The last captive thylacine died on September 7th, 1936
There’s nothing else like the thylacine. Nearly twenty years on, the memory of first discovering these bewitching animals remains vivid. As a child, my mum gave me her old collection of nature magazines from the mid-seventies. One particular article stood out.
‘Is the Thylacine Really Gone?’ the title asked. The piece was about five pages long, lavishly illustrated with grisly images of grim-faced men in Victorian agricultural dress posing with the corpses of one of the most captivating animals I had ever seen. Arguably the thylacine is a strange species for me to be so drawn to. Due to some negative experiences in the past, I’m not especially keen on dogs, to which thylacines are often likened. To my mind though, they’re at most akin to a highly experimental take on the dog.
Besides the tale of these animals’ persecution at the hands of a miserably myopic sheep lobby, the article also focused heavily on continued reports of sightings from Tasmania. Even for a piece written forty years ago, the notion of surviving thylacines was extremely optimistic. Whilst I am fairly certain that “Benjamin” was not truly the last thylacine, the notion of the species holding out until even the late nineteen-fifties seems highly improbable. Like most people with an interest in the thylacine, I would dearly love for a miraculous rediscovery to occur, but the odds on that are so tiny as to be insignificant.
However, believing that the thylacine is forever lost to the world does little to diminish what has proven an enduring obsession. Reading the story of these scandalously vilified marsupials not only awoke an interest which occasionally induces an adrenaline rush on glimpsing a mangy urban fox in southern England, but was the beginning of a sense of profound anger at human stupidity and greed.
This anger, aimed at the craven irresponsibility of so many in positions of influence, who play to the basest of human emotions and are so quick to find a convenient scapegoat to let themselves off the hook, drives my involvement in environmental concerns. This frustration at the deep and malignant injustices which are perpetrated every day, to the detriment of life itself, began with the thylacine’s tale.
After reading that first article, I started seeking out anything and everything thylacine-related. Books, TV shows, newspaper articles, I devoured them all. Sometimes I would draw thylacines, which is an excellent way to get a sense of how singular these animals truly were. The highlight was always natural history museums. No longer was it just about the dinosaurs – the unfashionable corners of the mammal exhibits held a new allure. Perhaps I hadn’t fully grasped the concept of taxidermy, or maybe I was caught up in the magical thinking of childhood, but on staring at the faded skins I half-felt if I wished hard enough, the scraps of creature behind the glass might reanimate.
A little later, I pinned my hopes on cloning. Sadly, even the wonders of genetic science are not yet equal to the task of returning this iconic ghost to the mortal realm. They may well never be: thylacines were behaviourally complex enough that even if one were to shamble stiffly out of a laboratory, it would not and could not know how to actually be what it supposedly was. The thylacine’s closest living relative is the numbat, an insectivore whose adult size is barely bigger than that of a thylacine joey.
Adult male thylacine skull. Skulls are the most common relics, perhaps owing to the Tasmanian government’s extermination bounty being paid per head.
Thylacines today might be no more than memories and relics, but I believe that these matter immensely, and not only for their scientific value. The importance of seeing extinct animals’ remains first-hand was never clearer to me than at the French national museum of natural history. Within a darkened hall dedicated to extinct and threatened species, skin and bone testify to human vandalism.
Each skeleton, skin and pickled corpse of a species lost because of us is a vital reminder of our place as increasingly unchecked global superpredators. If extinction is a spectrum, the terminal phase may be for an organism to be altogether forgotten. As long as pictures, photographs, footage and the physical remains of our victims endure, it is that much harder to downplay the cost of humanity’s ways. Seeing so many vanished creatures in a single room in central Paris sparked a sense of coming reckoning for all that we have done, and do.
Possibly the only photograph of a live thylacine in the wild. Image public domain.
The above photograph, though grainy, small, and of uncertain origin, is thought to show a sight which no-one will ever see again. Thylacines walk Tasmania’s woodland no more, for the small and stupid reason of panic over the safety of sheep. By the time the slaughter of these animals was recognised for the abomination it was, the hour was too late.
There are other “thylacines” though. They are those similarly unique species who are approaching extinction right now. Lots can be found at http://www.edgeofexistence.org/
Should the thylacine’s demise move you, spare a thought for the elusive saola, the mighty Philippine eagle, or the gorgeous Malagasy rainbow frog. Without effective action, all these and innumerable others could be following the thylacine into oblivion soon enough.