Do Conservation Projects Ever Backfire?

Efforts to protect Tasmanian devils backfired when they wiped out a colony of little penguins on an Australian island.
Efforts to protect Tasmanian devils backfired when they wiped out a colony of little penguins on an Australian island.

As Robert Burns taught us, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." No matter how good our intentions are, sometimes they can backfire in unexpected ways. A lengthy and dedicated effort to save Tasmanian devils proved to be just such a case.

The conservation project, which began in 2012, involved moving a group of the endangered marsupials to Maria Island, just off the Tasmanian coast, as a way to save them from a facial tumor disease that is contagious and had wiped out 90 percent of the species.

The effort was successful in protecting the devils but created a brand-new problem: The Tasmanian devils began killing the island's seabirds, including little penguins (Eudyptula minor). Over the years, the carnivorous creatures wiped out virtually all of the little penguins, or forced them to find homes elsewhere, along with scores of geese.

"It’s very clear that the devils have had a catastrophic ecological impact on the bird fauna on Maria Island," said seabird ecologist Eric Woehler of the University of Tasmania.

As of mid-2021, no plans have been put in place to move the Tasmanian devils off the island or to counter the negative effects their arrival has had.

The (Tasmanian) devil is in the details:

  • For its size, the Tasmanian devil's bite is the strongest of any mammal; it can bite through bone and most metals.

  • Tasmanian devils have been known to fall asleep inside the carcasses of their prey so that they can continue eating when they wake up.

  • Baby Tasmanian devils are only the size of a grain of rice; a mother's litter is typically between 20 and 40 in number.

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    • Efforts to protect Tasmanian devils backfired when they wiped out a colony of little penguins on an Australian island.
      Efforts to protect Tasmanian devils backfired when they wiped out a colony of little penguins on an Australian island.