Passing Through the Eye of a Needle: Filming Tassie Devils

The wild Northwest coast of Tasmania is a windswept rugged landscape, blasted by the storms of the roaring forties.  

This is the home of some of the last wild, cancer-free devils in the world.  

Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is an insidious contagious cancer only found in Tasmanian Devils.  It causes large tumours to form on the faces of infected Devils. All recorded cases have been fatal though death by starvation can take up to 18 months. 

As the disease sweeps through a region, up to 95% of the population can be affected, devastating populations.  

First recorded in northeast Tasmania in 1996, it has marched steadily across the state.  It’s now on the edge of crossing into this last disease-free Devil refuge and once that’s occurred, there will be no unaffected wild devil populations left. 

My film-making partner Simon Plowright has for the past 30 years fought to protect, study and understand these northwest Tasmanian Devils.  

Arriving in Tasmania from his native Wales at the age of 18, Simon first worked in agriculture, then tourism and finally environmental consulting.  Along the way he developed a deep, intimate understanding and passion for this northwest corner, its landscape and its Devils. 

With dread he saw the disease approaching.  

As the disease causes such a large population crash, Simon and myself realised this may be the last opportunity to film wild devils’ behaviour before the onset of the disease.   

In Australia finding funding for local wildlife productions is as hard as passing through the eye of a needle.  So we headed off into the bush with our cameras and no support.   

Eventually, the compelling story of the Devils brought in other partners and National Geographic has now broadcasted the finished film internationally.

The northwest corner of Tasmania is unique.  Here native bush abuts cleared improved pasture, creating a paradise for Tasmania’s macropods and large numbers of macropods means large Devil numbers.  

However large-scale intensive dairy agribusiness has put pressure on the landscape.  Increased land clearing, along with sealing of roads with 24 hour dairy truck traffic, the introduction of wallaby proof fencing and eradication of wallabies as ‘pests’ has meant that even without the disease, Simon has been observing a constant and significant decline in Devil numbers.   

There is one part of this landscape, however, that remains a haven for Devils - the wind farms of the northwest. Yes, ironically, the same wind farms that have come under scrutiny for their impacts on birds are actually preserving some of the last and most significant wild populations of Devils.   

Here protected behind locked gates the Devils can thrive unmolested.  It is to this area that we turned our cameras.

Devil filming on the west coat is not an easy gig.  Constant wind and rain drive in from the sea. The prevailing wind is westerly and even in the depths of summer we spent many a shivering cold night waiting patiently in the hide.   

The weather changes rapidly and unpredictably. Strong winds are common but these winds cause the devils to be skittish and impossible to film. One night a gale blew up rapidly and the tree we had set our hide up began creaking and groaning in the wind as we waiting in trepidation for a thunderous crash.

Although more active at night, undisturbed Devils are regularly active during the day and we filmed as much as possible in daylight.  Their brother carnivores, the spotted tailed quolls, are also very active during the day.   We were able to film many exciting interactions between Devils and quolls.  Given any opportunity, wily quolls will sneak in to pinch scraps from the master’s table and even taking on the younger Devils to obtain possession of a meal. 

At one point our hide was set up in the scrub under a beautiful hanging rock.  It was a devil and quoll paradise.  For easy access we cut a track trough the dense scrub.  Unfortunately it was also tiger snake breeding season.  The track became a haven for aggressive snakes.  Hissing and leaping out us, nothing would discourage them - our only option was to leap to safety, which is not easy when overloaded with heavy camera gear!

Despite all our difficulties we successful filmed a veritable Noah’s ark of wild Devil behaviour.  Devils scavenging along the pristine beaches, caring mothers raising their young, young Devils exploring the world.    

There are beginning to be signs that Devil populations are developing disease immunity in some areas. As we strive to create awareness, the Devils are also passing through the eye of a needle and if they make it, they will continue to need our help - this is only the beginning. 

Films like this start from small beginnings but are priceless records for the community. Whatever happens, this film will be an archive of the ages, for our grand children to cherish. 

Wildiaries •