Thirty-three healthy Tasmanian devils have been released into the wild in the state’s north to trial a vaccine against a contagious cancer.
Researchers have been developing a vaccine against the devil facial tumour disease, which has wiped out more than 80 per cent of the population since it emerged 20 years ago.
The devils released last night were immunised, and will interact with the wild, diseased population at the Stony Head military training area.
Save the Tasmanian Devil program manager Dr David Pemberton admitted it was a risk to mix healthy devils with the native population but said it was the next step.
“The key thing here is to be very open and wise, to trying to learn how to maximise the survival of these animals in the wild and then their ability to breed,” he said.
“Ultimately, we need devils back in the bush in the numbers they used to be.
“It’s worth the effort … to build the numbers to try and develop these techniques, otherwise we’ll never make progress.”
Twenty-five of the 33 devils released were fitted with satellite tracking collars — a first for the program.
Biologist Dr Sam Fox said the collars would allow them to track the devils’ movements over coming months.
“That’s really important for us because we learnt from our previous release that if we don’t know where the animals are, we can’t track them, we don’t know how well they’re doing, we don’t know if they’re on roads,” she said.
There has been some criticism of previous devil translocations projects at Narawntapu in the state’s north and the Forestier Peninsula in the south, where 15 devils were hit by cars.
Dr Fox said the tracking collars were one of several risk strategies adopted this time round.
“[We’ve] put static road signs in place along Bridport and other major roads in the area,” she said.
“We have a strong police presence, just to make sure people are sticking in the speed limit.
“The GPS collars that the devils have on them have reflective tape on them so if a devil’s seen on the road, it’ll stand out.
“We’ve done brochure and flyer handouts to the local residents so they know about the release.
“[The Stony Head release site] is a restricted area to the public, so it stops some of the threat like dogs, persecution, roadkill.”
Release a ‘risky experiment’: wildlife expert
Wildlife park owner Androo Kelly has raised concerns about the release, and the risk to the devils of contracting the disease.
“This is quite a risky experiment they’re undertaking here, releasing healthy animals into a diseased environment,” he said.
“The vaccine hasn’t been proven to be successful at this stage so it’s still an experiment.”
Mr Kelly was also worried about the impact of the tracking collars on the animals and suggested cameras would be a better method of monitoring.
“It’s not ideal for animals to be released into the wild wearing fairly thick collars which could be an obstruction for them,” he said.
“Cameras are becoming so sophisticated you can actually drive the cameras from a computer hundreds of miles away.”
Dr Fox was confident the collars would not hinder the animals.
“There’s quite a lot of things we don’t know about devils that the only way we can answer those questions is to track those animals with GPS collars,” she said.
“They’re really sturdy, strong little animals … they don’t look like the collar is bothering them at all.”
The devils will be trapped for a health check in two weeks’ time before being released again.
The Save the Devil Program is planning another translocation early next year in the state’s north-east.