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Author: Andrew Darby
Date: 11 November, 2013

Gingerly taking one careful step onto the forest floor, the first mainland-bred devil was released in to the wild in Tasmania on Wednesday in an ambitious bid to save the marsupial from extinction.

The three-year-old male named Boomer was one of 11 Tasmanian devils freed in bush on Maria Island, a national park east of Hobart, as part of a campaign to save the species from a transmissable facial tumour disease that has dramatically reduced its numbers.

Tiffany Eastley, from Victoria’s Healesville Sanctuary, said Boomer was chosen because of his wild traits. “We want him to be bold, but not aggressive; confident and willing to explore,” she said.

He didn’t disappoint. The 10 kilogram male growled alarmingly in the tube of poly pipe he was flown in from Victoria. Set free he cocked his head, sniffed the air and quietly disappeared into the grass.

The devils were bred at Healesville and Monarto, in South Australia. Up to 80 per cent of devils have disappeared from former haunts in Tasmania and the rare transmissable cancer is closing on the last big healthy wild population in its far north-west, according to Save the Devil program manager David Pemberton.

The mainland-bred devils are part of a 622-strong insurance population and a long term project to repopulate the island should the disease cause extinction in the wild.

Ms Eastley, who left Tasmania herself to work on devils at Healesville, shed a tear as she described the pang of releasing animals she had known since they were imps (or baby devils).

“I do get a bit emotional, but it’s good to see the reward of all that work,” she said.

It contrasted with the tough science of working on measuring the spread of the disease in the wild, she said.

“I often wonder how people keep going at that work at the disease front, finding it on the devils every day.”

Wildlife biologist Phil Wise said the release was a big milestone. “It’s all about bolstering the genetics of the existing population,” he said.

Since the insurance program began in 2006 it has become the largest program in Australia managed by the national Zoos and Aquariums Association. Devils have also been exported to zoos in Copenhagen and San Diego.

A total of 24 devils have now been released on Maria, where there were no devils before, and they have begun breeding.

Predation on penguins and shearwaters is being monitored, but so far the diet is mainly brushtail possum, Mr Wise said.

The devils were also selected for the popular tourist island based on another quality.

“If they were aggressive towards humans they wouldn’t have got a ticket to Maria,” he said.

Read article at the Sydney Morning Herald