Painting a Glimpse of Extinction – by Sophie Gainsley

I’ve been on a journey, accompanied by poet Harry Man (1), to memorialise Britain’s vanishing wildlife.  These creatures, along with countless others, are disregarded as we rush about our busy, hectic lives each day in concrete metropolises.  But outside in the natural, rural worlds which we so heavily depend on for our food, clothing and pretty much everything else, each individual creature is entwined in an ecosystem more complex than we know.  Many are disappearing before we can catalogue and study them – a process critical to learning how to protect them.  Every single one, from microscopic bugs, fungi and the green slime that clings to rocks, to bigger creatures like birds and mammals, are part of a global issue – a mass extinction, the extent of which is hard to grasp.

‘Finders Keepers’

Image: ‘Starry Sky’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

Our capitalist, greed-fuelled, unconscious actions of the past centuries have set in motion what scientists are calling ‘The Sixth Extinction’. Put concisely by New York writer Elizabeth Kolbert: ‘Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.’

It is hard to believe this fact, living in a man-made world in our built-up, closed-in cities and towns. But it has been revealed by scientists, that we “…have only identified about 10-15 percent, at most, of existing species. Most types of life are unknown, rendering the great dying crisscrossing the globe eerily invisible to human eyes and silent to human ears,” as Tikkun Magazine states. (2)

The main things which are driving species over the edge ( -some estimates calculate that we are losing up to 200 species a day -) are mass habitat destruction such as deforestation and pollution (3). Trees are being burned and logged at a scary rate. 80% of the world’s forests have already been destroyed and every 2 seconds, an area the size of a football field is destroyed. (4)

Return of the Humpback

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  There are countless amazing conservation projects all around the word and a myriad of dazzling success stories.

Image: ‘Hello World’ illustration by Sophie Gainsley

When first observed by mariners, the Humpback whale was named ‘The Merry Whale’.   Not so merry is the fact that their curiosity and fearlessness made them easy targets for Whale Hunters.  Add to this, their predictable migration routes and what you were left with was a marine massacre.  Humpback populations were ravaged across the globe, so much so, that when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial whaling of Humpbacks in 1966, there were only 5,000 left.  This number may sound like a lot,  but it was estimated in an study published by Global Conservation (5) that Humpback populations were reduced by up to 90% of their original size. There were only a few hundred Humpbacks left in North Atlantic waters, where many traditionally feed on the rich marine ecology during the Spring and Summer.


Advice Whale: poem by Harry Mann, image by Sophie Gainsley

Since then, the Humpback has made an impressive comeback.  They are now 80,000 strong worldwide and went from being labelled ‘endangered’ in 1988 to being considered of ‘least concern’ as recently as 2008.  This is just one of thousands of conservation success stories well worth celebrating!

Our project, Finders Keepers (6), created by Harry Man, aims to also raise awareness of conservation taking place all over the UK.  This includes the protection of habits such as our ancient woodlands and hedgerows which are threatened by the increase of agriculture and which creatures rely on.

The Toothed Threadwort, the Bastard Balm and the Wormwood Moonshiner

As I scrolled down the long list of endangered UK species, some of the more imaginative and entertaining names jumped out.  Among them, I found the quaint ‘Grizzled Skipper’, the ‘Grayling’ and ‘Bastard Balm’, all imaginative names for different butterfly species.  Meanwhile an unsuspecting algae goes by the name of the ‘Toothed Threadwort’ and a ribbed black beetle, the ‘Wormwood Moonshiner’.  Even in the most unlikely of places, the British sense of humour prevails and reminds us of our abundant imagination and creativity.  It is these traits and our ability for forethought and planning which have enabled us to survive against the odds and thrive in most environments across Earth until today.  There is much hope that these same traits will enable us to undo some of the damage we have caused and turn back the clock, to conserve threatened species. Or in the words of David Attenborough, as he beautifully concluded the BBC ‘Planet Earth’ series; “Our planet is still full of wonders and as we explore we gain not only understanding but power. It’s not just the future of the whale that today lies in our hands, it’s the survival of the natural world on all parts of the living planet. We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.”


Image: ‘The Woods’ from ‘Finders Keepers’ Illustration by Sophie Gainsley










The Passenger’s Prayer – by Megan Hollingsworth


If I be anyone in this life

let me be a messenger

let me write beauty on the sky

let me write a love letter

so wide and deep and long

that it turns day to night

forcing men and women to look up.

Let me write a reminder of what is great and what is small

and if my being is not enough,

if my death is the only reminder of man’s power to take life

let me die; let this love letter

exist in memory, born of experience


Poem written by Megan Hollingsworth/ ex·tinc·tion wit·ness in 2014 and dedicated to the passenger pigeon on the centenary of its extinction. The image is a still from Martha’s Farewell,  a film tribute to Martha by Megan, also in 2014.

The tragedy of lost species – by Brian McKenzie

London-based artist and printmaker Brian McKenzie shares his latest project, specially completed in memory of the thylacine and for Lost Species Day:

Recently I have had the opportunity to make some new specimen artworks as part of a year long initiative commemorating the death of the last thylacine. The thylacine was a marsupial. Marsupials are wonderfully weird mammals whose young are born in a highly unformed embryo-like state.

Thylacine specimen joey, cloning trial 1 – 2 days old

The young emerge from their mothers, then grapple and clamber with overly large forelimbs to the distinctive marsupial pouch where they find sustenance and develop.


Thylacine trial 2 – 6 days old

The Thylacine became extinct 80 years ago when on September 7th 1936, ‘Benjamin’ died of neglect, locked out of his sheltered sleeping quarters in Hobart Zoo, Australia. I have speculated about what might happen should science try to reintroduce the long-lost beast using cloning technology.

thylacine-puggle-3Thylacine trial 7 – 14 days old

I have made several thylacine clone attempts. And because these malformed, ill-bred specimens are in jars, dead and preserved, we must presume that the scientists found the tasks beyond their means. The task has proved to be too complex and difficult and is way beyond them. They have failed.
 Two views of trial number 11, having survived for 21 days
The way I create these beastly specimens is by using rubber and carefully crafted, complicated inside-out moulds. One inherent factor with this process is that the final outcome (when the skin is reversed and rolled over itself) manifests unpredictable peculiarities and flaws giving the creature surprising, odd misshapen characteristics and features.
 Longest surviving creature; perished at 1 month and 1 day
I liken these errors and foibles to the struggles encountered when modern science, expecting to fully comprehend nature, finds that things do not always go according to plan. The message I’m wanting to project is that it is far better to preserve wondrousness than to expect to be able to pick up the pieces later.

Thylacine Ghosts – by Gabbee Stolp

Australia-based artist Gabbee Stolp on her Thylacine Ghosts project (2016):

My work is a study of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), as a symbol for repairing the relationship between human beings and the natural world. This carnivorous marsupial was led to extinction by human hands, the last of its kind dying in captivity 80 years ago. Presently we find ourselves witnessing the era of the Anthropocene, whereby human actions are driving continued environmental degradation and mass extinction; the thylacine has come to represent both a sense of regret for species loss in general and the loss of something wild or animal in ourselves. Precious objects created from natural materials mimic the thylacine; they stand as icons of what has been lost and become monuments for confrontation, veneration and reflection. Through the practice of object-making – carving, stitching and piecing together – an opportunity is created for hope, atonement and reparation of the human relationship with nature.

thylacine-ghost-i-protectionThylacine Ghost I: Protection

thylacine-ghost-ii-destructionjpgThylacine Ghost II: Destruction

thylacine-ghost-iii-womanThylacine Ghost III: Woman

thylacine-ghost-iv-mythThylacine Ghost IV: Myth

thylacine-ghost-v-burdenThylacine Ghost V: Burden

thylacine-ghost-vii-skeleton-1Thylacine Ghost VII: Skeleton

thylacine-ghost-viii-mendingThylacine Ghost VIII: Mending

thylacine-ghosts-i-viii-1Thylacine Ghosts I – VIII

Photos 1-5 by Isaac Panaretos, 6-9 by Tim Panaretos

Departure Lounge – by Peter Forward

Australian artist Peter Forward talks about his work:

My project: “Departure Lounge” in some ways extends the tradition of natural science art. The medium I use is discarded cardboard packaging, sourced from living trees, the home of many species as well as the lungs of the planet. Within the constraints of this medium, I try to represent Australian threatened small mammals as accurately as possible. My work also references the inherent threats that human needs pose to the existence of many species and ecosystems. I work with wildlife conservation scientists which has made me very aware of how poorly wild Australia is being treated: part of planet Earth’s current extinction crisis.


Australia has an appalling extinctions record, the worst on earth.  “Squirrel Glider” [above] is one of 6 flying marsupials most of which are also declining. There is probably another in North Australia which has not yet been described formally – we are still losing species before we even have learned of their existence! As a developed and wealthy country I see no excuse, hence my arts activity.


  Above: Boodie

Burrowing Bettong or Boodie (Bettongia lesueur): Once common in most of southern Australia, is now only found on tiny islands off the WA coast which have no cats or foxes. Now extinct on the mainland, the Boodie served a very important function in the Australian grassland ecosystem. As it foraged, it mixed organic matter into the soil, spreading fungi and seeds. This mixing also increased water absorption into the soil and reduced the combustible material under trees, decreasing the likelihood of fire. These actions helped maintain the balance of trees, shrubs, and grasses. The loss of small, ground-foraging animals after European settlement together with hard hoofed stock animals almost certainly contributed to widespread soil deterioration. Boodies live communally, several hundred can inhabit one site and warrens can be enormous. On introduction to Australia rabbits simply pushed the bettongs aside and took over the burrows.


Above: Numbat

Below: Bilby

Bilby (Macrotis lagotis): Bilbies would have to be the cutest animal you could imagine. They are a bit awkward-looking when they run or hop, but they have the poise of little ballet dancers. They are about the size of a rabbit but are adapted to very harsh, arid and extreme places. The favourite food is mycorrhizal fungi which most plants/trees here require (underground fungi – a bit like truffles). So they are out there digging every night turning over the desert sands. There were two species of Bilby but one is extinct. From the arid interior of Australia to the temperate coastal areas, Bilbies were common, but this was a hundred years ago. Today, changes in their habitat have seen their range reduced and their status listed as ‘vulnerable’. They are now in competition with introduced animals which graze on plants used by Bilbies. Foxes and feral cats have become the main predators. Even changing fire patterns have contributed to their demise in certain areas due to impact on type and availability of food sources. This has led to isolated populations surviving in pockets in arid regions.

Below: Leadbeater’s possum

  Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri): This is an endangered small marsupial which is dependant on old growth eucalypt forests with established hollows for its home. As a result it is now located in small pockets of old growth Mountain Ash forest in Victoria’s Central Highlands. Its numbers are estimated to have peaked in the mid-1980s, when approximately 7500 were known in the wild. Since then, numbers have declined. Logging has impacted on its habitat and range. Devastatingly, the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 burned around 45% of its remaining habitat. There is now estimated to be around 1500 Leadbeater’s Possums remaining and it may soon be admitted to the critically endangered list. To protect this species we must protect old growth forests.

Bronx Zoo, Alexis Rockman, 2013

Alexis Rockman travelled to Tasmania in search of the thylacine in 2004. His paintings made using soil from thylacine habitat are featured elsewhere on the Lost Species Day blog. Alexis is a prolific and ferocious painter who has kindly given RDLS permission  to share his extraordinary epic oil painting Bronx Zoo here. You can read a conversation about art in the ‘age of pessimism’ between Alexis and his colleague Mark Dion here.

Wired review of Bronx Zoo:

“The monumental painting Bronx Zoo, 2012-2013, measuring 7 x 14 feet, depicts with virtuosity and wit an anarchistic scene amid the ruins of New York’s most legendary zoo, founded in 1899. The zoo’s neoclassic buildings and court have been overtaken by animals that inhabit it. Although human figures are absent in Rockman’s painting, their existence is implied by the decay of their buildings and the debris of their society. Bronx Zoo suggests the savage moment that occurs at the intersection of human culture and the natural world. To the artist, the zoo is “the last bastion for biodiversity,” a place for protecting and conserving those animals whose natural habitat has been destroyed. This dystopian narrative expands the visual language and scope of traditional natural history painting into themes of contemporary relevance, most prominently the environment.”

See the full article in Wired. 


The Last of Many Breeds – by Nick Hunt

Lily McInnes remembers the day when Donald James Eiger arrived at the zoo – top-hatted, tweed-suited, swinging his cane – and purchased the last of the thylacines for the sum of forty pounds. The beast had been caught in the Florentine Valley three years previously, and had spent its time in captivity pacing and yawning, yawning and pacing, occasionally making a futile leap at the bars and rebounding off them. The zookeepers hated it. It made the other animals nervous, they said – put them off their feed. Visitors steered away from it, preferring the monkeys and the bears, exotic things from foreign lands, not this local pestilence. You wouldn’t pay to see rabid dogs or rats exhibited in a cage, so why give money for a sight like that? Yawning and pacing, pacing and yawning, grinning its sheep-murdering grin. The last of its kind, it would never breed – would never produce lucrative offspring to recompense the zoo for the cost of its sustenance and upkeep. All it did in captivity was what it had done in its habitat – consume a small fortune in meat at the tax-payer’s expense. If Mr Eiger hadn’t made his offer they’d probably have put the thing down, and flung the carcass in the trash with the zoo’s other scrapings.

No-one knew why he wanted it, but no-one knew why Mr Eiger did most of the things he did. A trim, skinny man of advanced years, who dressed like a dandy but never was known to frequent any restaurant, dinner or dance, he was sighted now and then around town, engaged in unknowable business. His money was made in timber, they said – blackwood, blue gum, Huon pine – though some believed he also had dealings with coal, bauxite, gold. He was rumoured to be a mad millionaire, but both his madness and his millions were probably exaggerated. He was certainly rich and strange, and that was enough for Hobart.

Lily, nine years old, watched him arrive in a taxicab and shake begloved hands with the zoo’s director. The two men advanced to the thylacine’s cage and spent twenty minutes smoking cigars, conversing in low, amenable tones, while the beast stalked back and forwards. Then the head keeper – Lily’s father – entered the cage with a bucket of meat which he liberally slopped upon the floor, and while the thylacine’s jaws were engaged bagged its head, collared its neck, muzzled its mouth, strapped its legs and fastened it to a length of chain, the end of which he presented to Mr Eiger with a flourish. Three other men half-dragged, half-carried the struggling thing to the taxicab, where it was pinned against the floor by Simon, Mr Eiger’s butler.

‘They christened it Benjamin, by the way,’ said the zoo’s director, again shaking hands. An envelope had been exchanged. ‘That’s what the papers chose.’

But Mr Eiger shook his head. ‘A thing like that needs no name.’

The taxicab left, and Lily watched. It was a blue summer day. She looked back at the empty cage, at her father sweeping up the meat. He turned his head and met her eye. ‘No tears now,’ he said.


There were different stories told. The house was high upon the hill, overlooking the city and the bay, and not many visitors went to it – but still, the stories travelled. People said it was loose inside the house, that he permitted it to prowl, that it had made a stinking nest in the corner of Simon’s bedroom. That it had eaten several cats. That Mr Eiger had shot the cats. That constables had visited. That delivery men refused to visit. That Genevieve Eiger, his delicate and perennially ailing English wife, had suffered from ‘nervous fits’ of some kind and been taken to the hospital. That she might be away for some time. That the servants had departed with her.

There were other stories too. That he was trying to breed the thing. That bitches in heat – dingos, strays – had been brought to the house in recent months and left in a room with the thylacine, but the only thing that remained the next day was bones and scraps of fur.  Some said he had taught the brute some tricks – it would yawn on demand when he said ‘sleep tight’, or fall with its belly in the air when he made a pistol sound. Others believed he had taken its teeth. That he beat it with a bamboo cane, starved it in an airless box, that his ambition was to break its spirit as one breaks a horse’s. A gardener from the house next door swore he heard its yowls at night, rasps of fury, screams of pain – and afterwards, the quieter noise of Mr Eiger weeping.

It was strictly not allowed but Lily climbed the hill one day, a half-hour walk from school, into the rich people’s neighbourhood, and spied through the iron gate. She could see the big house with its pillars and porch, its gardens dark with Tasmanian oak, but she couldn’t see the beast. She wondered if it was dead somehow. If Mr Eiger had punished too far. Perhaps he had stuffed it, or stretched its tiger-striped skin before his fire.

She stared through the gate for a long while hoping for the truth to come, but no sound, no sign, no shadow came from behind the blank square windows. She walked to the zoo to meet her dad, fibbing that school had kept her late. She passed the thylacine’s old cage. An ocelot was there now.


And then there were older tales. Tales from before Lily’s time. Tales from before Mr Eiger’s time, if you counted the years back, but tales that Lily nevertheless believed were connected, somehow. She pictured him as a younger man, uniformed, slouch-hatted, rifle snapped in the crook of his arm, on horseback. On a moonless night. The Black War was long since won but some of the tribes had escaped the Line and continued to live by stealing sheep, haunting lonely stations. Punitive raids on recalcitrant blacks happened in the dead of night, and when they fled their camp fires the raiding squads pursued for days – often using native trackers tamed by money, whisky, church – picking them off with long-range shots from higher ground, from ridges. Like shooting wallabies or cats. This work was rewarded. The ones not shot were rounded up, chained from neck to neck to neck, and marched in dragging, dusty lines to Flinders Island, Oyster Cove, where they were taught to wear clothes and live in proper houses. People crowded their doors to watch as the captured blacks paraded past – naked legs, ragged beards, scowling, glistening like apes – an obstacle to settlement, a taint, a dying breed.

Lily had never seen a black. She wanted to, and feared to. Sometimes when she closed her eyes she saw them like a picture show, heads bagged, long limbs chained, in moving lines across the earth. She was too young to remember that. But when she stood at the thylacine’s cage, which contained no thylacine, somehow she remembered.


Then the territory was clear, the settlement was won. Frontier families slept without fear of a waddy staving in the door, a spear crashing through the wall. It was a new century. The Irish came, the Cockneys came, the Welsh came, the Germans came. Sealers, whalers, timber-men. Pastures for a million sheep. Rare earth metals, bauxite, gold. The forests splintered to the crash of Huon pine and myrtle.


Sheep were found with their throats ripped out. Ribcages that buzzed with flies. Something else was out there now. The farmers checked their guns again. New rewards were offered.


A five pound bounty for a black. One pound for a thylacine. Demand outstripped supply.


Three years went by, and Lily grew. Her dad retired from the zoo – he suffered from arthritic joints – and found work on the trams instead. The work was less demanding, and you didn’t catch fleas from trams. Hobart’s streets were widened, paved. Elegant parks were laid, with eucalyptus rustling. There were streetlights and hotels, more automobiles, fewer horses. Lily’s older sister Ruth married, moved to New South Wales. Her brother Sam enlisted in the Royal Tasmania Regiment and was sent to Europe to fight. Another war was starting.

Genevieve Eiger died and the rich people went to her funeral, though most had never been acquainted. Mr Eiger’s beard turned white. He was seldom seen in town. People called him a ‘recluse’ and Lily didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded coarse and strange. A bit like ‘loon’. A bit like ‘loose’. There were rumours of a fight – that Mr Eiger, mindless drunk, had flung Simon’s clothes and books from a top-floor window in a thunderstorm, or even attacked him with his cane. Reluctantly, so they said, the butler packed his bags.

Sometimes she thought of the thylacine. It was distant now. She had a picture in her mind, but she didn’t know if it was right. A striped backside, a cavernous grin, pointed ears like a dog’s – but other than that its distinctions blurred, its features ran together.

No-one talked about it now. Perhaps it had only been a silly story told at parties.


Two more years. The food got less. Lily watched the troops parade in Macquarie Street, hung with flags – uniformed, slouch-hatted, with rifles snapped in the crooks of their arms. The men looked strong and brave and clean. The air raid sirens yowled at night. The Japanese were in Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, Singapore. Perhaps the Dutch East Indies next. After that, Australia. Lily had never seen a Jap. She wanted to, and feared to. Now when she closed her eyes she saw them, at great distances – she picked them off one by one from horseback in her mind.


In the middle of that war, Mr Eiger left the house. Lily wasn’t there to see – she learned the legends later.

It was dawn, and he rode a white mare. His silk top hat was at a tilt. He carried a rifle on his back, a waddy in his hand.

They said the beast stalked at his side, or strained ahead on a length of chain. That its flanks flashed in the light – orange black, orange black. That its sheep-destroying teeth gleamed in its yawning skull.

Man, horse and beast passed quickly through the suburbs of the rich and were glimpsed from outlying farms making their way towards the bush. They disappeared, people said, in the woods beyond Mount Wellington. A farmer named Eli Church claimed to have seen them passing by, pausing at a billabong. The horse ate grass, the man drank wine and the beast consumed red chunks of meat, tossed from a battered leather bag. The meat did not last long.

The constables knocked at the big house, and received no answer. Having forced the door they searched the rooms and reported that nothing was amiss, not a teaspoon out of place. The fireplace was swept and stacked. The marble floors were freshly mopped. Just empty rooms and an open cage – but even that was clean and scrubbed. No clues, just an absence.


Lily McInnes is an old woman now, and she retells the stories. Her grandchildren have heard her talk of bunyips, yowies, flightless birds, forgotten tribes of wild men, though these are only fairytales. But sometimes she tells about the man who might be glimpsed on moonless nights, backcountry, deep within the bush. They do not like this tale so much, but she tells it anyway. Lily changes as she talks. He slaughters sheep, he catches cats. Mad-eyed, he swings a bamboo cane. With tiger stripes across his skin. Upon his head a crown of jaws, hinged open in an endless yawn. No bounty will bring this one in. He is the last of many breeds. The farmers say they’ll shoot on sight, until his extirpation.








Banged up – a short story by Caroline Hunt

It was a cat B prison. He was in C block. I’ll call him Dave, but that wasn’t his name. He was inside for twelve years, so he must have done something serious.

“Twelve do six miss if I keep out of trouble.”

Nobody came to visit him so he requested an OPV – a prison visitor. I went there once a week. I sat in his cell on level 4.  Always next to the open door, those were my security instructions.  The prison officer on the corridor checked us at intervals.

“Alright Dave?”


“OK Miss?”

We talked about his favourite food, brands of trainers, and different ways to hang yourself. Once he tried to con me.

“You’re a bit of an environmentalist aren’t you miss?”

“Yes I am.”

“My brother on the outside’s starting an environmental magazine.”

“Oh that’s good.”

“Fancy contributing?”

“How do I do that?”

“We could set up a regular subscription if you give me your bank details.”

I gave him a look.

He didn’t ask again.


The last thylacine, aka the Tasmanian tiger, was trapped in 1933. They called him Benjamin. He wasn’t a tiger, he was a carnivorous marsupial. He had a dense soft yellow brown coat striated by stripes down his back and tail, a large blunt head out of proportion to his body, and short rounded ears. Hobart Zoo was his nick. He was inside for for life, if you could call it that.  He only survived three years.

Dave always made me a cup of tea. He kept the milk on the window sill to stop it going off.  He wasn’t lucky enough to get prison work in the pot pourri factory and education had been cut for of lack of funds, so he was banged up in his cell twenty-three hours a day. There was an hour for evening association when he could get a shower and mix with the inmates on the wing.  He spent the other twenty-three pacing his cell or staring at the walls. On his block there were incidents of self-harm, mental illness and suicide.

Benjamin was a lifer, sentenced for thieving sheep, though he wasn’t to know it was a crime. No association for him. He was a top predator. I watched the film footage of him pacing his cell. It was about the same size as Dave’s. With obsessive pathetic hope he searched for escape. He scented the air, he gauged the spaces between the bars of his cage, he checked the walls, he yawned in tension. Then he started again, up and down, never resting, never giving up.

When Dave couldn’t sleep he imagined he was walking round Upton Lovell, the village he came from.

“You turn right off the A36 just after the Knook Army camp and keep going down the hill past a few cottages till you get to the Prince Leopold.  I nip in there for an hour – have a couple of pints, chat to my mates – I can see it like I was in it miss.  If you follow the road left and go over the level crossing you come to a housing estate. That’s where my house is. I walk past it every night”

When Benjamin slept I hope he dreamed and his dreams gave him the escape he searched for. That in his mind he was able to run again in the dense forests, shelter in his nests of bark and ferns, and revisit his pups in their lair high up in the caves where they waited for his yip yap bark when he returned with his criminal booty of a farmer’s sheep.

“There’s a path through the graveyard by the church. Cross the bridge over the River Wylie and you can walk in the water meadows on the other side. There’s all butterflies and flowers and cattle grazing.  You’d like it there, you being an environmentalist – beautiful it is miss.”

The next time I reported in at the gate he’d gone.

“Prisoner DD4328?”

“Transferred last night.”

I felt a sense of loss.

“Where to?”

“Can’t tell you that miss.”


Benjamin died of neglect, shut out of his shelter with no escape from the freezing nights and the scorching days. His body was carelessly flung on a scrap heap. The thylacine species was officially declared extinct in 1982. Official protection for his species was offered fifty-nine days before Benjamin died in captivity.  His relations were found in fossil form.  His ancestors were painted as rock art 40,000 years ago. He was the last to leave.  His kind is lost forever by a random act of carelessness.

There have been reports of an occasional sighting.   A cry heard in the hills at dusk, a dog-like beast caught in a car’s headlights, but they remain unconfirmed.

Image: Thylacine Ghost VII (Skeleton) by Gabbee Stolp

Extinction Symbol

Why create a symbol for extinction? An interview with the designer:

“As you may have already heard by now, a mass extinction of plant and animal species is currently underway which is being caused by human activity. It was felt that the realm of visual culture hadn’t yet responded adequately to this situation, and so the extinction symbol was created as a way to distill a complex concept into an easily recognisable graphic image which transcends language differences and can be quickly and easily replicated by anybody in a range of mediums and regardless of artistic ability. The circle represents the planet, and the hourglass indicates that time is rapidly running out for many species, including humans.

“This is a decentralised, strictly non-commercial participatory project that people can use to express their concerns about the extinction crisis. The aim is to raise awareness and act as a continual reminder to people who see it as they move around the city that their actions at any given moment could potentially have far-reaching effects. Thus it serves as a visual confrontation/admonishment to those who indulge in the hyper-consumerist lifestyle and who are presently estranged or insulated from the consequences of this, due to living in almost entirely artificial urban environments. The very presence of the symbol in public space promotes a cultural shift away from the current destructive paradigm, while also signalling an increasingly emergent resistance movement. Hopefully by having the message constantly reinforced, it becomes impossible to ignore.

“By autonomously creating a physical manifestation of the symbol, a person automatically becomes a member of the extinction symbol collective, and in the process states their refusal to remain a passive bystander. Curiosity is stimulated in those who randomly come across the symbol and might initially be unaware of the meaning behind it, potentially leading to further investigation and exploration of the issues involved. Examples of the symbol seen in public are shared via various social media channels, and a space for discourse opened up. On an individual level, people taking part in the project have reported that creating the symbol can help to lessen the feelings of powerlessness and alienation endemic to techno-industrial society.

“Your participation is welcomed and encouraged. Please create the symbol everywhere you can.”

The symbol can be downloaded freely from

Benjamin – a short story by Matthew Stanfield

Loopus from katy shepherd on Vimeo.

“Loopus’ film shared with permission from Katy Shepherd.

Hobart had been a disappointment to David Fleay. He had come to Tasmania from the mainland with high hopes and exceptional credentials for a man still three years shy of thirty. The Tasmanian Museum had been his first port of call: a schizophrenic sort of a place to look at, French chateau from the front, prison block from the back. Fitting for Tasmania, David had thought on his way in. Would that I had been, he had thought on his way out. The Directorship of the Tasmanian Museum, a post which he had so coveted, was denied him by the Museum Board on account of his youth.

In truth the Directorship had only ever been a means to an end. For most mainlanders Tasmania was an afterthought; for David it was an obsession. In the wake of his rejection he had found himself inconsolable. It should have been me, it had to be me. This is what I was born for.

All was not entirely lost though – a bastard sort of an opportunity yet remained to Fleay. And so he found himself on the nineteenth of December 1933, trudging up a scrubby hill in the summer heat to visit a zoo. He carried the ungainly weight of two cameras but he scarcely minded. Within the wrought iron boundary fence of Hobart Zoo, David slowed his pace. He turned each corner carefully, wanting time to prepare himself. His heart was pounding as he passed the lion terraces and the polar bear’s pond. He sidestepped the translucent bulk of an acrid-smelling bird cage, feeling every hair on his body rise. There it was, all at once. It was almost too much.

Even behind six-foot-high walls of windblown chicken wire, Fleay realised that the old bushmen’s tales he had heard were true. I sense it, I feel it within its cage. The Thylacine.

David Fleay knew animals. He knew them better than any white man in Australia, he had been told. At twenty-seven he was a veteran of countless natural history treatises and dissections. Once or twice though, he had encountered something in his subjects which defied quantification or diagramming. It had happened the first time he held a platypus, as a nature-mad boy in Victoria. This was more potent still. The Thylacine had a presence to it, which intensified the nearer he drew to the cage.

‘His name’s Benjamin,’ said a man in a waistcoat, with a little terrier dog at his side, ‘And you must be Mister Flea…’

David didn’t even think to correct him. All that he could concentrate on was getting past the wire, where there would be nothing to separate him from Benjamin.

Someone is new in this territory which is not mine, but which I know better than the one I have lost. A new smell, an intruder. What does he hide beneath that black cloth?

Inside the cage, Fleay found himself understanding why the early colonists had found it so hard to settle on a name for Thylacines. The animal before him looked in many ways very like a large dog, yet in just as many ways utterly unlike one. The visual character of the creature seemed fluid, shifting with each unhurried step it took. Now it becomes the Native Hyena, now the Zebra Opossum and now the Tasmanian Tiger. David wondered if this shifting was a trick of the European eye, or if it was somehow innate and fluidity was a trait of the species, passed down through generations.

For all Benjamin’s liminality there was also a singularity to him. The Thylacine’s presence, even in such mean and meagre surrounds, was ample justification of his scientific name. Thylacinus: the “pouched one”, the marsupial ne plus ultra. Hurriedly, Fleay began to set up his film equipment.

I see you. I watch you. Try me.

David Fleay began to film Benjamin. Silver halide, sheathed in gelatine and smeared across acetate, began to react to the sunlight filtering through Fleay’s lens. Light and darkness, motion and stillness, all would be captured. Thylacine shadows.

Nothing in Fleay’s first reel was darker than the Thylacine’s eyes though. Huge and black they were, blacker than any dog’s despite their quasi-canid setting. The darkness of Benjamin’s eyes left his stares open to interpretation and their truth inscrutable.

The man on the other side of the fence seemed nervous. He picked up a wooden paling and began tapping on the wire fence with it, hoping to catch Benjamin’s attention.

The intruder seems unmoved. The other one is agitated, as usual. That one makes so much noise, I wish he would stop but what can I do? I know what the two-legged beasts are capable of. My scar is my reminder. This quiet one though, this peculiar intruder, he is different. What does he intend?

When it came time to shoot the second reel, David could hardly believe that he was looking at the same animal. Benjamin had finally taken an interest in the waistcoated man’s piece of paling. Seen side-on in the afternoon sunlight, the Thylacine’s very stripes took on a new aspect. The pale fawn fur between the chocolate brown came to the fore as if the animal were dark-coated with light stripes. He is no more a true tiger than a true dog, Fleay mused.

Benjamin reared up angrily on his hind legs, roused by the incessant tapping of wood on wire. Standing as he did, the Thylacine’s head was fully five feet off the ground. In spite of the cage which circumscribed the creature, his vitality was unmistakeable. A line from the new American film, King Kong, which David had seen at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Ballarat sprang unbidden to mind. He was a king and a god in the world he knew, but now he comes to civilization merely a captive.

That four-legged one, so alike but yet so different. Such a false creature, whichever coat you wear. I have seen you set upon my own kind. Leave me be. I will not suffer your presence here.

The nearness of the little terrier to the chicken wire barrier was irritating to Benjamin, Fleay perceived. ‘Mister Reid, call your dog to heel would you please?’ David asked the waistcoated man. Reid did as he was requested and Fleay returned to his filmmaking.

With the dog having retreated, Benjamin visibly calmed. He paced about his one-hundred-fifty square foot domain of bare concrete. At certain angles, there was something of the native devil or the tiger quoll about the Thylacine. That said, for all the uniqueness and beauty of those two species, Fleay felt Benjamin occupied another order of magnitude, not just in size but in his very manner. The spirit of the Thylacine, for want of a more scientific word, was altogether apart from the other marsupial carnivores of Australia. Such is the way with apex predators and so it is with Benjamin.

The intruder hides behind his tool. He makes himself vulnerable. I will defend what remains to me. I will defend what little remains of me.

Benjamin opened his mouth wide and hissed at Fleay. No, not wide. Wide is not a big enough word. The Thylacine’s lower jaw seemed to hang independent of the rest of his skull, like a reddish-pink pharaonic beard grafted to the underside of his snout.

This was the first and last sound which David would hear from Benjamin. The Thylacine’s bite came quickly, as David knelt behind his camera. It was not terribly hard, though he knew his arse cheek would bleed through his trousers. It felt more like an announcement than an attack. Here I am – this is my place not yours. Queerly, it felt almost like an honour. Fleay found himself thinking of grey-bearded King George tapping men on the shoulder with his sword to make knights of the realm.

Fleay did not leave the cage immediately after being bitten, turning a deaf ear to the entreaties of Mister Reid. He took several photographs of Benjamin, who gave no further indication of hostility towards the human interloper.

My kind have never harmed yours without repercussion. Yet you did not retaliate. Who are you, stranger?

David shot one last snippet of film that afternoon. Benjamin sat sphinx-like and stared straight into the camera lens. At that moment, the indefinite nature of the Thylacine coalesced into something unmistakeable. Fleay felt the blackness of Benjamin’s eyes yield up an unadulterated emotion.

Loneliness. I am alone, utterly, pitiably unique. That snare killed me. Only now do I see that.


Within three years of David Fleay’s visit, Benjamin breathed his last. On the seventh of September 1936, his body was sent to the Tasmanian Museum. It met the same fate as Fleay’s application: refused by the Museum Board.

In 1935, Fleay was granted official permission to obtain a pair of Thylacines. His intention was to breed them in captivity. David would quite likely have succeeded in this endeavour, considering that he went on to make his name by captive breeding dozens of species for the very first time.

It was an event triggered halfway across the world that put paid to Fleay’s dream. The Great Depression forced him to wait until 1945 to go in search of Thylacines. He found traces of them, but Benjamin was to prove the first and last of his kind whom David Fleay would see with his own eyes. Funds dwindled again and the last, best hope of saving the Thylacine went with them.

Three of David Fleay’s short films survive from the nineteenth of December 1933. In total, their black-and-white silence runs to two minutes and thirty-one seconds. Each of these films individually is longer than all other known footage of captive Thylacines combined. There is no known footage of wild Thylacines.

Fleay’s grainy clips of Benjamin represent perhaps the most detailed scientific study of a living Thylacine ever undertaken.

Born naked and blind amongst mist and ferns, a son of our last redoubt. In time I crept from living shelter, the last to leave. I learned to feed, to speak, to hunt. I lived and loved beneath the trees. One by one, it came undone. The coldness of the hard new vines. The bite on the ankle. Canned fire at the command of a beast. Again, I was the last to leave, with raw dead wood on every side.

You may believe that I lived on in that place, but I know the truth. I was lost long before I arrived. If your kind must keep me for a memory, remember this.

You saw me dead.

But first I lived.


In memory of the Thylacine