Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)

What is Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD)?

The Tasmanian devil has suffered a dramatic population decline in recent years due to Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), an infectious cancer that only affects Tasmanian devils. DFTD is transmitted through biting, fighting and mating and is one of the only cancers known to spread as a contagious disease.

It was first detected in 1996 and since then, 90% of the wild population has gone and the disease is rapidly spreading and not looking to decline. There is no known cure but a trial vaccination program has just been launched by our project partner, STDP but is not guaranteed. But there is hope – the only way to ensure the Tasmanian devil does not go extinct is to through our captive breeding program to create an insurance population.

Devil Facial Tumour Disease:

  • 90% of wild population has died in Tasmania
  • There are no known cures
  • The Tasmanian devil will go extinct if the disease spreads and population decline trends continue.

This only reinforces Devil Ark’s role and the urgency to create an insurance population. Extinction is not an Option!

History of DFTD

Many years of hunting by European settlers, habitat loss and fragmentation reduced the population resulting in a substantially smaller gene pool and inbreeding. When Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) appeared, the tumour cells were not rejected by the devil’s immune system as it doesn’t recognise these cells as being foreign. DFTD is extremely unusual: it is one of only four known naturally occurring transmissible cancers.

devil tumour
Images copyright – STDP

Once the devil is infected, signs of the disease appear around the mouth within a few months, usually in the form of small lesions or pimple-like lumps. These small blemishes quickly develop into large tumours, primarily on the face and neck and sometimes other parts of the body. The devils soon find it difficult to eat and drink, and usually die from starvation, dehydration and the breakdown of bodily functions within three months of the initial appearance of tumours. In the later stages of the illness the cancer typically metastasizes to vital organs, including the lungs and brain.The cancer is transmitted from devil to devil through biting during feeding, fighting or mating.

It is not clear where the disease originated from or if factors such as poisons, herbicides or other pollutants have contributed to it. DFTD has been confirmed in devil populations across much of the state of Tasmania, with declines in populations shown through both trapping surveys and annual spotlight counts.  It is estimated that 90% of the wild population has been lost. Current modeling statistics indicate a strong possibility that the Tasmanian devil will go extinct if the spread of the disease and population decline trends continue.


This Graph shows the Tasmanian devil population decline from 1996 (when DFTD was first discovered) to now in 2015 with less than 10% left in the wild.

DFTD DeclineDFTD Distribution Map

DFDT map



The Tasmanian Devil Needs You