Unaware of how those in the future may view him, a hunter proudly poses with his kill, a thylacine, in 1869.
Cold, hungry and alone, it shivered in its small enclosure. Taken from its natural environment, where it had been a fearsome and effective hunter, it has spent the last three years of its life as an exhibit, trapped behind wire fencing. It wasn’t even a treasured exhibit. Here it was, locked out of the sleeping area that would have provided some shelter during baking hot days, and left to freeze in the bitter cold at night. So it died: of exposure to the elements and of a deep depression – the animal equivalent, perhaps, of a broken heart.
Such was the tragic end met by the last thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, held in captivity. Its death was not a result of man’s fear or greed – as was the case with many of its species – but simple, cruel neglect. It was the final, saddening event in the unfortunate history of the thylacine – the last link in the chain that led, as far as we know, to the animal’s complete and utter extinction. Today, only bones, stuffed specimens, fossils, and a few photographs and film reels remain of this enigmatic creature; probably the most famous of the 20th century’s extinct animals.
Image: Benjamin A. Sheppard
A young thylacine in apparently poor condition photographed in the Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, in 1928. It died the following day.
The last surviving thylacine died in 1936 in Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo. Six years earlier, a farmer, Wilf Batty, shot the last identified thylacine to be killed in the wild by man. This concluded an era in which the species, native to the island of Tasmania (and earlier to mainland Australia and New Guinea), was hunted down and destroyed with a grim determination. Men were spurred on by offers of bounties on the animal’s head. The price for this paid extermination was £1 for every adult slain and 10 shillings per dead pup. It seems like a paltry price for the eradication of an entire species.
Farmer Wilf Batty with the last thylacine to have been shot in the wild, in 1930
Yet not everyone needed monetary incentives (offered from as early as 1830) to hunt the thylacines. Rumors circulated that the creatures killed sheep and poultry, and this drove settlers and farmers to annihilate the species using snares, traps, poison and guns. However, while these people wanted to protect their livestock, recent research casts doubt on the idea that thylacines ate sheep, suggesting instead that they were specialized hunters of small native wildlife.
Four thylacines photographed in the Hobart Zoo, Tasmania, in 1910
The introduction of dogs, a decline in prey species, the destruction of their habitat, and a disease akin to distemper were also significant factors in eradicating the already-waning thylacine population. As naturalist John Gould predicted in 1863, “[T]he 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…” A dismal prophesy that unfortunately turned out to be all-too accurate.
This photograph, taken sometime before 1921, shows two thylacines at the Hobart Zoo, the smaller one a juvenile.
The thylacine was commonly referred to as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf, yet it was neither indigenous to Tasmania nor directly related to either of its namesakes. In fact, the thylacine was the largest meat-eating marsupial to have existed since the extinction of the Thylacoleo, or so-called ‘marsupial lion’.
An adult thylacine with three pups, at the Hobart Zoo in 1909. Thylacines typically gave birth to two or three pups per litter.
Having evolved around four million years ago, the modern thylacine once ranged over the entire mainland of Australia as well as the island of New Guinea. Its disappearance in these areas is believed to have predated its extinction in Tasmania by some 2,000 years (possibly more in the case of New Guinea), while remains of the animal found on continental Australia date back about 3,300 years.
Image: E. J. Keller
These thylacines were a long way from home – in the Washington DC Nation Zoo, around 1906.
The earlier extinction has been blamed on the impact of humans and dingoes. Indigenous art from Northern Australia depicts the thylacine, and habitat encroachment by humans may have been partially responsible for the demise of the species. The role of dingoes is less clear – although the two species’ environments overlapped, there are doubts over whether they would have competed directly with each other – but it is believed the wild dogs’ use as hunting companions by the Australian Aborigines may have contributed to the thylacine’s downfall.
In this 1889 photograph, taken in Adelaide Zoo, the thylacine in the foreground has an enlarged pouch, indicating that she is carrying pups.
In the wild, the thylacine was a formidable predator. Its great attribute was not speed – indeed, its gait has been described as ‘awkward’ and ‘shambling’ – but rather persistence and stamina. Evidence suggests that it would single out prey and then stalk it doggedly until the animal collapsed from exhaustion, although it could also have relied on ambush during the hunt. Unlike the omnivorous dingoes, the thylacine ate meat exclusively, and its more specialized diet may have made it less adaptable to changing conditions, and therefore more likely to become extinct.
The last thylacine to die in captivity extends its formidable looking jaw in a yawn. Although sometimes referred to as “Benjamin”, this animal was actually more likely to have been a female.
In many ways, the thylacine remains a mysterious species. Not a lot is known about its habits and behavior, particularly in the wild. They were shy, elusive and rather timid creatures around humans. And notwithstanding the fact that people demonized them as fierce, sheep-stealing fiends, any comprehensive study would therefore have been difficult – particularly in an age before automatic cameras and electronic tagging.
A thylacine investigates the presence of a visitor in the Hobart Zoo, in 1933.
What we do know, however, is that, like other marsupials, thylacines had pouches. More unusually, and uniquely for Australian marsupials, these pouches could be found on both sexes. In the females, the pouch was used for carrying and protecting the young of the species, while the males’ protective sheath covered their genitals – very useful when chasing prey through prickly brush.
Photographed in 1925, a thylacine mother and her pups that were later exhibited in fairs all over Tasmania. Nobody knows what eventually became of them.
Another interesting fact about the thylacine is that it could hop around on its back legs, much like that other famous Australian marsupial, the kangaroo. The thylacine was also able to open its mouth extremely wide – to an angle of 120 degrees – perhaps making the animal look a lot more frightening than it was in reality. What’s more, its jaws were actually surprisingly weak.
Although officially declared extinct by Tasmanian officials in 1986 (50 years after the last thylacine died in captivity), there have been hundreds of reported sightings of the animal over the years, and they continue to this day. However, despite a number of searches having been carried out, and the offer of large rewards for proof of the animal’s continued existence, no evidence has been brought forward that the marsupial still roams the world today. There is still hope, but it appears to be slim.
This photograph, published in 1921, may have been partly responsible for the animal’s reputation as a chicken thief…
In recent years, there has been talk of cloning the thylacine – just as there has been surrounding other extinct animals such as the mammoth. Yet, in spite of what appears to have been preliminary success in extracting DNA from specimens and in restoring the animal’s genes, many people do not think that reviving the mammal from extinction is feasible or even desirable.