Is the "Extinct" Thylacine Still Alive?

By , Columnist

From the Smithsonian Institution archives.

It’s not supposed to exist these days but people claim to spot it so often that the thylacine has been called the world’s “most common extinct animal”.

The thylacine was always something of a contrary beast. Also known as the Tasmanian wolf because of its generally wolf-like appearance, and the Tasmanian tiger because of the brown stripes in its fur, it was actually neither a wolf nor a tiger but a marsupial.

It lived in three separate locations: on mainland Australia and on the islands of Tasmania and New Guinea. Preferring to hide during the day, it would emerge after dark to hunt kangaroos, wallabies, and wombats, as well as birds and other small creatures. Able to endure long periods when food was scarce, it seemed to be a natural survivor, but by the late 1920s sightings of thylacines in the wild had become extremely rare.

The last known thylacine died in captivity 75 years ago this week, and for the half century that followed the species was classified as endangered. When no conclusive evidence for its continued existence had been found by 1982 the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the species extinct, and the Tasmanian Government followed suit in 1986.

Officially, thylacines survived longest on Tasmania, south of the Australian mainland. During the early 19th century the species was forced to share this island with European farmers who began to settle there in growing numbers. As the farmers increasingly blamed thylacines for attacking their sheep and other livestock, bounty schemes were set up to tackle the predators.

Relentless persecution by farmers and hunters - probably combined with other factors such as habitat erosion, disease, and competition with wild dogs introduced by the settlers - devastated the thylacine population. On 6 May 1930, a farmer named Wilf Batty shot an animal that had been killing his poultry, and in doing so earned himself the dubious distinction of being the final man known to have killed a thylacine in the wild.

What would prove to be the last known thylacine was captured in 1933 and sent to Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo. This animal later came to be known as “Benjamin” although, ever a source of contrariness, there are arguments over whether this thylacine was ever known by that name while alive, and even over whether Benjamin was male or female!

Benjamin features in what is believed to be the last motion footage of a thylacine, taken in 1933 by the Australian naturalist David Fleay:

While Fleay was setting up his photographic equipment in the animal’s enclosure Benjamin padded silently around to his rear. Before the naturalist realised he was in any danger, Benjamin gave him a sharp bite on the buttocks, leaving a scar that Fleay carried with pride for the rest of his life.

Benjamin died on 7 September 1936, having been locked out of his (or her) shelter overnight and left exposed to the elements during a particularly severe winter.

A decade later, Fleay led an expedition to Tasmania’s west coast region, hoping to find evidence that thylacines still survived in the wild. He failed to capture a live specimen - the only evidence that would have conclusively proved the thylacine’s continued existence- but he did find tracks that could have been made by the animal, and samples of hair and scat that analysis indicated came from a thylacine.

Fleay also collected anecdotal evidence from people who claimed to have spotted thylacines. Such reports continue to this day.

Some are highly credible, such as that made on 9 March 1982 by Hans Naarding, a researcher with the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service. Naarding had taken a nap after parking his Land Rover in a remote forested area of north-west Tasmania, and when he awoke at around 2 a.m. he used his spotlight to scan his surroundings.

“As I swept the light beam around,” he reported afterwards, “it came to rest on a large thylacine, standing side-on some six to seven metres distant.”

Naarding’s camera was out of reach and so he decided to examine the animal carefully before risking scaring it away. He later said: “It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 stripes on a sandy coat. Eye reflection was pale yellow. It moved only once, opening its jaw and showing its teeth.”

After several minutes of close observation Naarding reached for his camera but the movement disturbed the animal and it disappeared into the undergrowth before he could take a photograph. Naarding’s sighting led to an intensive government-funded search, but no conclusive evidence was found.

Not that the lack of proof stopped reports of sightings.

According to evidence compiled by researchers Buck and Joan Emberg there have been some 360 post-extinction sightings of thylacines in Tasmania. The Embergs also report 269 sightings on the Australian mainland, most frequently around southern Victoria. Other estimates are even higher: the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association states that it has more than 3,800 reported sightings from the mainland on file.

Some researchers feel that, if the thylacine does still survive, then the most likely location is within the inaccessible and yet-to-be fully explored jungles in the west of the island of New Guinea, to the north of Australia. Fossil evidence shows that the thylacine did once live on this island, albeit a few thousand years ago, and people living there talk about an elusive creature they call the dobsegna.

Their description of the creature closely matches that of the thylacine and in the early 1990s researcher Ned Terry travelled to the island’s Baliem Valley where he showed pictures of the thylacine to locals who claimed to have seen the dobsegna.

They identified the pictures as showing the creature they had seen.

Bolstered by all the reported sightings, many people are reluctant to give up hope. This apparently includes CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), who currently list the thylacine only as “possibly extinct”.

Realistically, many reports are likely to be misidentifications of feral dogs or other animals but I hope there are still living thylacines out there somewhere.

If there are then let’s pray we’ll eventually be able to document their survival without doing further harm to this remarkable creature.

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James Clark is a freelance writer based in deepest, darkest south London, UK. His latest book, "Haunted Lambeth", exploring ghosts and legends from the London Borough of Lambeth, is due out in February 2013.

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