Poor devils

THE women huddle closely together, whispering anxiously over a hessian sack that holds a Tasmanian devil whose face is badly deformed, the right side of its jaw fixed agape in a half yawn. Veterinarian Colette Harmsen, wildlife biologist Sam Fox and her assistant Holly Devereaux, sisters of mercy in blue overalls and latex gloves, are crouched by a remote forest road in the island's north-west, figuring out what to do next.

The Tasmanian devil under scrutiny was caught overnight in a tubular poly-pipe trap baited with a bit of wallaby carcass, and tumbled into the sack being held by Devereaux. She tries to keep the captured animal calm by covering its eyes with the hessian.

Holding the sack tightly with one hand, Devereaux uses the index finger and thumb of the other to slowly prise the devil's mouth open. Fox frowns and runs her finger along the inside of the cheek, keeping clear of the devil's massive teeth, then uses a twig to lift its tongue. She's looking for lesions.

Harmsen then gently runs her hand over the facial deformity before working her fingers over every centimetre of the devil's head and neck.

They are looking for facial tumour disease, a fatal transmissible cancer that has devastated much of Tasmania's devil population and has finally hit this stronghold of remaining healthy animals. But Harmsen and Fox decide the spectacular lumps of scar tissue and missing teeth are just part of the battered visage of a six-year-old male devil.

Still whispering, they weigh the devil and inject a numbered microchip under its skin before deftly taking a biopsy and blood samples. If the devil had had the disease, they would have euthanised it, but this animal lives to fight another day.

Underscoring the very personal nature of this work, every devil they catch is given a name. Fox named a run of males after rap stars and cricketers.

Harmsen is into the cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants, so this one is called Captain Pants.

Devereaux gently unfolds the sack. Captain Pants slowly emerges, looks sideways, then lopes away into the bush with a distinctive rolling marsupial gait. That's one win in the battle with extinction.

''Devils are amazingly tough,'' says Fox. ''He was in good shape otherwise. To see what an old animal looks like with all that scarring is very encouraging. You're seeing the population as it should be.''

The sudden appearance of a grotesque facial cancer on some of the island's devils in the late 1990s raised alarm bells. Since then the disease has spread across most of Tasmania like a wildfire, with spots of disease flaring ahead of the wider front.

From its unknown origin in one female in the island's north-east tip, the lethal contagion has cut a swath through devil populations in the south and west of Tasmania, across forest and farmland. Now it has crossed a symbolically important boundary - a highway to the island's west coast.

Last year, Sam Fox found the cancer in two devils living among the plantation forests in the hills of Takone, near Burnie, and she is now back looking for more afflicted devils with a team that also includes Deakin University student Pearl Deng, and Healesville Sanctuary veterinarian Leesa Haynes.

The team has laid 40 traps, which they will check daily for 10 days to methodically assess the state of the Takone frontline.

Time to fight devil facial tumour disease is running out. An official campaign didn't begin until 2003, when it was thought that an original healthy population of up to 200,000 may have been reduced by one-third.

Now, just eight years later, about 84 per cent of wild devils are gone, according to Fox.

The scientist who sequenced the devil genome, Elizabeth Murchison, calls the disease ''the only cancer ever to threaten the survival of an entire species''.

Tasmanian devils are by nature fighters and, sadly, they are effectively killing each other. With one bite, a diseased devil will transfer the cancer into the healthy flesh of another.

The disease kills quickly. Harmsen says at the cancer's point of origin in the north-east, a devil found with one lesion on the first day, had five of them just eight days later. Typically a devil will be dead around six months after the disease first appears.

The $25 million federal-state Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has a mandate to investigate and manage the cancer, but it is struggling to keep pace with its spread.

The failure of experiments to control the disease, slow decision-making and doubts over long-term funding have raised concerns about how the crisis is being handled.

A high-profile attempt to develop a vaccine failed and a lengthy program to curb the cancer through culling sick animals was dropped.

A debate about whether to quarantine healthy devils in large, natural areas of Tasmania is yet to be resolved.

Even the official battle strategy, the Tasmanian Devil Recovery Plan, is yet to be finalised.

But there have also been scientific breakthroughs. Scientists are reasonably sure how the cancer is transmitted, evidence of resistance to it is being found in some devils and the cancer may be losing potency.

There has also been a successful breeding program in confined ''insurance'' colonies, including hundreds of devils shipped to zoos and wildlife parks on mainland Australia.

But it's a telltale sign that four years ago when the CSIRO planned to develop a pre-clinical test to find the disease before tumours appeared, one scientist was quoted as boldly saying: ''The aim is to stop the disease in its tracks.'' Yet, today at Takone, the members of Sam Fox's group are still using their eyes and fingers to detect the cancer, which continues to spread.

WE DRIVE along the trap line among plantations of young eucalypts and into remnant rainforest gullies. Devils use the same forest road network on their forays, roaming many kilometres in a night, their wet black noses sniffing the air for carrion or prey.

Deng checks another tube trap, signals a capture, and the team sets up. This time the microchip reader pings, signalling that this devil has been caught before. ''Woody Wendy'' is four years old, and making her third appearance for the researchers.

She lies quietly as her marsupial pouch is eased open and her teats checked for use.

''She's got two joeys back in the den,'' Devereaux whispers.

A few samples are taken, ''Wendy'' is given four out of five for the state of her health and she is turned loose.

One of the samples taken is a viral swab. When the first crisis meeting over the devils' plight was held in October 2003, most national wildlife specialists thought the culprit was a virus.

Such links were already established. For example, the human papilloma virus can cause cervical cancer.

But this line of thought went nowhere. In 2006, cytogeneticist Anne Maree Pearse published a paper in Nature that said the cancer cells in the devil were passed on in a direct graft through a bite.

After that, scientists focused on finding a vaccine. Cedric, a captive-born male, was immunised with dead tumour cells by University of Tasmania researchers. When he showed signs of resistance, live cells were tried. This worked at first, but then he succumbed to the cancer and died a year ago.

Hamish McCallum, a specialist in Tasmanian devils at Griffith University, said recently: ''Given the limited progress in developing vaccines against human cancers, despite huge investment in research, hoping a vaccine can be developed against [devil facial tumour disease] seems optimistic.''

At the same time, researchers were trying ways of keeping devils alive in the wild. After watching her study population devastated on the Freycinet peninsula on the east coast, pioneering devil researcher Menna Jones led work suppressing the disease further south on the Forestier peninsula.

One idea was to trap and cull diseased animals. Combined with a barrier to be erected across the peninsula, would this slow the disease to manageable levels? The six-year-long trials have since folded.

''Our models show that even for a trappable animal like the Tasmanian devil, catching enough of them to eradicate disease is a tall order,'' says University of Tasmania zoologist Nick Beeton.

Keeping the population alive in the wild is still a priority. The Tasmanian government has for years pondered whether to release healthy devils on wildlife-rich Maria Island, a national park.

Likewise, there are plans for an 11-kilometre fence across the big Woolnorth dairy property in the far north-west of Tasmania, where there is a strong population of healthy devils.

''By now there should be a far more effective insurance population here,'' says Peter McGlone the director of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.

''There seems to be all sorts of reasons why the rollout [of the plan to isolate the wild population] has been very slow.''

The program's manager, Andrew Sharman, says a decision on Woolnorth should be made by the end of the year, and planning work is continuing for Maria Island. As for the strategic recovery plan for the devil, Sharman says extensive interest in the draft held up its completion. ''Hopefully it will be signed off in the next month or so,'' he says.

As Sharman prepares to argue for government funding beyond 2013, he says the devil is better placed to avoid extinction now than it was three years ago when the program began.

There is strong popular support for this iconic Australian animal. In addition to the federal-state money, a public appeal has raised almost $1.3 million for research. Sharman estimates $8 million worth of support has been given to the captive insurance population.

''We've been able to get a good foundation with our insurance population,'' he says. ''We've also got a much better idea of how the disease operates.''

Some of the most successful science has revealed that the devil's narrow genetic diversity assists the rapid spread of the disease, and that the healthy north-west population is genetically different from the east coast population.

Chris Boland, the program's science manager, points to a small study group near Cradle Mountain in the mid-north, where there are stronger signs of resistance. Instead of dying within a few months, these devils are living with the disease for up to two years.

The nature of the cancer is changing, too. ''[The disease] is evolving, developing different strains,'' Boland says. ''Every time the cell divides it becomes really clunky, so the cancer is growing more slowly.''

Even so, it is probably too late for Ricky Ponting. This two-year-old male devil was trapped at Takone last year by Fox and declared healthy.

On Sunday her team caught him again, and they found a golf ball-sized tumour on the side of his face. She suspects he has the cancer, and has taken biopsies to confirm this.

''It can be a bit hard,'' she says. ''You do spend quite a lot of time with them and to see them clearly diseased can be pretty upsetting.

''But these are robust, tough animals. It's amazing how they deal with the normal struggles of life. We've caught a lot of healthy lactating mothers this time. And around Tasmania, none of the local populations has gone extinct.

''They're still holding on. I'd like to think that with the protection we can put in place for them, we can get to some sort of stability.''

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