Adopt a devil, save a species



Tasmanian devils

Two recent additions to the Tassie devil breeding program.

Credit: Rick Stevens, courtesy of Taronga Zoo

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Ever wanted to adopt your own Tasmanian devil? Well you now can - at least the virtual variety.

The Tassie Devil Appeal, organised by the Taronga Foundation, is a national campaign where you can buy your own virtual Tassie devil, and 'feed' it with donations from other people.

At the end of the appeal, which finishes on December 31, the biggest fundraisers will win the right to name the next baby devil born through the zoo's breeding program.

"Without intervention, it's possible that devils could be extinct in 25 to 30 years," said Nick De Vos, manager of the devil breeding program at Taronga.

The funds will be distributed among a collective of zoos and aquariums around Australia which are part of a devils captive breeding program, an initiative aiming to develop an 'insurance' population - that is, a population of devils that are free from the devastating tumour facial disease that has decimated the species.

The contagious cancer is spread through contact with infected animals' blood - usually via scratches and bites to their faces as they squabble.

The IUCN listed Tasmanian devils as 'Endangered' on the endangered species list, because the population has declined more than 60 per cent in the past decade.

Under the program zoos around the country, such as - Taronga and Australia Zoo - coordinate devil breeding by swapping the 115 devils between different zoos throughout the system. Devils are paired by matching them on a computer system, like a sort of devils dating service, De Vos said.

The idea is to introduce different genes into the population so that it doesn't become inbred. The hope is that some of the insurance population may be released back into the wild when the disease is eradicated.

The program has been quite successful so far, with 34 joeys born in the first year, almost double that predicted by program managers. However, said De Vos, that at least 1,500 disease-free animals are needed to save the species.

Raising and breeding each devil costs on the order of $10,000. The goal is to raise $40,000.

The program is part of a larger initiative led by the Tasmanian government, the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal, which raises money for devil research and conservation programs.

"This is a complex problem. There are no easy solutions, but we do have a window of opportunity to prevent this iconic species from becoming extinct," said Andrew Sharman, Program Manager of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.

Four joeys born at Taronga will make their public debut at Sydney's Taronga Zoo at the end of this month.