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Australia Acknowledges Potential Survival of Thylacines

The video footage is haunting. A strange dog-cat-hybrid creature anxiously paces back and forth along the wire cage of its prison in Hobart Zoo, Tasmania (Lutruwita), yawning with its massive jaws. A stiff, black-striped tail sticks out behind it in a straight, boney line; its black eyes gaze out at its home in the Tasmanian bush. Stripes run down its haunches. The year is 1933, and the animal inside the cage is Benjamin, a thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian tiger, and he is the last known thylacine to exist in captivity. 

Three years later on 7 September 1936, Benjamin died from exposure after being locked out of his artificial burrow and left to the extreme Tasmanian weather. Because the Australian government had only started conservation efforts for the thylacine two months earlier, they did not announce the news of the animal’s death, believing that more could be easily captured. 

A tasmanian tiger was shot and photographed in the wild in 1938, and scat, vocalisations, and footprints were documented up until the 1960s. But in 1986, the tasmanian tiger was declared extinct by the government of Tasmania, after no “confirmed” sightings for 50 years… until now.

In a press release from the Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, eight sightings of the thylacine have been reported since 2016, with two in 2019 alone. 

The Tasmanian tiger, a member of the Thylacinus genus family of marsupials, was the only species of its genus to survive to modern times. The animal evolved over 2 million years ago with similarities to the dog family, and once roamed mainland Australia, New Guinea, and the island of Tasmania, which is currently a state of Australia. The tigers were carnivorous, nocturnal, slept in dens during the day, had stomach pouches for their young, and ate wombats, wallabies, and small rodents. They weighed between 40 to 70 pounds, closely resembled a fox, and were sometimes called the Tasmanian wolf. 

In a June 2018 article published in The New Yorker by Brooke Jarvis, the thylacine’s power as a cult symbol for the ruggedness of Tasmania before white colonization is evident. Jarvis describes the landfall of the first white man in Tasmania, Dutchman Abel Tasman, in 1642, who wrote of “the footing of wild Beasts having Claws like a Tyger.” Like the screams of the Tasmanian devil and the hybrid-appearance of the platypus that explorers encountered in 1803, the Tasmanian tiger became associated with the obscene and malicious wild of Tasmania. White generals wrote to London of a creature “savage, cowardly, and treacherous… badly formed…very primitive…an unproportioned experiment of nature.” 

The tasmanian tiger was thus somehow deemed as both ridiculous and vicious. By the 1830s the animal was competing with dingos for prey in southern Australia, and thought to have been eradicated before the white settlements, despite being featured prominently in cave paintings from mainland Aborginal Dreamtime culture. Soon after, the thylacine was blamed in Tasmania for attacking sheep and livestock. The hunt for its removal mirrored that of the Aboriginal Tasmanians (Palawa), who had lived on the island for over 40,000 years and had been cut off from mainland Australia for 10,000 years. In 1803, there were nine nations living in Tasmania with a population ranging from 3,000-10,000.

The rapid colonization of the island led to competition for traditional food sources and forest degradation as the bush transformed into farmland. Two movements of massive white-on-black violence, dubbed the Black War and the Black Line, slashed the native population and attempted to force the indigenous locals onto peninsulas. According to Jarvis, bounties were placed for  both thylacines and Aboriginal Tasmanians. Disease brought by whites further reduced the black population. In 1876, Truganini, a woman believed to be the last full-blooded Aboriginal Tasmanian, died in Hobart. Her remains, Jarvis writes, were exhumed against her wishes and “displayed at the Tasmanian Museum, along with taxidermied thylacines.” 

The parallels between the barbaric treatment of the indigienous people of Tasmania and the singular thylacinus– both isolated from the rest of their kind– continue. Estimates for the number of paid bounties for thylacines by white settlers ranges up to 2,000. Ironically, a 2011 study by the University of New South Wales found that the Tasmanian tiger had a surprisingly weak jaw for its size, and did not have the power to kill a sheep. In 1917, when the animal was already in steep decline and rarely seen, the Tasmanian coat of arms was approved by King George V, wreathed, ironically, by two thylacines. 

Today the descendants of Aboriginal Tasmanians who had children with white settlers number over 23,000, yet the Encyclopedia Britannica still lists their ethnicity as extinct. The debate over who can identify as Aboriginal and which lines of descendants should be acknowledged is an issue of contention among Aborginal revivalists. In 1995, the site of the first British settlement was handed back to the Aboriginal Tasmanian community. A 2012 article published in Hobart describes the reconstruction of 12 aboriginal languages into Palawa Kani, the accepted language of the Tasmanian (Lutruwita) Aboriginal people, or Palawa people, now being taught today.  

And despite the bounties and scarcity, the locals of Tasmania have continued to report sightings of the tiger, sighting its reluctance to be seen by humans, nocturnal behavior, striped camouflage, and the impenetrable, dense wilderness as reasons for its lack of identification by researchers. Some have also argued that the number of confirmed kills in the 1800-1900s were not high enough to completely exterminate a species. The magic of the thylacine permeates the culture of Tasmania. The 1999 novel The Hunter follows a gothic premise of a secret agent sent to hunt down the last tasmanian tiger, and was adapted into a film starring Willem Defoe and Sam Niel. The 2013 novel Into that Forest tells a peculiar tale of feral children in the Tasmanian bush in the 1940s, who are taken in by a gentle pair of tigers, gradually transforming the girls into wild Tasmanian tigers themselves. For decades, locals and farmers have insisted on seeing tigers on their property, growing up with the knowledge of the animal’s presence on their land, and even seeing cubs. For many, their continued survival was not a myth but a fact. 

However, no sightings have been validated by the scientific community or government of Australia, but these 2019 published sightings mark a turning point in the acceptance of the survival of the tasmanian tiger. One couple, tourists from Western Australia in 2018, listed in the report, described a sighting of a tiger in “clear view for 12-15 seconds. The animal had a stiff and firm tail, that was thick at the base. It had stripes down its back. It was the size of a large Kelpie (bigger than a fox, smaller than a German Shepherd). The animal was calm and did not act scared at all. Both are 100% certain that the animal they saw was a Thylacine.” Two more reports describe the same kind of animal running across the road, noticing cat-like features, a stiff tail, and stripes or bands down the back. Some described the fox-like characteristics, and all were certain that the animal they had seen was neither a dingo, dog, cat, or fox. 

So what makes this extinct creature, hunted into hiding like so many other species, so special? Is it its status as such a large marsupial, or its unique evolutionary history? Or is this lowly animal a symbol of white guilt? On an island plagued by genocide and cultural erasure, perhaps its most wild and scapegoated animal lives on, waiting for acceptance. 

Sources: The New Yorker, Fox News, Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Aboriginal Center, ABC Radio Hobart

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