Profit and a pointless loss

January 12, 2001

In 1888, the Tasmanian government offered a bounty on the thylacine 'tiger'. Bob Paddle charts a tragic extinction.

In unseasonably early spring weather for Hobart, the last known thylacine died of neglect during the night of September 7 1936. The young female had been locked out of its den and exposed to the elements, with temperatures soaring from about 0C each night to 37C during the day. With Tasmania in the grips of depression, Hobart zoo was already designated for closure - the curator had been sacked, professional staff replaced with sustenance workers and the animals refused veterinary treatment. No one was interested in the animal's demise. The Tasmanian Museum refused to take the body of this last specimen. Instead, it was dumped with the rest of the zoo's garbage.

The thylacine's extinction had been predicted as early as 1838. At the time, European land alienation in Tasmania was preferentially directed at taking over grasslands, temperate woodlands and coastal areas, the preferred habitat of these shy, retiring animals. The size of a large dog, with light to deep brown fur striped along their backs, they were dubbed Tasmanian tigers, though these marsupials were more closely related to kangaroos and koalas than to felines. Living in stable adult pairs, they raised as many as four young at any one time, who remained with their parents for up to two years before the next generation of young became independent of the pouch. As the first invading humans bred, spread and fed, they altered the Australian environment, exterminating prey and predator species, introducing fire, other feral species, agriculture and private land ownership. Over 60,000 years, the Australian super-continent, stretching from New Guinea to Tasmania, lost its giant birds, reptiles and marsupials. At the time of the last major human invasion of Australia - the arrival of the Europeans - the thylacine was the only large carnivorous marsupial left and it was found only in Tasmania, which for 11,000 years had been isolated from the mainland by sea.

From 1826 onwards, thylacines were raised in captivity and kept as pets. To the individuals with whom they established a bond, they proved to be rewarding companions, similar to dogs. However, by the 1830s, at the outskirts of colonial settlement, they were sometimes scapegoated for a lack of profit in sheep farming, a problem due primarily to sheep companies choosing inappropriate land, incompetent middle management and widespread predation on stock by feral dogs.

In the 1880s, the price of wool fell, farming ventures collapsed, and land leased from the Tasmanian government for sheep was given up. The thylacine was again made the scapegoat. Against all available statistics on the state of sheep farming, the rural lobby in parliament forced through a government bounty scheme against the animal, which commenced in 1888 and ran for 21 years. At its peak, the Tasmanian government paid a bounty on a thylacine, on average, once every two days. After 2,207 claimed killings, in the scheme's final year, 1909, the government had to pay out only once. In anyone's language, this represents a significant attack on the species.

A number of attempts were made to establish the thylacine in captivity, but successful breeding was achieved only at Melbourne zoo. Efforts were also made to protect wild populations with the establishment of Tasmania's National Park in 1916. Unfortunately, a survey of the park in 1923 failed to find any evidence of the animal within its boundaries. Subsequent calls to establish a sanctuary specifically for the species were thwarted politically, as were attempts to grant it legal protection.

The predicted extinction of this species took almost 100 years to reach fruition. With the level of knowledge possessed by those individuals who kept them as pets, the naturalists who observed the animal in the bush, and the scientists who successfully bred them in captivity, it should have been quite possible to save the thylacine. But Australian scientists blindly accepted marsupial inferiority, a product of the selling of Darwin's "descent with modification" by combining it with the concept of progress. This encouraged the professional attitude that, in the long run, any attempt at preservation was doomed.

Tasmanian naturalists, scientists and aware community members failed the thylacine - through complacency, inappropriate theoretical models of evolution and misplaced trust in the political processes involved in attempting to protect the species. Effective legislation to protect the species was persistently disrupted by successive Tasmanian governments, and legal protection was attained only on July 10 1936 - 59 days before that last, lonely female died in Hobart. Competing political and economic interests with designs on the destruction of the Australian environment, accompanied by persistent government support, unsurprisingly, won out in the end.

Bob Paddle is a comparative psychologist at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia, and author of The Last Tasmanian Tiger (Cambridge University Press).

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