An endless quest: the search for the Tasmanian tiger

The Tasmanian tiger is officially extinct. Yet as biologists investigate plausible sightings, it’s clear the search never stopped.
By Peter Meredith September 5, 2017 Reading Time: 3 Minutes

THE EXTINCTION OF the thylacine was the tragic climax of a clash between Tasmania’s European colonists and an ecosystem they seriously misunderstood. Conventional wisdom has it that by 1803, when the first settlers arrived on the island, thylacines had already been extinct on the Australian mainland for some 2000 years.

Nick Mooney, a wildlife officer for the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service until 2009 and now an independent wildlife biologist, estimates there were about 2100 on the island, and colonists didn’t come into contact with them until 1805, when a pack of dogs killed one.

From then on this so-called Tasmanian wolf or hyena instilled an irrational fear in residents, mostly arising from their total ignorance of the animal. They saw it as a mortal danger both to livestock – mainly sheep – and themselves. So they began savagely evicting it from its ancient habitat – shooting, snaring, poisoning and trapping it.

By 1909 thylacines were scarce, the slaughter having been hastened by a government bounty scheme that paid out on 2184 carcasses. The last to be killed in the wild was shot in 1930 by farmer Wilf Batty. The last one caught in the wild was sold to Hobart Zoo in 1933. It died there on 7 September 1936 and was thought to have been the last of its kind. In 1982 the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the thylacine extinct and in 1986 the Tasmanian government followed suit.

The last-known footage of a thylacine, at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in 1932. The thylacine bit the cameraman David Fleay. (Footage: National Film and Sound Archive)

But that’s not the last chapter in this sorry saga. Nick Mooney says it’s “entirely possible” 100 or more thylacines may have survived in the wild after 1936. A 2016 study published in Australian Zoologist concludes that some may have been around through the 1940s and perhaps later. Since then sighting reports have continued – more than 900 since 1936 in Tasmania and reputedly a similar number from the mainland. Interestingly, most mainland reports are from the south-east and far south-west.

A supposed sighting from earlier this year (Footage: Paul Day)

People who report sightings come from all walks of life and many have little prior knowledge of the creature they say they’ve seen. Few seem to have an ulterior motive for making a false report, such as a desire for fame, money or to perpetrate a successful hoax. They genuinely believe they saw a Tasmanian tiger.

Aside from these many one-off witnesses, there are a number of dedicated tiger-seekers, both in Tasmania and on the mainland, who spend a lot of money and time searching for what has become one of the world’s legendary creatures. A proportion of these can be said to be ‘true believers’ who have absolutely no doubt the tiger is alive. Some say they have seen it; others believe they have been close, either because they have smelt its pungent scent or heard its unusual calls. All hope that incontrovertible proof of the tiger’s continued existence will one day surface. And the best proof would be a live animal.

So, are they unquestionably extinct? Or might a few be holding out in remote bushland somewhere? Unfortunately, despite the hopes, dreams and prodigious efforts of a surprising number of people, there’s not a shred of conclusive proof of this possibility – no convincing photographs or video, no verifiable footprints and no roadkills.

Tammy Gordon, the collection officer at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston and co-author of the book Tasmanian Tiger: Precious Little Remains, says no thylacine has been brought to the museum in the past 80 years. “The museum has a file of sightings dating from the 1930s, but in the 30 years that I have been here I have not seen anything I would consider evidence.”

And yet the search goes on. Why? Are tiger-hunters deluding themselves? Are the true believers too starry-eyed to face the facts? What drives them? Some searchers may have quite basic motives, such as a desire for fame, notoriety or fortune. Others say they love the bush and that looking for the thylacine gives them a good excuse to be in it.

But a number raise more complex issues. “By searching for this animal I feel I’m honouring its existence,” says Mike Williams, who’s been searching for thylacines in Tasmania since the early 2000s. “We treated it savagely, we did horrific things to it, but if we find it we’ll know we haven’t destroyed it and could say we humans aren’t as bad as we thought we were. It would be a form of redemption.”

Eric Schwarz, a senior wildlife management officer in Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, agrees. “There’s definitely an element of guilt in this,” he says. “I think people hope that a wrong will be righted by the knowledge that we didn’t exterminate it. It’s almost as if we’d be exonerated.”

This is an extract from an article originally published in Australian Geographic Issue 138.