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There are plenty of distinctive animals on this planet, but Australia seems to have more than its fair share of them. From the much-feared dropbear to the adorable quokkas of Rottnest Island, there’s an animal in this country to catch anyone’s imagination. Of all those animals, I think one of the most famous yet misunderstood is the diminutive Tasmanian devil.
Most people’s impressions of the Tasmanian devil are of a big brown animated creature that likes to grunt and growl and spin around the world in tornadoes, and while much of this characterisation is based in truth, it is slightly exaggerated. I doubt any devil has ever been observed working itself into such a tizz that it turns into a tornado, but nearly every one that I’ve seen has run in constant circles, only stopping if curiosity or hunger gets the better of them. And, while being as consistently loud as Taz would probably have consequences in the wild, these little characters can make one hell of a racket when they want to — especially if someone is stealing their food!
Tasmanian devils feature in nearly every wildlife park in Australia, but none more prominently than those in Tasmania, their native island. Knowing it would probably be my best chance to see the nocturnal Tasmanian devil up close and personal — and knowing that it was a park dedicated to helping recover the Tasmanian devil population rather than just a place to keep animals in captivity — I signed up for an evening tour of the [email protected] wildlife sanctuary as soon as I arrived in the Cradle Mountain area.
The evening tour was set up quite well. Rather than launching straight into the tour, we were invited to arrive 30 minutes early so we could explore the park on our own. Even in the dim, wintry light, we could see Tassie devils doing what they seem to be best at — running in circles around their enclosures. When a devil’s circle overlapped with that of another in its enclosure — there were usually 2-4 in each — they would do one of two things: (1) completely ignore the other or (2) stop and start making ungodly growling noises at each other. These interactions were plenty enough to keep us entertained until it was time to sit down inside (thankfully) and begin the tour.
The passion our keeper had for the Tassie devil shone through as soon as he began speaking. He may not have been loud or animated, but he knew his stuff and he knew how important it was to educate people about the plight currently facing Tasmania’s native scavenger.
He told us about how, back in the early 1900s, people really started to take an interest in the native wildlife of Tasmania. Then, the population of devils was estimated to be around 100,000. They co-existed with the thylacine (the Tasmanian tiger), a carnivorous marsupial much larger than the devil and resembling the offspring of a dog and a tiger. Unfortunately, the thylacine could not cope with the mass influx of people, European foxes, and feral cats and dogs, and the last (known) one died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936.
While it’s not completely certain that the Tasmanian tiger is extinct — especially because of a number of “sightings” in the late 1990s/early 2000s — the rapid expansion of the Tasmanian devil population seems to indicate that the tiger no longer exists in the ecosystem. By 1996, the devil was the top predator on the island and had numbers in excess of 200K…yet by 2006, that number had dropped to only 10,000 and the Tasmanian devil was officially endangered.
So what happened? Devil Facial Tumour Disease (or DFTD for short). This disease causes massive tumours that take over a devil’s face and inevitably kill it, all within six months (see what it does here). It’s possibly caused by inbreeding, but no one really knows for sure — all they really know is that it virtually wiped out the population of devils within ten years, leading to an explosion in research programs and sanctuaries dedicated to saving the devil. These programs are involved in a race against time to find a cause and cure for DFTD and spend a significant amount of time breeding (to ensure a ‘genetically diverse’ population) and nursing devils without DFTD back to health.
As sad as these facts are, they didn’t surprise me. However, what did surprise me was the fact that the keeper brought a devil in to the room for us to meet in person. No longer running in circles or growling, this little dude was curled up in the keeper’s arms and didn’t look all that happy to be in the room. We were assured that he’d grown up in captivity and had been exposed to humans since birth, but he still didn’t seem happy about it. That said, he didn’t make any movements to get away either; he just quietly sat as the keeper took him from person to person for a short pat of his coarse fur. I have to say…I never thought I would pet a Tasmanian devil, and I’m not sure I needed to. I think I would have rather seen him up close during feeding without feeling like I was bothering him.
As we walked outside for the second half of the tour, we realised that it had started to snow. Small snowflakes had begun to coat the devil enclosures in a fine layer of powder, but that didn’t deter the devils. As we overlooked from a balcony, the keeper entered the closest enclosure, turned on some spotlights, and the devils came running. Already active because night had fallen and they are a nocturnal animal by nature, they were ready for food and they wanted it now.
It was interesting watching the group of three devils feeding on a wallaby — one that had been shot in the wild because farming them as food is illegal — right in front of us. Staked into the ground, the corpse got stretched in every direction as each devil tried to pull off more than his fair share. Angry sounds abounded as they found each other encroaching on each other’s territories; regardless, it was all quickly gobbled up.
The most entertaining of all the devils were the juveniles. This enclosure housed three devils that were all less than one year old (that’s a pretty long juvenile period, given males only live for 5 years in the wild, with females living maybe 50% longer in some cases). These little guys were more curious than hungry, and spent the entire time trying to tug off the keeper’s jeans, eat his boots, and dismantle his torch. They reminded me of the mammal version of a kea, New Zealand’s famously curious mountain parrot.
Most of us were chilled to the bone by the time we reached the quoll enclosure to learn more about Tasmania’s much smaller scavenger. These little guys flew around their cages at an even faster clip than the devils, and while they seemed adorable, the keeper assured us that they were not “too cute to kill anything” like most people thought. We got to see that first-hand when six eastern quolls ravenously attacked their dinner right in front of us; interestingly, they were not territorial over their food at all, except when two quolls managed to get ahold of the same piece of meat. That ended up in a massive tug-of-war where one backpedaled and ended up slipping over in the mud!
So what were my main takeaways from the two hours I spent with the devils in Tassie? Well, they resemble Taz more than I first thought, but he’s still a long stretch from a real Tassie devil. They are in serious strife, and while the population seems to be slowly stabilising after their drastic drop in numbers — including a small region of devils that are believed immune to DFTD — they still need a lot of help. The people of Tassie truly care about their most iconic of animals and are investing as much as they can into saving it before it disappears like the Tassie tiger did.
What can you do to help? Well, if you’re just a visitor like me, every dollar you spend at sanctuaries like [email protected] helps with their program. You can even adopt a devil if you want. If you’re staying in Tassie longer term, there are plenty of programs all around the state to get involved in.
Oh, and it’s cold in Tasmania. It’s even colder when you stand in one place, in the snow, watching animals for 45 minutes. Even if you’re not going in the dead of winter, bring warm clothes so you can spend more time paying attention to the devils than to how cold your toes are!
[email protected] is open daily from 10am-4pm, with multiple 45 minute tours operating during the day. Tickets cost $18/adult and $10/child. Night feeding tours operate daily at 5.30 (entry beginning at 5pm) with another at 8.30pm during daylight savings. Tickets cost $27.50/adult and $15/child.