Page last updated at 06:25 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 07:25 UK

Tasmanian devils now endangered

By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

A Tasmanian Devil
Experts warn Tasmanian devils could be extinct in the wild within 20 years

Australia has lifted protection levels for the Tasmanian devil, the world's largest surviving marsupial carnivore, from vulnerable to endangered.

The devil population, which is found on the island state of Tasmania, has been decimated by a facial tumour disease.

The number of Tasmanian devils in the wild is thought to have fallen by up to 70% since the mid-1990s.

The new conservation status will give the animals greater protection under national environment laws.

Strong action

The devils have been ravaged by an outbreak of facial tumours the size of small golf balls.

The cancers are mostly concentrated around the mouth and head. The disease is contagious and is spread among groups of devils through biting.

Tumour cells are not neutralised by the marsupial's immune system because of a lack of genetic diversity among the population that exists in the wild only in Tasmania.

Infected animals die within months of the symptoms first appearing. Despite intense scientific research, a cure has not been found.

Australia's Environment Minister Peter Garrett said that strong action was being taken to find out more about this mysterious disease and to stop its spread.

Some estimates have suggested their numbers are falling fast and could be as low as 20,000.

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