August 2000, I toured Tasmania in a hired car. It’s a land where the road often takes you through endless forest and national park. Driving there at dusk, I had the privilege of seeing Wallabies, Wombats, Tasmanian devils and many other creatures but not the one everybody prays to see- the thylacine.
It’s known by many names- the Tasmanian tiger, Tasmanian wolf, hyena or simply Tassie, to name but a few- and it’s Australia’s version of the Loch Ness monster.
Thousands of years ago, the thylacine was found as far north as New Guinea- this is established from the fossil record and aboriginal cave paintings.
The average adult was nearly 2 metres long, including the tail, and stood slightly over half a metre high. It had the head of a dog, the rear end of a kangaroo with its Un-waggable tail and dark stripes down its back- hence the name tiger.
The thylacine was a hunter, usually operating by itself or in small groups. Speed wasn’t its forte- normally it relied on stealth to catch its prey. The mother carried its young in a pouch and later trained them into the gentle art of killing for a living.
When the aborigines introduced the dingo as a companion, the writing was on the wall for the thylacine. It couldn’t compete against the pack-hunting skill of the dingo nor, presumably would it do well in any unfriendly encounters.
The rising sea provided a refuge. Tasmania became separated from Australia before dingoes penetrated that far south. The job of annihilating the thylacine was left to the white settlers- many of them probably distant relations of you and I who came on involuntary assisted passages to Van Dieman’s land.
As the forests were cleared for farming, white people saw the thylacine for the first time. Apparently, they were never numerous but their liking for sheep, an easy prey, soon made them a target. In the late 1800s, they attracted a £1 bounty (big money at the time). Sadly, in retrospect, we now know that Tassie was often made a convenient scapegoat for sheep-stealers and packs of uncontrolled dogs. Tiger skins were much in demand.
European and Australian zoos took more than their fair share of thylacines, all of which died in captivity. They made poor prisoners, not thriving or breeding behind bars. The last one died in 1936. Also, around that time, disease decimated most of Tasmania’s marsupials. Fortunately, the other species recovered. Not Tassie.
In 1936, the thylacine was declared a fully protected species. It was probably too late. Not a single verified live animal has been seen since then. Cameras have been placed in woodlands. Expeditions have taken place, with no success. Nevertheless, individual reports of ﬂeeting sightings persist. Strange footprints, strange sounds, dogs recoiling in terror from an unseen enemy, kills of livestock that don’t fit a normal pattern …
To me, it’s the Loch Ness monster story all over again. But- the size and inaccessibility of Tasmania’s national parks are not to be underestimated- maybe the thylacine is making a slow recovery and, if it has any intelligence, it’ll stay well away from people.
So, why not take a drive around Tasmania? There’s a huge reward for anybody who can prove that the thylacine still exists. However, don’t catch one under your wheels or the reward might be for anybody who could throttle you!
Written by Paul Holland
Published here 10 May 2023 and originally published Christmas 2000