlife, and installing virtual fences on local roads at possible roadkill hotspots;

 And putting temporary GPS collars on some release devils, which have reflective tape on to help motorists see them at night, to help monitor their movements.

“When the STDP was established, one of its core aims was to ensure the survival of the devil in the wild. The Wild Devil Recovery Project is a method of genetic rescue which will assist restoration of devils in the wild and help protect the ecosystem,” Dr Pemberton said.  
“We must continue to take risks to bolster devil numbers and implement genetic rescue.  Wild devil releases in Tasmania are critical in the ongoing national effort to secure a future for the species in the wild.”  

The Wild Devil Recovery Project (WDR) commenced in 2014 and has a focus on recovery of the Tasmanian devil in the wild. The WDR is a trial looking at strategies to explore ways to rebuild disease-affected populations; determine the genetic effectiveness of a vaccine to provide wild devils with resistance and immunity to DFTD and establish special management zones across Tasmania to coordinate management of wild devils.

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and Menzies Institute for Medical Research acknowledge the strong support from a range of partner organisations including the University of Sydney, the University of Cambridge, Macquarie University, the Zoological and Aquarium Association of Australasia and its associated wildlife parks, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal and San Diego Zoo Global.  

For more media information and interviews contact:
To interview Dr David Pemberton and Dr Samantha Fox from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program (STDP)  
Contact: Michelle Nichols on (03)61654533 or 0427410403
Email: michelle.nichols@dpipwe.tas.gov.au  

To interview Professor Greg Woods from the Menzies Institute for Medical Research at the University of Tasmania  
Contact:  Miranda Harman on (03) 6226 7751 or 0427 199 562  
Or email:  Miranda.Harman@utas.edu.au  

To interview Professor Kathy Belov from the University of Sydney  
Contact: Michelle Nichols on (03)61654533/ 0427410403/ Email: michelle.nichols@dpipwe.tas.gov.au