for National Geographic News
The government had previously classified the creature as vulnerable. But its more critical status comes in response to a fatal epidemic of devil facial tumor disease, which has wiped out large numbers of the animal.
Devil numbers are difficult to estimate, but state government figures suggest the animals may have plummeted from around 150,000 in the mid-1990s to between 20,000 and 50,000 by the end of 2006.
"The change in the devil's status reflects the real possibility that this iconic species could face extinction in the wild within 20 years," Tasmania's Primary Industries Minister David Llewellyn said in a statement.
(Read: "Tasmanian Devils Decimated by Mystery Cancer" [March 29, 2005].)
Large tumors form on the faces and necks of the animals, making it impossible for them to eat. Many of the afflicted animals subsequently die of starvation.
Sightings of devils have dropped by 64 percent in the past decade, according to Warwick Brennan, spokesperson for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, a joint effort of the state government and the University of Tasmania.
"It's a stark warning about how suddenly and dramatically things can change," he said.
The disease has now spread across more than 60 percent of the state, and in the northeast—where it was first detected in 1996—there have been no signs of recovery, he added.
"Usually a disease will peter out in time, but we're just not seeing that."
SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES