Tasmanian Devils are making a comeback on mainland Australia with 26 released in Barrington Tops. We find out why. Listen to the podcast.

Devils are well suited to the climate and vegetation of the Barrington Tops. PHOTO: Supplied (Aussie Ark)
Devils are well suited to the climate and vegetation of the Barrington Tops. PHOTO: Supplied (Aussie Ark)

The Tasmanian devil is under serious threat of extinction.

Their numbers have dwindled over the decades because of colonial hunting, feral pests and habitat loss. More recently Devil Facial Tumor Disease has killed thousands of them, reducing the population by up to 90 percent.

But healthy insurance colonies are being maintained in Tasmania should the worst happen.

And last year, a colony of devils was released on mainland Australia at a wild sanctuary in the Barrington Tops. It's a project by Aussie Ark who maintain an insurance population of hundreds of captive devils as well.

The 26 lucky devils are the first to be living wild on the mainland since they were wiped out 3000 years ago. Devils used to roam free across the country but once dingoes were introduced they made short work of the marsupial.

Aussie Ark's Tim Faulkner is excited to see what impact the devils have on the ecology of the Barrington Tops. PHOTO: Supplied

Aussie Ark's Tim Faulkner is excited to see what impact the devils have on the ecology of the Barrington Tops. PHOTO: Supplied

Barrington Tops is an area of alpine and sub-alpine, dry rainforest three hours from Newcastle in NSW's Hunter region. It's climate and vegetation makes it a slice of Tasmania on the mainland - with cooler, wetter summers and regular snow in the winter.

"We've had some locals from Tasmania come up and they say 'oh it's just the same'," said Kelly Davis, Devil Handler at Aussie Ark.

Aussie Ark has about 3000 hectares in the tops including the 400 hectares dedicated to the rewilding of the devils as well as quolls. Kelly showed us around the sanctuary. It's lined by a cat and fox proof fence.

On the inside of the gate are name cards of the Barrington Devils and their quoll friends. There's one named after Kelly. Others have more creative names. There's Ginny and Tonks, Mcgonagall from Harry Potter. Lisa and Mrs Krabappel from the Simpsons. And a lot of quoll puns - Quollslaw, Sausage Quoll, Guacaquolle, Shannon Quoll, Niquoll Kidman.

Kelly Davis has hand raised 8 devil joeys but says they don't make good pets. PHOTO: Simon McCarthy

Kelly Davis has hand raised 8 devil joeys but says they don't make good pets. PHOTO: Simon McCarthy

"We do entertain ourselves a little bit coming up with as obscure names as possible. There's not a lot to do on the mountain. It's a quite isolated environment. This is what we do with out spare time," said Kelly.

Kelly and the other handlers live on the mountain full-time.

"You learn to be really organised with your shopping because if you forget a bottle of milk then you're not going on the three hour round trip to get some," Kelly said.

Voice of Real Australia podcast host Tom Melville holds Dwight the devil joey. PHOTO: Laura Corrigan

Voice of Real Australia podcast host Tom Melville holds Dwight the devil joey. PHOTO: Laura Corrigan

We meet two devil joeys Dwight and Phyllis who have been hand raised by Kelly. They're like playful kittens, nuzzling into the crooks of my arms. One nibbles Tom's finger, chews at his sleeve. Kelly has raised eight joeys that for one reason or another couldn't be left with their mothers. Now the joeys act as ambassadors for Aussie Ark, stealing the hearts of visitors.

"They're very sweet when they're little. When they grow up I wouldn't call them a good pet. They're not tame of domesticated or anything like that they just have an association with people. But that does fade over time and then they go back to devilish life," Kelly said.

The devils released into the sanctuary were selected for their genetic diversity to ensure the population has the best chance of survival against disease. Twenty more will join them over the next couple of years.

But the Barrington Devils are not just an insurance policy. For Tim Faulkner, President of Aussie Ark and director of the Australian Reptile Park, it's an opportunity to reintroduce a native predator to the mainland.

"What we've got now are environments where we have no top order predator and the placental mammals like the fox and cat are annihilating our small mammals," said Tim.

will this adolescent devil be chosen for release into the wild sanctuary? PHOTO: Simon McCarthy

will this adolescent devil be chosen for release into the wild sanctuary? PHOTO: Simon McCarthy

Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. We've lost as many mammals in the past 200 years as the rest of the world put together. And in most cases the fox and cat are to blame.

Devils are mainly scavengers so they live in somewhat harmony with small mammals like quolls, potoroos, bettongs and bandicoots.

"You go for a walk through the bush [in Tasmania] and you'll here these sounds of our small mammals. Something's gone very right down there, and we want in on that!" Tim said.

There's evidence that devils have a positive impact on their environment. A study in Tasmania found cats were twice as abundant in areas where devils had declined.

"This increasing cat abundance, in turn, had a negative impact on some of the small mammals," said Calum Cunningham postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tasmania.

Devils released in the wild are chosen for their genetic diversity to ensure healthy families. PHOTO: Supplied (Aussie Ark)

Devils released in the wild are chosen for their genetic diversity to ensure healthy families. PHOTO: Supplied (Aussie Ark)

Calum is optimistic the devils will have some benefit on the ecology of the Barrington Tops. But it's hard to say how they'll interact with foxes if they ever met.

"I would be surprised if the introduction of devils to an area with foxes wouldn't provide some benefit. I don't think it would be the silver bullet, though," Calum said.

I asked Kelly what the end goal is for Aussie Ark and the devil project. She laughed and said "save the world".

"Australia's really struggling in terms of its wildlife and they need all the help we can give them. The more that we're able to get those areas of land and introduce other species, the more good we can do," she said.

Listen to the whole story on the podcast. Scan the QR code or search Voice of Real Australia on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast platform.

This story Lucky devils calling NSW home first appeared on Newcastle Herald.