Zoo joins effort to save Tasmanian devils

SAN DIEGO — The organization that operates the San Diego Zoo announced a first-of-its-kind partnership with the University of Sydney in Australia to try to save Tasmanian devils.

San Diego Zoo Global and the university will work to reintroduce and carefully manage a disease-free population of the marsupial, which is threatened by the spread of a fatal cancer.

Facial tumors have wiped out 85 percent of the devil population since 1996. Officials give them another 25 years to last in the wild.

“The cancer is spread through physical contact of one Tasmanian devil with another and, unfortunately, no cure has been discovered,” said Bob Wiese, the chief life sciences officer of San Diego Zoo Global. “By managing a genetically diverse population safe from the disease, we hope to save the species.”

The zoo said 50 devils will be placed on Maria Island, which is off the east coast of Tasmania.

The group will be managed the same way they would in a zoo setting in order to keep them from getting cancer. Zoo officials said they’ll use GPS tracking, microchipping and state-of-the-art genetic sequencing technology.

The University of Sydney has genetically sequenced Tasmanian devils.

“Ultimately, the disease will wipe out devils in the wild, but these newly created disease-free populations will be used to re-populate the wild once it is safe to do so,” said Kathy Belov, a professor of veterinary science at the university.

San Diego Zoo Global is contributing $500,000 to the project, including funding the employment of a conservation geneticist at the university.