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Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is a fatal and infectious form of cancer affecting the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)—the world’s largest marsupial carnivore.
This extremely rare form of cancer is characterised by obvious facial tumours in affected devils. DFTD, which is thought to be transmitted by infected devils biting other devils, primarily affects adult animals and, once contracted, can spread quickly with devastating results. As the cancers develop in infected animals, feeding and competing for food becomes progressively more difficult. Affected animals often die from starvation and the breakdown of their bodily functions within six months of infection.
DFTD was first detected in north-east Tasmania in the mid-1990s, and since that time, sightings of the Tasmanian devil in the wild have declined by more than 80 percent. Tragically, the north-east region has experienced a drop in sightings of around 95 percent. Due to this alarming rate of decline, the Tasmanian devil is now listed as an endangered species.
The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is the Tasmanian government’s response to this significant threat to the devil’s survival. One of the Program’s primary roles is to manage an “insurance population” of breeding devils to ensure the genetic diversity of the species is maintained. This insurance population is free of DFTD, and is made up of captive devils in various Tasmanian and interstate locations. There is also a wild insurance population of healthy devils on Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast. The Program’s “Wild Devil Recovery Project” has seen devils from the insurance population released into selected sites in Tasmania where the local devil populations have been decimated by DFTD. These sites are being carefully monitored to determine the effect of introducing new, healthy devils.
The Tasmanian devil immunology research group at the Menzies Institute for Medical Research in Hobart is conducting vital research into the immune system of the Tasmanian devil and the way in which it responds to the cancer. The overarching goal of the Menzies’ devil group is to develop a protective vaccine against DFTD. Previously led by Professor Greg Woods, this research is now under the direction of Dr Andy Flies. Exciting headway is being made, with the group having built on results from previous DFTD vaccine trials and devising an improved approach for developing an effective DFTD vaccine. The group is also figuring out how this new vaccine can be delivered to devils in an edible form i.e. an oral bait vaccine, so as to maximise vaccine uptake by wild devils.
Through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, Saffire has partnered with Professor Woods and Dr Flies in this critical effort to save the Tasmanian devil from extinction. As a key sponsor, Saffire is contributing significantly to the Menzies Research Institute’s quest to develop a vaccine for DFTD and secure the survival of this extraordinary marsupial.
We have created a one-hectare, free-range devil enclosure at Saffire to accommodate mature devils that have been part of the devil breeding program and whose genes are now well represented within the insurance population. This enclosure provides the devils with a safe, secure environment and high quality of life, while also freeing up space for more breeding devils within government facilities. In effect, the devil enclosure at Saffire is a luxury retirement home for devils who have played their part in helping to ensure the survival of their species.
The Saffire devil enclosure also has the added benefit of allowing Saffire guests the incredible opportunity to see Tasmanian devils in a natural setting and to contribute to the continuing effort to save this iconic species.