The Tiger of Tasmania (Thylacinus cynocephalus) stands unique amid the chaotic world of cryptozoology. Unlike a host of other cryptids, the Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine, is believed to still be alive by a much larger majority of people. True, most scientists believe it to be extinct, but since 1936 (when the last Tiger "officially" died) there have literally been hundreds of sightings. Although many of them could be labeled a case of misidentification, Steven Smith, a wildlife officer who has searched for the animal, concluded in a detailed study that of a total of 320 sightings between 1934 and 1980, just under half could be considered good sightings.
So join us now, reader, as we embark into the study of the Tasmanian Tiger.
The thylacine was similar to a large, long dog. With a slender, stiff tail and a somewhat big head, it reached an approximate length of 6 feet (180 cm - nose to tail) when full grown, and stood about 2 feet high (58 cm) at the shoulder. Except for the 13-20 black stripes that extended from the base of the tail to the shoulder area, its body was of a grayish-brown to tawny gray to a yellow brown color.
Thylacines were taciturn in nature. They were extremely shy, secretive, and rarely made a sound, save when one was anxious or excited. In such a case, a series of husky, coughing barks were made. When hunting, they gave a characteristic double yap, repeated every few seconds. With regards to hunting, thylacines relied on a fine sense of smell. They also had an incredible stamina, pursuing their prey relentlessly until it was exhausted.
The thylacine's preferred habitat is believed to have been dry eucalypt forest, wetlands and grasslands, although the last remaining populations in Tasmania may have lived in dense and remote rain forests of the island's southwestern region. Their living space was primarily rocky outcrops and large hollow logs. Amazingly, fossils and Aboriginal rock paintings reveal that the animals once also lived throughout Australia and New Guinea.
Why Are They Extinct?
Although we cannot definitively say whether the Tasmanian Tiger is extinct or not, one fact is certain: There aren't many of them. Question is, why is that? Who, or what, killed off the thylacine?
One man, long before it ever happened, saw in coming. His name was John Gould, a well-known naturalist, and in 1863 he predicted that the Tasmanian tiger was doomed to extinction.
"When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated, and its primitive forests are intersected with roads from the eastern to the western coast, the numbers of this singular animal will speedily diminish, extermination will have its full sway, and it will then, like the Wolf in England and Scotland, be recorded as an animal of the past..."
Sadly, this prophecy would be fulfilled in less than a century. By means of trapping, shooting, and poisoning, the Tiger was ruthlessly hunted due to its occasional predation upon livestock. In 1888, Tasmanian Parliament placed a price of ú1 on the thylacine's head, and by 1909 the government bounty scheme finally terminated with 2,184 bounties paid. The result was the death of the last known Tiger on September 7th, 1936. That same year it was added to the list of protected wildlife, but it was only too little too late. Fifty years later, in 1986, with only sparse sightings and no tangible evidence to prove its existence, the animal was declared extinct by international standards. The Tiger that had once roamed Tasmania was gone forever.
Or was it?
Please take note that these are not all the sightings that occurred between, before, or after the given dates.
May, 1937 - For three weeks Roy Marthick searches for thylacines, claiming the discovery of tracks of twenty individuals. Also claims sighting a few of the animals at dusk.
November, 1937 - Trooper A. L. Fleming and prospector Lesley Williams embark into the sparsely populated west coast of Tasmania. While passing through a valley to the Franklin River and Fenchman's Cap, they discover several purported thylacine tracks. More tracks of a large and a small animal are also found to the west of Frenchman's Cap. To the South of the southern extent of the Raglan Range, eleven tracks from at least four different individuals are discovered.
1943-1944 - Former thylacine hunter Charles Spencer, while cutting a track, witnesses a beautifully marked individual "at least six feet from tip to tip."
1945 - David Fleay, seeking a specimen for the Healesville Sanctuary, leads an expedition based at a slab hut on the Jane River. Perils of the trip are numerous. In his own words: "We lived in a heavy rainfall belt, usually with eight days wet out of ten and not uncommonly summer snow and frost; we struggled with Horizontal Scrub and clinging Bauera, or walked through dark and silent forests of dripping myrtle sassafras, leatherwood and pine. Floundering journeys with heavy packs and equipment across boggy button-grass plains and strenuous climbing over high ranges were every-day events, not to mention the endless torment from mosquitoes, blow-flies, biting fleas, even rheumatism."
1953 - After an animal starts chewing the heads of rabbits that lie in Ber Maher’s traps in northeastern Tasmania, he sets a special trap for what he believes to be a dog. On Monday morning he comes across what sounds like a dog struggling in the trap. Clubbing the animal on the head with a branch, he takes it home and skins it. News spreads, and before long the North Eastern Advertiser runs the story "Tasmanian Tiger Killed at South Springfield." One day after the story runs, he receives a visit from two government officials, asking to see the skin. They confiscate it, threaten him to tell no one, and finally add that he could be jailed for killing a thylacine.
1981-1982 - A 47-year old man while driving home with his wife on a clear night spots two animals of medium to large size standing in the road. "First I noted the erect ears and rather large head. Their colour was light brown, just like the dog we had at the time ... I noticed the stripes which ran down from the top of the back to the flanks."
1949 - S. J. Paramonov, while on the Bourke-Wanaaring Road, witnesses a dog-like animal that "was uniformly grey-brown, with short hairs; the strange tail, extremely wide at the base, seemed to be a continuation of the hind quarters; the hind leg was strongly marked with almost horizontal stripes." He states, furthermore, "The most remarkable feature was the strange manner of running: although the animal was swinging regularly sideways, the hind part of the body made a kind of bobbing, up and down movement; the impression was as if the animal was drunk."
1967-1968 - A host of purported thylacine sightings occur in South Australia. Around one hundred people claim to see a thylacine at thirty-five separate locations between the Coorong and Nelson, Victoria, though particularly in the Beachport-Millicent area. One observer, a National Park Keeper, and another make a sketch that looks like a thylacine.
January, 1973 - The press reports two sightings of a striped, dog-like animal in the Longland Gap region of the Atherton Tableland. Descriptions of the animal are detailed and consistent, closely matching the thylacine. Because one of the sightings occurred early in the morning, the stripes seen on the animal are not judged as merely the result of poor lighting conditions.
Although many cases could be written off as simple misidentifications, it would border absurdity to discount them all as such. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is that the thylacine, in all likelihood, is still alive today. In fact, according to an article that came out in June of 2003, just do the math.
TIGER LIVES (excerpt)
By Simon Bevilacqua
©The Mercury - June 29, 2003
A VIABLE population of thylacines survived the threat of bounty hunters, new international research says.
Computer modelling shows 632 thylacines existed in 1907 -- well above the critical number of 500 which biologists say is necessary for long-term survival of the species.
Mathematical modelling done by Dutch and US environmental economists reveals that thylacine numbers probably increased after the ravages of bounty hunting ended in 1909.
The modelling estimates the tiger population hit a record low of about 632 in 1907 which increases to a steady-state level of 779 animals after hunting stopped.
"We estimate a significant wild population existed until the 1920s and abundance might have been sufficient to ensure enduring survival," the study report said.
"Unless some unknown disaster struck this population in the interim, our findings suggest that hunting tigers for bounty and pelts should not have triggered the ultimate demise of the population."
Click here to find the archived article.
Cloning The Tasmanian Tiger
Can it be done? Can we give up the search, and instead turn our focus to cloning the thylacine?
As of now, no, although in 2002 a major obstacle was overcome in the efforts to genetically bring back the Tiger. In short, the Evolutionary Biology Unit at the Australian Museum in Sydney successfully replicated individual thylacine genes using a process known as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction). The next step, now, is to make large quantity copies of all the genes of the animal so these can be used to construct synthetic chromosomes.
Where are they getting thylacine material in the first place? Amazingly, the Australian Museum has a small thylacine pup that has been preserved since 1866. It was stored in a jar of alcohol, rather than formalin, which would have destroyed the DNA. Because of this, the pup's cells could theoretically be used for cloning. The efforts of the Australian Museum to do just that have been exclusively documented by the Discovery Channel in The End of Extinction: Cloning the Tasmanian Tiger.
If ever any cryptid were to be seen again ... if ever any thought-to-be-extinct animal were to finally be discovered alive and well ... with little to no question, it would be the Tiger of Tasmania. And so, together, we wait expectantly, hoping that one day this magnificent animal will again be visibly present for the world to appreciate.
1. Australia Museum Online, Australia's Thylacine: To clone or not to clone?, http://www.amonline.net.au/thylacine/.
2. The Thylacine Museum, http://www.naturalworlds.org/thylacine/.
3. The Interactive Tour Of Tasmania, Tasmanian Tiger, http://www.tased.edu.au/tot/fauna/tiger.html.
4. Department Of Primary Industries, Water And Environment, Tasmanian Tiger, http://www.dpiwe.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/WebPages/BHAN-53777B?open.