Tasmanian tigers brought to life

By Amy Middleton 24 February 2011
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The largest private collection of Tasmanian tiger relics helps explain how the marsupials lived, and how they died.

THE LARGEST PRIVATE COLLECTION of Tasmanian tiger artefacts sheds light on how the dog-like marsupials were driven to extinction.

The permanent exhibition on the thylacine has opened at the Wilderness Gallery at Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain, and includes relics such as a model of a thylacine skeleton and a rug composed of eight skins.

“It’s marvellous stuff: decorative objects like rugs are rare, because people didn’t like the animals, so they weren’t keen to preserve bits of them in their houses,” says Kathryn Medlock, curator of vertebrate zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which jointly developed the exhibition.

Tasmanian tigers: feared in life, loved in death

The thylacine has become an Australian icon since its extinction in the early 20th century at the hands of Tasmanian hunters. However, according to Dr Nic Haygarth, an historian at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, mystery and fear surrounded the thylacine in years past.

Mineral prospectors, for example, lived in fear of thylacines in the Tasmanian wilderness. “These guys were alone in the bush, during the 1850s to 1870s, when there was no infrastructure,” Nic explains. “A thylacine could take their food, in which case they’d be in a desperate situation. But there was also genuine concern that a thylacine would kill, or bring its mate back and there would be two to deal with.”

There were reports of instances in which thylacines followed people for extended periods, Nic says. In particular, he remembers the story of surveyor Selby Wilson who, in the 1890s, claimed he was followed for a full day by a thylacine. “He was completely freaked.”

1869. Thylacine shot by Weaver. 

Tasmanian tigers a threat to agriculture

The thylacines’ bad rap is likely a result of its perceived threat to agriculture, says Kathryn. “They were definitely a scapegoat for other problems that were occurring,” she says. “And it’s very easy to blame the largest carnivore.”

It wasn’t just individual farmers who wanted the marsupials gone; the wool-producing Van Diemen’s Land Company also lobbied for a thylacine bounty – its success accelerated the Tasmanian tigers’ extinction.

“The Van Diemen’s Land Company certainly thought thylacines were killing their sheep,” Nic says. “But no other grazing companies in Tasmania recorded the thylacine as being a problem. [VDL] actually had much bigger problems, and were perhaps looking for a scapegoat.”

Kathryn says a stigma was attached to the carnivorous marsupial because it was seen to be fierce among Australia’s relatively benign fauna. “It was called the Tasmanian wolf and Tasmanian tiger, and there were stories about this fierce thing wandering the Australian bush. There aren’t many fierce things in the Australian bush, besides snakes.”

No doubt of Tasmanian tiger extinction cause

Thylacines may have suffered fluctuation in numbers, much like the Tasmanian devil populations, which changed dramatically between decades during the 20th century, Nic says.

While Kathryn agrees that it is common for marsupial numbers to experience peaks and crashes, she says there is no doubt that human intervention caused the extinction of the thylacine. “They were by no means on their last legs before European settlement,” she says.

There is no historical evidence, says Kathryn, that thylacines were aggressive towards humans, despite popular belief that the videographer of the famous footage of the last thylacine was attacked. “The bloke who took the video footage [of the captive thylacine] got bitten, but he was in the cage with the animal, mucking around with camera gear; that’s why he got a bit of a nip.”

Fascination about the Tasmanian tiger continues today and it’s largely spurred on by its mysterious past and the occasional claimed sighting.

The exhibition, developed with support from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, has been permanently installed at the Wilderness Gallery at Cradle Mountain in Tasmania.