The Plight of the Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian devil

Tasmanian devils are currently threatened by a cancerous facial disease. (Photo credit: ©FiledIMAGE/Shutterstock)

Tasmania, an island located off the southeastern coast of Australia, is home to the Tasmanian devil. Unlike the human adult sized cartoon version, the real Tasmanian devil is only 20-31 inches (51-79 cm) tall and weighs between 9 and 26 pounds (4-12 kg).

While fossil evidence indicates that Tasmanian devils were once found on the Australian mainland, research indicates that the animals went extinct there 400 years ago due to increasingly arid conditions and the spread of the dingo, a type of wild dog. Tasmanian devils were nearly hunted to extinction on Tasmania during the late 1800s and early 1900s as they were considered to be pests by early settlers. The animals were placed under formal legislative protection in June 1941.

Though the Tasmanian devil bears no resemblance to its cartoon counterpart, it does share its terrible disposition. When the animal feels threatened, its puts on an aggressive display of growling, lunging, and baring its teeth. It earned its “devil” name from early settlers after hearing its “otherworldly” scream. However, while it may be aggressive to potential predators, Tasmanian devils tend to be fairly timid and are typically not a threat to people.

Tasmanian devils are nocturnal animals, which means they are active at night. They are carnivorous and generally feed on birds, snakes, fish, insects, and the remains of dead animals. They do not let any food go to waste – they eat the bones, tissue, muscles, and organs of their prey.

Like kangaroos and wombats, Tasmanian devils are marsupials. The animals breed once a year in March. After a three-week gestation period, between 20 and 30 rice-sized young are born. The young, called imps, must race to their mother’s pouch to claim one of her four teats; the majority are too slow and do not survive. The young devils stay in their mother’s pouch for four months, after which they are carried on their mother’s back. The young are fully grown after about nine months.

While in the mid 1990s, there was a surge in the Tasmanian devil population, that time period also coincided with the appearance of a disease called devil facial tumor disease (DFTD). This cancerous disease causes tumors to form on the animal’s face, which makes it difficult for it to eat, leading to starvation. Since 2001, the Tasmanian devil population has declined 60 percent.

Scientists are working to save the species from extinction. To do so, they are sequestering healthy populations to prevent the spread of disease. They are also focusing on captive-breeding programs. Currently, over 20 Australian organizations are involved in captive-breeding efforts and more than 600 Tasmanian devils have been bred in captivity.

More to Explore
Tasmanian Devil Natural History
Tasmanian Devil FAQs
Save the Tasmanian Devil
National Geographic: Tasmanian Devil

Country: Australia
Location: Australia is located on the Oceania continent, which is found between the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific Ocean.
Area: 7,741,220 sq km (land and water) (slightly smaller than the 48 contiguous United States)
Climate: Arid to semi-arid; temperate in the southern and eastern portions of the country and tropical in the northern portions of the country
Terrain: Mainly low desert plateaus; fertile plains in the southeast
Natural Resources: bauxite, coal, copper, diamonds, gold, iron ore, lead, natural gas, nickel, silver, tungsten, uranium, petroleum
Economics: $998.3 billion (est. 2013)
Environmental Issues: Soil erosion, urbanization, desertification, habitat destruction (land and marine)
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook

Water Scarcity in Egypt

Egyptian landscape

Water scarcity is expected to be a major issue in Egypt in the upcoming years. (Photo credit: Lin Sen/Shutterstock)

Egypt, located in northeastern Africa, has an arid climate. Only 6 percent of the country is arable and agricultural land; the rest of the country is desert. Over the past 60 years, Egypt’s population has grown by more than 60 million people. Researchers suggest that by 2050, the population could reach between 120 and 150 million.   Given Egypt’s growing population and its arid climate, environmental scientists warn a water crisis is quickly approaching.

The main source of fresh water in Egypt is the Nile River. While the country is positioned at the end of the river’s flow, through agreements with Sudan, Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water per year. In Egypt, the Aswan High Dam, built in the 1960s, controls the flow of the Nile River.

Little rainfall occurs in Egypt. Most rains occur during the winter along the country’s coastal region. The total amount of rainfall ranges between 80 and 200 mm per year. Because of the unpredictability of precipitation, it cannot be relied upon as a source of fresh water.

Groundwater in Egypt is stored in aquifers, but due to their deepness and relative inaccessibility, groundwater is also not a reliable source of water. Desalination of the sea is another potential source of fresh water. However, the process is only currently economically viable in tourist developments along the Red Sea, where the value of fresh water is so high that it is enough to cover the cost of desalination.

As the population in Egypt grows, so too does the demand for fresh water. Research indicates that by the year 2020, Egypt will be consuming 20 percent more water than is available. Experts warn that this extreme scarcity could lead to political instability.

Another water issue faced in Egypt is the availability of clean water. Along the river’s course, the Nile is heavily polluted by agricultural runoff, industrial effluent, and municipal sewage. Managing these sources of pollution will be key to ensuring access to clean water for the Egyptian population.

While the future may appear bleak, there are a few measures that can be taken now to help ensure there is water in the future. Because the agricultural sector uses the most water, it is also the area where more water could be conserved. Many farmers utilize flood irrigation to water their crops; experts recommend switching to drip irrigation, which would decrease the amount of water lost to evaporation. Switching to more water-efficient crops would also use less water. Changing planting dates to coincide better with natural climate patterns, such as planting cotton during cooler months rather than hotter ones, could also help to reduce the total amount of irrigation needed.

More to Explore
RISE Encourages Local Farmer Strategies to Combat Water Scarcity
Egypt’s Water Crisis – Recipe for Disaster
Water Scarcity in Egypt: The Urgent Need for Regional Cooperation among the Nile Basin Countries
Water Issue in Egypt: Resources, Pollution and Protection Endeavors

Country: Egypt
Location: Egypt is located in northern Africa. It is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, Libya to the west, and the Red Sea, Gaza Strip, and Israel to the east, and Sudan to the south.
Area: 1,001,450 square kilometers. It is about eight times the size of Ohio.
Climate: Egypt has a desert climate that features hot, dry summers and moderate winters.
Terrain: The terrain of Egypt mostly consists of desert plateau.
Natural Resources: Asbestos, gypsum, iron ore, lead, limestone, limited freshwater resources, manganese, natural gas, petroleum, phosphates, rare earth elements, talc, zinc
Economics: $551.4 billion (2013 estimate)
Environmental Issues: Desertification, growing human population, oil pollution, urbanization, water pollution
Source:
CIA – The World Factbook

While EcoZine is on summer vacation, we are posting articles from the archives. This article first appeared in March 2015.

Japan’s Floundering Bluefin Tuna Industry

japan_bluefintuna

A rise in popularity has led to a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations. (Photo credit: FLPA/Alamy Stock Photo)

Once deemed worthy only as an ingredient for cat food, Bluefin tuna is now considered a highly regarded ingredient that catches top dollar at sushi restaurants around the world. Unfortunately, a rise in popularity also coincides with a steep decline in global Bluefin tuna populations. [Read more…]

Greenland’s Melting Ice Sheet

Greenland ice sheet

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. (Photo credit: Global Warming Images / Alamy Stock Photo)

Greenland is home to the world’s second largest ice sheet, and it is melting at an alarming rate – 287 billion metric tons of ice is disappearing every year. Several factors contribute to ice sheet melting, including changes in air temperature, water temperature, and precipitation. New research indicates that there is a fourth factor to consider: cloud cover. [Read more…]

Protecting the Fisheries of Belize

Belizean fisherman

Managed Access zones have greatly improved sustainable fishing activities in the Caribbean waters surrounding Belize. (Photo credit: Witold Skrypczak/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images)

The Central American country of Belize, which shares its eastern border with the Caribbean Sea, is well known for its coral reefs and abundant marine life. Belize is a major exporter of lobster, conch, and shrimp and the fisheries industry is a top contributor to the nation’s economy. However, in recent years, open-access fishing has led to a significant decline in overall yield. New fishery management techniques are proving successful in both preventing overfishing and empowering local fishers within the territories they fish. [Read more…]

Moldova’s Black Soil

Moldovian soil

Moldova’s black fertile soil makes it a prime location for agriculture. (Photo credit: Limpopo/Shutterstock)

Moldova is a landlocked country located in eastern Europe and is bordered to the west by Romania and to the north, south, and east by Ukraine. It was a part of the Ottoman Empire from 1538 until the 19th century, when the territory that comprises most of modern Moldova was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1812 following one of many Russian-Turkish wars. Moldova became part of the Soviet Union in 1940 and remained so until the country gained independence on August 27, 1991, upon the dissolution of the USSR. [Read more…]

Turf Wars

peat bricks

Turf cut from peat bogs has been a fuel source in Ireland for over a thousand years.(Photo credit: Elzbieta Sekowska/Shutterstock)

Turf wars are raging across the country of Ireland. But these aren’t your typical battles over who controls which block of a city neighborhood. Instead, these are literally disagreements over turf, or to be more specific, turbary, or the ancient right to cut turf.

The cutting of turf from peat bogs for use as a fuel is a way of life that has existed for as long as there have been people in Ireland. Although it is back-breaking work when done in the traditional manner, the harvesting of turf was often a time for families to come together to help one another and to socialize. Now, with rising fuel prices, families in many parts of Ireland where there are few trees depend upon peat turf to heat their homes. Traditionally, turf was cut by hand, using a turf spade, or slane. However, in the 1950s, turf cutting was mechanized and the peat bogs have significantly diminished in size. Today, only 15% of Central Ireland’s raised peatlands remain. This habitat degradation has led to a decline in plants and wildlife populations in these areas. A brick-sized block of turf will burn for about an hour. Nature will take around 100 years to replace it.

Peat bogs form slowly over time as ecological succession takes place in flooded hollows of the land. When the reeds and sedges in the hollows die, the water keeps oxygen from reaching decomposers, so the vegetation does not rot away completely. Eventually, these partially decomposed plants build up to form fen peat. Sphagnum moss is one of the few things that can grow and thrive in this nutrient-poor, acidic environment. Mats of the moss begin to replace the fen peat and gradually transform the fen into a peat bog. After thousands of  years of growth, the accumulated peat rises above the surrounding land, in some areas by as much as 10 m (30 feet), soaking up water like a sponge. Because of this ability to absorb massive amounts of water, peat bogs not only help to prevent flooding, they filter the water that passes through them, purifying it for homes and businesses.

The lack of oxygen and the acidity of the water in the bogs can preserve buried items for thousands of years, providing scientists with information about the past. Pollen grains show what kinds of plants grew in different periods, providing a glimpse of how the climate has changed. Trees that are preserved well enough to be used for firewood and for building are often found, along with antlers from the extinct Irish elk (also called the giant Irish deer). Gold ornaments, amber beads, and lost caches of butter that were stored in pots within the bog are also among the treasures yielded by the peat wetlands. Mummified human bodies, such as the Old Croghan Bog Man, discovered in 2003, provide a different kind of fuel, sparking both scientific and media attention around the world.

Living sometime between 362-175 BCE, Old Croghan Man was identified by researchers as likely to have been a ritual sacrifice, tortured and murdered in his early 20s. His discovery actually initiated a police murder investigation before the body was dated at more than 2000 years old.

So, why are the people of Ireland at war over the peat bogs? Some rural families have had turbary rights on a bog for hundreds of years. They are fighting hard to retain their rights because of the traditions associated with it and because their livelihoods depend upon it. Environmentalists are fighting to preserve the natural heritage of the bogs, which are some of the last remaining bogs in Europe, because not only do they provide habitat for a wide variety of living things, purify water, and reduce floods, but they are estimated by researchers to contain twice the amount of carbon as the forests of the world. When the turf is cut, dried, and burned as fuel, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change.

As with other ecological controversies in many places across the globe, the battle for the Irish peat bogs has two sides to it. The Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC) has launched a campaign to provide information to the public and raise awareness of the importance of the bogs. Although 53 bogs have been designated by the government to be protected, enforcement of the law has not been consistent. The European Union has threatened to impose economic sanctions of €26,000 ($35,000) per day if the country does not protect the bogs. Accordingly, the Irish government has recently doubled the amount of compensation offered to turf cutters if they switch to cutting turf in areas that are not protected. To be paid out over a 15 year period, the compensation offered by the Irish government amounts to €23,000 (about $31,000). Even though switching to non-protected areas would mean little or no loss of income or fuel, turf cutters and bog owners generally remain adamant that they will not lose rights their families have had for generations.

More to Explore
Rural Irish Defy EU Restrictions on Turf-Cutting
Irish Turf
Irish Peatland Conservation Council (IPCC)
Energy Use of Peat
Peat Bogs


While EcoZine is on summer vacation, we hope you enjoy this article from the archives. This article was first published in August 2013.

Sustainable Olive Oil Production in Greece

olive tree grove

Olives are an important part of Greece’s cultural identify. (Photo credit: Risteski Goce/Shutterstock)

The olive is deeply ingrained in the nutritional, historical, and cultural identity of Greece. [Read more…]

Cycling in the Netherlands

bicyles along a canal bridge

Traveling by bicycle is hugely popular in the Netherlands. (Photo credit: Giancarlo Liguori/Shutterstock)

Bicycles aren’t just a form of transportation in the Netherlands. Instead, they are a way of life. Today, this western European country is criss-crossed with bike paths, but that wasn’t always the case. How did cycling become so popular in the Netherlands? [Read more…]

The Melting Glaciers of Patagonia

(Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Glaciers are melting at a quickening rate in Chile. (Photo credit: Photodisc/Getty Images)

Seventy-five percent of the world’s freshwater supply is locked up in glaciers and ice sheets. At 14,000 km2, the Patagonian Ice Fields located in southern Chile are the world’s third largest frozen landmass. According to the Centre for Scientific Studies located in Valdivia, Chile, nearly 90 percent of the country’s glaciers are in retreat.  [Read more…]