Moving Tasmanian devils to Australia could help reduce the feral cats and foxes plaguing the mainland, researchers say.
Feral cats are currently seen as one of the biggest threats to Australian wildlife, having driven several species to extinction or endangered status.
But in a new study, ecologists at the University of New South Wales theorize that if Tasmanian devil were reintroduced to Australia, it would quickly become an apex predator that curbs the feral cats’ damages and sets off a chain of events beneficial to the country’s wildlife.
According to scientific models, the devils would out-compete and suppress cats and foxes. The carnivorous marsupials would also dine on herbivores like wallabies, leaving more grassy areas for small animals like the bandicoot to shelter in.
Researchers point to Tasmania as an example of how effective the devils are at pest control. Despite feral cats and foxes making it to the island, their numbers have always been kept in check, which the ecologists at UNSW say is credit of the Tasmanian devil.
Tasmanian devils have been absent from the Australia mainland for over 3,000 years, and are now restricted to their namesake island, Tasmania. It’s believed the devils were likely driven out by the dingo, a wild dog native to Australia.
UNSW researchers believe the devil could be introduced to areas on the mainland where there are no dingoes, including the southeastern states of Victoria and New South Wales. Dingoes were eliminated in these areas long ago after being seen as a threat to livestock, but the wild dog’s absence has allowed feral cats and foxes to spread uncontrollably.
The cats have obliterated native fauna in Australia; 20 out of 29 mammals that have gone extinct in Australia since the 19th Century were believe to have been caused by feral cats.
Finally fed up, the government is embarking on a controversial program to kill two million cats by 2020.
Bringing back devils to Australia’s mainland would be the latest of several worldwide efforts to reintroduce predators into their historical territories.
Wolves have been successfully introduced to Yellowstone National Park in America, helping to control other species’ numbers, and in Britain, lynx are being released to help balance out the ecosystem.
In Australia, conservationists are also calling for the Tasmanian devil’s rival, the dingo, to be allowed into parts of Australia to eliminate feral cats.
The authors of the study are calling for the devils to be introduced on a trial basis to measure their effect in the real world. “We keep hearing about the devastating impact of cats and foxes and we’re not succeeding in ameliorating those impacts,” said Prof. Mike Letnic, co-author of the study.
Letnic and his colleagues suggest the government test out the plan in the Great Dividing Range, a remote mountainous area, since it has no dingoes but high fox numbers.
In an interview with The Guardian, Gregory Andrews, the Australian government’s threatened species commissioner, expressed interest in the idea, but said it would rely on public opinion to gain any ground. Said Andrews, “Community agreement and support, especially in Tasmania, would be essential before any scientifically-based reintroductions of Tasmanian devils to the mainland.”