Tasmanian Times

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche


Tasmania’s shame: The Devil Disease

Even before we Europeans arrived in Tasmania, there was a Devil in Paradise. Today we have Devils in Paradise dying of cancer. And yet the cliché descriptors for Tasmania are ‘the natural state’, ‘clean, green & clever’ and ‘disease-free’.

The plight of the Tasmanian Devil is worsening by the day. A unique cancer is spreading like a contagion and has now consumed over 50% of the estimated 130,000 devils in less than a decade. Although not proven, the facial cancer disease appears to be transferring from devil to devil through direct contact by biting. In a matter of months the cancer is invariably fatal and ‘attack rates’ recorded in some populations is 100% – that is, all animals have died.

Field surveys show that the disease covers well over 65% of the State with wildlife biologist, Nick Mooney (Australian Nature Summer 2004/05) saying that ‘it’s hard to imagine the disease will not saturate the State sooner rather than later’.

This aggressive, apparently transmissible cancer is without precedent in the world. As Tasmanian cancer specialist, Professor Ray Loewenthal has suggested, there is nothing to compare with this cancer in humans.
This is one of the most important unsolved diseases in the world. ‘You may think that it’s just a state issue, but the Tasmanian Devil is a national icon. The world community is watching to see how Tasmanian manages this situation’, Wildlife Veterinarian and Co-ordinator of the Australian Wildlife Heath Network, Dr Rupert Woods said.

I have been puzzled at the on again-off again surges of government-generated information cast into the media on this very important disease mystery.

This policy decision devalues the Devil as a species

As a wildlife veterinarian and an individual who has contributed expertise the disease investigation I have been critical of the way the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) has essentially been stage-managing at a political level with tight control on both the access to and the release of information. This policy decision devalues the Devil as a species and diminishes the community contribution to our island’s unique biodiversity.

Epidemics of disease and especially new and unusual diseases are highly topical. Readers might recall the worldwide media coverage given to Mad Cow Disease (BSE), Foot and Mouth Disease, SARS and Bird Flu. Governments generally don’t like the adverse connotations of disease be it in animals or, God-forbid, in humans! Attempts to play down, minimise and cover up the facts are commonplace. Without the attention of international health bodies like the World Health Organisation and the World Animal Health Body (OIE), national governments’ first response to disease is generally to play down the significance and in the worse cases deny it altogether. In various countries BSE, SARS and Bird Flu outbreaks were all initially met with public denials and then publicly stage-managed with misinformation. This has been the pattern of behaviour.

For decades Tasmania, the island state has portrayed itself as the last refuge for many unique marsupials no longer present on the Australian continent. Yet now Tasmania looks to its offshore islands for its own last refuge for the beleaguered Devil. What is going on?

Imagine if this cancer had killed 50% of the Tasmanian human population in a little over five years. This is a comparison that might be worth contemplating. A human malady of those proportions would be comparable to the Black Death in the middle ages in Europe. It would dwarf the death rates due to variant Creutzfeld -Jakob disease (Mad Cow Disease in humans) and deaths from SARS in 2002. Only the pandemic of HIV/AIDS and the potential impact of a virulent strain of human influenza would be greater. World Health Organisation would be demanding daily updates from Australian and Tasmanian health authorities. Tasmania would be literally on the map. The world’s leading epidemiologists, disease modellers and bio-medical researchers would be directly contributing and involved. International cancer researchers would be applying their collective talents and energies to understanding all aspects of this unique cancer. A common compassion for our fellows would accelerate the effort. Indeed the research efforts might have ground-breaking implications for other cancer research.

For decades Tasmania, the island state has portrayed itself as the last refuge for many unique marsupials no longer present on the Australian continent. Yet now Tasmania looks to its offshore islands for its own last refuge for the beleaguered Devil. What is going on?

It is nearly 15 months since a State government sponsored workshop on DFTD, a workshop where the media was excluded from attendance. Such an important disease process and such an unusual cancer and yet I’m not aware of a single publication describing any aspects of this unique cancer appearing in any national or international peer-reviewed science journal. Why this hesitancy?

This is only Tasmania and after all it is only the Devil!

Reporting on new diseases is usually the hottest of hot topics for researchers to commit to press. Even the early observational material and qualitative descriptions are useful because they communicate to all scientific peers and build co-operation.

But the reality it is this is only Tasmania and after all it is only the Devil!

Even the Commonwealth government initially declined to assist with funding the DFTD because of the lack of a detailed ‘case definition’. It is still awaited. Even requests to formally provide regular situation reports to the Australian Wildlife Health Network have been resisted. It beggars belief that a disease process as unique as this, one that has no counterpart anywhere in the world, a cancer that is transferring between animals like a highly infectious contagion is given such paltry attention.

Regrettably, and to Tasmania’s eternal shame, the full import of this significant wildlife epidemic is being diminished into an under-resourced, highly controlled political exercise

On 20 May 2004, a packed meeting at the Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery was told that the State was preparing the documentation to nominate the Tasmanian Devil as a threatened species under the State Threatened Species Protection Act 1995. And yet just this week DPIWE dismissed calls from the State Opposition parties to nominate the species for listing. And now the Government has decided to deploy containment lines across peninsulas and dispatch devils to island refuges.

But which devils are free of the disease and which are cancerous (or pre-cancerous)? To date there is no way to tell with certainty, because there is no magic test.

Without an accurate diagnostic test for ‘the disease’, without any scientific experimental work to show how ‘the disease’ is being transmitted between animals, without evidence on an external causal agent (like an exogenous or endogenous oncovirus) being detected, and without ruling in or out any genetic or environmental factor, ‘the disease’ remains an unsolved mystery.

Maria Island National Park is being considered as a destination for ‘healthy’ devils. This is the island national park that was set aside as a potential refuge for any thylacines caught in Tasmania. Disastrously for the island ecology, Tasmania’s largest marsupial herbivore, the Forester Kangaroo was placed on Maria Island in late 1960s along with a number of other wildlife species. Initially Foresters were placed in a purpose-built enclosure, until they got out! Today the NPWS needs to regularly cull Foresters to reduce their impact on the environment. Perhaps introducing the carnivorous devil to Maria is a simplistic fix for previous follies.

What has Tasmania learnt of the impacts of predators?

Anyway what has Tasmania learnt of the impacts of predators on the island? Much time and effort has been spent on eradicating feral cats from Macquarie Island because of its effects on this fragile sub-Antarctic island. Devils were transferred from Tasmania to Clarke and Badger islands in the Furneaux Group. And now the Devil Facial Tumour Disease has turned up on Badger Island. Even Bruny Island may have a resident devil population. Who is healthy and who is pre-cancerous?

Regrettably, and to Tasmania’s eternal shame, the full import of this significant wildlife epidemic is being diminished into an under-resourced, highly controlled political exercise. Is this history repeating itself yet again? Tasmanian history chronicles its first people dying through introduced disease, persecution by colonisers and then island banishment? The thylacine exterminated, what is to be the fate of the next largest marsupial carnivore?

International and national scientific recognition and effort must be brought to bear in regard to this important disease process. In the absence of a structured epidemiological assessment and an independent and authoritative review of progress to date, it is quite legitimate for the scientific community and the broader community to be questioning the program.

The history of disease investigation shows that the politics will try to control and cover up what they do not understand or fear. If scientists are compromised and controlled by their political masters then this island will continue to lose its precious natural resources. It will diminish this island by every measure and it diminishes us all.

David Obendorf “lives in West Hobart. He is a veterinarian specialising in study of animal disease. He came to Tasmania in the early 1980’s and has a special interest in diseases of wildlife. In 1994 he was appointed to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the World Animal Health Body – the Office of International Epizootics – in recognition of his wild disease expertise.

After a 17-year career with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry Water & Environment, David resigned having publicly exposed the consequences of restructuring and downsizing the State’s animal health capabilities. In 2002, in the wake of the Foot & Mouth Disease outbreak in Europe, the then Minister for Primary Industries, Water & Environment David Llewellyn commissioned David to prepare a comprehensive report to government on repairing the structural and operational deficiencies that would give Tasmania greater confidence in the face of a serious exotic animal disease emergency. The report was accepted within three months and Minister Llewellyn stated that all 35 recommendations would be implemented.

His current interest is in protecting the Social, Economic and Environmental values of his island state through the development of a workable Biosecurity Framework supported by legislation. Currently David is involved in survey of Tasmanian wetlands for another new disease, this time in our frogs.”

Devils face a human blitzkrieg

For the major debate, go to COMMENTS on:
Chemical fears. The Devil Disease

Devil Rescue, The Mercury

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. grant

    July 9, 2006 at 4:06 pm

    More information websites would be very useful, I don’t believe the 1080 is to blame, what else have researchers found?

  2. Demi Mclennan

    September 21, 2005 at 5:30 am


    I didn’t like the way that our ancestors didn’t do any thing to help save the thylacine and just let it die out i think they could have done more to save it.

    I don’t want my grandchildren to come to me one day and ask why I let the tasmanian devil die out, because i think there is more that can be done in the mean time whilst they are trying to find a cure for this horrible disease.

    It kills me to see these lovely creatures suffer and most of them die from this awful disease.

    thank you for you time,


  3. ruby

    September 21, 2005 at 5:30 am

    It is to my concern that the tasmanian devil is going to suffer the same fate as its ancestor the thylacine.

    It was just the other day at my school that I realised the threat that the tasmanian devil is under and I don’t think that the greater of our community realises how close the tasmanian devils are to extinction.

    If the public were more aware of the devils disease they would be trying harder to help like raising money and things like that.

    thank you for your time,

  4. Ruby

    September 21, 2005 at 5:14 am

    i think that tasmanian devils have become a very endangered species and that tasmania as a whole should relise what is happening to them.

    if people especially young people should start to appreiciate these beautiful creatures before they are all gone. it is only recently at school that i have realised that these animals are under threat.

  5. Mark

    February 10, 2005 at 12:57 am

    Dearest Prince of Misinterpretation

    When you first read my comments above you may have heard a light thud. That was the sound of my point cannoning into the wall just above your head.

    I will give you the benefit of doubt and assume your eyes glazed somewhere within the first paragraph.

    PS: Thank you for noting my efficiency as it is a personal strength. I wish the same for the Tasmanian Devil research.

    Yours in regality
    Prince of Enlightenment (not really, it’s just Mark)

  6. pat synge

    February 9, 2005 at 1:08 am

    Kevin, I agree that a second posting of essentially the same comment may seem superfluous. It was made at the specific request of the moderator who must have felt that it was relevant to add it to this debate.

    I also accept the The Prince of Darkness’s statement that there is “no evidence of a link between chemical applications and facial tumours” but restate my assertion that such a link would be extremely difficult to prove, that there is “quite strong (albeit anecdotal) evidence” linking cancers to toxic chemical ingestion and that there is a reluctance to pursue this line of research.

    It is encouraging that 1080 use will “start to stop” (!!) being used in December in State Forest and that this will leave “farmers as the main users”. I suggest that this will include “tree farmers”.

    Pat Synge

  7. Prince of Darkness

    February 8, 2005 at 9:45 am

    Mark and Pat, Dr Obendorf does not mention forests, forestry, 1080 or Gunns at all in his letter.

    Neither he mentions spin doctors or paranoia, which you so efficiently seem to represent. Please get serious and spend your efforts in trying to understand the disease rather than on scoring a cheap political point.

    If you talk to any researcher working with devils they will point out that there is no evidence of a link between chemical applications and facial tumors. For your information, 1080 will stop being used in State Forests starting in December this year. That will leave farmers as the main users of 1080 in the State.

  8. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 8, 2005 at 7:19 am

    Pat Synge’s post is just a modified rehash (with some of the more glaring errors and omissions rectified) of her post which appeared in the comments section under “Chemical fears: the devil disease”. I really cannot see the point of posting basically the same post twice and I refer readers to the debate on that thread.

    For what it’s worth, I thought that past fluctuations in devil numbers were not so much a hypothesis as something for which there is quite strong (albeit anecdotal) historical evidence. What is at this stage hypothetical is the claim that these fluctuations were caused by DFTD or some other similar condition.

  9. pat synge

    February 8, 2005 at 2:57 am

    Regardless of any hypothesis that there may have been large fluctuations in the Devil population in the past we are now faced with a non-hypothetical situation:

    1 There is a serious disease killing Tasmanian Devils at an alarming rate.
    2. Devils are carnivorous scavengers that often eat poisoned carcasses
    3.Other carnivores (such as cats and dogs) are highly susceptible to the effects of this poison.
    While it may not be directly fatal to Devils there is no evidence or reason to believe that it has no effect.
    4.The immune system is relatively little understood but there is incontrovertible evidence that various chemicals interfere with its functioning.
    5.Proving the link between long-term chemical ingestion and illness/disease is notoriously difficult.

    It would seem more than reasonable to suspect that there may be a link between 1080 ingestion and DFTD but there is considerable reluctance to investigate this for what would appear to be political/commercial reasons.

    It is fairly obvious that the Forest Industry would be severely impacted both on a practical level and in terms of PR – if 1080 poisoning were proven to be contributing to the spread of the disease. We know that the State Government is a strong supporter of the Forest Industry and has shown itself unwilling to do anything that might seriously impact on it.

    Irrespective of whether it is the direct cause of the spread of DFTD, widespread 1080 use should be banned simply on humane grounds. The Forest Industry should be obliged to use non-lethal methods of control on browsing wildlife despite the fact that it would cost them more. Fencing is currently the most humane option and fairly effective though somewhat expensive. Gunn’s annual (taxpayer subsidised) profits indicate that these costs could be easily absorbed and would not be prohibitive. This would certainly create employment which is the continual mantra of both the industry and Government.

    In the meantime we are expected to wait for “scientific proof” before acting to curtail the widespread use of a dangerous chemical that cruelly kills thousands of native animals annually and which, in the absence of serious research indicating the contrary, may reasonably be suspected of contributing to the rapid decline in the Devil population.

    Insisting on waiting for scientific proof while muddying the waters with fallacious and irrelevant argument has been a favourite delaying tactic used by tobacco companies, asbestos producers, other polluters and their apologists (both paid and unpaid) over the years.

    Pat Synge

  10. Dr Kevin Bonham

    February 6, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    What I would like to know at this point is: if Dr Obendorf, the Tasmanian Greens or anyone else believes the devil to be a threatened species, why have they not simply nominated it for listing as such themselves? The listing process is such that anyone can nominate a species for listing. The processes involved in submitting a nomination are simple (unlike the processes involved in assessing one, which are longwinded, defective and in need of a serious overhaul.) I have personally nominated several species for listing or delisting and the process involves filling out a simple two-page form and then adding whatever material one wishes.

    Surely anyone who genuinely believes this species to qualify for listing as threatened should be getting on with nominating it for assessment by the Scientific Advisory Committee ASAP instead of playing silly political games of trying to embarrass the government into doing it itself? Not that Dr Obendorf appears to be playing such games, but the Greens are a different story. As for Dr Obendorf’s claim that a meeting on 20/5/04 was told of State plans to nominate the species – by whom was this comment made? Was it unequivocal or conditional? Is there any record of the exact comments?

    I am also surprised, or perhaps it is just a question of different ways of using the same word, that Dr Obendorf says the disease is “without precedent in the world”. It may well be without recorded, confirmed precedent, or without precedent in any other species, but if the hypothesis that this sort of thing may have happened to Tasmanian devils several times before has been debunked in the last fifteen minutes, it would be very useful to hear of it.

  11. Mark

    February 6, 2005 at 10:47 am

    The main barrier to resolution is the Tasmanian culture. We have a government, a forest industry, key government departmental heads and a sector of our community that have worked themselves into an introverted state of paranoia. The sickness builds and festers as extreme denial such as the Gunns legal action.

    Whenever this culture is threatened the excuses and diversions flow. Be it water quality testing or tumours various well placed department heads, paid lackeys or other vested interests are quick to deny all through their media networks. I’m sure Galileo had similar problems with the culture in the Church of his day.

    David has quite correctly observed the shallowness of the Devil Rescue plan and the terms of reference of current research. In a mirror image of the treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines and the Thylacine by previous generations we seem destined to repeat history.

    Judy Jackson is clearly out of her depth (again) while the froth and bubble of the Rescue Plan appears to have been drafted by a Spin Doctor rather than a Scientific Doctor.

    Science in Tasmania is in dire need of openness of mind, independence and international standards of professionalism. I am not saying aspects of these do not already exist in some people but the current culture is stifling advancement on many fronts.

    Another example is the mismanagement of Intelligent Island funding where the government seems devoid of the mental capacity to even understand the question. Personally, I still believe the government had already spent this money elsewhere (Spirit of Tasmania III) but was just caught out.

    We need independence of the people in this state to enable this society to mature, accept responsibilty for its problems and be accountable for its decisions.

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