This week saw the 80th anniversary of the Thylacine (or Tasmanian Tiger) receiving protected species status. As we all now know the effort was too little too late. A combination of disease, bounties, and habitat degradation drove the Thylacine to extinction. So in September 1936, Benjamin, the last known Thylacine perished in his concrete enclosure in a Hobart Zoo. Ironic, that despite the protection afforded to him and his species during those last few months – the austere environment of his pen and lack of care most likely hastened his demise.
With no confirmed sightings of the animal in the proceeding 50 years the stage was set for the Thylacine to be declared extinct in 1986. Since then, however, the sighting reports continue to come in from a variety of sources and until recently the Tasmanian government actively investigated many of the reports.
When Tasmanian zoologist Chris Coupland decided to form the Thylacine Research Unit (TRU) he hoped to answer the question once and for all, was the Tasmanian Tiger really extinct? Or had it – somehow managed to hang on the furthest reaches of the Tasmanian wilderness.
Chris’s plan was simple – to use an optimum blend of new and old school techniques – underpinned by science to find real evidence – the kind of evidence that could stand up to the scrutiny of the scientific community. He was personally sceptical about the chances of the Thylacine being extant. He was confident that the Thylacine was indeed extinct but was prepared to test his own beliefs, however low the chance might be that he was wrong.
So where are we today? As those who have seen TRU’s international documentary series, Hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger, will know, the team has been surprised by what they have been able to uncover. Whilst, they are quick to point out they still think the Thylacine is most likely extinct, the team is now adamant that the last Thylacine did not perish in the Hobart zoo in 1936. Their analysis of the government’s confidential files has revealed that the Tasmanian government themselves believed that the now infamous sighting by Hans Naarding (one of their own) was genuine – they believed that he did indeed see a large male Thylacine in the early hours of a cold and rainy morning by the Arthur River in 1982. If this is true then it could be argued that if Hans saw the last living Thylacine that the extinction clock should not have started until 1982 – therefore, technically the Thylacine is not yet extinct! An academic argument for sure – but one worthy of debate.
Highlighted extract from the confidential Tasmanian Government Thylacine files
Is there any physical evidence that the Thylacine persisted past 1936 – that might support the Government’s statement above?
As part of the team’s early research they ventured into the private vaults of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG). Here and under the close scrutiny of Kathryn Medlock, senior curator vertebrate zoology, Bill Flowers – the well known Tasmanian wild life artist and core TRU team member sketched the fine details of a well preserved Thylacine foot for later reference.
It was this sketch that Bill later used to compare with a cast taken by Rusty Morley in the Adamsfield area in the late 80s. This cast had not been previously seen in any media and much to everyone’s surprise the shape of the planter pads was a match with Bill’s drawing – as Bill noted in the documentary – the finding really shook his scepticism – it was a strong indication that Thylacine were alive in South West Tasmania in the 80s.
Drawing of the Thylacine foot - TMAG - Bill Flowers
Whilst some commentators suggest that there is a lack of information about what kind of physical evidence a Thylacine would actually leave – for example what would a Thylacine footprint actually look like? The Tasmanian government files have a wealth of information and facts – including sizes and the important ratios of toe to planter pad ratio across a range of animals as well as angles of toes and what the Thylacine gait was. Further to this, nature has also left detailed Thylacine footprints preserved in sediment rock that allow for the analysis of print patterns and gaits.
A fossilised Thylacine track line allows good comparison for any suspected Thylacine prints recovered in the field
So what of the future? Is it possible that the Thylacine is still extant? Despite TRU’s assessment that the Thylacine is most likely extinct the team all agree that it is definitely possible that the animal could still be out there – albeit critically endangered. It is for this reason that they continue their search. If the animal is extant, it is obvious that the animal hasn’t made a comeback in terms re-establishing its previously lost numbers so therefore it would likely need positive intervention or at the very least additional protection to be able to survive.
Thylacine sightings continue to be received by the team and with the team’s recent media coverage has meant more witnesses are coming forward with their stories. Even old sightings have been recorded for the time. These older reports are still useful and they assist in populating the team’s database and geographic information system. Warren Darragh, the team’s technical adviser has crunched the numbers and has found that the number of sightings is actually declining – indicating that if the Thylacine is still around its time may be running out. With TRU's access to all of the Government’s sighting reports – plus those made directly to TRU it is believed that they possess the most complete reflection of the sighting data available to any researchers.
Thylacine sightings over time – the trend is heading in the wrong direction
Recharged with the new data, tools, and techniques TRU continue to expand their search. Thanks to private contributions from mum and dad supporters, they have acquired a growing array of cameras which are deployed to the field 24/7 - although that more cameras are always needed. The team leverages their database and geographic information system to determine the best place to setup cameras – based on sightings, habitat, and recent history. The data is then combined with Chris and Bill’s years of experience with Tasmanian wildlife and in particular the behaviour of other marsupial carnivores to determine the best position for cameras and other evidence collection strategies.
TRU continue to venture into the field – to ever more remote and difficult landscapes. They plan to expand their range of activities both in the field and also in front the camera to provide more information about the search for the Thylacine. Their hunt continues.