If you’ve heard about the Tasmanian devil, you probably know that a transmissible tumour, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), threatens the species with extinction. But you probably don’t know that for the last five years the devil population in the wild has stabilised, albeit at levels about 80 to 85% lower than pre-disease times.

The reason you wouldn’t know this is the data is in a graph in a Tasmanian government report, and the result has not been mentioned in any of the government’s public information sites. It is most notably absent from the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program’s website, which describes itself as “your primary source of authoritative, up to date information on Devil Facial Tumour Disease. We will keep you informed of what is being done to save the Tasmanian Devil and how you can help.”

The graph is a plot of the number of devils sighted in the state government’s annual state-wide spotlighting surveys along 172-odd 10-kilometre road sections between 1985 and 2012. Spotlight Summary Report 2012-13 reveals a decline in devils beginning with the appearance of DFTD in 1996 and then a levelling off beginning in 2008 and continuing to the present …

Raw counts of additional mammal species observed during the Annual Statewide Spotlight Surveys, mainland Tasmania (2002-2012)

This survey and the data it gathers represent the longest and geographically broadest continual monitoring of the devil population available. The data is robust and used routinely in other research articles on the devil.

That something is up is also suggested by a single passing comment in the media. A 2013 New Year’s Day newspaper report said in some areas the devil population had “unexpectedly stabilised”. This information could have only come from within the STDP. The apparent stabilisation also now explains why, since early 2010, official statements of the decline in overall devil numbers have remained unchanged at 80-85%.

The STDP maintains at least three “long-term monitoring sites” that might or might not be informative as to the status of the devil populations. The names and locations of the sites are not in the public domain, so it is not clear if they are new sites, in which case they would be relatively uninformative, or old sites for which population estimates were available up until 2007 or 2008, depending on the site, but then stopped. Toward the end, surveys at these old sites were providing the first indications the populations might be stabilising. In fact, the populations at some of the old sites, such as those on Forestier/Tasman and Freycinet peninsulas, are slated for removal and replacement, thus eliminating their value in providing insight into the long-term progression of DFTD.

Despite the recently published spotlight survey results indicating a stabilising of the population as a whole, the STDP wrote on its website as recently as September 2013: “There is no evidence to date of the decline in devils stopping …”

Why have the Tasmanian government, the STDP and devil researchers all been silent on this potentially important development in the progress of the disease? One can only speculate. But the fact that the entire STDP is based on a story of an inexorable decline in the devil population, any news the decline may have stopped could jeopardise the STDP’s funding base. This is especially the case with funding from private donations, solicited nationally through the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal and the STDP website, and internationally through the recent initiative of sending “ambassador” devils to overseas zoos.

If the devil can save itself, what need is there for the Save the Devil industry?

*Dr Greer has a PhD in biology, and was formerly a principal research scientist at the Australian Museum. He is unaffiliated with any institution.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey