Last year my partner Rob and I were in Kakadu (Northern Territory). looking at indigenous rock art. For me, the most exciting image was of a thylacine, thought to be over 4,000 years old. How wonderful.
TRAPPED IN TASMANIA…
For many months in 1908 the Tasmanian coastal towns of Penguin and Ulverstone were in a state of alarm over repeated sightings of the carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian tiger. This was an unusual situation. Tigers had already been hunted to near extinction, with a bounty on their heads. It was rare for them to appear in settled areas, especially in daylight.
At the time, one of the last family groups was being exhibited at the Beaumaris private zoo, in Hobart
Initially there had been rumours that the animal was an African or Indian great cat, escaped from a travelling circus that had recently passed through. Even when it was clear it was a native tiger, or thylacine, people insisted it had not only been exposed to humans, but to music. The story went that it had entered a house at Penguin where a phonograph was playing. It left after smashing china and showing its ‘tusks’ to the startled occupants as it strolled away. Town wits suggested that the local brass band could lure it to the outskirts of town where waiting members of the rifle club would dispatch it.
Unfortunately , shooting the tiger was the first impulse. The concept of taming the wilderness was still deeply ingrained in the Tasmanian psyche (in many regards conservation is still a conflicted issue). Tigers were invariably described in pejorative terms as ‘brutes’, ‘beasts’ or ‘monsters’. In 1926 an article from the London Zoological Society was equally uncomplimentary; They are slinking and cowardly animals, but will defend themselves savagely. They seem to have a low intelligence. And from Tasmania’s North West Post in 1915; It has been proved beyond question that these brutes will not shift off the paths when met by man, and they will always attack when cornered. One was shot the other day by Mr Fred Dempster on the southern side of the Arthur River, but it took three bullets to kill the animal. The first two simply glanced off the skull and failed to penetrate the thick covering of muscle that envelops the head. The brain, instead of being in the middle of the forehead as in other animals, is just over the nose.
It was further alleged that a tiger shot at nearby Spreyton measured over 7 foot. Most of this was simply folklore and urban myth.
Nevertheless, it’s a wonder the plan wasn’t to capture the Penguin tiger alive. That same year the Beaumaris Zoo advertised a request from London Zoo for a healthy specimen. A suitable candidate duly arrived from the highlands and was shipped off aboard the White Star Liner, Persic.
There were already a number of specimens in international zoos, including the National Zoological Park in Washington D.C. The painting below by the artist Joseph Gleeson is so beautiful, but also heart breaking. It is the only known painting from life of a thylacine with her cubs. Note the extended pouch, with a cub inside that was too sickly to join its siblings.
Back in Penguin the tiger was blamed for killing settlers’ livestock. Chickens and ‘two fine, fat pigs’ disappeared from properties in Dial Road and Ironcliffe Road, just outside the Penguin township. Cyclists travelling along South Road between Ulverstone and Penguin regularly reported sightings. Dogs howled at night and horses shied in their stalls. My great-grandparents lived on South Road at the time. I wonder now whether anyone in the family had an encounter with it?
It was presumed the tiger had moved down to the coast in the hunt for food. By the following year, sightings had stopped. In 1915 it was reported that the skeleton of the tiger had been found under a tree stump on Mr Rockliffe’s farm at South Road (about three miles from Penguin). Oddly enough, this farm was directly opposite the property I grew up on.
Advertisements continued to appear in newspapers for pelts. In 1918 The Advocate published an offer of 2o shillings each.
It would be 1936 before the last Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Beaumaris Zoo, reputedly from neglect and inappropriate care.
Preserved specimens of the thylacine are held at the Australian Museum. In 2000 there was a concerted effort to extract viable DNA with the hope of cloning them. Unfortunately, in 2005 they admitted defeat.
It’s the only one I have ever handled. What a dreadful crime we committed against these unique animals. And how dearly we wish we could go back and do things differently. I should add that the tiger’s closest relative is the Tasmanian devil, currently under threat due to fatal facial tumours. Fortunately, this time we have a fighting chance of saving a critically endangered species.
I was very moved when the Spanish maker of this hand crafted Thylacine said the materials used were, ‘Wool, love, care and sadness.’ These and other extinct and endangered animals are available for purchase on the Internet
UPDATE – This is very interesting, the image of a thylacine on a 200 year old clay pipe.
New information regarding the colour and density of the thylacine’s pelt was discovered recently, ironically from a skin owned by a New Zealand collector.. CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.
DO YOU THINK THERE ARE STILL TASMANIAN TIGERS HIDING DEEP IN THE TASMANIAN WILDERNESS? MANY PEOPLE DO.