On this day: Death of the last Tasmanian tiger

By Courtenay Rule 7 November 2013
Reading Time: 2 Minutes Print this page
On 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo.

OF THE ALARMING number of native species that have disappeared since Europeans arrived in Australia, probably none has captured our imagination as much as the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger. Long extinct on the mainland (probably due to competition from the introduced dingo), this unique animal, the largest carnivorous marsupial to exist in modern times, still thrived in the forests of Tasmania, until the colonists – with their sheep farms and firearms – arrived.

With its dog-like head, powerful jaws and striped body, the thylacine was soon labelled a marsupial ‘wolf’, ‘tiger’ or ‘hyena’, and increasingly demonised as a sheep-killer – although feral dogs and thieving humans were a much greater threat to the livestock industry. As the 19th century went on, hunting and trapping took a merciless toll on thylacines, especially after a bounty on their heads was introduced by the government in 1888. By the time the bounty was lifted in 1909, the species had been driven to the brink of extinction.

Last known footage of the Tasmanian tiger, at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, 1932. (Source: National Film and Sound Archive)

For decades beforehand, perceptive naturalists had warned that the thylacine’s survival was in danger, and in the early 20th century, conservationists urged the Tasmanian Government to declare the thylacine a protected species. However, they were up against both powerful pastoralists still keen on making the thylacine a scapegoat, and the prejudices of then-current science, which saw thylacines and other marsupials as ‘primitive’ creatures that would inevitably die out under pressure from more ‘highly evolved’ introduced species.

In July 1936, thylacines were finally granted full protection. Two months later, on 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine died in Hobart Zoo.

The thylacine remains a potent symbol for conservationists, and today, the anniversary of the last thylacine’s death, is National Threatened Species Day in Australia. As author David Owen writes, the tragic loss of the thylacine “glaringly symbolises wanton, careless destruction of the natural world” – a fitting reminder of what we have lost, and of the urgent need for action to prevent other species from suffering the same fate.