In the mid 90s Parks and Wildlife biologist Nick Mooney was out in the field monitoring the Tasmanian devil.
Determined to uncover the facts, a 42-year-old Mooney did not take his research at face value, questioning a strange image taken by his photographer mate, Christo Baars, on Mount William.
Little did he know that this discovery would be the first photographic evidence of a rare transmissible cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
Pathologists assured the inquisitive biologist it was merely a local problem, and he was told the same story upon another strange discovery some months later.
Mr Mooney said it wasn’t until the late 90s that a discovery by devils researcher Dr Menna Jones would uncover the first piece of tangible evidence in Bicheno.
“In 1997 we set traps, caught bugger all devils...something radically changed here. Senior management weren’t interested in continuing this work at the time,” Mr Mooney said.
He said when Mount Pleasant Laboratories went through their data they found evidence of DFTD backdated to 1997.
However, it wasn’t officially recorded as a transmissible cancer until published in an academic journal by government researcher Anne-Marie Pearse in 2006.
Mr Mooney said Dr Richmond Loh was involved in the formal diagnosis of the disease.
In 2003, Mr Mooney conducted surveys, baiting and trapping devils, discovering evidence of the pervasive disease and devil population decline.
He presented it to the then-Premier Jim Bacon, securing $1.3 million in funds to set up the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program.
He said the Premier was determined to ensure the devil didn’t go the way of the extinct Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacine).
Premier Bacon was also associated with the program’s current manager Dr David Pemberton.
Fast-forward to 2016, and the devil population is estimated to have fallen by more than 80 per cent when compared to numbers before the disease.
Safeguards have been put in place by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program and the state government, including insurance populations established in wildlife facilities nationally and overseas.
The work has progressed to releasing the healthy devils into parts of Tasmania in order to re-establish the dwindling population, at Maria Island and Forestier Peninsula.
Collaborative efforts with the Menzies Institute for Medical Research have seen a vaccine developed to give lifelong protection to devils.
In the past year, it’s been tested in the wild at Narawntapu National Park, and another release is slated for Stony Head this month.
But little is known as to whether this vaccine is effective and the institute’s key researcher Professor Greg Woods has conceded it could be even be a decade away.
However, Save the Tasmanian Devil Program manager Dr Pemberton remains optimistic about the future of the species.
He said that although the trials were in the early stages, the signs were encouraging, with some animals released already carrying pouch young.
“I am pleased to say that extinction of the species is no longer considered likely. The focus is now on securing the future for the devil where it belongs – in the wild in Tasmania,” Dr Pemberton said.
Devils carrying pouch young at a young age was discovered by Dr Jones and published in a research paper in 2008.
Her research found that devils were breeding early in the wild as a form of resilience in their response to the emergence of the disease in adulthood.
It’s raised questions as to whether the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program should be focusing its efforts on releasing healthy devils in the wild.
Three weeks ago, Trowunna Wildlife Park owner Androo Kelly received a phone call from a Meander Valley man who found a dead devil on the road.
Mr Kelly identified it as a 12 to 15-month-old maximum young female carrying three to four pouch young, and promptly handed into Mount Pleasant Laboratories for testing.
“Is the animal on its own indicating that realistically the devil will have to save itself?,” Mr Kelly said.
“Is it ethical or wise for biologists to now try and influence and in effect, manipulate, natural evolution?”
Devils researcher Dr Rodrigo Hamede, who works closely with Dr Jones, agreed the species could survive in the wild, however he believed a contingency plan was needed in the worst-case scenario.
“There is no black and white answer, but I think we need to keep our options open and do both,” he said.
Dr Hamede said it was once believed devils would be extinct in 20 years, but this has now predicted to be unlikely after the discovery of resilience and precautionary breeding.
He said testing devils in the wild provided the best way to discover infectious challenges.
In 2008, the devil was classified by the state government as endangered.
Mr Mooney estimated there were 10,000 Tasmanian devils left in the wild in 2016.
Last year, a second disease emerged known as Devil Facial Tumour Strain Two, an entirely different transmissible cancer that independently evolved from DFTD.
However, despite 20 years of research, Dr Hamede concedes that Tasmanian devils most likely will never completely be free of DFTD.
“In our lifetime I don’t think we can have a DFTD-free Tasmania,” he said.
He said he hopes in 20 years’ time researchers will be better equipped to manage the disease, eradicate it from local areas, and allow devils to co-exist with DFTD in a long-term future.