Australia lifts protection level for Tasmanian devils

CANBERRA, May 22 (Reuters) - Australia lifted protection levels on Friday for the world's largest surviving marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil, listing the animal as endangered due to a deadly facial tumour outbreak.

Devils, the size of a small dog and made famous by the fierce Looney Tunes cartoon character known as "Taz", have been in decline since the 1990s when devil facial tumour disease ravaged the wild population, confined to the island state of Tasmania.

"This disease has led to the decline of about 70 percent of the Tasmanian devil population since the disease was first reported in 1996," Environment Minister Peter Garrett said.

The devil was listed as endangered on the United Nation's Red List in 2008 and Garrett said Australia had now moved its status from vulnerable to endangered, bringing extra protections.

Devils are nocturnal hunters and widespread across Tasmania, living mostly on carrion but also capable of hunting small animals including wallabies, which are like small kangaroos.

Scientists say between 20,000 and 75,000 probably remain in the wild since the disease hit, slowly killing affected animals with facial tumours the size of small golf balls. (Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Alex Richardson)