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News 18 Oct 07
Disease killing Australia's Tasmanian devil spreads to key refuge
An infectious cancer threatening to wipe out Australia's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian devil, has spread into one of its last disease-free refuges, biologists said Friday.
The disease, which causes facial tumours and kills infected animals within six months, has been found in a national park in the state's north which had previously been thought to be disease-free.
The Nawrantapu national park contains a high density population.
"We expect that the disease will extend across the entire range of the devil within five years," Hamish McCallum, a biologist at the University of Tasmania, told Australian Associated Press.
"We are not confident that we will be able to source disease-free animals from the wild after the middle of next year."
Finding the disease at the park shows there is very limited time to protect remaining wild populations in the north and north-west of Tasmania, Australia's island state, he said.
"The cancer was found in two animals at the national park in a heavily populated disease-free area," he said. "We need to be investigating options like trying to fence off unaffected populations or to move disease-free devils to islands post haste."
The disease has led to fears that the devil could follow its cousin, the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, into extinction. It has already wiped out at least half the population in the wild.
The thylacine, which had a dog-like appearance but was a marsupial with a pouch, became extinct after it became the target of white sheep farmers, who objected to it preying on their sheep.
Like the thylacine, the devil is also found only in the island state of Tasmania, having been driven to extinction on the mainland by the dingo, which was introduced by humans several thousand years ago.
A small, black animal which normally does not disturb humans, the devil can be dangerous and is known for inflicting powerful bites if disturbed by people.
A Save the Devil programme has been started with a captive breeding programme, but McCallum said Friday it was hopelessly under-funded, calling for 10 million Australian dollars (8.9 million US) a year, instead of the current 2.5 million Australian dollars.
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