This week, Australians will mark, but definitely not celebrate, a poignant and rather shameful anniversary. 75 years will have passed since the last Tasmanian Tiger died at Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936. Nowadays, he is known as Benjamin, although it's not at all clear whether 'he' was male or female.
This last survivor of a wider family of carnivorous marsupials, once common in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea, is said to have died of exposure during a spell of unusually bad weather. Certainly, the haunting last newsreel footage of Benjamin shows a pathetic, tottering creature. At the time, few seemed to mourn his passing: certainly not the farmers who branded Thylacines, as they were officially known, voracious, blood-supping sheep-killers. Many years earlier, Sir Richard Owen, the English anatomist, had joined the chorus, declaring, after examining a skull, that the Thylacine was 'one of the fellest and most destructive of predatory beasts.' Already scarce on the Australian mainland before the arrival of European settlers, they were shot in droves in the 19th and 20th centuries and their bodies displayed as trophies by boastful bounty hunters. Oddly, in the circumstances, the people of Tasmania are proud of their lost Tiger: 2 are resplendent on the island's coat of arms.
75 years on, this ruthless and mainly systematic extinction, perhaps the first to have its last stages recorded on film, still casts a long shadow. To be fair, other factors such as disease and the destruction of the Thylacine's habitat probably contributed to its demise. Rescue efforts were made, but they were too feeble and far too late. In the 19th century, several pairs were sent to Regent's Park zoo in London, but they failed to breed. In Tasmania, a law banning hunting them was not passed until Benjamin's last days. By way of amends, conservationists have named 7 September 'National Threatened Species Day', and some have at last set out to study this curious creature, so casually wiped out.
The latest research, on which we have been reporting at r2mw.com, reveals a very different picture of the Thylacine to the one traditionally painted. Scientists from the University of New South Wales examined the creature's anatomy and reported this month that 'the allegations that [Thylacines] were a major threat to Australia's sheep industry were unjustified'. Their jaws, it turns out, were simply too weak to snaffle a sheep. Meanwhile, investigators in the United States asked themselves that great Thylacine FAQ: was it a wolf or a cat? The answer proved surprising: it seems not to have been the aggressive wolf of legend, but more of a 'cat-like fox', which ambushed, rather than attacked, its prey.
But perhaps it was none of these things that actually did for the Tasmanian Tiger. Instead, its public image, cynically fashioned by artists, journalists, and photographers, may have been to blame. A researcher named Carol Freeman has pointed the finger at a lithograph of one of the London Zoo pairs published in 1851. It's hardly a flattering portrayal: the Tigers, not especially threatening in the original sketch, were made to look more savage than they really were, while the accompanying text referred to them as 'zebra-wolves'. This set the tone for later photographers, some of whom, in the hope of sending a frisson of fear through newspaper readers, used their darkest dark-room arts to ensure that Thylacines looked menacing. One much reproduced, and therefore influential, photo, has been called into question. It purports to show a Thylacine stealing poultry, but the suggestion is that the chicken was dead and that its killer had reached the 'bush setting' via the taxidermist.
There's a remote possibility that the breast-beating is unnecessary. Cryptozoologists, those relentless pursuers of Congo dinosaurs and Himalayan Yeti, still gather reports of survivors. One, Murray McAllister features 4 on his website from this year alone. The 'sightings' are invariably fleeting and usually made in the wee small hours, but this is as would be expected of a shy creature known to have hunted by night. The late Dr Eric Guiler of the University of Tasmania interviewed many similar eyewitnesses and found them credible enough to organise a series of searches. He even chose a possible site for a reserve on an offshore island for any he found. It stands empty: like Benjamin's enclosure after 7 September 1936.