Tasmanian devils haven't been seen in the wild on mainland Australia in almost 3,000 years, thanks to the introduction of a species of wild dog, vehicles, and drivers, as well as a facial tumor illness that almost wiped them out.
Now, raising hopes that a major rewilding initiative may succeed, seven Tasmanian devils, known as joeys, have been born in a 988-acre "wild sanctuary" in New South Wales, just north of Sydney, CNN reports.
This is all thanks to a project spearheaded by conservation group Aussie Ark, Re:wild, and WildArk, which intend to establish a population of Tasmanian devils in mainland Australia to help conserve the species.
A tentative start for Tasmanian devils
Tasmanian devils are interesting species: They not only glow in the dark but they are also the world's largest carnivorous marsupials and are native apex predators, which means their reintroduction into the wild can help manage feral cat and fox populations that prey on other endangered species. They are also scavengers, which helps to keep diseases at bay in their surroundings.
These past several years have been particularly difficult on Tasmanian devils since their numbers suffered a huge blow from a contagious form of cancer known as Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). Since its discovery in 1996, the illness has killed around 90 percent of the population.
Since only 25,000 individuals remain in the wild, conservationists in Australia have been desperately trying to save these species, which are listed as endangered on the United Nations’ Red List.
Following an earlier trial involving 15 Tasmanian devils, Aussie Ark released 11 of the marsupials back into the wild in mainland Australia in September, bringing the total number on the mainland to 26.
Now, the Tasmanian devils have successfully bred just months after their release, according to the conservationists who have spotted the baby marsupials the size of "shelled peanuts" within the pouches of the mothers.
"We have been working tirelessly for the better part of 10 years to return Devils to the wild of mainland Australia with the hope that they would establish a sustainable population. Once they were back, it was entirely up to them," Aussie Ark said in a statement. "We had been watching them from afar until it was time to step in and confirm the birth of our first wild joeys. And what a moment it was!"
The seven joeys are in good health, and their health and growth will be monitored by rangers in the following weeks, according to Reuters.
The project is still in its early stages and it's hard to say anything about whether they'll survive the wild. To bring them back fully, the conservationists will need to do just more than getting them to breed in a semi-protected area. However, the goal of sustaining a breeding population of Tasmanian devils is looking brighter than ever, thanks to the successful return of 26 adult devils and the birth of seven joeys.