Tasmanian devil
Tasmanian devil numbers have fallen drastically in recent years due to an outbreak of diseaseReuters

The Tasmanian devil, extinct in the Australian mainland for 3,000 years, should be reintroduced on the land mass to help boost the native ecosystem, researchers say.

A study done by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on 11 August found that releasing the carnivorous marsupial on the mainland would help contain the spread of feral cats and foxes.

This would greatly benefit a number of smaller animals, such as bandicoots and ringtail possums, which are being rapidly hunted by foreign predators.

Reintroduction could also help ensure the long-term survival of the devil, whose population has dwindled due to an outbreak of disease in Tasmania – the only place where the animal is found in the wild.

Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world - 30 native mammals have vanished in the country since European settlement 200 years ago.

Feral cats wreak havoc on the country's ecosystem and kill an estimated 75 million native animals every night, according to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

'Not a silver bullet'

Scientists say suitable climatic conditions for reintroducing the devil exist in south-eastern Australia, where they would also not face competition from the extensively-culled dingoes.

"There are large areas where the dingo is gone and we need a predator who can suppress fox numbers," said Daniel Hunter from the UNSW school of biological, earth and environmental sciences.

"The devil is the obvious answer. It doesn't pose as serious a risk to livestock, and it has played a major role in stopping foxes from establishing a foothold in Tasmania."

Researchers ran simulations to assess the impact of reintroducing the devil in south-eastern Australia and found it would result in fewer foxes and feral cats, as well as grazing herbivores such as wallabies, which remove vegetation that helps smaller animals hide from predators.

"We suspect that they help control the fox and cat populations by directly attacking them and their young," UNSW associate professor Mike Letnic said.

"There is very good evidence from Tasmania that cats modify their movements and numbers are lower where there are healthy devil populations.

"Devils aren't a silver bullet, but we think that they could do a lot of good on the mainland, and this study indicates that a monitored process of reintroduction could actually work," he added.

"We need to take action to arrest the extinction crisis we have in Australia, and that requires being bold and trying something new."