Wednesday, 17 July 2013

UK survival expert Ray Mears chases devils and tigers

UK survival expert Ray Mears has turned his attention to Australia, filming two segments here on our saltwater crocodile and the iconic Tasmanian devil, the second of which will air in the coming week in Britain. He also looks into some reports of the continuing existence of the Tasmanian Tiger.

The description of the show follows:

About a third of the remote island of Tasmanina and its stunning coastline is classified as National Park, and is mired in tales of prehistoric tigers, monster crayfish and screaming dervishes. Incredibly, these myths are, to some extent, true.

The Tasmanian devil was named after explorers heard its ferocious screams, but it is now on the precipice of extinction. Often represented as a night time terror, the devil is in fact a gregarious marsupial unique to the island. But its survival is threatened by a cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which has laid waste to the island’s population.

Ray meets the Anthony family who live in a wildlife sanctuary they built themselves. They are committed to safeguarding the future of the Tasmanian devil.

Owner, Wade says: “What we’re doing here is part of a larger programme, in an attempt to ensure the survival of the Tasmanian devil. In the wild we’ve lost around 80 per cent of the wild population through Devil Facial Tumour Disease. So whilst we’re trying to give people an accurate understanding of what these animals are, we’re also trying to build up the numbers in captivity. ”

Similar in appearance to a small bear, the devil is incredibly strong with immense jaw power.

Sadly extinction is not new to Tasmania’s unique wildlife. The island’s government and people were solely responsible for the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger just 77 years ago when groups of farmers fearing for their agriculture lobbied the government. As a result, the state paid £1 per head for every animal until they were no more.

Ray meets Kathryn Medlock, Senior Curator at the Tasmanian Museum to find out more about the Thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial.

Kathryn says: “It was a remarkable animal, it really looks like a dog or a wolf but very definitely a marsupial. It had a pouch, gave birth to young and reared it’s young in the mother’s pouch, it could have up to four young at a time.”

Despite their official extinction, Ray meets local people who firmly believe the tiger is still out there due to claims of sightings.

Doug Westbrook, co-proprietor of the Tiger Bar of Mole Creek says: “My wife arrived home, burst in the door…she looked like a ghost and she said, ‘I’ve just seen a tiger’. She saw this dog-like animal walking across, like it had a broken back. Because it’s a marsupial it doesn’t walk like a dog it walks like a kangaroo.”

The government takes sightings seriously enough to employ a government officer. Nick Mooney has worked for the Tasmanian government for 35 years.

Nick says: “There’s a very interesting twist to this whole thing in that with this devil disease we have less devils than in many, many decades in Tasmania and devils would be a problem for Thylacines. It would be very hard for a very rare Thylacine to raise pups where devils were very common. So you have your major competitor  drastically reduced in numbers, more wallabies in Tasmania than probably ever in history, still quite a bit of habitat. We should have Thylacines pouring out our ears.”

Whilst the clock is ticking for the future of the devil, Devil Facial Tumour Disease is a fairly new disease.

Veterinary scientist Ruth Pye says: “1996 was when it was first photographed in North-East Tasmania and its spread has been quite rapid. It’s always been fatal, usually six months, perhaps a bit longer. It’s a transmissible tumour, which is the most unusual characteristic of the disease, being a cancer that’s contagious. So what we’re trying to do is develop a vaccine, the ultimate goal.”

Ray is on hand as Ruth treats a young female devil called Elsie.

Ray says: “Nobody needs to be told how vicious cancer is, but seeing young Elsie here, I can’t help but think this is an unnecessarily cruel way for a species to die.”

Ray also gets up close to some of the other unique creatures that can be found on the island, including the Monster Crayfish, whose numbers are in fast decline due to pollution in rivers. They grow up to a metre in length and are the world’s biggest freshwater invertebrates, the male’s claws are so strong they could break your arm.

Ray also visits Western Tasmania to go in search of one of nature’s most elusive and ancient animals, the Platypus.

Ray says: “It’s really exciting, I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed, because I’ve never seen a platypus in the wild and for any naturalist, this is the possibility of a dream come true.”

At Trowunna Wildlife sanctuary in Mole Creek there’s a ‘devil retirement’ home. Sanctuary owner Androo Kelly has been working with insurance populations and zoo programmes all around the world ever since the Devil Facial Tumour Disease came to light. There is a theory that almost 15,000 years ago the devil’s genetic makeup changed and that’s what made them susceptible to catching the disease. Scientists are therefore working in an attempt to recreate the devil’s DNA before it changed, to see if it is possible to create a new blood line that is resistant to the disease.

Ray ends his journey on the stunning northern tip of the island, on a night-time exploration with wildlife biologists hoping to see a devil in the wild for himself, before it’s too late.

The episode airs on ITV in the UK on Wednesday, 24 July from 9pm-10pm.

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