Hunter haven for stricken Tassie Devils

After 400 years away from the mainland, Tasmanian devils are set to make a comeback in the Barrington Tops after being thrown a Hunter lifeline.

Australian Reptile Park owner John Weigel announced plans today for a mountain breeding centre for the stricken devils.

Devil facial tumour disease, which is spread by the animals biting each other, has wiped out up to 80per cent of the devil population in Tasmania since 1996.

Mr Weigel said the Devil Ark program would start with 48 devils at a 350-hectare north Barrington Tops site donated by the James Packer-owned Ellerston Pastoral Company.

The centre could have 40 pens, and offer access to visitors.

“The Barrington Tops location is absolutely ideal for the project,’’ Mr Weigel said.

‘‘My team and I have stuck with the vision because we genuinely believe that if we don’t all rally together to do the work, the Tasmanian devil may be lost forever.’’

The first devils are due to arrive in November, and the Barrington population is projected to hit 900 in 10 years.

Devil Ark is backed by the Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species, and would form a major cog in the mainland insurance population.

All Tasmanian devils brought to the mainland are facial tumour-free, and pass through a strict quarantine process in Tasmania.

With millions of dollars secured, a development application for Devil Ark will go before Upper Hunter Shire Council later this month.

Sydney University Associate Professor Kathy Belov, a leading molecular geneticist, said the project and others like it were the animals’ best chance to fight extinction.

‘‘The large-scale breeding program the [Reptile Park] now proposes is timely and urgent,’’ she said.

‘‘A good genetic representation of the Tasmanian devil population needs to be removed from disease-free populations while we still have time, and this genetic diversity needs to be maintained in captivity for up to 30 years until it is possible to reintroduce animals into the wild.”

A pair of devils is already part of a breeding program at Hunter Valley Zoo, near Cessnock.

DETAIL OF THE DEVIL

Devil facial tumour disease has stripped the Tasmanian devil population from about 250,000 in 1995 to about 50,000 today.

The disease is one of the only cancers known to be contagious, and is mainly spread during fights over food. It cannot be spread to other species.

There is hope that immune devils exist in areas where the disease has yet to strike, but the cells that cause the tumours are mutating and adapting perhaps more quickly than natural resistance.

Devils were common in mainland Australia until the introduction of the dingo about 3000 years ago.

Losing the devil in Tasmania would open the way for feral pests to fill the vacuum and threaten native species.

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