It’s a long way from the wilds of Tasmania to the rugged natural landscape of the Barrington Tops. But those Upper Hunter hills have become a home away from home for one of Australia’s most iconic species as conservationists battle to move it back from the brink of extinction.
Not-for-profit organisation Devil Ark was established in 2011 by Australian Reptile Park founders John and Robyn Weigel to carry out the largest conservation breeding program for the Tasmanian Devil on mainland Australia.
Its aim was to help create an “insurance” population of the carnivorous marsupial, whose population was being decimated in its natural Tasmanian habitat by the highly contagious Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).
Spread through biting, fighting and mating, the disease was first detected in 1996. Since then around 90 per cent of the wild devil population has died out.
Devil Ark is the largest of several breeding programs set up in response to the species’ decline, and in the six years since its creation it has experienced much success, with its initial population of 44 expanding to around 150 devils of various ages today.
In that time, Devil Ark has also celebrated the birth of around 200 disease-free, genetically diverse joeys in their unique large-scale enclosures, as well successfully returning 22 devils from the Barrington Tops facility to an area on Tasmania’s Forestier Peninsular.
But with the wild population of devils on the Apple Isle still being ravaged by the aggressive cancer, there is still much more to be done to ensure their longevity according to Devil Ark General Manager Tim Faulkner.
The highly respected conservationist and media personality, well known for his appearances on Bondi Vet and his own show The Wild Life of Tim Faulkner, said Devil Ark was embarking on a plan to more than double its current population of devils, thereby providing a much more robust and genetically diverse insurance population away from the threat of disease.
“The Tasmanian Devil is facing extinction – 90 percent of the wild population has now disappeared,” he said.
“For me, I’ve spent half of my working life trying to provide a future and ensuring that we don’t lose this species forever.
“The benefits of the Ark are that it’s a big wild area; the smallest enclosure is six football fields in size, and we need that to keep the Devils behaving like wild devils.
“But we need numbers to retain genetic diversity, so 150, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We have a chance here to make a difference, a real difference, to save one of the world’s most unique species from extinction.”
Tim said the program also recognised the importance of one day being able to return the devil to its natural habitat.
“We’re very fortunate that John and Robyn Weigel, who are founders/directors at the Reptile Park and Devil Ark, are really big thinkers, lateral thinkers, they look for outcomes,” he said.
“We work in wildlife tourism at the Reptile Park but have a strong desire to contribute to conservation.
“We participate in a lot of little projects but we really look for tangible outcomes, so when the Tassie Devil got this disease in 1996, by 2003 we were one of the first organisations very active, at that point as the Reptile Park, in the Devil program.
"The reason I put (the devil conservation) forward so heavily and why John and Robyn ran with it is because in this case, it’s one of our most iconic species."
Tim Faulkner with a devil joey.
“We lost the largest living carnivorous marsupial and the devil’s closest relative, the Tasmanian Tiger in 1936, so there’s merit and worth in that, who wants to lose another one of our icons.
“But more importantly in this case we saw conservation bang for buck and what I mean by that is we’ve got a top order predator here, it brings stability and maintains balance within an entire ecosystem in Tassie, so what that meant was there’s much more than the devil at stake – if we save the devil we can protect smaller mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, right through to flora.
“Keeping the devil in the landscape in Tasmania, as well as preventing its extinction, were a couple of things of critical importance to us.”
The breeding program began in an area within the Reptile Park facility, however, the need to create a dedicated space soon became apparent.
“By 2006 we received the first Devils to the Reptile Park,” Tim said.
“But by 2009 the zoo industry was, in fact, full with only 200 devils. That’s still a lot of devils, but the problem is with 200 devils, 30 to 40 percent of are too old to breed and 30, 40 per cent are too young to breed, and then you’ve got the breeding population. So what it means is the effective population of contributing devils out of 200 is not a lot.
“Then there were other things like if you keep devils in a traditional zoo enclosure, they don’t breed but somewhere between the size of that enclosure and Tasmania, they will breed.
“We went in search of land, and that’s when we found Devil Ark and the property that Devil Ark is on, it is high country just like Tassie.”
That property was a 5000-hectare area at Barrington Tops donated to Devil Ark by the Packer family.
So far only 25 hectares have been utilised to house the current Devil Ark facilities, ensuring the organisation has more than enough land on hand for the expansion of the devil enclosures, while also diversifying their conservation work to include breeding other small endangered or threatened Australian animals.
But building enclosures is expensive work – especially when the areas are so large, and fencing costs upwards of $100 per metre.
“The infrastructure set-ups are the most expensive,” Tim said.
“I was recently in America, and they’ve got a habitat shortage, a land shortage, but if you put aside some land, it thrives with natives.
“Here we’ve got this big country that everyone thinks is rugged, remote, pristine, intact – it might be rugged, it might be remote but it is not pristine or intact, even our remotest spots are invaded by feral (animals).
“It comes back now to fences, and it’s a real shame that we have to resort to fences but even our national parks, they’re like virtual islands, they may as well be out in the middle of the sea because they’re surrounded by agriculture, uninhabitable by our natives and if they (native animals) come out it’s like a battle zone because of the foxes and feral cats.
“Fences are a way of the future to keep feral pests out. We’ve got the funds already for a 64ha enclosure, that’s 128 football fields in size, but next year we need $1 million for a 375ha enclosure. Essentially it costs about $100 p/m of fence.
“The general public have been just fundamentally brilliant supporters. We do engage in larger partnerships to build fenced areas and things but the general public, we wouldn’t survive without them, that’s a fact.
“It’s tough for us and sometimes challenging because we compete with (other charitable causes like) world hunger and poverty, we compete with organisations like the RSPCA.
“But the public have been right behind us. They see the devil. Obviously, it’s the Tasmanian Devil, but they don’t see the state boundary as a barrier, they recognise that it doesn’t matter where it came from, they’re all in it to help it.
“I get beautiful letters here weekly, especially from kids. One of the kids I coach in soccer, his sister just raised $42.30 at school… that part of community engagement is beautiful.”
Aside from the million dollar fundraising target needed for the park’s infrastructure plans, Devil Ark is also continually raising money simply to keep the facility running.
It costs $1500 to care for each devil per year, with other general operational expenses bringing Devil Ark’s annual running costs to $280,000.
SEE "DEVILS IN THE WILD"
Aside from relying on corporate partnerships and community donations, Devil Ark also raises funds by allowing members of the public to go behind the scenes at the facility. The fully escorted “Devils in the Wild” tours operate once a month throughout the year and run for two-and-a-half hours.
The tour begins with an introduction to the project and the Tasmanian Devil over morning tea at the Devil Ark Interpretation Centre before participants are given a chance to visit the devil’s free-range enclosures to witness the inhabitants take part in a communal feed.
Those wanting to get up close and personal with the devils themselves are also given the opportunity to hold and interact with Devil Ark’s Ambassador joeys, Diva and Levi, who were born at the Barrington Tops facility, while those keen to extend their experience even further can book a two-night stay at Devil’s Retreat, a four-bedroom self-contained cottage located just 11kms from the Devil Ark site.
One person who knows just how special a visit to Devil Ark can be is Australian Reptile Park Head Mammals Keeper Dean Reid, who spent the past four years as Manager of the Barrington Tops facility.
“Hand raising joeys I think has to be the most special thing I’ve ever done. You have a real bond with them; they really bond to you,” he said.
“They have such a different personality when they’re growing up around you; they steal everything of yours like socks and jocks and remotes and hide it under the bed. They actually run around the bedroom like crazy.
“They’ve got their little question mark in their tail, their tail goes up, and it curls over, it looks like a little question mark, and that’s when they’re into trouble, they’re up to mischief and looking for stuff to do. That’s when they work themselves up; they’ll run around the lounge room, they get faster and faster and just go nuts.
“You see a different side to them, and they do have an amazing personality.
“I actually came to the Reptile Park to work with koalas, I love koalas, but I just gravitated towards devils. Once you hand raise a devil you gravitate towards them. They’re amazing animals.”
While their name may suggest a fierce or aggressive nature, Dean said these traits only come out when they feel threatened, or as part of the natural process of breeding and feeding.
“There are two sides of the story on devils. You have your wild devils, and in the wild you would never, ever see them, they’re really shy and really timid.
“Obviously if you tried to pick up a devil, it’s going to feel threatened, and of course it’s going to turn around and bite you. But you could be walking in the bush and there could be a devil with a devil nest in a small shrub or some grass, and you could walk through it, and it will just sit there because it’s petrified.
“Obviously when it comes to breeding, fighting and over food, it’s very aggressive because that’s what they are, it’s a very tough life for them, whereas if you hand-raise a devil you have a real bond with them.
“I could still go up to a three-year-old female and pick her up because you have that bond with them, they’ve got an amazing sense of smell, so they know who you are.”
Dean said another rewarding aspect of working on the Devil Ark project came in 2011 when the facility sent 22 devils back to live in Tasmania on the Forestier Peninsular.
“All those devils were born at Devil Ark in a wild environment, and they were picked for their genetic diversity and sent down to Forestier,” he said.
“About a year later I went down with the Tasmanian Government’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, which manages all the devils in Tasmania.
“They were gracious enough to let me go down and we pouch checked four of our females, and they all had joeys, so we had 12 joeys all up.
“For us, that was really exciting because it shows Devil Ark works. Devils have a really wild trait so it’s really hard to breed that out of them, even when you hand-raise the joey and they bond with you, they’re still quite wild.
“We were very happy that the devils went back and bred, you’re always wondering a little bit (if it will work) but in the back of our minds, we knew that they’d be fine.
“There were about 350,000 devils in the wild in Tasmania in 1996, and two years ago, they said there was now only 10 per cent left, but they don’t really know.
“I think Devil Ark is really important… it’s not a silver bullet, but an insurance population and things like that are what’s going to save the devil we think.
“For us, it’s really important to get funding to keep Devil Ark going and for it to grow; to make sure they are a saved species.
“We’ve already lost the thylacine. If we lose the devil it would be a crying shame; it would be a big stain on humanity.”
For more information on how you can make a donation to Devil Ark or book into a Devil’s in the Wild tour to see their work firsthand, please visit www.devilark.org.au