On the Tail of the Tiger: Is a Tasmanian Legend Still Wandering the Bush?

Sixty years ago this September, Benjamin - renowned for being the last Tasmanian tiger - died at the zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. Legends about the creature have not died, however, and debate about Thylacinus cynocephalus (in Latin, "pouched dog with a wolf's head") is quite alive. It seems that Tasmania has its own version of the Loch Ness monster.

Several months ago, Charlie Beasley of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service reported seeing a creature "the size of a full-grown dog. The tail was heavy and somewhat like that of a kangaroo." A decade earlier, respected wildlife researcher Hans Naarding said he saw a tiger 30 feet from his vehicle. "It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 black stripes on a sandy coat," he wrote in his reports.

No irrefutable photographs, fur or plaster casts of tracks have provided confirmation, but such tantalizing sightings have helped to make the tiger, also called the thylacine, into a Tasmanian obsession. Images of the two-foot high, shy, nocturnal predator can be found on city seals, traffic signs, T-shirts and beer bottles. The parks service receives notice of dozens of sightings every year; a ranger systematically tallies and evaluates all of them.

Part of the animal's mystique is the nature of its demise. The world's largest marsupial carnivore disappeared recently enough that hunters remember killing it for the $2 bounty. The thylacine was not protected until two months before Benjamin died. "There's almost a guilty conscience about its disappearance," says Mark Holdsworth of the parks service. His colleague Steve Robertson agrees: "It's the idea of redemption. We killed it off, but now it's back."

Sheep raisers who settled on the island of Tasmania in the early 1800s considered the thylacine a threat to livestock. Van Diemen's Land Company first offered bounties on tiger scalps, and the royally chartered company's records show thousands of thylacines killed. The tiger population, low to begin with, was further diminished by an epidemic of a distemper-like disease in the early 20th century, says Robert H. Green, a tiger buff and former curator of the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston.

Green is convinced that some tigers remain and claims their population is actually increasing. He says the animals are not seen, because they "live in the bush, where they can get all the tucker (food) they want." Green adds that the island's large size and impenetrable terrain provide plenty of room to hide. And he blames the lack of concrete evidence on the Tasmanian devil - a marsupial version of a jackal. Devils devour all the flesh, hair and bone they come across while scavenging.

Playing devil's advocate is Eric Guiler, retired dean of science at the University of Tasmania and author of several books on the region's wildlife, including one coming out soon on the thylacine. He holds that the tiger's historic habitat was destroyed by humans, and discounts most urban and suburban sightings; the observers, Guiler says, "are quite mad, you know." He also argues that if thylacines existed, there would be some hard evidence, such as road kills.

Nevertheless, Guiler admits to the possibility of the thylacine's survival. In the early 1960s he himself found what looked like tiger tracks at the Woolnorth sheep station on the northwest peninsula. (If the tiger does survive there, it is having the last laugh: Woolnorth is the only sheep station still owned by Van Diemen's Land Company.)

For his part, Holdsworth of the parks service finds large-scale searches for the tiger frustrating. He thinks the focus should instead be on protecting existing endangered species. There is only one benefit of the misplaced public interest in the Tasmanian tiger, Holdsworth maintains: "The thylacine is a good reminder of extinction and endangerment. We're still making the same mistakes."

- Dan Drollette in Tasmania
Scientific American

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