Walkers in Tarkine rainforest will help scientists track endangered marsupial by collecting data from motion-sensitive cameras.

Walkers are joining forces with conservationists to help bring the Tasmanian devil back from the brink of extinction. In a unique tourism experiment, guests on guided walks through Tasmania's remote Tarkine rainforest will help scientists track local populations of the Australian island state's most iconic creature by collecting data from 45 motion-sensing cameras set up along the trails.

The world's largest surviving carnivorous marsupial is endemic to Tasmania, and the pristine wilderness in the island's north-west corner is one of the last areas to remain untouched by an aggressive facial cancer that has obliterated overall devil numbers by more than 80% over 15 years. The size of a small dog with powerful jaws, the animal was thought to live only in dry, coastal or open woodland. But the discovery of a thriving and disease-free population in Tarkine's dense rainforest offers scientists a valuable new opportunity to study their behaviour in the wild and develop a better understanding of how the disease is spread.

"Contrary to common assumption, we've known for years that there are devils living in rainforest, and now we've got the proof," said Mark Davis, owner of Tarkine Trails, whose guides retrieved the first two months' worth of images from the cameras, which they'll continue to service with memory cards and batteries throughout the year. "Every single camera we placed caught images of devils and not one has displayed signs of the facial tumour disease, which is a huge relief. Along with our walkers, our guides act as field researchers where it has previously been too expensive to conduct research."

The decade-long Tarkine Devil Project is being funded by the Tasmanian government as part of a broader rescue programme begun in 2003 that includes captive breeding of immune animals, habitat management and laboratory research into the disease. First identified in 1996, Devil facial tumour disease causes growths around the mouth that hinder the animal from feeding, so it eventually starves to death. The mysterious and rare form of contagious cancer is thought to spread through the devils biting each other while squabbling for food.

Until the late 1990s, Tasmanian devils were commonly found all over the island. But the illegal introduction of the red fox, increased road traffic accidents and the rapid spread of facial cancer have seen its numbers plummet to just 10,000, with the species being declared in 2008 as endangered. Once seen as a threat to livestock and prized for its pelt, only official protection in 1941 stopped the devil from being hunted to extinction – a fate that had already befallen its close relative the Tasmanian tiger (or thylacine) in 1936.

Tarkine Devil Project

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