Sympathy for the Devil
On an isolated part of Tasmania’s rugged northwest coast there are witnesses to the encounter, including local Geoff King. King is the owner of 800 acres of natural bush that runs to a wild beach by the Southern Ocean and includes a wonderfully simple fishing hut where we gather after dark.
Darkness comes with a hurry in these parts and with its onset we are ushered into the hut where a gas lamp hisses and glows. A table is set with biscuits, dips and raw vegetables. By the hut’s only window a road-killed wallaby is staked to the ground.
We barely have time to dip into the snacks before all of us are brought to silence. “Shhh, we have devil,” says King with a storyteller’s tone. The wallaby is a favourite comestible of the Tasmanian devil yet the speed of this fellow’s appearance has surprised even King. We all head for the window where the area immediately outside is illuminated by a battery powered light. A curiously employed baby monitor is hidden in a clump of native grasses. Another is above the hut’s fireplace.
The unfortunate wallaby and King are players in a unique foray into conservation. This is one of only two places in the world where you can watch wild Tasmanian devils feeding under controlled conditions: of course there is nowhere else in the world beyond Australia’s island state where devils are wild. The nocturnal devil is a carnivorous marsupial and roughly the size of small dog.
A devil creeps from the grasses. Devils only live about five years in the wild and this 10-12 kilogram specimen has reached old age. King knows him. “I’ve had fears for him over the last six months.” Not that age has dimmed his appetite. The devil gorges and his belly slowly swells (a devil will eat up to half its body weight).
King’s family have been running cattle around Marrawah since the 1880s and while King still farms he removed the stock from this run in 1999 after an awakening into the damage the cattle were causing. “People I knew started to point out some of the problems I was adding to by running the cattle. Then it opened up a whole world of interests I’d never seen before,” says King.
Wildlife biologist Nick Mooney suggested the devil restaurant to King. “I had known Geoff for years and long recognised his curiosity and charisma with people, and wonderful property,” offers Mooney. “When he talked of wanting to do something less harmful with his coast run I suggested the devil restaurant as a basis to a wildlife tourism venture.”
Devils are not the only carnivores abundant in these parts. King suspects a spotted-tail quoll is living under the shack. “Quolls won’t come out while there’s devils, generally,” says King. Facial tumours are decimating some of Tasmania’s devil population. According to Mooney the cancer has knocked out up to 80 per cent of devils in affected areas which runs to about half the state. There is wholly unpleasant talk about the devil going the same way as the Tasmanian tiger.
“We don’t have it here (in the northwest),” says King of the tumour. King is thoughtful and silent for a moment. We can hear the devil chomping at flesh and bone through the monitor. Good might yet come of the bad. “I’ve been really heartened by the way people think about the animal (the devil) now,” says King of the previously persecuted and misunderstood marsupial. While nobody is hurrying to see the devils yet there are fears the devil might be moving towards its last supper.
However, Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries Water and Environment has recently uncovered ground-breaking research which offers some understanding of the hitherto unknown disease. And there is hope, not least of which is that keeping healthy animals away from sick devils is sufficient to prevent infection.
“Here’s another one at 12 o’clock,” says King. The cautious devil comes forward. “Look at this, a beautiful white stripe.” To King’s surprise, the bloated warrior slinks away. After barely a pick our new arrival stops eating and stands as still as the carcass she presides over. “She’s listening. Devils everywhere . . . maybe,” says King and all of us share in his delight.
King’s Run wildlife tours operate from Marrawah in Tasmania’s northwest. In order to prevent devils becoming dependent on King’s feeding the tour operates no more than five days a fortnight and no more than three days in a row.
Phone: (03) 6457 1191
If you can’t visit the northwest but should find yourself in Hobart you could visit the Tasmanian Devil Park, just an hour from the Tassie capital.
or phone (03) 62 503 230
Greg Clarke regularly contributes to newspapers and magazines in Australia and throughout Asia. He once lived in London's East End, which aside from the proximity to ripping curries and cheap haircuts proved handy while he was at The Sunday Times. Greg regularly plunges into Tassie’s extraordinary wilderness as much for adventure as a way to shed some of the pounds he stacks on while sampling way too much of the island’s food and fine wine. When he's not travelling or writing his daughters take him on wanderings in search of fairies, wombats and devils.