There is ice on the traps and snow on the verges of the road as wildlife biologist Phil Wise and two trainee keepers from Copenhagen Zoo check traps in the Central Highlands as part of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program’s Annual Monitoring.
The Bronte trap line consists of 40 traps set west of Bronte Park near the Nive River. The traps cut across old State Forest and the privately owned Five Rivers Reserve managed by the Tasmanian Land Conservancy.
The traps were first set and monitored by the STDP’s Billie Lazenby in winter a decade ago and little has changed from the original trapping routine, apart from a reduction in number from 50.
Bronte is one of eight different sites used by the STDP for Annual Monitoring across the state. The trap-release surveys all involve handling and close examination of devils, which allows for individual-specific records of disease and reproductive status.
“The Annual Monitoring Project was developed to investigate the status of wild Tasmanian devil populations and any change over time to inform decisions on conservation strategies,” Phil says. “The surveys work on the principle of capture, mark, recapture to determine numbers on the trap line. The key is to mark the devil, let it go and capture it again. When we trap an animal we weigh it, identify its reproductive status, and examine the animal for signs of disease.”
The pink tags indicate the location of traps
Each trap on the Bronte trap-release survey is flagged by pink surveying tags – a necessary identification to alert road users to the fact that biologists and crew are out and about, working in the bush.
The first few traps on the run are discovered open and undisturbed. Maya Rasmussen and Christina Davidsen take turns to record the data on the field sheet. Data entries are concise, with 'NSBP' indicating the trap has Not Sprung (and) Bait (is) Present. Phil is using lamb flanks as a lure during this round and while some traps are discovered 'NSBA' (Not Sprung (with) Bait Absent) it is not until trap 23 that the team find a wild devil.
Maya Rusmussen and Christina Davidsen checking the traps with Phil Wise
Phil trains Christina to help him gently take the devil out of the trap and into a hessian sack for processing, while Maya takes notes. This animal is male, around two years old, weighs nine kilograms and appears to be healthy, apart from a small cut near the whiskers and one on the lip. He also gives the team a microchip reading – indicating this animal has been trapped before.
Christina and Maya help Phil process a wild devil
Maya and Christina are in Tasmania for several months, learning from keepers at the Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary as well as the STDP. They spent some time examining the STDP’s captive facilities at Cressy before joining Phil for the seven-day Bronte trap run.
They are studying a zoo keeper course at the Vilvorde Technical College just outside of Copenhagen, assisted by the Copenhagen Zoo.
“It’s great to be out here and we don’t mind working in the cold!” laughs Maya as Phil drives between the traps.
“We can all choose where we would like to do our practical study, and many other students chose a site in Europe, but our boss at the Zoo suggested we might like to apply to come to Tasmania for our wildlife experience in the field,” Christina says.
“The devil keeper at the Copenhagen Zoo taught us about devils and how they are such an unusual animal, and that was why I was keen to come out here to study them,” Maya says. “The zoo has a wide array of animals from elephants and chimpanzees to Tasmanian devils and they are all so different to the animals we are used to in Denmark, such as the deer, squirrels and birds.”
“I am also really interested in the work underway in Europe to try to restore ecosystems – including the rewilding effort in our country involving bison, elks and horses.”
The team catch a total of 13 devils during the 7-day trapping run and Phil says that this is consistent with trapping numbers in the past for this area.
“Of the 13 devils caught, there was a total of ten pouch young,” Phil says. “We were happy to catch a couple of older apparently healthy devils, aged around three or four years old. And we also trapped one spotted-tail quoll.”
The fieldwork and analysis of devil monitoring data has been conducted by the STDP in collaboration with private land holders and supporting institutions for up to 10 years in Tasmania, which has resulted in the compilation of valuable long-term data sets.
Copenhagen Zoo is a member of the Tasmanian Devil Ambassador Program (TDAP), developed in 2013 with the aim to place suitable devils into world class zoos across the globe as ‘ambassadors’.