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Jan 31

Extinct Animal: Trials of the Thylacine

You’ve probably heard of the Tasmanian devil. It’s a vicious, noisy creature that is sometimes seen spinning around in cartoons. It also has the distinction of being the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial.

A century ago, however, the Tasmanian devil didn’t hold that title. It was beaten in size by another Tasmanian resident, the thylacine. It was also called the Tasmanian wolf, due to superficial similarities with wolves, and also the Tasmanian tiger because it had stripes on its back, but since it was a marsupial and therefore not closely related to either, those names aren’t terribly accurate.

Thylacinus_cynocephalus_2_Gould

Picture: John Gould

The thylacine didn’t always live only in Tasmania; it once ranged across the whole of mainland Australia as well. But around four thousand years ago, Asian people who visited Australia, perhaps to trade with the native Aborigines, brought with them a type of dog we now call the dingo. These people did not stay… but the dingo did.

They spread throughout the continent, eating the same sort of prey that the thylacine hunted and outcompeting them for food. As dingo numbers increased, thylacine numbers decreased. Soon it had vanished from mainland Australia and persisted only on the island of Tasmania, where the dingoes hadn’t reached.

Thylacines in Trouble

Eventually, however, Europeans arrived in Tasmania. They named the animal the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf because, as far as they were concerned, that was the only place where it lived, and had ever lived. The Europeans weren’t particularly fond of the thylacine, it has to be said. Attributing the death of any sheep or poultry to predation by the thylacine, they started hunting the animal mercilessly. The authorities even initiated a bounty scheme in which hunters and farmers could collect a reward for the thylacines that they killed. From 1888 to 1901, this bounty was just £1 per animal.

Thylacinus

Photo: Baker; E.J. Keller
These thylacines were photographed at the Washington D.C. National Zoo in 1904

By the 1920s, this relentless hunting, coupled with the loss of the woodland where they lived to provide pasture for sheep, had made the thylacine a very rare animal indeed. Further persecution, competition with introduced dogs, and the inability to cope with the new diseases that the dogs brought with them soon pushed the thylacine over the edge.

Come 1933, only one single thylacine existed in the entire world, at Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. Later called Benjamin, he or she (its sex has never been confirmed since the zoo never kept official records on the animal’s gender) lived there for three years until 1936 when it died, supposedly of neglect. With it died the entire species. National Threatened Species Day has been held annually since 1996 on 7th September in Australia to commemorate the death of Benjamin.

-Benjamin-

The last ever thylacine, Benjamin, photographed in Hobart Zoo in 1933

No one cared when the thylacine was reduced to a tiny, fragmented population. It was only when the species was declared extinct that people finally sat up and started to pay attention. Since then, there have been so many reported sightings of thylacines in the wild that it has been dubbed ‘the world’s most common extinct animal’, but none of these sightings have ever been verified.  Australian travel companies are now offering a modern-day bounty of more than £1 million to anyone who can capture one alive, and some people have even devoted their entire lives to finding them. It’s a classic case of only appreciating something after it has gone.

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