BARRINGTON TOPS, Australia (Reuters) - The largest group so far of disease-free Tasmanian devils has been released in the wild, as part of plans to save the carnivorous marsupials from a cancer threatening them with extinction.
A group of 22 of the creatures, made famous by their namesake Warner Bros cartoon character, was flown to the island state of Tasmania from a captive breeding facility near Sydney and released in native bushland.
The Tasmanian devil population has plummeted to around 10,000 from an estimated 250,000 before 1996, when Devil Facial Tumor Disease was first discovered. The disease causes large lumps to form around the animal's mouth and head, making it hard for it to eat.
"Tasmanian Devils in the wild have been absolutely decimated by this disease," Mike Drinkwater, operations manager at the Devil Ark recovery program told Reuters. "It's a very, very nasty disease. After three months we see symptoms, after six months those devils are gone."
Devil Ark, part of a national breeding program to save the species from extinction, has 180 devils in its program, making it largest disease-free population in Australia.
The healthy animals will be protected by 'devil-proof' fencing and other deterrents to prevent contamination from diseased animals. A group of 20 of the marsupials was released in the state's north earlier this year.
The Tasmanian devil is the world's largest carnivorous marsupial, reaching 30 inches (76 centimeters) in length and weighing up to 26 pounds (12 kilograms).
They were named by European settlers who witnessed their ferocious teeth bearing display and spine-chilling guttural growls when attacking food.
(Reporting by Pauline Askin and Jill Gralow; Editing by Richard Pullin)