Conservation Management of Tasmanian Devils in the Context of an Emerging, Extinction-threatening Disease: Devil Facial Tumor Disease
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An emerging infectious facial cancer threatens Tasmanian devils with extinction. The disease is likely to occur across the range of the devil within 5 years. This urgent time frame requires management options that can be implemented immediately: the establishment of insurance populations, in captivity, wild-living on islands, and aiming for eradication in areas that can be isolated. The long-term options of the spontaneous or assisted evolution of resistance or development of a field-deliverable vaccine are unlikely to be available in time. The disease's characteristic allograft transmission through intimate contact simplifies isolation of insurance populations and breaking transmission in suppression trials. Better knowledge of contact matrices in wild devils will help focus timing and demographic targets of removals. A metapopulation approach is needed that integrates captive and wild-living island and peninsula (disease suppression) populations to minimize the loss of genetic diversity over 50 years until either extinction and reintroduction can occur, resistance evolves or a field-deliverable vaccine is developed. Given the importance of the insurance populations and the low genetic diversity of devils, a conservative target for retention of 95% genetic diversity is recommended. Encouraging preliminary results of the first disease-suppression trial on a large peninsula show fewer late stage tumors and no apparent population decline. Limiting geographic spread or suppressing the disease on a broadscale are both unlikely to be feasible. Since the synergy of devil decline and impending fox establishment could have devastating consequences for Tasmanian wildlife, it is crucial to manage the dynamics of new and old predator species together.