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Rewilding the Devil: Compassionate Conservation at Work

An inspirational project to save cancer-ridden Tasmanian devils is in the works

One would have to live in a cave to remain unaware of the rampant loss of animal and plant species on our planet. It's a depressing thought at best but I just read about a wonderful project to try to save an iconic species called the Tasmanian devil that shows just how hard some people will work to preserve biodiversity.

Tasmanian devils are carnivorous marsupials found only on the island of Tasmania. They are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List as an endangered species because of a rampant contagious facial cancer that has rapidly spread throughout populations of these small mammals wiping out about 84% of the devils since the late 1990s. Devils can be pretty aggressive and the cancer spreads when a piece of the cancer is bitten off during a fight and then travels through the biter's bloodstream to its face where a new tumor grows. Devils are the first wild species to be threatened by a contagious virus but scientists fear there may be others. 

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Beginning in November 2012, a team of biologists has begun introducing cancer-free devils on Maria Island off the east cost of Tasmania in hopes of saving the species from extinction. If devils on the mainland die out there will be a refuge of cancer-free devils who can serve as ambassadors for their species. And, perhaps in the future, it will be possible to reintroduce them into the wild on the mainland. 

Compassionate conservation at work

I want to call attention to this ambitious and inspirational project because it shows how hard people must work to preserve dwindling biodiversity and also because it is a good example of compassionate conservation at work (see also and). It would be easy to let the devils go, after all, they're not found worldwide and few people would miss them. However, individual animals matter and we must focus on saving individuals to save species, and this is one of the goals of the rapidly emerging compassionate conservation movement (for a collection of essays that center on compassionate conservation please see). 

Let's wish the devils and the researchers the best of luck and hope that in the future others will make these sorts of efforts to save species from extinction. We can ill-afford to lose more species and the hard work is well worth it for the animals themselves and so that future generations will not wind up living in an even more impoverished world. The devil really is in the details. 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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