The Thylacine was a marsupial related to kangaroos and is also known as the marsupial wolf or marsupial tiger. Although it resembles the placental wolf, its head was longer and its legs proportionately shorter. Its similarity to wolves and dogs is an example of convergent evolution - the evolution of a body shape suited to its role and resembling unrelated animals occupying similar ecological niches.
Early European settlers in Tasmania dubbed it the marsupial wolf, kangaroo wolf, pouched wolf and native wolf, but the scientific name of thylacine is use in modern times. Early literature also calls it the opossum hyena, native hyena, dog-faced dasyurus, dog-headed opossum and zebra opossum. The names Tasmanian tiger and native tiger are also used and date back to the Dutch helmsman Jacobszoon who explored Tasmania in 1624. It was apparently a familiar sight to the crew of ships owned by the Dutch East India Company and to convicts of a penal colony created in 1803 at Derwent River. One early European observer referred to it as "a kangaroo masquerading as a wolf" and decribed it as having the head and teeth of a wolf, the stripes of a tiger, the tail of a kangaroo and the backward-opening pouch of an opossum.
Thylacine fossil history in Australia goes back 25 million years, but in the last 3000 years it was confined to Tasmania. It had co-existed with Australian aboriginals until the introduction of dogs, who quickly went feral and competed for prey, around 4000 years ago. The thylacine became restricted to dingo-free Tasmania. The Adnyamathanha people knew the thylacine as the inarrukurli and it formed part of their oral tradition. There were aboriginal legends of thylacines carrying off children. The last Adnyamathanhan to have seen a thylacine in the bush was a man called Mount Serle Bob, who died in 1919 at the age of 100; he had seen the animal when he was a child. Dogs did not reach Tasmania until 1798 with the arrival of the explorer George Bass. Kept by sealers, the dogs bred, some went feral and some were adopted by aboriginal people. The depredations of feral dogs were generally blamed on thylacines - it was easier for Europeans to blame an unfamiliar animal than to acknowledge the predatory nature of "man's best friend".
Europeans settled in Tasmania in 1803. The island had been "discovered" by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman late in 1642, although Portuguese explorers had previously found it. Tasman called it Van Diemen's Land after his sponsor, Anton van Diemen, Governor of Batavia. Francoys Jacobz, Tasman's pilot-major, led an exploratory expedition in December, and reported "the footing of wild beasts having claws very like a tiger". Later reports by explorers and Dutch East India Company officers during the 17th and 18th centuries also mentioned "tiger" footprints and sightings, however it was not until the early 19th century that the thylacine was recorded.
In the early 19th century, a penal colony was established on Tasmania. The first recorded account of the thylacine came from rescaped convicts. Upon recapture, their experience was noted in the diary of the colony's pastor, Robert Knopwood, on 18 June 1805: "Am engaged all the morn, upon business examining the 5 prisoners that went into the bush. They informed me that on 2 May when they were in the wood they see a large tyger that the dog they had with them went nearly up to it and when the tyger see the men which were about 100 yards away from it, it went away I make no doubt but here are many wild animals which we have not yet seen."
An early description of the thylacine in the "Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser" (21st April, 1805) read ""An animal of a truly singular and novel description was killed by dogs the 30th of March on a hill immediately contiguous to the settlement at Yorkton Port Dalrymple; from the following minute description of which, by Lieutenant-Governor Paterson, it must be considered of a species perfectly distinct from any of the animal creation hitherto known, and certainly the only powerful and terrific of the carnivorous and voracious tribe yet discovered on any part of New Holland or its adjacent Islands.
It is very evident his species is destructive, and lives entirely on animal food; as on dissection his stomach was found filled with a quantity of kangaroo, weighing 5 lbs. the weight of the whole animal 45 Ibs. From its interior structure it must be a brute peculiarly quick of digestion; the dimensions were, from the nose to the eye 4 1/2 inches: length of the eye, which is remarkably large and black, 1 3/4 inches; breadth of the eye 3/4 of an inch; from the nose to the extent of the mouth in the upper jaw, 6 inches; and to the extent of the under jaw, 4 1/2 inches; breadth of the forehead, 5 3/4 inches; from the eye to the ear, 3 3/4 inches; the ear round, diameter 3 inches; from the ear to the shoulder, 1 foot; from the shoulder to the first stripe, 7 inches; from the first stripe to the extent of the body, 2 feet; length of the tail, 1 foot 8 inches; length of the fore leg, 11 inches; and of the fore foot, 5 inches; the fore foot with 5 blunt claws; height of the animal before, 1 foot 10 inches; stripes across the back 20, on the tail 3; 2 of the stripes extend down each thigh; length of the hind leg from the heel to the thigh, 1 foot; length of the hind foot, 6 inches; the hind foot with 4 blunt claws, the soles of the feet without hair; on each side the mouth are 19 bristles, length of each 4 inches; and 6 bristles on each side under the ear, 9 on the lower jaw upon each side, and 8 under the throat; 8 fore teeth in the upper jaw, and 6 in the under; 4 grinders of a side, in the upper and lower jaw; 3 single teeth also in each; 4 tusks, or canine teeth, length of each 1 inch: circumference of the head before the ears, 1 foot 6 inches, and behind the ears, 1 foot 5 inches; smallest part of the neck, 1 foot 4 inches; circumference before the shoulder, 2 feet; the body short hair and smooth, of a greyish colour, the stripes black; the hair on the neck rather longer than that on the body; the hair on the ears of a light brown colour, on the inside rather long. The form of the animal is that of the hyaena, at the same time strongly reminding the observer of the appearance of a low wolf dog. The lips do not appear to conceal the tusks".
Soon after Knopwood's and Paterson's reports, Tasmania's Deputy Surveyor-General, George Harris, officially described the newly discovered creature and called it Dideiphis cynocephala (dog-headed opossum). In 1834 it became Thylacinus cynocephalus (literally "dog-headed pouched dog") expressing the concept of a wolf-headed pouched dog. In 1806 Harris sent an illustrated report describing both the thylacine and Tasmanian devil to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the Royal Society. Banks read the account to the Linnaean Society in London. Though otherwise accurate, the report sadly added to the thylacine's savage reputation.
"The length of the animal from the tip of the nose to the end of the tail is 5 feet 10 inches, of which the tail is about 2 feet. Head very large, bearing a near resemblance to the wolf or hyena. Eyes large and full, black, with a nictant membrane, which gives the animal a savage and malicious appearance. Tail much compressed, and tapering to a point. Scrotum pendulous, but partly concealed in a small cavity or pouch in the abdomen. The whole animal is covered with short smooth hair of a dusky yellowish brown. On the hind part of the back and rump are 16 jet-black transverse stripes, broadest on the back, and gradually tapering downwards. Only two specimens (both males) have yet been taken. It inhabits amongst caverns and rocks in the deep and almost impenetrable glens in the neighbourhood of the highest mountainous parts of Van Diemen's Land, where it probably preys on the brush Kangaroo, and various small animals that abound in those places."
As more settlers arrived in the first half of the nineteenth century, fear of strange beasts spread. Their hysteria and superstition meant the thylacine was seen as something to be exterminated. Many of the myths attached to the placental wolf and the ferocious Indian tiger were attached to the "marsupial wolf" or "Tasmanian tiger" by European settlers. One old settler said "Fifty years ago Mrs Harrison's brother had a tiger in a cage, at Forrest. It was quite healthy but the neighbours were scared of it, and poisoned it after several weeks Perhaps they thought it might escape and go after their flocks."
The thylacine was 4 ft - 6.5 ft from nose to tail with males being larger than females; one third of this length being its tail. It was 14 - 24 inches at the shoulder and weighed 35 - 65 lb (15-30 kg). With its long tail, strongly proportioned hind legs and the highest point of its pelvis being higher than its shoulders, it moved differently to placental wolves. The placental wolf has long legs that are of equal length, giving it a smooth, powerful running stride. The thylacine, in common with many marsupials, had proportionately big feet, long hind legs and short front legs, which tended to slow it down. Its back would have been arched and its tail would have swung about rather stiffly. Compared to the wolf it would have been an ungainly animal, pursuing its prey (kangaroos, wallabies and ground birds) at a leisurely trot until the prey became tired. Thylacines had elliptical pupils. Solitary thylacines hunted at dawn and dusk, but when hunting in groups, they needed visual contact with one another and hunted in daylight. If pressed, it could manage a "shambling canter" and it could also rise onto its hind legs to hop over difficult obstacles. In colour, it was light grey to yellow brown and had 13 - 19 dark stripes. Sir Ray Lankester, quoted in Harmsworth Natural History (1910), said "When one watches the Tasmanian wolf, one comes to the conclusion that it is stupid and of much lower intelligence than the common wolf. Its appearance, ways and movements suggest the fancy that it is a kangaroo masquerading as a wolf, and not very successfully."
In spite of its relatively recent demise and the fact it was kept in zoos and as a pet, there have been no scientific studies of thylacine behaviour. Much of what is known about the animals comes from the records of people like George Wainwright, the last "tiger-man" at the Woolnorth Estate, north-eastern Tasmania, and the Pearce brothers of Derwent Bridge, who caught dozens of "them useless things".
Young thylacine pups in captivity would play with objects such as dangled string, much like a kitten or puppy. Unlike dogs, they did not fight over food. They were generally unaggressive even when grown and, like dogs, were tolerant of children. Irene Semmens recalled that as a child in the 1920s, she played with the children whose family kept a thylacine as a watchdog. If, during the course of a game, a ball landed on or near the thylacine, the children simply walked up to the animal, picked up the ball and continued playing. The thylacine made no aggressive response. It behaved just like a well-trained domestic house-dog.
If threatened, a thylacine elevated its tail and give a warning hiss, which could escalate to a warning growl prior to attack. Their usual vocalization was a "coughing bark". They could defend themselves well against dogs, but were no match for bullets or snares. During the Depression of the late 1920s, Reg Trigg built himself a bark hut in the Great Western Tiers near the Walls of Jerusalem. He set about snaring for a living. When he found a young female thylacine in one of his traps, he took her home in a sack and tended her wound. "Lucy" allowed him to feed her by hand, and eventually let him stroke her head, apparently enjoying this. As winter approached, she grew restless, and Trigg suspected that a wild male was calling her, so he released her. Two years later, he encountered her, waiting for him by one of the tracks he used. She had two cubs. Trigg and Lucy regarded each other calmly for a few minutes, before she turned unhurriedly and disappeared into the bush with her young. This was in 1932, very close to the thylacine's extinction.
Thylacines had a stiff walk and hunted by a mix of ambush and dogged pursuit. They had a good sense of smell and could follow prey for many hours until the prey grew exhausted. It also followed men, causing fear, though it probably did so out of curiosity or in the hope of pickings (it rarely scavenged). The thylacine could not wag its tail. When it turned, it did so "like a ship", but it was agile enough in the bush.
Its strong jaws opened to almost 100 degrees, a gape wider than a wolf, and it was said to have killed its prey by crushing the skull. It could certainly have crushed the throat or ribcage of wallabies, possums and small kangaroos. Its canine teeth differed from those of a placental wolf. A wolf has narrow, slashing canines. The thylacine had oval crushing canines akin to those of the quoll. Its enormous gape gave it a crushing bite rather than a slashing bite. H. Pearce, a hunter, said "they hunt by lying in wait for their prey and then jump out on it. Or are killed by standing on them and biting through the short rib into the body cavity and ripping the rib cage open." This indicates that thylacines used a mix of ambush and pursuit (perhaps pursuing prey if ambush failed, or perhaps ambushing exhausted prey after a long pursuit). The thylacine apparently had a delicate (or specialised) appetite, preferring to eat soft tissues such as the liver, kidneys, heart and lungs, along with parts of the soft inner thigh if it was really hungry. The remaining portions were scavenged by the Tasmanian devil.
They also took imported species such as rabbit and ducks and possibly rare attacks on chickens. There is one recorded instance of an attack on a goat and one of an attack on a pig and rare reports of attacks on sheep. Although some took scraps from campsites, while pet and zoo thylacines were fed dead meat and would take chicken, wild thylacines rarely ate anything they had not killed themselves. With their fussy appetites they were not natural scavengers. Reports of thylacines raiding hen-houses, like European red foxes, may have been due to a 1921 photo by Harry Burrell of a thylacine in a private zoo; the indistinct image of chicken-wire in the photo led some to believe the photos were of wild thylacines raiding a chicken enclosure.
Though not a pack animal, thylacines may have hunted in small groups. Some trappers spoke of thylacines driving prey into an ambush. As its numbers dropped, co-operative hunting would have become impossible. Solitary thylacines (unmated individuals and those without young) ranged far and wide and tended to have no fixed daytime lair. Citing parallel evolution, some believe that the thylacine evolved a social system similar to that of the wolf i.e. a breeding pair supported by a pack of non-breeding related individuals. This would predispose the thylacine to making a good pet, much like a domestic dog. However none of the thylacines relatives, such as the Tasmanian devil, live in structured packs and this social theory is disputed.
Adults made their daytime lairs in caves, rock piles, hollow logs or hollow trees. The thylacine gestation period was one month, with offspring being born at an early stage of development (in common with other marsupials). Females had 4 pups which crawled to the nipples located in her backward facing pouch. The backward orientation protected the pups from debris when she brushed through undergrowth, but it also allowed her to eject the pups if highly stressed and needing to flee and save her own life. It is believed that thylacines could mate again in the same year if they lost a litter. The young remained in the pouch for 3 to 4 months after which they were left in a "nest" while she hunted. They stayed with the mother until she next came into season. It is thought that a female might taken up to two years to raise a maximum of four young.
In 1920, a Mr Flinty of Smithton encountered a protective female when he tried to cross a creek. On the other side of the creek he "searched the bushes and found four young secreted in a dry fern-bed under the drooping and still attached dead fronds of a tree-fern. These reached the ground all round the butt, thus forming a natural tent-like shelter and a perfect camouflage."
It was risky to hunt thylacines with dogs; the creatures had no fear of dogs and the dogs were often unwilling to tackle trapped thylacines, even if they outnumbered it. According to one hunter, H. S. Mackay: "A bull terrier once set upon a Wolf and bailed it up in a niche in some rocks. There the Wolf stood with its back to the wall, turning its head from side to side, checking the terrier as it tried to butt in from alternate and opposite directions. Finally the dog came in close and the Wolf gave one sharp, fox-like bite, tearing a piece of the dog’s skull clean off, and it fell with the brain protruding, dead." Thylacines did not attack humans unless cornered, although old or half-blind thylacines were recorded as sometimes attacking settlers. All such attacks failed, with the animals being driven off by sticks. When killed, the animals were found to be starving and almost toothless. They sometimes dogged the steps of humans, probably out of curiosity, although this was unsettling and contributed to their bad reputation.
By 1820 Hobart was the second-largest town in Australia. It had shifted from a whaling and sealing settlement to a farming settlement. Farmers found the indigenous creatures inconvenient. Land clearing and logging altered the habitat. By 1885, large areas of bush had been converted into farmland, much of it for sheep farming. The thylacine soon became a scapegoat for sheep killings, although most killings were the work of feral dogs, descendants of dogs taken to the island in 1798.
Some farmers did not condemn the thylacine and had correctly identified the real killers A report, from 1810, stated that settlements were "free from that destructive animal to Sheep, the Native Dog, the dread of the Stock Holders in New South Wales. The only Animal unknown on the Continent is the hyena opossum, but even here they are rarely seen... it flies at the approach of Man, and has not been known to do any Mischief." Two accounts of supposed thylacine attacks on sheep are very dubious. One report tells of an animal that "was long a terror to the numerous flocks", but was probably an excuse for mismanagement by the notoriously inefficient stockholder, Edward Lord. A book by W. C. Wentworth, published 1819, spoke of "an animal of the panther tribe which commits dreadful havoc among the flocks" a sensationalised account, since the only thing the dog-like thylacine had in common with pantherine cats was its tiger-like stripes!
Arthur Mee perpetuated the misinformation about the supposedly bloodthirsty, sheep-killing thylacine in his “Children’s Encyclopedia”. This is from an edition circa 1947. “… a sort of nightmare wolf, but it is striped with dark bars across the back and the body merges imperceptibly in the tail. Its home is Tasmania, its lair is a dark cave or cleft in the rocks; its habits are those of our own wolves, reinforced with an acid tincture of peculiar savagery. It seems to be the Caliban of the wolf tribe, making up in ferocity and blank savagery what it lacks in the refined cunning of the true wolf. Like other marsupials it carries its young in a pouch, and the whimper of Young Hopeful in that furry cradle has sounded in the ears of many a sheep as it has fallen a helpless victim to the fangs of the mother.”
The Van Diemen's Land Company was a consortium of English businessmen that owned large holdings in the north-west of the country. In 1825 they sent Edward Curr to obtain land and start farming for them. Curr understood sheep-farming and was aware of the inexperience of many stockholders (often reprieved or paroled convicts). He also found some of the land he was sent to manage was unsuitable for sheep farming. Tasmania lacked good shepherds. Sheep rustling, a hanging offence since 1813, was rife. Farmers in dispute might set their dogs onto each other's sheep. There being no native predators on sheep, Curr advised farmers to secure their sheep at night.
However, in 1830, a private bounty scheme was introduced by the Van Diemen's Land Company offering "rewards for the destruction of noxious animals." Five shillings was offered for every male "hyaena", and seven for every female, "with or without young". Tasmanian devils and dingoes fetched half the price. The sheep farms were not generating the expected profits, farmers were short of food and, rather than acknowledge the unsuitability of some of their land and the inexperience (or downright unwillingness) of many of the farmers, the Company had to be appeased. As early as 1828 and 1829 livestock had been released into land not ready for them and with no shelter. Hundreds died, compounded by unusually harsh weather in 1829. Facing charges of inefficiency, Curr needed a scapegoat. It would have been impractical to introduce a bounty scheme on feral dogs, which Van Diemen's Land Company records show as a greater problem, because innocent pets and useful working dogs might be killed also. Curr had a ready scapegoat in the form of the thylacine. Curr's claim if exotic predators, coupled with local superstition, shifted the blame from him onto the thylacine. In 1831 the bounty for both sexes of thylacine was raised to 10 shillings.
Between 1832 and 1849, Surrey Hills Station claimed that thylacines had killed 147 sheep (although almost 750 had been killed by dogs or unidentified predators). In 1836, the Van Diemen's Land Company provided a thylacine hunter/trapper at Woolnorth with a hut and allowance. By 1840, the Company had placed a bounty of 6 shillings each for less than 10 scalps and 10 shillings each for more. In April 1888 the Tasmanian government gave one pound (20 shillings) each for the scalps of adults and 10 shillings each for those of juveniles (two pounds was considered a good weekly wage at the time). Sheep farmers were also offering bounties.
Although more and more people identified feral dogs as the real menace, the thylacine continued to be portrayed as the villain, fuelled by media hype. By the early 1840s the Tasmanian economy was in a mess due to the end of cheap convict labour, 3 years of failed wheat-harvests and heavy drought in north-west Tasmania, where the best Van Diemen's Land Company holdings were. Yet a renewed thylacine bounty scheme, at 6 six shillings per head, was introduced. Thylacines were becoming rarer and "tiger-men" were no longer trapping enough to earn a decent wage.
The following (not entirely accurate) description of the appearance and habits of the Thylacine comes from “Illustrated Natural History” by Rev JG Wood (1853, 1874):
The teeth of the Dasyurines, sharp-edged and pointed, indicate the carnivorous character of those animals to which they belong. At the head of these creatures is the Tasmanian Wolf or Dog-headed Thylacinus, as it has often been named on account of the curious aspect of its thick head, and powerful, truncated muzzle. Although not perhaps the fiercest of the Dasyurines, it is the largest and the most. powerful, well deserving the lupine title with which it has been by common consent designated, and representing in Tasmania the true wolves of other countries. It is not a very large animal, as needs must be from the nature of the country in which it lives, for there would be but small subsistence in its native land for herds of veritable wolves, and the natural consequence would be that the famished animals would soon take to eating each other in default of more legitimate food, and by mutual extirpation thin down the race or destroy it altogether.
The natural subsistence of the Tasmanian, or Zebra Wolf, as it is sometimes called by virtue of the zebra-like stripes which decorate its back, consists of the smaller animals, molluscs, insects, and similar substances. The animal is also in the habit of prowling along the sea-shore in restless search of food among the heterogeneous mass of animal and vegetable substances that the waves constantly fling upon the beach, and which are renewed with every succeeding tide. The mussels and other molluscs which are found so profusely attached to the sea-edged rocks form a favourite article of diet with the Tasmanian Wolf, who is sometimes fortunate enough to discover upon the beach the remains of dead seals and fish, and can easily make a meal on the shore crabs which are found so plentifully studding the beach as the tide goes out.
Though hardly to be considered a swift, or even a quick animal, the Tasmanian Wolf contrives to kill such agile prey as the bush kangaroo, and secures the duck mole, or duck bill, [i.e. duck-billed platypus] in spite of its natatory powers and its subterranean burrow. When the animal is hungry, it seems to become a very camel in its capability of devouring hard and thorny substances, for it has been known to kill - no easy matter - and to swallow - an apparent Impossibility - the echidna itself, undismayed by its panoply of bayonet-like prickles. The deed seems so incredible that it would hardly have been believed, had it not been proved beyond doubt by the slaughter and subsequent dissection of a Tasmanian Wolf; in whose stomach were found the remains of a half-digested echidna.
As soon as civilized inhabitants took up their abode in Tasmania, this animal made great capital out of the sheep flocks and hen roosts, and for some time committed sad ravages among them, greatly to the detriment of the colonists. By degrees, however, the weapons of the white man prevailed, and the Tasmanian Wolf was driven back from its former haunts where it once reigned supreme. Still continuing to prowl round the habitation of mankind, many individuals of this species were fain to pick up what loose and uncertain subsistence they could contrive to appropriate, and, being forced to live in copses and jungles, became the representatives of the hyaena as well as of the Wolf.
In the earlier days of the colony, the Tasmanian Wolf was of very frequent occurrence, but is now seldom seen except in the cold and dreary localities where it takes up its residence. These animals are found in considerable numbers on the summits of the western mountains, at an elevation of nearly four thousand feet above the level of the sea, and there thrive, even though their lofty domains are plentifully covered with snow. The home of the Tasmanian Wolf is always made in some deep recess of the rocks, away from the reach of ordinary foes, and so deeply buried in the rocky crevices that it is impenetrable to the light of day. In this murky recess the female produces her young, which are generally three or four in number, and in its dark cavern the animal spends the whole of its day, only venturing from home at night, except under the pressure of some extraordinary circumstances.
As may be seen from the engraving, the feet of the Tasmanian Wolf are so dog-like in their nature, that they cannot enable the animal to ascend trees, and as the tail is not in the least degree prehensile, it is evident that the creature is not capable of chasing its prey among the branches, as is the case with many of the allied animals. In size it is about equal to the jackal, being generally about four feet in total length, of which measurement the tail occupies some sixteen inches. Some few specimens, however, are said to attain a very great size, and to measure nearly six feet in total length. Its height at the shoulders is about eighteen or nineteen inches. It is a fierce and most determined animal, and if attacked will fight in the most desperate manner. One of these animals has been seen standing at bay, surrounded by a number of dogs, and bidding them all defiance. Not a single dog dared venture within reach of the teeth of so redoubtable a foe.
As it is a nocturnal animal, it seems little at its ease when in the uncongenial glare of daylight, and, probably on account of its eyes being formed for the purpose of nocturnal light, is very slow in its movements by day. It always seems to be greatly annoyed by too strong a light, and constantly endeavours to relieve itself from the unwelcome glare by drawing the nictitating membrane over its eyeballs, after the manner of owls when they venture forth by daylight.
The animal is a very conspicuous one, on account of the peculiar colouring of its fur, and the brightly defined stripes which decorate its back. The general tint of the fur is a greyish-brown, washed with yellow, each hair being brown at its base and yellow towards the point. Along the back runs a series of boldly defined stripes, nearly black in their colour, beginning just behind the shoulders and ending upon the base of the tail. The number of these stripes is various, being from fourteen to seventeen on an average. At the spot where they commence they are very short, but lengthen rapidly as they approach the tail, reaching their greatest length over the haunches, over which they are drawn to some extent. In many specimens the stripes are forked upon the haunches. Towards the tail the stripes again become short, and upon the base of the tail are so abbreviated that they only cover its upper surface. The under parts of the body are grey. The tail is slightly compressed, and gradually taper at its extremity. The eyes are large and full, and their colour is black. The edge of the upper lip is white.
In this animal the marsupial bones are absent, their places being indicated by some fibrous cartilages that are found in the locality which these bones might be expected to fill. The character of the fur is not very fine, but it is short, rather woolly, and closely set upon the animal’s skin. In front of the eye there is a small black patch, which runs round the eye, and surrounds it with a dark line.
In 1863, wildlife illustrator John Gould warned: "When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated, and its primitive forests are intersected with roads from the eastern to the western coast, the 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: although this will be a source of much regret, neither the shepherd nor the farmer can be blamed for wishing to rid the island of so troublesome a creature".
1884 saw the setting up of local groups such as the "Buckland and Spring Bay Tiger and Eagle Extermination Society". Some newspapers supported the campaigns, though others printed letters and articles about the far greater menace of feral dogs. In 1888, after two years of lobbying by a local politician called John Lyne, the Hobart government introduced a state bounty on thylacines. Lyne saw himself as the sheep-farmers' hero, but ignored factors such as over-production of wool (causing the price to crash), rabbit plagues and drought. The thylacines were simply a way to further his career.
Sheep farmers used the thylacine to pressurise the Hobart government into compensating them for losses. In 1888, a bill was passed offering a £1-per-head bounty on thylacines, an enormous amount in those days, and one that encouraged even more trappers to hunt the animal in its own habitat far from farms, just to get the money The impact of this bill, which was not rescinded until 1909, was immediate and devastating. During the period of its imposition over 2,000 animals were killed and, at the peak of the hunting, the government paid a bounty on a 'tiger' every two days. But in the last days, one bounty every year was nearer the mark, so rare had the animal become. It is unlikely that it ever existed in vast numbers, and certainly never to such an extent as to pose an actual threat to sheep farmers' livelihoods. That thylacines were accused of hunting in packs and killing up to a hundred sheep in a night just for sport.
By then, trappers were already being offered five or six times the bounty fee by zoos, museums and private collectors. In 1888, 72 adult and 9 juvenile thylacines were presented for government bounty. About 100 per year were turned in until 1905 (peaking at 130 - 140 adults per year between 1899 and 1901), after which the numbers halved. Fifteen were presented in 1908 and only 2 in 1909. As numbers declined, there was finally some scientific interest. However, this took the form of collectors wanting trophy pelts or stuffed specimens. Prices for pelts rose as the animal became rarer. Museums and zoos worldwide sought specimens. In 1911, London Zoo paid £68 for a thylacine.
Between 1878 and 1893, almost 3500 tanned thylacine pelts were exported to London to be made into waistcoats. During 1900, a team of two bounty-hunters claimed to have killed 300 thylacines in only four months. 2268 thylacines were known to have been killed (2,040 being adults). The thylacine declined rapidly after 1900. In 1909 newspapers advertised "tiger shoots" for visitors. In 1910, a year in which illness hit marsupial carnivores, the Tasmanian government stopped the bounty scheme, though the Van Diemen's Land Company's bounty scheme continued until 1914. By 1900, trappers had begun reporting finding listless thylacines in their snares. Usually the animals made vigorous attempts to get free and could be dangerous to the trapper. It was very unusual to find a passive thylacine in a snare. This indicates illness. Tasmanian devils and possums were also affected by what appeared to be a strain of canine distemper or pleural pneumonia. The animals lost condition, had fur loss and diarrhoea, finally becoming listless. This is supported by evidence that thylacines did not disappear first from areas where they were being hunted. At Tin Pot Marsh they were still being shot and trapped until about 1922.
The first live thylacines displayed were at Regent's Park, London in 1850. Another was displayed in a menagerie in Hobart from 1854. By the 1860s several zoos around the world had thylacines, but they not often seen in the wild. The prevailing school of thought was that marsupials were inferior, an evolutionary mistake or dead end, and were naturally doomed to extinction. During the 1920s, thylacines were still being exported to zoos around the world. In August 1929, the Animals and Birds Protection Board of Tasmania gave the thylacine partial protection by declaring a closed season in December, supposedly the breeding season.
From "Animal Life and The World of Nature" (1902): For some time the Tasmanian wolf was housed in the small mammal’s house, but it has now been placed with the other marsupials or pouched animals in the kangaroo sheds. This strikingly-marked animal is becoming very rare, and at the present moment is only found in the very remote parts of Tasmania. It is the largest carnivorous marsupial at present living. The Colonists used to call it “Tigie” on account of the series of transverse black bands on the hinder part of the back and loins, to show, which a special photograph was taken, after a weary waiting. To-day it is commonly called “Wolf,” and by reason of the havoc it commits among the sheep-fold, has become nearly exterminated in those parts of the island where there is a fairly large settlement. In the shelter of the almost impenetrable rocky glens and caverns of the mountainous regions of Tasmania, specimens may still be discovered, but the fact that the animal is a very scarce one, should not be lost sight of by anyone who delights in seeing something alive which may soon become extinct.
The last authenticated killing of a wild thylacine was in 1930. On 13th May 1930, in the Mawbanna district of north-eastern Tasmania, farmer Wilf Batty heard a disturbance from his chicken coop. He knew a thylacine had been lurking in the area for some months and he saw it attempting to break into the coop. Although Wilf's kelpie dogs would not attack, the thylacine retreated. Wilf Batty then shot the last known wild thylacine. The last one captured was in 1933 and died in Hobart Zoo the same year. In September 1933, a sub-committee considered further methods of protection, but hunting permits were still being issued until 1936. The Tasmanian government gave the thylacine full legal protection on 14 July 1936. Two months later, the last thylacine died of neglect at Beaumaris Zoo.
Their final extinction was long attributed to a distemper-like disease that decimated the remaining thylacine population, but a University of Adelaide team, publishing in Journal of Animal Ecology in 2013, claims to have proven that disease was not a central cause. Many people refused to believe that bounty hunting alone was sufficient to drive the thylacine to extinction, and therefore claimed that an epidemic was responsible for the extinction. Mathematical modelling showed the impacts of bounty hunting (1830 - 1909), sheep-farming, which reduced its natural prey of kangaroos and wallabies, and introduction of dogs by European settlers, on the thylacine. Its population crashed dramatically after 1905. The thylacine was hunted by humans, deprived of their food supply, out-competed by dogs and squeezed out of its habitats. Extinction was inevitable and was the result of human activities rather than a unknown disease epdemic.
There are plenty of photos and even some movie footage of this recently extinct animal. They were found in zoos around the world, but no-one considered them worthy of protection or captive breeding - they were considered stupid, dull and uninteresting; a curiosity from a faraway land. The very last one, a female called Benjamin, died of neglect in Hobart zoo in 1936. There were already calls to conserve the animal and set up a thylacine reserve, but Benjamin's keepers showed a lack of care inexcusable by modern standards - she was often shut out of her den at night (in very cold temperatures), her enclosure lacked adequate shade or shelter and she was not fed regularly. This neglected creature died within 2 months of her species getting official protection, but even with protection it was too late for the species - there were no more of her kind to breed with.
Since its extinction there have been numerous reports of thylacine sightings. There were several authentic-sounding reports until the 1940s, including one from an old "dogger" (another term for a tiger-man) who "put up a slut and three cubs out of a patch of man-ferns" in the area that was soon after flooded to become Lake King William. This also meant that a male was out there somewhere. The man dodged the question as to whether or not the thylacines were killed after the man set his dogs upon them, making it almost certain that this last breeding female was killed by him. In 1961, there was a report that a thylacine had escaped from a trap on the west coast of Tasmania. There are periodic reports of sightings and claims that the animal is still hanging on in some regions. This may be wishful thinking because the evidence - photos, footprints and claimed kills (mainly sheep) - are inconclusive and no fur (for DNA analysis) or remains of recently deceased thylacines have been found. There are now hopes of cloning a thylacine from a preserved pup, however the DNA is extremely fragmented and the likelihood of reconstructing this into viable DNA is remote. In addition, it would need a host species in which to grow and scientists would need to create a thylacine of the opposite sex for it to mate with.
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