The Last Thylacine
In 1936, the last known Tasmanian Tiger died in a zoo in Hobart. This is Benjamin's story.
The Thylacine species first appears in the fossil record around 30 million years ago.
Their closest living relatives are wolves, and numbats, and a variety of species have been discovered, ranging in size from rodents to large dogs.
Modern Thylacine evolved around 4 million years ago.
They were once common, and fossilised remains have been found right across Australia, and even in Papua New Guinea. They are depicted in Aboriginal rock paintings from Western Australia as recently as 3 000 years ago.
Indigenous people hunted the thylacine, which placed pressure on the mainland population. This was compounded by the arrival of European settlers in Australia in the 18th century; the Europeans also hunted the animal, encroached on its natural habitat and introduced dogs, who became a natural competitor.
By the mid 1800’s, Thylacines were extinct on mainland Australia. Only the isolated population on Tasmania remained.
The Thylacine was a striking looking animal.
Its hindquarters were prominent, raised higher than the front part of its body, and its torso looked entirely too long for the rest of it, like it had been stretched somehow.
Thylacines had a narrow, angular face, and a simply enormous maw; a long, skinny snout, that could open absurdly wide, filled with sharp teeth. They were reportedly ruthless, and very effective, hunters.
Thylacines were nocturnal, and very shy, preferring to remain out of sight, and living in pairs, one male and female. They were also marsupials, with a pouch, just like a kangaroo.
But the feature that we know best about this animal is its coat; the Thylacine had a striped pattern along it’s back, that caused it to be dubbed ‘The Tasmanian Tiger’.
Europeans began arriving in Tasmania in the late 18th century.
The first settlers were whalers, who camped along the coast. In 1803, the British government established a town on the Derwent river in the island’s south, to head off a likely territorial claim by the French.
This town was named Hobart after the British Colonial Secretary of the time, Lord Hobart.
Similar to Sydney, Hobart’s original inhabitants were transported convicts.
Tasmania is a lush, green place with a cool, temperate climate.
The new English inhabitants found it very similar, in fact, to England, which was a relief after the heat and flies of mainland Australia. They also found it was more or less perfect for sheep farming.
Land was available on application from the local authorities, for free in other words, for anyone willing to come to this remote outpost and stake a claim. Free labour was also available, in the form of convicts, who could be assigned to landowners and forced to work for them.
It was the perfect business opportunity for anyone with a sense of adventure. From the 1820s onward, a growing number of Europeans arrived in Tasmania, and the local agricultural industry began a sustained boom.
But this expansion caused havoc in the natural environment.
And one of the effects was a sharp decline in the Thylacine population. Similar to what had happened in mainland Australia, their habitat was taken over for farming, and they were pushed into smaller, and remoter, areas.
Thylacines were also aggressively hunted.
Although rarely sighted, there were rumours that the stripey local Tiger was a poacher of chickens and lambs.
A widely circulated photo (above) shows a Thylacine making off with a chicken, although the photo was later revealed to be fake; it was staged with a dead, stuffed, Thylacine.
Nevertheless, farmers were advised to watch out for the Tigers, and shoot them on sight.
In 1830, the local authorities went even further, and introduced a bounty of 1 pound, per dead Tiger. Professional hunters and trappers fanned out into the Tasmanian wilderness, and began ruthlessly pursuing these elusive animals.
Thylacines were being pushed to the brink.
By the 1920s, Thylacines had become extremely rare in the wild.
The sharp decline in numbers did not stop people from killing them when they did encounter them; as late as 1930, Wilf Batty shot a Thylacine he spotted on his farm, the last known kill of a wild Tassie Tiger.
But in this era, people were also beginning to wake up to the idea of animal conservation.
In 1928 a Government Advisory board proposed a Thylacine sanctuary, to protect what remained of the species. The proposal was debated by the Government, but advanced only slowly.
In 1933, an adult male Thylacine was captured in dense forest in the Florentine Valley, west of Hobart.
He was given to the Hobart zoo, and later dubbed ‘Benjamin’.
The zoo had Thylacine specimens before, but had not attempted to breed them. As the adults had died, they had simply replaced them with newly acquired animals.
Later that same year, naturalist David Fleay filmed Benjamin on a primitive movie camera. This short video, less than 60 seconds of footage, is the only confirmed video ever taken, of a living Thylacine.
On July 10, 1936, the Tasmanian Parliament passed legislation declaring the Thylacine an endangered species, and prohibiting their killing.
Benjamin, the last Thylacine, died of natural causes on September 7, of the same year.
59 days after the conservation legislation took effect.
The Hobart Zoo was keen to find a replacement for Benjamin, and sent trackers out to known Thylacine habitats. The search would continue, on and off, for two years, but no animals were sighted.
While there have been numerous claims of Thylacine sightings in the decades since, none of these have been confirmed. Several privately funded search operations have also failed to turn up any trace of the animal.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) requires a period of 50 years without the sighting of an animal, before they will declare it extinct.
This was reached in 1986, and the Thylacine officially joined these sad ranks alongside the Dodo, the Passenger Pigeon, and the Baiji Dolphin.
As of 2014, IUCN lists more than 2 400 animal species as ‘Critically Endangered’, teetering on the verge of extinction.