Few places feel as remote and wild as the Australian island of Tasmania; mile upon mile of sandy beaches and jagged rocks stretch for as far as the eye can see, whilst ancient forests full of giant ferns cover much of the interior. The island is frequently battered by stormy seas and howling winds from the Southern Ocean and as a result Tasmanian weather is unpredictable at best! As you look out over the vast ocean, without another human being in sight, it really does feel like you’re standing on a distant corner of the Earth.
At the end of last year, Will and I visited the north-west coast of Tasmania. The landscape was full of scrubby bushes and grassland, which on first inspection, didn’t seem like a very hospitable environment for wildlife. However, as night drew closer the area was teeming with animals including wallabies, wombats and of course Tasmanian devils – it was the devils that we had come to photograph.
At one time, Tasmanian devils used to live all over mainland Australia until they became extinct there around 3,000 years ago. Since this time, Tasmania has remained the only stronghold for these ferocious little marsupials. Tassie devils are about the size of a small dog, with a stocky build and an incredibly strong bite. In fact, it has the strongest bite for its weight of any living mammal! The unusual name stems from the horrendous screeching sounds that they make at night.
For Tasmanian devils, one of the main causes of population decline is vehicle collisions. Driving at night in Tasmania is a stressful and slow experience – animals constantly hop out in front of your car without warning, startled by the headlights. Unfortunately devils are drawn towards the roads, where they feed on the dead animals that litter the tarmac. As a result, the devils often end up getting hit themselves.
One man who lives in north-west Tasmania is trying to give the devils in his area a helping hand. Geoff King removes dead animals from the road, and drags them into safe locations on his land. Here, the devils can feed safely without the danger of vehicles. This presents an excellent opportunity to photograph these incredible creatures in the wild.
Every evening at around 5pm, we would get our stuff ready for the long night ahead. We would try to get to our hide (basically a fisherman’s shack on the coast) well before sunset so we could get settled in and let our scent dissipate before the devils arrived. The devils are very shy animals and have a keen sense of smell – it’s difficult to get close to them if they catch your scent. To get to our hide, we had to walk 2 km with our full camera bags and a suitcase full of lighting equipment. On a couple of occasions, we arrived at the hide to discover a leech clamped onto our stomachs! Here’s a tip for you if you ever find yourself in this situation – don’t try burning a leech off or using alcohol to loosen its grip. This can cause the leech to regurgitate its stomach contents into your body. It’s much better to let it drop off naturally, or if you must remove it, slide the jaws off with a sharp edge. Be warned though, these pesky parasites can hold on tight!
In order to attract the devils to our hide, we had to do a scent drag, which is basically just pulling a rotting roadkill carcass along the ground leading up to the hide – a pretty grizzly task!
The nights spent in the hide were long and cold, so we stocked up on plenty of instant noodles to keep us going! We also worked out a shift system to keep a lookout for devils. Staring out of the glass window on our own, with the wind blowing outside and the weak light extending only a few meters into the the inky darkness was quite a spooky experience!
Tasmanian Devils are nocturnal, so we were restricted to taking photos after dark. This presented some technical challenges in terms of our lighting set-up. The main challenge that we faced was diffusing the flash light as much as possible to avoid getting harsh shadows. We used a couple of remote speedlites pointing into studio umbrellas, which were triggered with pocket wizards. The strong wind kept toppling the umbrella so we had to have all the lighting equipment in the hide with us, behind a layer glass. As a result, we had to push our lens right up to the glass and shield it from any reflected light.
When the direction of the wind was blowing our scent away from the feeding devils, we tried to venture outside the hide. We would edge along the side of the shack towards the dim puddle of light were the roadkill had been staked out. Above the howling wind, the unmistakable sound of bones crunching could be heard. We would get down on our stomachs and peek around the corner of the shack, careful not to appear above the horizon where we would be silhouetted against the night sky. Usually at this stage we would slowly raise our camera and take a single shot which would then alert the devils to our presence and send them scampering off into the blackness. However, on one occasion, a brave male devil accepted our presence and allowed us to lie just a couple of metres away from him as he fed. It was an incredible, wild experience that we will never forget.
Unfortunately, Tasmanian devils have recently been suffering from a deadly and highly contagious form of cancer – devil facial tumour disease (or DFTD for short). This cancer causes unsightly and painful tumours to form all over the devils’ faces, meaning they can no longer feed. The cancer spreads when the devils bite each other (which happens quite a lot!). The population has suffered a 50% decline since the disease was first recorded in 1996. The future of this amazing and unique animal hangs in the balance as the cancer spreads west. One of the best hopes for Tasmanian Devils, is the creation of disease free populations, which could then be used to repopulate Tasmania in the worst case scenario that all the devils there are wiped out. It would be a tragedy if the Tasmanian Devil went the same way as the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) which became extinct in 1936. For more information about the efforts to save the Tasmaniaan Devil, visit tassiedevil.com.au.
For more pictures from our trip, take a look at our Australia galleries.