The world has seen many animal species disappear forever. The West African black rhino, the quagga and the passenger pigeon are three relatively recent extinctions, all linked to human activity. And for most of these creatures, once they’re gone, sadly they’re gone for good. However, some people believe that one supposedly extinct animal still roams the earth after all.
When it comes to wildlife, Australia is a rich nation, with the highest number of animal species in the developed world. It is classified as a “megadiverse” country, one of just 17 in the world. Not only is it home to a diverse wildlife population, but many of those animals also exist only in Australia, evolving there in isolation over millions of years.
Where wildlife is concerned, Australia is probably most famous for its monotremes (mammals that lay eggs) and marsupials (mammals with pouches). Two of the world’s only living monotremes, the platypus and the short-beaked echidna, can be found here. The marsupials, of which Australia has more than any other country, include kangaroos, koalas and the endangered Tasmanian devil.
Unfortunately, Australia also leads the way in extinctions. In little more than 200 years of European settlement, the country has lost 23 bird, 27 mammal and four frog species. That record makes it the worst nation in the world for animal extinctions. The losses have been cause mainly by human exploitation, introduced species and environmental degradation. And these threats continue to endanger other animals there.
Among the extinct animals are different species of wallabies, bandicoots and hopping-mice. But perhaps the most well-known of all are thylacines, also known as Tasmanian tigers. They were the biggest carnivorous marsupials to live in recent times and one of only two species in which both the males and females had pouches. The creatures were proficient hunters and the dominant predators within their environment.
Thylacines were dog sized marsupials with stripes across their backs, which is how they came to be known as the Tasmanian tiger or Tasmanian wolf. As the top predators, their position in the food chain was similar to that of tigers or wolves on other continents. Despite their fearsome appearance, however, Tasmanian tigers are thought to have been timid around humans and mostly avoided them.
Tasmanian tigers once roamed both mainland Australia and New Guinea, as well as the island of Tasmania. Although they were already almost extinct on the mainland 2,000 years ago, sightings of the animals continued there in some places up to the 1830s. Their eventual disappearance from the continent is often blamed on humans, as well as being linked to introduced dingoes, disease and climate change.
In Tasmania, the thylacine could still be found in the wild up to the 1930s. After they were blamed for livestock deaths, however, bounties were put on them from around 1830. And that led to aggressive hunting of the species. This, along with feral dogs, disease, the dwindling numbers of its prey species and the destruction of its environment, sent Tasmanian tiger numbers plummeting.
Tasmanian tigers were rare by the early 20th century, and in 1930 a farmer shot the last confirmed wild thylacine. The last captive animal subsequently died six years later. Nonetheless, as late as the 1960s it was believed that a wild population may still have existed. And it wasn’t until 1986 that Tasmania officially declared the thylacine extinct.
Despite its official status, however, reported sightings of Tasmanian tigers have persisted. Some of these reports have been made by the general public or tourists. But others have come from more credible witnesses, such as two Parks and Wildlife Service workers and an aboriginal tracker. And people even have film and photographic evidence of possible thylacines, although so far none have been confirmed.
Then, in 2011 there was even a movie called The Hunter about the search for the thylacine. In it, Willem Dafoe stars as a hunter who goes to Tasmania to find – and kill – the last Tasmanian tiger. In real life, though, some people hope to find living thylacines for more benevolent reasons. One such person is Neil Waters, founder of the Thylacine Awareness Group.
Waters says that he’s seen a living thylacine on two separate occasions. He also maintains that in the decades since the animal purportedly became extinct, thousands of people have claimed to have seen the marsupial. His “Thylacine Awareness Group” Facebook page has over 3,000 members, some of who have shared their own alleged encounters with the Tasmanian tiger. Waters calls the group a “little comfort zone for sightings”.
And another group that adamantly believes that thylacines still exist is the U.K.-based Centre for Fortean Zoology. Richard Freeman, the center’s zoological director, has been to Tasmania. “The area is so damn remote, there are so many prey species and we have so many reliable witnesses who know the bush that I’d say there is a reasonable population of them left,” Freeman told The Guardian in 2015.
Moreover, sightings of the Tasmanian tiger are not confined to Tasmania. According to Neil Waters, the animals may exist in higher numbers on the mainland. Recently, there have been many reports of the marsupial being spotted in the northern state of Queensland. The state’s James Cook University even plans to send researchers out to search for thylacines there.
Back in Tasmania, thylacine enthusiasts Greg Booth and his father George released footage in 2017 that they claim shows living thylacines. The images purportedly depict adult animals, a cub and a close up of a thylacine nose. Adrian Richardson, who has studied Tasmanian tigers for 26 years, is convinced that the footage does indeed show the animals. And three other wildlife experts subsequently agreed that this was possible.
Animals who are found after being declared extinct are known as “Lazarus” species. In 2015 a type of short-nosed sea snake, last seen in 1998 and presumed extinct, was discovered living off Western Australia. Then there’s probably the most well-known example of all, the coelacanth, which was found alive in the 1930s after being assumed to have died out with the dinosaurs.
One of the most promising rediscoveries, for those who hope to one day see living thylacines, is the crest-tailed mulgara. Presumed extinct within the Australian state of New South Wales for over a century, the tiny marsupial was found there again in 2017. Wildlife biologist and thylacine expert Nick Mooney believes that such discoveries increase hopes that the Tasmanian tiger might one day also be found.
In the absence of hard evidence, however, many scientists are skeptical that any Tasmanian tigers are still alive. University of Melbourne developmental biologist Andrew Pask says that he is often sent possible thylacine droppings to test. “I’m quite tired of people sending me big bags of poo in the mail,” he told The Guardian. “None of them are ever thylacines’.”
Pask currently leads a team that has sequenced the Tasmanian tiger’s whole DNA from a preserved specimen. Some think that this could lead the way to cloning the marsupial in the future. However, at present that remains a theoretical rather than practical option. “I call the proposed cloning ‘clowning,’” Nick Mooney told the Daily Express. “It’s again all about how clever we are.”
According to Mooney, present-day Tasmania is an ideal habitat for thylacines. The population of a competing predator, the Tasmanian devil, is declining, while prey animals such as wallabies are increasing in number due to farming. “So by accident we have manipulated the place to suit thylacines,” he said. “If anything like viable numbers exist, we should have them pouring out our ears in a few decades.”