Tasmanian devils reared in captivity show they can thrive in the wild


Tracey Rogers, UNSW Australia

One of the concerns of any conservation breeding program is how well a species raised in captivity will survive when released into the wild.

Evolutionary changes that are beneficial for an individual while in captivity may reduce its fitness when translocated to the wild.

For some species, like many fish, rapid evolutionary changes can occur within the first generation in captivity. And carnivores raised in captivity have a low chance of surviving the first year following their release.

A review of 45 carnivore translocations, which included 17 different species, including the European lynx, European otter and the swift fox, found that if the animals had been raised in captivity they had on average a 30% chance of survival after release.

Save the devil program

All this was a concern then for efforts to help save the Tasmanian devil.

The devil plays an important functional role within the Tasmanian ecosystem and is the last of the large marsupial carnivores.

But the Tasmanian devil is listed as endangered and their population has declined by 80% over the past ten years. This is due largely to the infectious fatal cancer, the devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).

As part of a conservation effort, a disease-free devil population has been established in captivity.

But given the low rate of survival of released captive-raised carnivores in other conservation programs it was important to identify whether their release could play a viable role in the conservation of the Tasmanian devil.

Captive breeding programs are extremely expensive and resource allocation was very tight. So more than 35 institutions helped to set up the captive devil insurance population.

Different types of enclosure setting were used, some intensive zoo style while others had larger pens to allow for a more free range style. The different enclosure types offered different opportunities for the devils to retain their natural behaviours.

We tested the effect of the various captive-rearing methods on the survival and body mass of captive raised Tasmanian devils that were released on Maria Island, off Tasmania’s east coast.

Our study, published this month in CSIRO Wildlife Research, showed that Tasmanian devils raised in captivity before being translocated into the wild had a high survival success (96%). Most of the devils are still alive two years after their release.

The devils gained weight, are hunting and breeding. This is irrespective of the type of captive-rearing method as both zoo style and free range reared animals are thriving.

Release of the devils.
Wildlife Management Branch, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment

Natural born killers

One cause of translocation failure in other programs has been that the released animals starve. The captive-raised animals had not learnt foraging and hunting skills. Some carnivorous mammals can lose this natural foraging behaviour in captivity.

But the captive-raised Tasmanian devils adjusted to the wild better than other carnivorous species. This was not only because they were released in the relative safety of an island, but it suggests that the devils’ foraging behaviour does not need to be learnt.

Devils have bone crushing jaws.
Wildlife Management Branch, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Devils have a massive head with bone crushing jaws, large tough molars and strong shoulders and neck. They have a very broad approach to what they will eat.

Their diet includes all major critters such as mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates. Devils have been seen catching gum moths out of the air, slurping tadpoles out of ponds and digging yabbies out of their burrows.

They also live from the intertidal zone to the sub alpine zone. They climb trees like a possum and are good swimmers.

There was less carrion available on Maria Island than on the mainland. Also the captive-raised devils would not have learnt hunting skills while in captivity so we presumed that they would not eat large prey.

Captive devils feeding upon a carcass.

Initially, after the first release, the devils fed on brushtail possums. But relatively soon after we found the devils started to feed on large prey, such as the common wombat and eastern grey kangaroo. These species are much larger than you would predict for a mammal of the devils’ size to prey on.

What’s planned for the devils?

So what does the success of this wild release say for the future conservation of the Tasmanian devil?

The devil facial tumour disease has been detected across the majority of the devil’s range. The wild devil population has been decimated as the disease moved across Tasmania.

It is time to boost the genetic diversity of the wild population. We need to provide the potential for immunity to develop in the species. That’s why it is exciting to have found that the captive-raised devils adjusted so well in the wild.

The next step will be to supplement the wild Tasmanian mainland population by releasing further captive-raised devils, along with those born wild on Maria Island.

But the devils released on the Tasmanian mainland will face other dangers. Alongside the disease they will have to contend with dogs, rodent poison and car collisions.

Clearly there’s some work still to be done, but the Maria Island and captive devils will continue to be an important part of the fight against the deadly facial tumour.

The Conversation

Tracey Rogers, Associate Professor Evolution & Ecology, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The view from Marrakech: climate talks are battling through a Trump tsunami


Robyn Eckersley, University of Melbourne

Stunned. Shocked. Speechless. Devastated. Political tsunami. These were the key words rising to the surface of the babble of conversations that took place in the corridors of the climate negotiations in Marrakech on Wednesday 9 November – the day Donald Trump won the US presidency.

A climate denier, Trump has vowed to tear up the historic Paris Agreement along with the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which seeks to slash greenhouse emissions from power plants. He has also given the green light to renewed fossil fuel exploitation in the United States.

Oil and gas stocks unsurprisingly rose, and coal stocks soared, on his victory day. If implemented, Trump’s promises would make it impossible for the United States to reach its national pledge under the Paris Agreement to reduce emissions by 26-28% relative to 2005 by 2025.

At the moment, Trump’s previous declaration of climate change as a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to undermine US industry looks particularly poignant.

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His election is a dramatic turnaround from the years of constructive bilateral climate diplomacy by the Obama administration with China, which culminated in the joint US-China statement on climate change in November 2014. This joint announcement of the headline national action plans by the world’s two biggest emitters (together covering 40% of global emissions) injected significant momentum into the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

But now the US elections have delivered not just a presidential victory against action on climate change, but made it much easier for Trump to deliver on his plans than it was for Obama. The Republican Party is now set to control all four branches of government: the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Presidency and soon the Supreme Court (once Trump nominates a new judge following the death of Justice Scalia, bringing the number of judges back to nine, with a conservative majority). This leaves only the media and civil society to speak up for a safe climate in the face of the national government’s agenda.

Turning back time

Seasoned negotiators and observers at Marrakech with long memories recalled the moment in 2001 when former president George W. Bush declared that the United States would withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, the predecessor to the Paris Agreement. This withdrawal cast a long shadow over the negotiations, which was finally lifted with the Obama administration’s re-engagement with climate change that made the Paris breakthrough possible.

Yet the world today is very different to what it was in 2001. The Paris Agreement is now in force after a speedy ratification, the US share of global emissions has declined, and renewable energy is now much cheaper. Many US states, cities and businesses will continue to work towards reducing emissions, and many Republican politicians have let go of their aversion to renewable energy in response to public and business pressure.

In short, much of America and the rest of the world will continue to build momentum under the Paris Agreement, despite the changing of the guard in Washington DC.

Given Trump’s record of policy flip-flopping, it also remains an open question as to how far he will actually go to undo the diplomatic climate legacy of the Obama administration. Much will depend on who takes over as Secretary of State, and how the State Department assesses the broader diplomatic consequences of withdrawing from the Paris treaty, particularly in terms of transatlantic relationships. European Council president Donald Tusk has already invited Trump to attend a US-EU summit. We might therefore see some easing of Trump’s hard anti-climate talk, much as his social rhetoric softened on election night. Trump the President may not be quite the same as Trump the candidate.

Moreover, under Article 28 of the Paris Agreement it will take a total of four years for any formal withdrawal by the United States to take effect. If the US were to turn its back on these legal niceties and abandon its obligations during this period, it would be widely regarded as a climate pariah state. In contrast, China will enjoy its rising status as a climate leader.

Meanwhile, after the initial pause to digest the shock of Trump’s victory, the negotiators at Marrakech have got back down to their business, which is to fill in the implementation details of the Paris Agreement.

The Conversation

Robyn Eckersley, Professor of Political Science, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

President Trump could kill the Paris Agreement – but climate action will survive


Luke Kemp, Australian National University

November 9 will likely become the day that the Paris Agreement died, but not when the goal of limiting warming to 2℃ slipped out of reach.

President Donald Trump can, and likely will, drop out of the Paris climate agreement. Direct withdrawal will take four years.

But Trump could instead drop out from the overall climate convention under which the agreement operates. That would only take one year and would result in automatic withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

It would shortcut any hopes that Paris would bind Trump’s hands for some time.

As I’ve argued in my research, a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement would be its death knell.

A predictable loose cannon

Trump has also promised a range of further destructive international and domestic actions on climate and energy. These include cutting all international climate financing, rescinding energy regulations, reopening federal and offshore areas for coal and oil development and abolishing the clean power plan.

There is some hope that Trump is a loose cannon who may renege on his previous promises. Such hope is ultimately false. Trump has already appointed noted climate denier Myron Ebell as the head of his Environmental Protection Agency transition team.

More importantly, the Republican establishment supports this approach to climate policy. The agreed Republican platform of July rejects the Paris Agreement and calls for it to be submitted to the Senate (where it would be defeated) as well as an end of all funding to the UN climate convention. Their domestic policies are best summarised as “drill, baby, drill!”

It is foolish to believe that Trump would oppose his own party, and many of the voters of the US “rust belt” whose support he relied on, in an attempt to save the Paris Agreement.

Trump may be unpredictable in some regards, but his approach to climate change is not.

Counting the losses

Trump’s climate policy would lead to the US overshooting its already inadequate 2030 climate targets. The US needs additional measures on top of the Clean Power Plan to meet the targets established by Obama.

The US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, or blatantly missing its climate targets, could be near fatal for a deal which relies on global ambition. The Paris Agreement relies on two things: increasing ambition through peer pressure, and a signal to markets and the public.

Both peer pressure and the signal will be shredded by a rogue, Trump-led United States.

States will be unlikely to feel pressured if the world’s second largest greenhouse emitter is polluting unabated. The effects of US recalcitrance were all too clear in the case of the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States simply refused to ratify. Trust would be undermined and excuses for inaction amplified if the US abandons international efforts again.

Any signal that existed from the framework of Paris would be largely extinguished. Already fossil fuels stocks have surged post-election despite a downturn in the rest of the market. Renewable energy share prices have plummeted. The idea of the signal hinged on broad participation creating investor confidence in international law. US withdrawal and the breaking of commitments will shatter any belief that investors may have had in Paris.

The Paris Agreement sacrificed binding emissions cuts and finance in order to ensure US participation. The few benefits it had were derived from broad participation, including from the United States. Such benefits will be lost by a US dropout.

Paris will likely survive as a structure. Countries will continue with the global show-and-tell, trading unbinding pledges every five years for some time to come. It will go on, but it will cease to be a large source of hope or change.

Opportunities for the future

A Trump presidency will also create opportunities for renewed action internationally.

Trump promises to usher in an age of protectionism, scrapping free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). He has vowed to brand major trading partners such as China as “currency manipulators”.

At the same time nationalism and discontent with free trade have surged in Europe. China has scaled up its domestic renewable energy and climate policies and is looking to formally establish a national emissions trading scheme next year.

Both a protectionist Trump administration that has dropped out of Paris and trends in the European Union and China could bring the idea of climate trade measures back to the table.

The Paris Agreement could be amended to use trade measures against countries who are not part of the deal. Such a move could not be adopted until the next conference in November 2017. Amending the agreement would only require a three-quarters majority vote, but is still unlikely to garner the support to be adopted under the painfully slow and convoluted UN process.

Climate trade measures from the EU and or China are much more likely. The EU may be pushed by Trump’s trade policies towards imposing a carbon price on imports (carbon border tax adjustments) from the US and others. China may consider a similar move. The two could even act in tandem, creating their own bilateral climate club outside of the Paris Agreement. Such material penalties would likely force the US to eventually shift and reengage with international efforts.

Such an outcome seems unlikely for now, particularly in the politically paralysed Europe. But Trump at least opens the opportunity for such change.

The much maligned Trump will supercharge climate civil disobedience in both the US and around the globe.

The world’s best chance of avoiding dangerous global warming are a climate trade war and rampant climate disobedience.

Such actions will be more beneficial for the climate than the current Paris Agreement ever could have been. The incremental and baseless pledge and review of Paris Agreement would have never been enough to trigger the herculean transition needed.

The 2016 US election will almost certainly become the epitaph for the success of the Paris climate agreement. But it does not mean that 2℃ is necessarily out of reach; the future may not depend on the actions of an ageing superpower.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.