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The Quest For The Thylacine

Like so many of Australasia's mammals, the thylacine resembled a fantastical chimera, a marsupialian mash-up of other animals. The Tasmanian tiger -- to give it its more sensational title -- had the hindquarters of a kangaroo, the stripes of a tiger, and the head and jaws of a wild dog. It wasn't described by westerners until 1805. Barely a century after first contact, it was reduced to endangered status. The last captive thylacine died in 1936, and the last wild animal was seen in 1946.

Now it sits in our awful, and perpetually-restocked cabinet of curiosities as one of the strangest, yet most recently-departed of extinct fauna. And yet, if the latest reports are to be believed, it might not be extinct at all. Even as I write this, a new expedition is on its way into the Tasmanian bush, determined to track down this almost mythical beast.Meanwhile other news media report that even some scientists and naturalists give credence to the possibility of its survival.

The story has even been the scenario for a 2011 movie, "The Hunter," starring Willem Dafoe.

No fiction could match the mysterious reality -- if such it is -- of the continuing rumors of the living thylacine, persisting in an under-populated island which, after Alaska, contains the world's largest expanse of temperate rainforest. But perhaps the key question is not, does the thylacine still exist, rather: Should we leave that possibility open to our collective imaginations unexplored -- and safe from further harm?

On April 21, 1805, a letter from William Paterson, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen's Land, as Tasmania was then known, was published in the Sydney Gazette. It described an animal "of a truly singular and nouvel description," which had been killed by dogs at Port Dalrymple, and which, so the excited editor informed his readers, "must be considered of a species perfectly distinct from any of the animal creation hitherto known, and certainly the only powerful and terrific member of the carniverous [sic] and voracious tribe yet discovered on any part of New Holland or its adjacent Islands."

Merely by describing this newly discovered beast, Paterson's report -- which had the air of an academic paper re-written by a PR agency -- sealed the fate of the Tasmanian tiger. Like the island's peoples, its seals and its whales, such exposure to western values -- of expropriation and exploitation -- would prove to be the tiger's undoing, and in the same short span of barely a century.

For thousands of years the thylacine had survived in Tasmania long after its mainland population had been forced out, a result of an ever-drier habitat and competition from dingoes. On this temperate, predator-free island hanging off the extreme south-eastern coast of Australia, it was preserved in its insular splendour, protected by the surrounding sea. Until the Lieutenant Governor's letter arrived.

"It is very evident this species is destructive," Paterson declared -- and he had the evidence to prove it. "On dissection his stomach was filled with a quantity of kangaroo, weighing 5lbs. the weight of the whole animal 45 lbs. From its interior structure it must be a brute particularly quick of digestion." Guilty from the inside-out, the creature's every part was measured and itemized: from its eye, "remarkably large and black, 1¼ inches," to its tail, "1 foot 8 inches."

Paterson was nothing if not precise. He counted nineteen bristles on either side of the animal's face, and found its body to be covered with short smooth hair, "of a greyish colour, the stripes black; the hair on the neck rather longer...the hair on the ears of a light brown colour, on the inside rather long..."

Despite these anchoring details, one might have forgiven the reader of the Sydney Gazette if he or she had assumed that this was a fabulous portmanteau of a beast, barely more credible than any of the other extraordinary fauna that leapt or crept or flew or swam around these new lands. "The form of the animal is that of a hyaena, at the same time strongly reminding the observer of the appearance of a low wolf dog. The lips do not appear to conceal the tusks."

Such sins, and such strangeness! It all added up to a sentence of death, and the thylacine, suspected of manifold offences, could hope for little mercy. Gradually, more certain details began to emerge. Dubbed the "native hyena" or the "zebra wolf," it was scientifically classified in 1808 as Thylacinus cynocephalus, dog-headed pouched animal, one of only two marsupials -- the other being the water opossum – in which both sexes had pouches, the male's covering his genitals to protect them as it ran in the bush (a refinement which is surely the envy of other males).

The thylacine could raise itself on its back legs like a kangaroo and ran at speed when hunting. Its elliptical pupils were perfected for night viewing, and its 120-degree gape geared for scavenging. However, it would later be proved that the animal's jaw had little strength, and that its yawning gesture -- often accompanied by the straightening of its tail and a peculiar strong scent -- was not a sign of boredom, but a warning that it felt threatened and might be about to attack.

This fearsome reputation convinced settlers that the Tasmanian tiger was a danger to their stock; that it should be regarded as a pest. As early as 1850, the Reverend John West was protesting its innocence, allowing that the thylacine did kill sheep, but only one at a time, unlike a wild dog or dingo "which both commit havoc in a single night." But the cleric's defense was futile. He knew that rewards offered by sheep-owners meant that "it is probable that in a very few years this animal, so highly interesting to the zoologist, will become extinct; it is now extremely rare, even in the wildest and least frequented parts of the island. A male and a female were sent to the Zoological Society of London during the present year (1850), and were the first that ever reached Europe alive."

While their peers languished in foreign prisons, wild thylacines had bounties placed on their heads and hides. Five shillings were offered for a male, seven shillings for a female, with or without pups, and from 1878 to 1909, more than 4,000 thylacines were culled as vermin. Some became waistcoats and rugs, allowing their hunters to wear and walk on their trophies. The animal's steep decline was only accelerated by the reduction of its habitat, a distemper-like disease, and predation by domestic dogs.

By 1910, the population was scarce; the last confirmed thylacine to be hunted in the wild was shot in 1930 by a farmer, Wilfred Batty. The last capture of a thylacine took place in the Florentine Valley in 1933. Thereafter all is supposition; although in 1946, Dr David Fleay came close to trapping a thylacine on his expedition into the Tasmanian interior. And that was the final encounter -- as far as science is concerned.

* * *

In Hobart, the capital city of Tasmania, a museum video plays on a constant loop. It shows a female thylacine that had been bought by the London Zoo in January 1926, and which would die on 9 August 1931, shortly after the film was made. But in the technology of the 21st century, the thylacine lives on. [Watch the short video on Arkive.org.]

Such films (others were shot in Hobart's own zoo) are remarkable. Their subjects resemble flickering ghosts, pacing up and down, yet their physicality is certainly not spectral. In bright sunlight, one specimen is seen in precise detail. The mountain-lion head. The narrow, almost cetacean jaw, yawning wide. The lemur-like stripes on its hindquarters and the kangarooish tail, thick at the base and tapering to a whip-like point and which, I guess, must have felt as heavy as the wallaby's tail I once weighed in my hands while its owner foraged on the ground. The vividness of these images render their subjects almost domestic. I imagine finding one curled at my feet -- not such a far-fetched idea, since captive thylacines were often given collars and walked on a lead.

From the 1880s to the 1920s, a total of nearly two dozen thylacines were sent to London Zoo, a hub for exotic specimens, an imperial animal clearing house. Many went on to other compounds, in New York and Berlin. In captivity, these subtly strange creatures did not speak up for themselves. "It is unfortunate that only rarely did anyone take time to observe them," writes one modern commentator, "their tranquil nature did not arouse much interest in zoo visitors, or zoo directors, either." Their call was said to resemble the slow opening of a door, but their cells would stay shut. It was if their obscurity was their instrument of their own demise, as they slipped into the past tense.

Yet it was only in 1986, fifty years after the death of the last known specimen, that the thylacine was declared lost to the world. Even now CITES, the international convention on flora and fauna, qualifies the tiger's status as only "possibly extinct." In the last half of the 20th century, reports continued to emerge from Tasmania's virgin wilderness of sightings of thylacines.

In 1957, a photograph was taken from a helicopter flying over the west of the island, of a "striped beast on the deserted beach." "It was probably a thylacine," the Belgian naturalist and cryptozoologist, Bernard Heuvlemans, claimed. "An expedition was at once mounted in order to capture a specimen, which would be released again after it had been studied." But despite the best efforts of a Disney film crew and an expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960, no specimen was found.

However, in 1961 a pair of fishermen apparently came close to capturing one by accident when it was snared in a trap. The two men, Bill Morrison and Laurie Thompson, risked ridicule to talk to the Hobart Mercury. "The tail was rigid," said Morrison. "The animal's coat was dark, and I could discern only one stripe behind the shoulders and extending around the chest." The animal was understandably maddened, reported the newspaper, although the sound it made was "rather peculiar, and different from the barking of a dog." As the two men attempted to release it, it escaped -- although not at any great speed. "It seemed to be a slow mover," said Morrison.

The thylacine had become a shadow of the past projected onto the present. In 1966, a 600,000 hectare (about 1.5 million acre) game reserve was set up in southwestern Tasmania, partly to protect any animals that might remain in the area. It was both a futile and an optimistic gesture, as if a space had been made, ready to be restocked with all the flora and fauna that had disappeared. Since then, the reports continue to be filed from reliable witnesses, practiced bushmen and retired university lecturers, going about their ordinary lives when something extraordinary interrupted them.

One couple, driving back one night after having been to the movies in Launceston, saw a pair of strange shapes amble across the road. At first they mistook them for dogs. But as they were caught in the headlights, they saw erect ears on large heads, unlike any canine. The pair moved nonchalantly, said the witnesses, "It was almost as if they were disdainful of the car"; as if it, not they, were the interlopers. Amazed by the sighting, the couple reported it to the parks and wildlife department, where an apparently uninterested official heard them out, then said, "Yes, it looks like you saw what you saw. Now, will you do us a favour and shut up about it? Don't tell anyone."

Such encounters stress the odd motion of the animals. One experienced bushman in his fifties was logging in the forest with three other men when an animal that corresponded with a thylacine – "couldn't have been anything else" -- ambled out of a tree, "as slow as you please... He wasn't in an hurry. But, then, they aren't very fast, anyhow." All four men saw it for long enough to observe its odd gait and rigid hindquarters; the way that it couldn't turn around like a dog because of the stiffness of its back, but instead had to move in a circle.

In 1980, a woman in her own garden found herself face to face with a creature which she too identified as a thylacine. It was standing on her chicken coop. "It stared at me and I stared at it. It was really quite beautiful. Sort of golden. It had a big head and stripes across the base of its rump." In this brief moment, both were transfixed. "We just sort of stared at each other." She called quietly to her husband inside, at which point the animal disappeared. When she went back inside, she was grey and shaking.

Many witnesses remarked on the animal's serenity and stillness -- "No wonder they got killed." Others claimed to have smelled the animal's pervasive aroma, described a century ago as that of an unknown herb. Some came close enough to look into its large yellow eyes. Nor were these sightings confined to Tasmania. Others have been reported from the Australian mainland, where video cameras captured dog-like animals ambling through the bush.

One sequence, shot in 1973 through a windscreen (the wipers occasionally get in the way), is perhaps the most persuasive, since it is a mixture of the banal and the potentially astounding. An animal runs out of the trees and across a road. It might be a wild dog, but it has a long, stiff and pointed tail. It runs on its back legs which look more kangaroo-like than canine, and in the sunlight, magical stripes appear across its back. Re-run in slow motion, the images seem at once both eerie and ordinary, something caught between worlds.

In 1982 Hans Naarding, an experienced field ranger with the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Department, was in northwest Tasmania, conducting a survey of the Latham's snipe, an endangered migratory bird. He'd been sleeping in his vehicle when he awoke to heavy rain.

It was two in the morning. Out of habit, Naarding scanned the bush with his spotlight. "As I swept the beam around, it came to rest on a large thylacine, standing side-on some six to seven metres distant." The ranger's camera was out of reach -- skeptics might say it always is -- but anyway, he didn't want to disturb the animal. His decision allowed him to make detailed observations. "It was an adult male in excellent condition with twelve black stripes on a sandy coat. Eye reflection was pale yellow. It moved only once, opening its jaw and showing its teeth."

Having watched it for several minutes, Naarding took his chance and reached for his camera. As he did so, the animal moved off into the undergrowth, leaving a strong scent in its wake. Because of his professional position, Naarding's sighting was taken seriously. It was also kept quiet while an intensive, two-year search was made over 250 square kilometres. Nothing was found.

Perhaps these sightings are as elusive and unproveable as those of Bigfoot, the stuff of YouTube spoofs. But even as I wrote my account of the thylacine in my new book, "The Sea Inside," Dr Stephen Sleightholme, project director of the respected International Thylacine Specimen Database Project, told me of a message he had just received from a witness who, a few weeks before, had watched a Tasmanian tiger at eight in the morning, in broad daylight.

As Dr. Sleighthome notes, the thylacine was a shy animal that preferred the twilight; even when it was relatively common, it was rarely seen in any great numbers – it was no pack-running, predatory wolf. But perhaps the most intriguing evidence for its putative survival is supplied by dry statistics. In the early 1990s, Professor Henry Nix of Australian National University developed a computer-generated map to correlate recent sightings, using a program, BIOCLIM, created to predict where specific flora, fauna or ecosystems should occur.

Professor Nix used this map to compare historical records of thylacines hunted or trapped in Tasmania during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with the frequency and location of sightings from 1936 onwards. The two sets of data coincided almost exactly, leading the professor to conclude that these witnesses might indeed be seeing thylacines. Nix proposed that an official search should be made before the considerable expense of attempts to clone the species from its DNA.

Of course, there are hoaxes and misidentifications and rumors of conspiracies and vested interests. If a living thylacine were to wander out of the bush and be wrestled to the ground -- as one Tasmanian professor of zoology fantasized -- it would mean an end to the exploitation of the island's virgin forests, an industry that angers many Tasmanians as they see ancient trees cut down and shipped out to make toilet paper.

I don't know if this animal still survives. Part of me would prefer that even if it does, I'd prefer it to stay hidden. After all, we humans hardly have a good track record. Our urge to catalogue and track and pin down the natural world has its benefits; but also its evident drawbacks. Perhaps we'd do better to realize that our notional dominion over the earth needs to be replaced with a rather less arrogant attitude.

What I do know is that in one venerable institution I visit, a curator lets slip a quickly retracted remark, telling me it is not their secret to reveal. It is clear from what this person says, or does not say, that the strange half-life limbo in which an animal which may, or may not, exist will soon be resolved, in its favor. That the thylacine is no longer extinct.

If it ever was.