How many Tasmanian devils are in zoos

Tasmania and its devils: shy and sensitive

To see a Tasmanian devil in the wild is rather unlikely Photo: Jürgen & Christine Sohns / imago

The "island under the island" is a natural paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. The Tasmanian devil, which is threatened with extinction, is particularly typical.

Quiet country with a few brightly colored parakeets and black crows above. A stream with putrid driftwood. Left and right of the two-lane black asphalt strip: evergreen giant eucalyptus trees, the bark of which is peeling; the leaves of the Tasmanian beech are slowly starting to turn into bright red, orange and gold foliage. It's autumn, but it's still hot and humid.

We are on the way to the "Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary", a three-hour drive from Tasmania's capital Hobart. Androo Kelly is waiting at the entrance of the 37 soccer field park in the north of the island and greets us with a devil on his arm: a stocky body, short legs, black fur and sharp teeth.

The four-year-old Micktee seems to be relaxed, looks interested and sniffs at strangers from distant Europe. Androo Kelly is a Tasmanian star when it comes to Tasmanian devils. The Trowunna logo is emblazoned on its gray cap. The "Tassi" runs the animal station, which is primarily dedicated to the protection and rearing of this species of marsupial and wants to bring it closer to tourists.

The Tasmanian devil is the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, its bite force is monstrous and in relation to body size about as strong as that of a tiger. The marsupial once lived all over Australia, today it only occurs in Tasmania; it eats insects, small animals - but above all carrion. Micktee's muzzle is wide and appears too short, while his head, which takes up about a third of the entire body, looks too big. When he walks, it seems like he can barely keep the skull straight. Tasmanian devils are hyperactive and extremely curious.

Suddenly Micktee's ears turn fiery red; he's excited, explains Kelly. We perceive an unpleasant smell that Micktee's body gives off. Does something not suit him, we ask ourselves? Have we got too close to him?

Wrongly bad reputation

Seeing a Tasmanian Devil in the wild is unlikely. The predatory baggers, which weigh up to 12 kilograms and are up to 60 centimeters long, prefer to travel in the dark and, with their black fur, can hardly be made out at night. Their aggressive sounding hoarse hiss earned them a bad reputation - wrongly, Kelly explains.

The first Europeans were afraid of the marsupial when they explored the wild green Tasmania with fascination and heard a wild screeching at night. As good Christians, they believed they heard the Lord of Darkness himself. But in fact it was only the little marsupial who was looking for food after sunset.

The early 19th century British colonialists also feared the shrieks of the Tasmanian devils and mistakenly viewed them as chicken thieves who were being trapped and poisoned - with the result that they almost wiped out the species. Today the Tasmanian Devil is a household name across national borders. Hollywood also made it famous by capturing the Tasmanian devil on celluloid and bringing it to the living room campfires of the 21st century: television.

Natural habitat of the world's largest carnivorous marsupial in Tasmania, Australia Photo: Ardea / imago

Androo Kelly tells of a myth of the Tasmanian Aborigines: Poirina, as the marsupial is called in the language of the indigenous population, caused great grief among all animals. He was black as night and stole the defenseless babies of the other animals in the dark. These complained to the good powers. And they decided that Poirina should not get away with it. Moinee, the creator god and god of Tasmania, gave the marsupial devils short legs, a white stripe on the back and a white spot on the chest as punishment. So Poirina could no longer use the darkness of the night for camouflage.

Trowunna Wildlife Park is an approximately 26 hectare nature reserve in northern Tasmania. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Info: www.trowunna.com.au

Devils @ Cradle The Wild Life Park in northern Tasmania raises and poachers devils. Opening times: daily from 9.30 a.m. to 5 p.m., information: www.devilsatcradle.com

Worse still, the Tasmanian devil's formerly lovely voice has been robbed; instead, one can hear his screaming, hissing and growling from afar when he argues with others for his share of the prey. Because from now on Poirina had to clean the earth by only being allowed to eat the carrion of dead animals.

With the arrival of the British colonialists and prisoners in 1803, the habitat of the Tasmanian Aborigines was annexed and devastated, the indigenous population exploited, Christianized, deported - and murdered. Almost a century after their discovery by the English, the Tasmanians were considered completely exterminated. The information about their original number varies between 3,000 and 15,000. Nature, animals and their habitat were sacred to the Tasmanian Aborigines.

Anyone who wants to understand the conflict between British colonialists and the Tasmanian indigenous population has to be aware of one thing above all: Both sides had a diametrically opposed attitude towards the country, which some have lived for 35,000 years and the other for a good 200 years. en. Says Warren Mundine: "When the British came here, and later the settlers, they had a simple idea of ​​the land: that it was there to be conquered and exploited."

The Catholic from the Bundjalung clan is a politician and advisor to several prime ministers of his country, an economic expert and figurehead of various aid organizations: “While for the Aborigines the country is one thing above all else: holy land. It is like a mother to us who has looked after and nourished us for thousands of years. These are just completely different ideas about the earth. "

At the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary, Micktee slowly begins to growl. It may seem aggressive to us, explains Androo Kelly, but it is not at all, but rather normal, relaxed communication. Kelly is and was pretty much everything: experiential educator, wildlife expert, specialist and savior of the Tasmanian Devils. The slim, tall man in his late fifties with a long beard and long hair is now the director of the Wildlife Park founded in 1979 in northern Tasmania. The famous Cradle Mountain National Park is very close by.

Surrounded by eucalyptus forest and pastureland, the animal station is a refuge for Tasmanian devils. Because the species is endangered. In 1996 the face cancer typical of the Tasmanian devil was documented for the first time. "A Dutch photographer took the infected animal in northeast Tasmania," says Kelly. "The first veterinary documented case comes from 2003 - in an area not far from the Freycinet Peninsula on the east coast."

The biting power of the Tasmanian Devil is monstrous Photo: Danita Delimon / imago

In the "Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumor Disease", tumor cells are transferred from one animal to the next through bites and then through saliva. Normally, cancer cells only spread in their own body: Then metastases grow, for example, in the lungs, in the brain, in the liver or in the bones. But the Tasmanian Devil's cancer is an exception: it is contagious, but only for the species itself. Humans or other animal species are not infected. The Tasmanian Devils are horribly disfigured by this facial cancer.

Many animals die in agony because they can no longer eat because of the lumps in their mouth and throat, explains Anne van der Bruggen, who works as a ranger at the Wildlife Park Devils @ Cradle. "In the last twenty years, 80 to 90 percent of the Tasmanian devils have perished." Today the marsupial devil is one of the animal species threatened with extinction.

Roadkill is a huge problem in Australia - as scavengers they are doubly endangered Photo: blickwinkel / imago

Wildlife parks such as Devils @ Cradle and Trowunna are dedicated to the rearing of healthy animals and can show a number of successes in their release into the wild. Rearing programs are controversial in Europe. The Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century ensured that zoos changed from places of display to places of science in the long term.

Scholars demanded that the management of zoos and animal enclosures be placed in the hands of capable natural scientists - also to promote species crossings, for example. This laid the foundation for the breeding of animals in zoos. However, well into the 20th century, the living conditions of zoo animals were often so poor that behavioral disorders occurred and many animals did not survive long in the zoo.

Dead kangaroos, possums, wombats and marsupial devils lie everywhere on the roadside

Zoos still face this accusation today. And what's more: Humans themselves ensure that animal species in the wild are threatened with extinction, sums up van der Bruggen: “In Tasmania, many animals are run over on the streets every day; We call this phenomenon roadkill. This goes hand in hand with the question: are we doing the right thing when we release healthy devils into the wild? Can they survive at all? I think: yes, because the breeding program is very successful and we are ensuring that the Tasmanian Devil has a future. "

Dead animal carcasses

On our trip, too, we constantly saw dead animal carcasses - a mass killing that is part of everyday life in Tasmania. Roadkill is a huge problem Down Under Down. Dead kangaroos, possums, wombats and Tasmanian devils are everywhere on the roadside. According to official statistics, nearly 300,000 animals are run over every year, and the sacred devils are doubly endangered as scavengers, because they not only cross the streets at night, but also accept the killed animals as a grateful source of food. If the struck animal is not moved to the side, the marsupial devil is quickly the next roadkill victim.

Tasmanian devils have lived Down under Down for over 600 years. The Tasmanian devil has been under protection since 1941. Scientists are currently working on a vaccine against facial cancer. Rescue programs have been launched, and every souvenir shop in Tasmania advertises plush, plush devils. Androo and his team have developed their own release program. With a little luck, young animals whose mothers have been run over will find a new home in Trowunna through veterinarians and park rangers. At the beginning, they receive attention, pats and a milk mixture specially tailored to them. Cuddles, says Kelly, are of great importance, because this strengthens the immune system of the devilish devils. In this phase the young animals are very people-oriented.

As the Tasmanian devils get older and hit puberty, they become independent. Then they move into a larger enclosure with peers of the same age. Tasmanian devils are loners, but they can also get along in small groups. In this phase, human contact is limited to feeding. Here the youngsters learn to wrestle over their food. Animal rights activists refer to this stage as "soft release" - a gentle transition to freedom: the animals should be carefully accustomed to life without people in their natural environment. All of this can be seen in Trowunna's 32 enclosures.

Animal expert Androo Kelly has his own explanation, based on his observations, as to how the "face cancer typical of the Tasmanian devil" could have developed in the first place: Far-reaching environmental and climate changes would have led to problematic eating behavior. Around the turn of the millennium there was a lot of rain on Tasmania, herbivorous animals such as wombats, wallabies and kangaroos multiplied by leaps and bounds, and accordingly so did the Tasmanian devils, who mainly fed on their carcasses. The number of marsupial devils increased unchecked. But then a phase of great drought followed: “And what happened next? Suddenly there wasn't enough food left, so carrion for the Tasmanian devil. "

This led to new behaviors - combined with more competition, rivalry and aggressiveness among the marsupial. That in turn caused a lot of stress. “And what happens when you are constantly under stress? The immune system is weakened. So this is one possible explanation: the tumor acts as a mechanism to control population size. "

Research with artificially infected but not stressed Tasmanian devils was able to prove that they did not become ill and did not develop tumor cells. Perhaps the species will also succeed in surviving without breeding programs or vaccines: As early as 2016, researchers concluded that the Tasmanian devils might themselves have a weapon against cancer.

Resistance genes in the genome

The scientists were particularly interested in the genetic makeup of the Tasmanian devil, which survived the cancer epidemic in their habitat. They found some genetic traits among members of several populations that give the animals resistance to the contagious tumor.

The latest published study by Washington State University points in the same direction: According to it, a single genetic mutation led to reduced tumor growth of the communicable carcinoma in Tasmanian devils. The genetic material was examined in cases of facial disease that resolved spontaneously - that is, the cancer disappeared on its own. The mutation that contributed to the so-called tumor regression did not change the gene function, but rather activated a gene that slowed cell growth in the tumor - at least under laboratory conditions .

The results could also help people in the fight against cancer one day. Current cancer therapies in humans focus on removing all traces of a tumor - either through surgery or highly toxic chemotherapy. But if there were ways to do without it, this would be a great step forward - with considerable physical relief for the patient.

At the end of the visit, one message is particularly important to Androo Kelly: Contrary to their name, marsupial devils are a quiet species, they are above all loners, live relatively peacefully side by side and avoid confrontation. When they eat, however, they become “sociable like vultures”, whose ecological function they fulfill in Tasmania: “My aim is to show the other side of the Tasmanian devil. He is a very shy, even sensitive animal. "

Tasmanian devils are specialists when it comes to avoiding confrontation. The animals are in dire straits and suffer from a terrible tumor disease. "We have to recognize that our Tasmanian identity is linked to this animal."