On a cold September evening in 1936, Frank Darby locked a door at the Hobart Zoo and closed the coffin on a species. That night, while Darby was presumably home in bed, the last known Tasmanian tiger died from exposure to a brisk winter wind.
That animal’s name was Benjamin, and though a whopping $30 was allocated by the zoo to fund his replacement, Benjamin’s species, officially named the thylacine, has been declared extinct ever since.
Eight decades after Frank Darby closed that door, I find myself walking the coastline near Hobart wondering if the Tasmanian tiger is gone for good. At my feet, a wandering set of footprints traces a line from the surf into a dense forest above. The prints have four toes and long claws. For a moment, I wonder if just perhaps they could be…No. It seems impossible, unlikely at best.
Americans reading this will recognize Tasmania more from a cartoon devil than a map. Even among Australians, the island hanging from the bottom of their continent like a forgotten, fallen star is often an afterthought. But in actuality, it’s a very real, very large place. In square mileage, Tasmania is about the size of Indiana; but from a biodiversity standpoint, it might as well be Brazil.
This island is covered in temperate rainforests where dense, mossy undergrowth melds with gum trees which rival the California redwood in height. In between, brightly colored birds that look more at home in the Amazon flutter about in fluorescent shades of green, red, blue and purple. Beneath them, a carnival of marsupials bounce around on two legs, dangling young in pouches beneath their bellies. And in the water, duck-billed otters with venomous feet dart silently under the waves.
The abundance of wildlife here is overwhelming; the species here are too numerous to be listed and too exotic to be fully described, and yet, the shadow of the Tasmanian tiger hovers like a guillotine over them all.
Images of the tiger grace the license plate of every Tasmanian car. Whispered rumors of sightings float around the island’s bars every few years, creating a Bigfoot-like mythology for what was a very real creature. The tiger is smart, they say. The ones that are left hide from people. They know who hunted them to extinction. They know about the government-placed bounties on their heads.
These rumors swirl despite that fact that during the tiger’s lengthy coexistence with modern humans—a period of roughly 150 years from Tasmania’s founding in the late 1700’s—the curious marsupial was not known to be especially intelligent or difficult to capture. Apparently, though the Tasmanian tiger very much resembled a dog, it didn’t quite possess canine-like intelligence.
Dancing with the devil
Still, in the decades since Benjamin perished, dozens of tiger sightings have been reported across Tasmania and on mainland Australia. And as I trace the paw prints, most likely from a dog, away from the beach, I’m led towards a pint-sized glimmer of hope that some of those sightings could have been true. That glimmer is found several miles down the road, on an isolated peninsula more than an hour from the city, in a place ironically called the Unzoo.
The Unzoo aims to be exactly what its name implies: it’s a roadside sanctuary where many native animals are free to come and go as they please. Make no mistake; however, this research and conservation center also houses a host of captive critters, most of whom have been deemed unable to return to the wild for one reason or another. Among them is an unnamed Tasmanian devil who’s up early for an afternoon snack.
“We don’t name the animals here,” his keeper explains. “We don’t want them to be seen as pets. They’re still wild animals. That’s important to remember.”
When the Tasmanian tiger faded into history, the Tasmanian devil took up its title as the largest carnivorous marsupial. Though they may appear small in photos, devils have the approximate build of a medium-sized dog. They are short and strong, very much like an English bulldog, with one key difference—Tasmanian devils can chew straight through bone. Their jaw pressure of 400 pounds per square inch is thought to be the highest in the animal kingdom.
Devils are the signature animal of Tasmania. Thanks to their voraciousness and a little help from Warner Brothers, they may even be more famous than the tiger itself. Sadly, in our lifetime, the Tasmanian devil has faced a population decline of over 90%. But, unlike its cousin, the road to extinction began of natural causes: an organic mutation of a fatal tissue cancer that’s passed from devil to devil as they feed. The disease is called DFTD, and on mainland Tasmania, it has devil populations are in dire straights.
Today, holdouts like the male devil feasting on a slab of wallaby at the Unzoo are becoming part of the solution.
“No vaccine has proven effective,” says the keeper. “We have tried and failed to find one. But we have found is that the devils are starting to fight back on their own. They are breeding at a younger age, which helps increase their numbers more quickly. The ones who are contracting the cancer are living just long enough to have their litter. This passes on an immunity to the next generation. It’s amazing how nature adapts when a species somehow senses its numbers falling.”
According to the Unzoo, conservation officials in Tasmania are now holding over 1,000 cancer-free devils at sanctuaries off of the main island. They’re waiting for the disease to kill itself off before releasing them, and judging by the average lifespan of a devil—three to five years—they don’t anticipate waiting long.
The next day, after searching for and failing to find even a remote hint of the Tasmanian tiger on the coast, I decide to head inland where the mountains climb higher and the forest becomes even thicker. I trade sandy shoes for muddy boots on the ground at Mount Field National Park, just a few miles from where a trio of Australians captured what they believe is video evidence of a living thylacine in 2017.
I want to see for myself whether this forest really is capable of hiding a large, predatory animal. If the Tasmanian tiger is still alive, does it have a place to hide? Does it have anything left to eat?
Could it be slowly adapting, readying itself for a comeback?
Just a few hundred feet from the main road here, I’m immediately immersed in an astonishingly noisy forest of fern, moss, eucalyptus and gum trees. Though I’m on a well-traveled path, a short hike reveals uncountable numbers of native birds and several large, kangaroo-like animals called pademelons that are at least the size of a the full-grown devil from the day prior. Mount Field is a land of natural abundance, of which only a tiny fraction can be accessed by footpaths or cars.
Even still, it remains one of the most accessible national parks in Tasmania. Several of the 19 Australian national parks located on the island have no roads within their borders. And, slightly more than half of the entire island is blanketed by those parks.
In American terms, the remoteness of Tasmanian is a close relative to Alaska. In other words, if the hiking trail at Mount Field is any indicator at all, a large predator animal would have plenty of hiding spaces here.
But what about the rest of Tasmania? A further 28% of the island is allocated to ranches and farms. If you’re keeping count, that makes about 80% of the total landmass available here either wild or rural. For a closer look at the rural side, I load up the car and venture into the sheep ranches midlands, because it’s impossible to tell the story of the Tasmanian tiger without talking sheep.
2,184—that’s the number of bounties paid out by the island authorities for dead thylacines from 1830 to 1909. The total sum of those bounties? £2,184. Today, that’s worth about $2,600. In 1900, the figure would have been worth nearly $75,000.
Apparently, $75,000 is the going rate for extinctions. But why was a bounty placed on the Tasmanian tiger to begin with?
For the same reasons that wolves were eliminated from much of their native habitat in the United States, the thylacine was carelessly hunted in Tasmania. For ranchers, livestock mean money and any threat to livestock, whether real or perceived, is a threat to their livelihood. So, when sheep were introduced to Tasmania in 1824, a conflict with the island’s unusual apex predator was inevitable.
If the lens of history has shown us anything since 1824, it’s that Colonial white people were stupid. It should come as no surprise then, that research reveals the jaws of a Tasmanian tiger to be nearly useless at sheep slaying. In reality, this poorly understood predator was hunted to extinction out of fear and greed, one pound stirling for one thylacine head.
By 1909, tigers were so rare that the bounty was deemed unnecessary. By the time Benjamin shivered through his last cold breathes in 1936, Tasmanian tigers were already living unicorns.
Did the Tasmanian tiger survive extinction?
Modern Tasmanians recognize the extinction of the thylacine as a great shame upon their state. It’s one of the reasons organizations like the Unzoo are working overtime to kickstart the Tasmanian devil’s victory lap against cancer.
Losing another a-list animal to extinction seems unthinkable, but there are at least a few Australians who think the Tasmanian tiger may have survived beyond Benjamin’s death.
Ben Lomond is a full three hours from Mount Field, but this part of the country has also been a hotspot for reported tiger sightings since the 1930’s. It’s a landscape dominated by a 3,900 foot monolith, under which thick stands of national forest intermingle with vast swaths of ranch land. If a Tasmanian tiger was capable of taking down a sheep, it would have no trouble here. The livestock here are eager and dumb; hundreds waddle up to greet me as I pull over for a photo.
Overhead, dozens of birds sound an alarm to which the sheep pay no mind.
These animals seem less than concerned about any predators. As for the Booth Richardson Tiger Team’s footage? I’ve seen it, and I remain unconvinced.
What I do find convincing, though, is the evidence I’ve gathered myself over the past few days—an understanding of the vast, wild nature of Tasmania and indications that its native animals somehow sense and learn to fend off extinction.
Is that evidence enough to draw a final conclusion on the fate of the Tasmanian tiger? No. But it’s also not enough to give up hope.