I went to the touristy olde world town of Richmond a little while ago and saw a Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine. It had been turned into a garden ornament – “gnomified” if you like, just like the Buddha has been.
Tasmanians have a very complicated relationship with the Tassie Tiger. Images of the thylacine can be seen everywhere, it’s on beer labels, the state coat of arms, the coat of arms for Launceston, the logo for Tourism Tasmania. In fact it is everywhere. You might, therefore, come to the conclusion that it is a much-loved animal. In a way it is, but the truth is it wasn’t.
The Thylacine was a shy reclusive animal, the last of its kind – a carnivorous marsupial that was an apex predator and whose relatives went back into the mists of the mammalian era some 5 to 23 million years ago (the Miocene). Computer modelling has shown that the thylacine was not a very strong animal and would have been incapable of handling anything larger than 5Kg and it is now widely believed that they were ambush predators who preyed on small animals such as bandicoots and possums. When the first aboriginal people crossed to the Australian Continent via a land bridge some 40,000 years they brought with them the first dogs, the descendants of what we now call the dingo. The dog was simply a much better and more adaptable predator than the thylacine and by the time British colonisation started they were already extinct on the mainland. When the first settlers in Tasmania saw the thylacine they named it the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. There was an apocryphal tale appealing to Victorian gothic drama that can be traced back to just one source that the Thylacine was a blood drinker which preyed on sheep and poultry. That sealed its fate and a bounty was placed upon it and it was hunted vigorously.
The bounty of £1 for a dead adult and 10 shillings for a dead pup meant that by the 1920’s it was rare to see a thylacine in the wild. In 1930 a farmer by the name of Wilf Batty shot the last wild one. This was bad enough but the tale takes a more tragic turn. In 1933 the Hobart Zoo acquired a thylacine, which was later referred to as Benjamin, which lived there for three years. Inevitably the animal died not of old age but because it was locked out of its shelter on a very cold Tasmanian night. In effect killed by neglect. The last of a species going back millions of years killed because somebody couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was sheltered safely for the night. So after 133 years of settlement, thirty years after a conservation movement was founded seeking its protection and just 59 days after the Tasmanian government signed a conservation order to protect it the last thylacine had died. Optimistically it remained on the endangered list until the 1980’s , but with no confirmed sightings for 50 years it was declared officially extinct.Every now and again there is some crack pot scheme to clone it from DNA harvested from remains in museums, or some millionaire will put a reward for the capture of a live one, but the reality is that the thylacine is long gone because of an indifference to its plight.
In the mid 1990’s a biologist by the name of Nick Mooney gave an interview to the Hobart Mercury newspaper. Mooney was concerned that the attention the thylacine was getting was diverting the attention away from Tasmania’s other iconic animal – the Tasmanian Devil. He argued that the Devil should be researched and protected. Many people thought that he was barmy as there were more Devils in Tasmania then than at the time of first settlement and farmers were claiming that they were at plague proportions and were a threat to livestock. Fast forward twenty years and the devil is now on the verge of extinction from a combination of devil facial tumour (a transmissible cancer), habitat destruction, traffic fatalities and environmental pollution caused by high levels of flame retardant chemicals found in consumer electronics. These chemicals are banned and were phased out in the 1980’s but their effects are still being felt and it is thought that they play a part in devil facial tumour disease. Because devil populations are declining the gene pool is also diminishing this had laid the Devils very vulnerable to disease.
Today Tasmanians mourn the passing of the thylacine even though there are very few people who are left alive that actually saw one. All that remains are a few preserved specimens in museums, some black and white photos and some grainy film footage. Tourist operators say that the extinction of the devil will severely impact their industry and slowly people are starting to wake up to the fact that the devil is likely to go the same way if something is not done. There has been some research on the on devil facial tumour disease which is fantastic. So is devil saved? Well some scientists believe that the only way for the devil to survive is to quarantine healthy devils in captivity and let the wild population die out. Even if the wild population could survive the current Tasmanian state and Australian Federal governments are working to open up Tasmania’s national parks and world heritage areas to commercial logging. The federal government is also not prepared to fund research into Devil Facial Tumour Disease. So at present your best chance of seeing a Tasmanian devil is either at a zoo, animal sanctuary or dead beside a road. In another twenty years all we could be left with is some video footage and some memories. I would urge every Australian and prospective visitor to Tasmania to write to:
Matthew Groom the Tasmanian minister for the environment
Greg Hunt the federal minister for the environment
asking that more funding should be given to ensure the survival of the devil and to ask them not to open the Tasmanian national parks to logging.
They’re not the most loveable of creatures but the world would be a worse place without them.