Australian researchers are teaming up with zoos and wildlife parks around the world in a bid to save the Tasmanian devil. It is the largest carnivorous marsupial and is being devastated by a mysterious facial tumor. This has wiped out about half the Devil population in the past decade and there are fears the species could be extinct within 30 years. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports for VOA.

The cantankerous Tasmanian devil was given its name by early European settlers.

The size of a small dog, this carnivorous marsupial can look and sound exceptionally fierce. But despite the appearance of strength and aggression, the devil population in Tasmania is in real trouble.

A cancer that eats away at the mouth and face has in some parts of the island killed more than 90 percent of adults. It is thought the disease is spread when the animals bite each other when they are mating or fighting.

There is no cure for the facial tumors.

Scientists are now trying to preserve the species by sending healthy animals to zoos and sanctuaries on the Australian mainland. Wildlife parks in the United States and Europe will also take part in an international rescue mission.

Professor Hamish McCallum from the University of Tasmania describes the project as an "insurance policy" but says that efforts to sustain devils in the wild must also continue.

"If the worst came to the worst - if the Devils become extinct on the mainland of Tasmania which on current indications is possible in the time frame of 30 years - then ? we should be able to re-introduce them. In my firm opinion a captive population on its own is not sufficient," he said. "We need to be trying to maintain free-ranging populations as well."

There are also plans to introduce these nocturnal marsupials to disease-free islands off Tasmania.

Breeding in captivity is not easy, which makes the recent birth of four devils at a wildlife sanctuary in Queensland so significant.

They were the size of a grain of rice at birth and were the first babies to be produced under the captive breeding program.

Experts estimate that there could be as few as 20,000 devils left in the wilds of Tasmania.