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Devil gets endangered listing

The Tasmanian devil, a snarling fox-sized marsupial made notorious by its Looney Tunes cartoon namesake Taz, was listed in Australia as an endangered species yesterday because of a contagious cancer that has wiped out most of the wild population.

The upgrade from "vulnerable" under Australian environmental law entitles the world's largest marsupial carnivore to greater protection in the island state of Tasmania, Environment Minister Peter Garrett said in a statement.

Devils do not exist in the wild outside Tasmania, although mainland zoos are breeding captive populations as a strategy against extinction.

Their numbers have declined 70 percent since the facial cancer was first reported in 1996. The disease is caused by bites inflicted on each other's faces as part of a bizarre mating ritual or while squabbling over food. It causes grotesque facial tumors that eventually prevent them from feeding, leading to starvation within months.

"Strong action is being taken to find out more about this disease and to stop its spread," Garrett said.

Hamish McCallum, senior scientist in the government-backed devil rescue program, said the main advantage of the endangered listing was that it acknowledged the serious threat the species faced.

"I'm hoping that it might cause a philanthropist or corporate sponsors to say: 'Hey, this is serious' and to chip in some serious money," said McCallum.

The government has already committed A$10 million (US$7.8 million) over five years to research the disease and support captive breeding programs, but scientists say more is needed.


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