The Tasmanian devil is critically endangered in the wild and for once
humans are not a large part of the problem. The problem facing these
little devils is a highly aggressive form of cancer. The facial tumor
has essentially and strangely developed into a parasite that is
transmitted quickly and easily from one animal to the next. The disease
kills within a few months.
Researchers first noted the cancer in the late 1990s. The disease first appeared in Eastern Tasmania and migrated further west with each passing year until the entire island was affected. They were surprised to discover that the cancer was contagious. The only other contagious cancer in the natural world is a type of tumor found in dogs.
The combative nature of the Tasmanian devil apparently adds to the cancer's ability to spread. The animals fight aggressively with each other, often biting each other in the face. It is believed that bits of the tumor get bitten off, making its way into the other combatant's blood stream.
An extinction time bomb is counting down. Already 84% of Tasmanian devils have been wiped out by the cancer. Conservationists are working hard to beat that clock.
Their big plan began with 15 healthy devils being packed up and relocated to nearby Maria Island (pronounced Ma-RYE-ah). Tasmanian devils have never existed on the island, making it a pristine environment for them. The animals were immediately released into the wild and appear to be doing well. The hope is that once the cancer dies out in Tasmania, this healthy population will be available to repopulate the larger island.
At the same time there is some hope for Tasmania -- researchers are hopeful that a vaccine will help save the remaining devils in Tasmania. In the northwest corner of Tasmania some of the animals are also beginning to show some signs of resistance to the cancer and only about 20% of the animals have died.
Source: New York Times