Tasmanian devils to star in Prague Zoo’s new Darwin Crater

Tasmanian devil, photo: Miroslav Bobek / Prague Zoo

The Prague Zoo has gone a long way since being hit by severe floods in 2002 and has become one of the best zoos in the world, according to some international rankings. Its range of attractions will expand next year through the opening of a special Darwin Crater Pavilion housing species from Tasmania and Australia.

Tasmanian devil,  photo: Miroslav Bobek / Prague Zoo

Although deep in mainland Europe the Czech capital will soon be having an oceanic climate. At least within a new pavilion of the Prague Zoo, set to open up in March next year. Called the Darwin Crater, it is set to focus on Tasmania and Australia. The new venue is still being developed but the main stars of the future pavilion are already in town – four Tasmanian devils.

They were accompanied on their 36 hour trip from down under by Dave Schaap, the Team leader of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, who is currently ensuring they acclimatize to the new habitat.

“They are very unique animals. They make an incredible sound when they vocalize towards each other. It is a sort of screeching, piercing vocalization.

Mesopotamian Spiny-tailed Lizard,  photo: Petr Velenský / Prague Zoo
“That is, in part, how they got their name, because when European settlers first visited Tasmania they heard this dark animal in the middle of the night with glowing red ears making these piercing, screeching sounds, so they called it the devil. They literally thought that it was one.”

The adoption of the animal by Prague Zoo is the continuation of a trend in creating a sort of “insurance” population of devils, a policy that has been introduced since the animal became stricken by a rare form of cancer more than two decades ago.

“The cancer is called Devil facial tumour disease. It is a contagious cancer which is incredibly unusual. Only very few such cases have occurred previously among other species. It has almost annihilated the Tasmanian Devil population in the wild.

“In fact, their population has dropped by about 80 percent to 90 percent, a staggering decrease. Not long ago they were a common species, but since the cancer was first documented in 1996 they have gone from common to endangered. It happened very quickly.

“It is typically transferred when they bite each other. That happens when the devils gather around a carcass to feed, or when they are mating. Those are the two main situations when this happens.

“It just takes a single bite after which the blood or saliva transfers from one animal to the healthy one subsequently turning into a cancerous tumour.”

While the devil population on the island of Tasmania is being decimated, there is some hope for the original wild form of the animal.

Philippine porcupine,  photo: Petr Hamerník / Prague Zoo

On the much smaller Maria Island, which lies to the east of the Australian state, a disease-free population of devils was established in 2012 by the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. At the start of 2018 a population of some 103 specimens had been established there and the insurance plan Mr. Schaap speaks of primarily revolves around establishing a genetically diverse source of devils for releases back on to mainland Tasmania.

The four new specimens now brought to Prague Zoo are part of a special ambassador programme which sets up healthy devil populations in zoos beyond Australia. This, he says, could have a mutually beneficial effect for both institutions.

“The goal of the programme is to help educate people about Tasmanian devils and for them to gain an understanding of why they are endangered. Hopefully then people will then want to come to zoos to see these animals, learn about them and appreciating them.

Cuban hutia,  photo: Tereza Mrhálková / Prague Zoo
“The act of people coming zoos raises money through entry fees and spending the day here. Those fees then contribute to funding, conservation and working on saving devils in Tasmania.”

According to Mr Schaap, the Darwin Crater is modelled specifically on an area of the west coast of Tasmania that is very isolated and has an abundance of species. However, the zoo has not yet revealed which companions the devils will have.

One aspect which the Prague Zoo is keen to show off are the many new baby animals born in the Zoo this year. Breeding these rare and endangered species is much harder than it may seem at first glance says zoo curator Dr Pavel Brandl.

“To keep exotic species of animals is difficult because they are very diverse, very different and not used to living with humans for tens of thousands of years, unlike domestic breeds. Sometimes you have to discover the method of how to keep them, because you are literally the first institution in the world that is trying to keep this particular species. That is why it can be so hard.”

Some 1,282 animals from 207 different types of species were born in the zoo in 2019, among them three little Philippine porcupines.

Until now considered a relatively common animal in South East Asia, this porcupine has recently become threatened by a morbid market interest in one of its body parts, says Dr Brandl whose specialisation revolves around mammal species such as this.

Chacoan peccary,  photo: Petr Hamerník / Prague Zoo

“It is a vulnerable species, because it has a small natural habitat and it is being killed as a pest in plantations.

“Now however, there is a new danger emerging for the South-East Asian porcupines. Parts of their stomach are a traditional South-East Asian, or Chinese medicine. That means that they are being extensively hunted for their stomachs right now.

“I’ll give you an example on the case of the pangolins. Two decades ago, pangolins were a common South-East Asian mammal. Then their scales started being used in traditional medicine and they have now become one of the most endangered species of mammal in the region.

“Conservationists are afraid that the South-East Asian porcupines could suffer a very similar fate.”

Ganzhorn's mouse lemur,  photo: Petr Hamerník / Prague Zoo
Much is still unknown about the Philippine porcupine, which seems to have no natural enemies. Biologists are not even sure about basic details such as its height and typical length of life. It is also in this area where zoos come in handy.

In fact a lot of initial research on animal species can come from research in this controlled environment, unlike in the wild where creatures such as the Philippine porcupine can be elusive.

Other species successfully bred include the Chacoan peccary, a South American pig believed to be extinct until it was surprisingly discovered in the wild during the 1970s; the tiny 40 gram Ganzhorn's mouse lemur native to eastern Madagascar; the Rhinoceros hornbill, a South East Asian bird with a large arboreal hornbill that resembles an extra beak, and many more. These along with the entire animal population of the Prague Zoo will soon be able to munch on goodies provided by the zoo’s Christmas donation programme, where food donated by visitors is divided to the creatures based on their diet.

It is not just Christmas presents they can look forward to, but new friends it seems. Deputy Mayor Hlubuček says that there are yet more long-term plans for further expansion.

“We are certainly planning to build more pavilions. For example, one dedicated to the Arctic, to house our polar bears.”

He does add however, that the exact date for the pavilion is not yet clear. There are many largescale investment projects planned for Prague in the next decade, including a new metro line and a kindergarten building programme.

Those in charge of the Prague Zoo will certainly have to produce strong arguments when haggling for funds, but the work they have produced over the past years certainly seems to have given them a solid reputation to fall back on.