Drive over one narrow isthmus in Tasmania, and then another, and you'll reach Tasman Peninsula, the last place on Earth where wild Tasmanian devils live apart from a contagious cancer that threatens the marsupials' existence. Conservationists are doing everything they can to keep it that way. Devil-proof barriers, flashing roadside alarms, and infrared cameras are protecting the species from their two greatest threats: cancer and cars. There are even plans for a sort of trap door that would keep diseased devils from crossing a bridge to reach the Tasman Peninsula. "Saving the wild devils on the Tasman Peninsula is the Holy Grail of the whole thing—can we save a natural, wild population of devils and isolate them?" said John Hamilton, a partner in the Peninsula Devil Conservation Project. "And pretty much we have so far."
The muscle-bound predator-scavenger with a ferocious growl—the inspiration for the cartoon character Taz—is endangered by a mysterious cancer that has slashed its numbers in Tasmania by as much as 90%, transferred by the devil's powerful bite. And they do a lot of biting, whether squabbling over a carcass or mating. Facial wounds develop grotesque tumors that eventually prevent them from eating. The disease started in the northeast and is spreading west and south; the Tasman Peninsula offers the only feasible geographic bulwark. The size of the population there is unknown: "We've got dozens, but maybe not hundreds," Hamilton said. A major hope for the wild devil is the quest for a vaccine. Scientists released 19 immunized devils into a Tasmanian park where the disease exists in September, and 18 produced immune responses. However, even if the vaccine works, that will not pass to offspring. "Every single devil down here is incredibly precious," Hamilton said. "These are the last isolated, healthy, safe, wild devils on the planet." (Read more Tasmanian Devil stories.)