As a child, I went through a series of favourite animal phases. Unicorns were my first love, but I soon traded the mythical beasts for ladybirds, housecats, and horses, before settling on the Tasmanian devil, a creature both fantastical and real. I’d first learned about the Aussie beast in the 1990s on a TV show called Tiny Toon Adventures, the misadventures of a cast of pastel-hued renditions of cartoon animals. While the devil on the show, Dizzy Devil, was cuter than he was fierce, I would soon learn that the real Tasmanian devils were far from cuddly—in fact, these little marsupials, which rarely exceed 10 kilos, have the strongest bite relative to their body weight of any mammal on Earth. It was with hopes of someday seeing one of these elusive creatures that I finally found my way to its native habitat, the Australian island state of Tasmania, earlier this year.
A good 240 kilometres south of mainland Australia, Tasmania is not easy to get to. But nature lovers (and people who have odd obsessions with small but ferocious nocturnal creatures) will find the trip worth the hassle of the journey. Although Tasmania has a couple of cities and many small towns, it is best known for the gargantuan expanses of wilderness that cover over 40 per cent of the island’s landmass. Most of the island’s southwestern forest—one of the world’s last remaining major stands of temperate rainforest—is protected as a UNESCO World Heritage area. About five of the area’s nine national parks and reserves include some form of animal sanctuary with devil habitats. The Tasmanian Devil Conversation Park in Taranna and the Devils@Cradle, in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, both have a strong focus on the critter.
I chose to visit Devils@Cradle as it seemed to provide the most information about the conservation of these creatures. The centre educates the public about the marsupials and helps prevent the spread of a parasitic cancer that has caused a massive decline in their numbers in the wild in the past two decades.
Devils@Cradle resident Max basks on a gnarled log. Photo courtesy Devils@Cradle
As I entered the complex, I heard the piercing cries of three devils housed in a large pen right by the main gate. The trio seemed to be taking turns scaring each other off in different sections of the enclosure by belting out shrill growls, more suited to a horror flick soundtrack than an animal sanctuary. A few minutes later, a guide showed up with a bucket full of chopped wallabies.
“These three are brothers,” she told me, chucking a piece of meat into the centre of the enclosure before climbing in herself. “Devils are both scavengers and predators, and they’ll eat pretty much anything.” I tried to keep on a brave face. As a lifelong vegetarian, the scene was far beyond my comfort zone, but I was enthralled by the aggressive little creatures who, despite their macabre screams and appetite for raw meat, were awfully cute.
I followed the guide and a couple of other visitors from pen to pen. Our guide tossed in a piece of meat here and there, as she answered our questions about the animals. We learned about their mating habits, and about the low survival rates of their babies, also called joeys like kangaroos. Mostly though, we learned about their culinary preferences. “You mentioned that they’re scavengers,” said an older Australian woman in our group. “Will they eat each other’s dead bodies?” “Of course,” our guide responded as if sibling cannibalism were the most natural thing on Earth, “food is food.”
While Tasmanian devils do have a tendency towards aggressive behaviour, trained keepers can safely enter their pens for feeding and maintenance. Photo courtesy Devils@Cradle
A few among us had begun to visibly shiver from the sudden drop in temperature as night fell. The fascination of being around these creatures began to wear off by the time we made our way to the final enclosure. I was about to call it a day when our guide picked up a tiny female devil and let us each spend a couple of seconds petting its coat, which was surprisingly silky. It allowed me to see a different side of these ferocious creatures and I forgot about the cold.
As I drove back to my cabin that night, I spotted a plump wombat nosing about in a patch of dirt and a spotted quoll, another marsupial, scurrying off into a thicket. The Australian government declared devils endangered in 2008 and, during my time on the island, I never did see one in the wild. Whether this was due to their diminishing numbers in light of the epidemic they’re afflicted with or simply bad luck, I’m not sure.
I left Cradle Mountain the next day, happy at having had the chance to pet one of my favourite animals. But I was also sad that despite conservation efforts, the Tasmainan devil might join the ranks of other fantastic beasts that have disappeared from the planet in the past century.
Appeared in the November 2015 issue as “Encountering the Devil”.
Devils@Cradle is at the edge of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park, a 2-hr drive from Launceston town or a 4-hr drive from the capital Hobart (+61-36492-1491; www.devilsatcradle.com; entry adults AUD18/₹832, children 5-15 AUD10/₹462; under 5 free; tours at 10.30 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m.; night feedings at 5.30 p.m. daily, additional night feeding at 8.30 p.m. during daylight savings; adults AUD27.50/₹1,270 children AUD15/₹693).
Tasmanian Devil Conservation Park located on the Tasman Peninsula, is a one-hour drive from Hobart (+61-180064-1641; www.tasmaniandevilpark.com; entry adults AUD33/₹1,525, children AUD18/₹832; feedings throughout the day; tickets valid for two days).
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