Tasmanian Tigers and Aboriginals: Which is extinct?

There is a parallel history between Tasmanian people and their iconic mammal, the Thylacine, and both have been called extinct.

Flying overhead as my plane makes its way to the airport, Tasmania is a patchwork quilt in hues of green.  I’ve heard Tasmania called the ‘Ireland of the South’ and that seems to fit as far as it goes.  The Island, the smallest state of Australia is cool, wet and green.  There are enormous ferns growing into trees and Eucalypt trees vie with California redwoods for grandeur claiming the title of largest trees in the Southern hemisphere.  Rocky cliffs and lonely beaches edge the coast where the world’s smallest penguin, the Fairy or Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor) nest in burrows they dig or are supplied by hopeful bird enthusiasts.  Waiting on a beach one dark night, I startled a Blue Penguin, who nearly fell over himself scampering down from the hilltop where I watched back towards the ocean.  I felt terrible.  

I came to Tasmania on something of a whim.  I had found a Help Exchange host willing to put me up on his subsistence farm surrounded by forest near Derby for a month in exchange for work, mainly on the farm.  I rented a car and spent two weeks driving around the island, sleeping in the car (it was colder than I expected when I packed my tent), walking around towns, forest trails and along beaches.      

There is a deep stain of the past on the beauty of present day Tasmania.  The island was taken as a penal colony by the British.  Tasmania was also a place where prisoners already shipped to Australia were sent if they were repeat offenders, a sort of end of the line.  In Port Arthur, a historical penal colony the stories’ of some of these prisoners is still told.  One prisoner was Samuel Holmes, a boy of 14, convicted of larceny.    

While staying at the subsistence farm, Peter, the man who I was exchanging my labor to for room and board, took me to visit a friend of his.  He was a tall man with white hair and a friendly, calm personality, inviting me into his house graciously.  The man lived in one room of his family estate, a rambling old building all walled off except for his small chamber with a fireplace apparently for warmth and for cooking.  He was the last heir to the estate, with no daughters or sons to inherit it from him and its end seemed to be one of slow decay around a solitary room with a solitary occupant.  There was a small farm or garden, there were vegetables and there were chickens.  There was a hill behind the house I climbed to find the delicate, crushed rings of a broken crinoid (sea lily) stem weathering out of the limestone.  

All around the man’s property he had set up cameras triggered by motion detectors that should photograph any animal moving in proximity.  There is a standing reward for a photograph of a living Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and this man was determined to catch the famed marsupial on film.  Officially the Thylacine is extinct.  The last known individual died in a zoo in Hobart of exposure.

While reading about Tasmania, I encountered many previously unknown facts.  I’d never thought much of the island state and I was excited to learn about caves with glow worms (some of which I visited).  I giggled to myself in true Colorado hubris over Tasmanian ‘mountains’ which may get snow in the winter.  I learned that native Tasmanians were annihilated by British colonists and the government.  

Then I learned that there are living people who claim ancestry of native Tasmanians.  In the days when the Australian government was bent on eradicating completely Tasmanian natives from the face of the Earth, whalers sometimes kidnapped Tasmanian women to make them concubines or sex slaves.  Sometimes the Tasmanian women had children.  Needless to say the children of such unions were cared for more by their mothers, inherited more culture from their mothers; these children were indeed Tasmanian natives.

In official history after a prolonged campaign of genocide followed by benign neglect of natives as wards of the state, the last ‘full blooded’ Tasmanian died.  The official last Tasmanian was a man mocked as ‘King Billy of the Tasmanians’ during his life.  In death ‘King Billy’ was carved up by competing scientists, one of which made a snuff bag from his skin.  Another woman had her skeleton on display in a Tasmanian museum for decades, against her will while she was alive.  Anthropology in Tasmania’s early days seemed a way to justify racial hatred rather than anything resembling true science.

Peter and I discussed the remote possibility that Tasmanian Tigers still lived in the wilder parts of Tasmania.  I expressed extreme doubt, but Peter was a little more hopeful but in a rather cynical way.  Peter wondered whether it was in the government’s best interest, especially in the interest of the forestry department, to suppress or ignore Thylacine sightings.  It was a question I wasn’t so sure about.  I was well indoctrinated into standard conservation in the U.S. and much of that seemed similar to Tasmania.  National parks existed in the US and Tasmania; forestry was practiced in both places.  Surely a government organization existing to protect and manage wildlife wouldn’t be driving a species to extinction with knowing neglect?  Peter pressed the issue; more money was to be made through logging, mining and other activities than through protecting a Thylacine.  Peter had a point.  

Historically the government of Britain, Australia and Tasmania was as vehemently anti-thylacine as the US government has been anti-wolf, anti-coyote and anti-bear.  Just as an official and recent policy of equality doesn’t wipe out a history of slavery, discrimination, violence and genocide, so to a recent (and rather ambivalent in the US) policy of not driving predators to extinction doesn’t wipe out the past.  

There was a bounty on Tasmanian Tigers encouraging the destruction of the species.  The government didn’t embrace Thylacine conservation until only one known individual was left alive, in a zoo in Hobart.  The last known Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity when the door mechanism on his enclosure failed to let him shelter inside on an especially cold night.  You can find YouTube footage of this last Thylacine, short but haunting, an animal in a cage with an almost unnaturally large gape.    

Strangely, as hard as it is to find the truth that there are still living Tasmanian Aborigines, it seems hard for everyone to admit the extinction of the Thylacine.  There are projects moving towards the possibility of cloning Tasmanian Tigers.  There are also a lot of Thylacine sightings, even by rather reliable observers such as National Park employees and experienced outdoors persons.  As late as this past year, there was a sighting in mainland Australia of an animal which could be a Tasmanian Tiger.  Technically Thylacines did once live on mainland Australia, before Europeans arrived, there’s a petroglyph of the animal on the mainland.  

There is real hope that Thylacines live, but it says something rather dark that we as westerners embrace the idea of reviving Tasmanian Tigers and rather ambivalent about revival of Tasmanian Aboriginal culture.  Either way, there are plenty of political motivations for declaring Tasmanian Natives or the Thylacine extinct.       

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Contributing Writer