Taz: How a cartoon character has come to the rescue of a threatened species

The plight of the Tasmanian devil by Kathy Marks
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With its repertoire of blood-curdling yowls, and its ferocious appetite (wombat carrion is a favourite), the Tasmanian devil is not exactly endearing. It is, nevertheless, one of Australia's most iconic creatures, as well as being the inspiration for Taz, one of the most popular Looney Tunes cartoon characters.

While the crazily whirling Taz has made millions of dollars for his creators, Warner Bros, the fortunes of his real-life counterpart have been less propitious. A rare cancer that causes contagious facial tumours has ravaged the Tasmanian devil population, wiping out up to half of animals in the wild and threatening the survival of the species.

The facial tumour disease was first identified in 2003 and is believed to have killed 75,000 creatures in the past decade. Transmitted during fights over scavenged food, it can take root in the mouth and push out the teeth. Many affected devils have died of starvation.

Warner Bros had expressed concern in the past about the creature's plight, but until now had given no concrete assistance. The American-based film studio is protective of its rights to exploit the likes of Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and Sylvester, and it refused to let Tasmania use Taz to market the island state unless the government paid a substantial licencing fee.

Now, after three years of pressure, Warner Bros has finally agreed to contribute hard cash to help save the Tasmanian devil. The company will permit Taz to feature in a nationwide television campaign aimed at raising funds for scientific research. It will also allow a special edition soft toy to be marketed.

The devil's fate has stirred strong emotions in a place still mourning the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which was hunted to extinction in the 1930s. Many Australians refuse to believe that the tiger is extinct, and sightings are regularly reported.

While the deal with Taz's creators is expected to inject at least £80,000 into the research programme on the disease, not everyone has welcomed it. David Obendorf, a veterinarian and wildlife researcher, said this week that the use of a cartoon character trivialised a disease with such a devastating impact.

Dr Obendorf noted that the state government's own research suggested that 80 per cent of devils had been eliminated in some parts of the island, which is situated off the south-east coast of Australia. "That is a horrific incidence in any population, and we may well see the devil become extinct in the wild," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

He said that while extra funds for research had to be appreciated, he doubted that, in this case, the end justified the means. "This is a very, very serious disease," he said. "It's not a good look for Tasmania to know that your iconic species, the Tasmanian devil, is walking around with a cancer growing on its face and all you can do is adopt and import a whirling-dervish Tasmanian devil character that has been generated out of the US to assist that effort. I think it is trivialisation par excellence."

The origins of the disease, which is believed to have spread across three-quarters of Tasmania, are mysterious, although initial theories that it was caused by a virus have been discounted. Some scientists believe that it started with rogue cancer cells in a single devil.

What is alarming is that it is not only fatal, but highly contagious, apparently communicated mouth-to-mouth during fights between the snarling, cantankerous creatures.

Those confrontations are generally over food. Tasmanian devils - the world's largest carnivorous marsupial - live to eat, and will take a bite out of just about anything they encounter in the forests. They have been known to consume an entire horse carcass, eating skin, bones and flesh, and leaving behind only the metal shoes.

Greediness and aggression are very much part of Taz's make-up too, for the cartoon character that is now riding to the devil's aid is just as unlovable as the native animal. Taz's most striking feature is a large mouth surrounded by sharp teeth that resemble chainsaws. When he appears on screen, the other animals - all of them a potential next meal - flee in terror. Only the lure of an attractive female devil can divert him from his quest to satisfy his ravenous appetite.

Taz made his first screen appearance in 1954 in Devil May Hare, a short cartoon in which he unsuccessfully stalked Bugs Bunny. The head of the animation studio, producer Edward Selzer, found him "too obnoxious", and ordered his creator, Robert McKimson, to scrap him. But Taz found an unexpected ally in Jack Warner, the Warner Bros mogul, who demanded to know why he had disappeared. Taz was swiftly resurrected, and appeared in five shorts - including Ducking the Devil (where he was pitted against Daffy Duck) and Bedevilled Rabbit - before the animation studio closed in 1964. He remained a cult favourite for many cartoon lovers, and acquired new fans when the films were syndicated on television.

In 1991 he was even given his own show, Taz-mania, in which he played a recalcitrant teenager with a family and a job as a porter at the Hotel Tasmania.

With his habit of spinning like a tornado and his propensity to eat everything in his path, edible or not, Taz is still one of the best-loved cartoon characters.

Whether he can play a meaningful role in the battle to save the creature on which he was based remains to be seen. The Tasmanian devil was formally listed as a vulnerable species last week under the state's threatened species legislation. But the virulent disease continues to spread at an alarming rate, and remains incurable.

Inevitably, there have been recriminations. The first case of the disease was discovered in 1995. However, it was not until eight years later that the seriousness of the problem was properly acknowledged and the state government allocated funds for research.

David Owen, the co-author of Tasmanian Devil: A Unique and Threatened Species, told The Australian newspaper that there was little official recognition of the gravity of the situation "until the issue had been well and truly made public and the statistics were out". He added: "The evidence was saying the disease had basically rushed down the east coast [of Tasmania], after being discovered in the north-east, and that devils were dying in their tens of thousands."

Mr Owen believes that "there may have been reluctance to tackle this disease head-on, straightaway".

Some observers have suggested that the spraying of pesticides by the island's farming and forestry industries, combined with genetic weaknesses in the devils, may have been the catalyst for the cancer. Plantation forests in Tasmania are sprayed with chemicals, while the poison 1080, which is banned in large parts of the world, is used to kill rabbits.

Wildlife experts have deployed a variety of measures to help combat the problem. Some diseased animals have been trapped and culled, in an attempt to arrest the spread of the disease, while healthy devils have been transported to islands and zoos with a view to building up a "Noah's ark" population.

Like the Tasmanian tiger, the devil was hunted and shot by early European settlers. Conservationists say it too was in danger of extinction at one time, but it managed to bounce back. Before the cancer appeared, the species was said to be abundant and thriving.

The female devil has an unusual sex life. She mates with multiple partners in a search for the fittest, strongest father for her cubs, which are the size of a grain of rice when born.

Like the extinct tiger, the devil is found only in Tasmania, and it remains an internationally recognised symbol of the island state. When a Tasmanian-born woman, Mary Donaldson, who is married to Prince Frederik of Denmark, gave birth to a son last year, the state premier sent a pair of devils to Copenhagen zoo as a present, despite wildlife experts warning that they could be diseased.

In Tasmania, the thylacine remains a potent symbol of the damage that man can wreak on a native species. Its disappearance is mourned, so much so that many Australians still refuse to acknowledge that it no longer exists. Some have devoted their lives to proving that the tiger still lurks in the Tasmanian forests. But conclusive proof has yet to be offered, despite a national news magazine, The Bulletin, offering a £500,000 reward last year.

Scientists have attempted, with no success so far, to clone the Tasmanian tiger, using DNA from a young tiger that was pickled in alcohol and kept in the Australian Museum in Sydney.

For the moment, the more pressing task is to ensure that the devil does not go the way of the tiger.