Noisy Devils

On our first evening at Cradle Mountain we visit Devils@Cradle, which is a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the captive breeding of Tasmanian Devils, as well as two other species of marsupial carnivore, the Eastern Quoll and the Spotted Tail Quoll.

We have, of course, already visited another of the Devil sanctuaries at Bonorong where we saw a single Devil who was woken up from his slumbers at 2.00pm with food. Given that Devils are nocturnal this wasn’t necessarily entirely fair on the critter, though he was handsomely rewarded with dead chicks.  By way of contrast Devils@Cradle feed their charges as dusk turns to darkness, in large floodlit enclosures.

The main enclosure holds five Devils, all around a year old and therefore roughly equivalent to human teenagers. Viewing begins at dusk, when photography is just possible.

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The Devils obviously know it is feeding time and become more and more agitated, charging around the enclosure and chasing one another.  Occasional fights break out, accompanied by much snarling and growling.

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As darkness descends pieces of chopped up wallaby are hurled into the melee of Devils.  Each grabs a piece and dashes off to somewhere he thinks is secluded to tuck into his prize.  However the grass is always greener, as they say, and some Devils would rather have their friends’ bit of wallaby than their own.  More chases and fights ensue, accompanied again by loud vocal protests.  One Devil grabs a whole wallaby tail and hurtles around the enclosure, daring the others to catch him.  They don’t even try, clearly calculating that this is one race they aren’t going to win.

Devils are fiercely competitive in the wild. This feeding regime is designed to ensure that they behave as normally as possible in captivity so that one day, hopefully, these noisy Devils or their offspring can be released back into the wild once the danger from Devil Facial Tumour Disease has abated.   Unfortunately the light isn’t sufficient to take photos of the feeding frenzy, but the memory of five feisty Devils giving it their all lingers on.

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Julie is however able to photograph, through glass, this Eastern Quoll:

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We were lucky enough to see a few of these on our night drives with Andrew on Bruny Island, and it’s good to get a closer view. They, like the Devil, are endangered (albeit for different reasons) and the captive breeding programme is intended to provide some insurance against further losses in the wild.  The staff at Devils@Cradle are passionate about the animals in their care, and it was a pleasure to see hear about their work and to enjoy the antics of their charges.

27 November

In bed with the Devil

We’re back in business!  For some strange reason the Internet is a bit less flaky this evening, so hopefully – at last – I can post my piece on wild Tasmanian Devils …

Len, who with his wife Pat owns the Mountain Valley reserve, is passionate about wildlife in general and Tasmanian Devils in particular. Naturalists flock to his isolated property in north central Tasmania for the chance to see Devils in the wild.  He’s preserved the land for future generations of animals and their admirers under the Land for Wildlife scheme.  After dinner Len takes us to the river at the boundary of his property, where we are delighted to see two platypus.  We also find plenty of wombat poo, but the wombats themselves remain elusive.  However, this is just a sideshow, before the Devils take centre stage.

The main event begins at dusk. We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled.  He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window.  A light in the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin.  We settle down and wait for the action to begin.  And wait … and wait.

At midnight we call it a day. The Tasmanian Devil isn’t going to show tonight and we go to bed disappointed.  However we leave the outside light on and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while lying in bed.  I’m soon asleep, but inexplicably I awake at 1.15am.  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement I see a Devil tucking into some chopped up roadkill.

I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”

She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.

“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.

It sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera.

We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a snack for him.  The window is closed of course (it’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin clad only in our nightwear!) but we can clearly hear him crunching as he ravenously gobbles both flesh and bones.  The light is not good for taking photos and flash is out of the question, so Mrs P does the best she can:

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The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am, only this time there are two Devils rather than just one.  They bicker and snarl at one another, fighting over the spoils.

On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.  Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights.  They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.

Between 85% and 90% of Devils have died over the past 20 years, victims of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, so it’s a real privilege to see wild, disease-free animals here at Mountain Valley:

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Hats off to Len and Pat for making this possible, and for their absolute commitment to preserving wild places and the critters that live there. What a memory to take home with us:

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[23 November]

A critter-fest at Bonorong

tasmania-bonorong-2016-94Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary is a key player in the ongoing effort to maintain a viable captive population of Tasmanan Devils that can be released back into the wild as and when the threat from the highly contagious Devil Facial Tumour Disease has been contained. In the wild Devils are strictly nocturnal, but the keeper tempted this one out of his den with the offer of a dead chick.  It was wolfed down ravenously.

Bonorong looks after sick and injured animals from all over Tasmania with a view to ultimately releasing them back into the wild once they have recovered. We were pleased to meet this young wombat, who is an orphan.  She is recovering well, and is due to be released in about a year from now.

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Bonorong also has some koalas on site. Koalas are not native to Tasmania, but Bonorong was asked to take on some from Kangaroo Island in South Australia.  These had to be removed to help manage an overpopulation problem amongst the koalas there.  This guy is called Bert, and he is very cute and very, very sleepy … koalas have to sleep for about 20 hours a day so that their systems can cope with the toxins in the eucalyptus leaves that are their staple diet.

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We hadn’t realised before that koalas are closely related to wombats, and when you study that them closely the similarities are obvious. However one lives in trees and the other on the ground.  Also, the koala is as thick as two short planks (a brain about the size of a walnut, apparently) whereas the wombat, which is regarded as the mastermind of the marsupial world, is only as thick as one short plank.  Both, however, are as cute as hell, and who needs brains anyway when you can make friends and influence people just by being unbelievably cuddly?

There are also a number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos bounding around the grounds at Bonorong. However it was hot today, and for some of them bounding was just too much bother.

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[17 November]

The Devil fights back

The Tasmanian Devil is threatened with extinction in the wild due to a contagious tumour that has been sweeping through the population over a period of around 20 years, wiping out vast numbers of animals.

To its immense credit the Tasmanian state government has set up a Save the Tasmanian Devil programme with the Zoo and Aquarium Association.  Under this “insurance policy” about 600 disease-free animals are kept in captivity at zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries in Tasmania and on mainland Australia.  During our trip we will visit a couple of these sanctuaries, at Bonorong and Devils@Cradle to see first-hand the brilliant work they are doing.

But now news from the University of Tasmania suggests that some Tasmanian Devils have developed immunity to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).  This is encouraging on two counts: we now know that some animals can naturally fight the disease and will hopefully pass on their resistance to future generations in the wild, and researchers can use the data being captured to support the further development of an immunisation programme that has already seen two groups of immunised Devils successfully released into the wild.

Plainly these are early days, but it’s great to know that evolution and science are both doing their bit to save this charismatic critter.  The Devil’s fighting back.

Saved by the Devil?

Driving home a couple of evenings ago I was astonished to hear the Tasmanian Devil mentioned on the 6pm news on Radio 4.  Devil milk, it seems, has extraordinary antibiotic properties that could ultimately save the world from superbugs like MRSA.

PHOTO CREDIT: By Wayne McLean ( jgritz) Taken with Nikon D100. (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The explanation is fairly simple, although a tad revolting.  Devils are of course marsupials, meaning that the young spend several months in mum’s pouch before leaving home to spend their days beating up the local wildlife.  Rather like a teenager who never cleans his room or changes his underpants, the infant’s existence in the pouch is somewhat squalid.  The chance of infection is ever-present, and to survive Devils have become masters of disease resistance.  If the mother did not pass on through her milk her own immunity to infection junior’s chances of survival would be pretty slender and the Devil species itself could be on the road to hell.

Scientists tell us that Tasmanian Devil milk contains several types of peptides called cathelicidins, a natural kind of antibiotic.  When exposed to these peptides drug resistant bacteria, including MRSA, have keeled over and died.  The search is now underway to better understand just what’s going on, with a view to developing new treatments that could save millions of lives.  There’s still a lot of work to be done, but diligent and painstaking research will no doubt be the key … clearly, the detail’s in the Devil.

This is a great piece of news, with humanity gaining new cures and the Devil new followers.  It does however raise an interesting question that had never occurred to me before.  Given that it spends several months holed up in its mother’s pouch how, or more pertinently where, does an infant marsupial go to the toilet?

Answers on a postcard please.

Why Tasmania?

To be fair, it’s not an obvious holiday destination.  Some would say that the biggest thing in Tasmania’s favour is that it’s a bloody long way from the UK, meaning that the chances of bumping into a member of the Westminster elite, footballer’s wife or B-list media celebrity are pretty damned remote.  But let’s not be cynical, there are plenty of positives other than remoteness, though rumours abound that this is exactly what drew Lord Lucan to those distant shores.

Part of Tasmania’s attraction is its size, or more exactly the lack thereof.  Although around half as big as England, in terms of area it comprises just about 1 per cent of Australia as a whole.  As such, a trip to Tasmania offers Australia in miniature.  Distances are manageable, the climate is tolerable, there are stunning landscapes and even some decent historic buildings.

And then there’s the wildlife.  We first started thinking about going to Tasmania after attending lectures from local naturalists at the British Birdwatching Fair.  The Apple Isle, it seems, has a wide range of birds (including a number of endemics), both Australian egg-laying mammals, numerous varieties of marsupial … and its very own devil.

It’s well known amongst wildlife enthusiasts that the Tasmanian Devil is in trouble, victim to a contagious cancer that is spreading rapidly through the population thanks to the animals’ love of fighting with each other at every available opportunity.  Conservationists are doing their best but numbers are diminishing fast, so the chances of seeing Devils in the wild are receding.  It’s time to visit, therefore, to see them in their natural habitat and to find out more about how they can be saved for future generations of animal lovers … in other words, for people just like us.

File:TasmanianDevil 1888.jpgPHOTO CREDIT:  By Mike Lehmann, Mike Switzerland 09:52, 28 February 2007 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons