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Extinct or Elusive? Hunting the Tasmanian Tiger

Stephanie Peatling in Sydney
for National Geographic News
July 25, 2005
 
They are one of Australia's most mythical creatures, a striped mammal
the size of a dog known as the thylacine. The last captive example died
in 1936, but the Tasmanian tiger has prowled the national consciousness
ever since.

So much so that an Australian magazine recently offered a million-dollar (U.S.) reward for anyone who could prove that creature still exists.

Some Australians believe the thylacine lives, and one might be forgiven for imagining that the tiger is simply hiding out in the ancient forests of Tasmania, where rumors about the enigmatic creature swirl like smoke in its natural habitat.

Web sites are devoted to the search for the tiger. And no less an institution than the Australian Museum made international headlines a few years ago when it announced plans to try to clone a Tasmanian tiger using DNA from preserved tissue.

But nothing has set believers in the tiger buzzing like a recent announcement from The Bulletin. The Australian magazine announced it would offer a 1.25-million-dollar (Australian) reward for the capture of a live and uninjured animal.

"Like many others living in a world where mystery is an increasingly rare thing, we wanted to believe," the magazine's editor in chief, Garry Linnell, said. "Perhaps deep in the pristine Tasmanian wilderness, something magical was waiting."

The magazine provided a three-month window for someone to capture what no team of scientists, adventurers, or dreamers had been able to do for 70 years.

Tiger Hunt

While the Bulletin attracted much publicity for its bold plan, the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Environment, and Water was less than impressed.

Department wildlife officer Nick Mooney participated in one of the last official searches for the tiger in 1982. He said he was initially concerned about the new bounty until he realized the "bar was set so high no one who read the conditions would even attempt it."

"All it did was raise the issue, which was positive. But it also trivialized it a bit, which was negative," Mooney said.

"There's always six, eight, ten sightings a year, depending on the year, and they're highly variable in quality, and there's always some tantalizing ones," he said. "Many are just illusion or misidentification. There are ones that are extremely real and credible, but there's just no evidence [that the thylacine still exists]."

"The only way you can confirm it is if you get hold of it, or there's footprints or something."

Such proof has evaded even the most hardy explorers for decades. Mooney's own department closed the books on its search almost 20 years ago, following the official declaration of the species extinction in 1986.

Fossils and Aboriginal rock paintings indicate that the thylacine once lived throughout Australia and Papua New Guinea.

The dingo, a wild dog, is thought to have contributed to the tiger's demise on mainland Australia and in Papua New Guinea. The dingo competed with the thylacine for food—and also ate it.

For a while, the Bass Strait, the body of water separating Tasmania from the Australian mainland, protected the remaining Tasman tiger population.

But that safe haven vanished once Europeans discovered Tasmania in 1803: Settlers began converting large tracts of the island to sheep farming, leading to conflict between farmers and the native predator.

A bounty was introduced in 1830, and by the time the reward was terminated in 1909, more than 2000 thylacines had been killed.

The last tiger was captured in 1933 and sold to the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania. The creature died three years later.

Belief

That the Bulletin was willing to even launch a search for the Tasmanian tiger today testifies to the power of positive thinking.

By the time the three-month period ended earlier this month, the magazine's editor in chief had been inundated with "proof" from all over the world.

Photos of dogs painted with stripes were sent to the magazine's Sydney offices, along with maps, stories, and letters from a readership that was divided over whether such a search was in the best interests of any remaining animals.

"Several scientists wrote to us seeking funds for research projects connected with the thylacine," Linnell said.

"Other readers wanted to quit their jobs and spend a year on the island searching for the animal—as long as we provided them with a healthy salary," he added. "A gentleman from Germany wrote to say he had been dreaming of the tiger, that he thought he now knew where it was, and that the Bulletin should sponsor his expedition based on his visions."

"We fully agreed with him. He was definitely dreaming.''

While the Bulletin has admitted defeat, those who keep the faith believe any surviving thylacines are better off staying hidden.

Mooney, the Tasmanian wildlife official, keeps in contact with the serious band of tiger believers in Tasmania. He says his good relations with the groups mean the government has effectively "outsourced" the hunt and will be among the first to know of any evidence worth examining.

"There is the argument that thylacines are on the edge of extinction, so we should stop everything [that is a threat to it], such as forestry and so on,'' Mooney noted.

"Another argument, which I tend to agree with, says things are pretty good for [the tigers] if they are there. There's a general excuse for just letting things roll along, because food, shelter, and all those things look good."

He certainly doesn't dismiss the believers as crazy or misguided.

"There is a de facto search going on, and the more people out in the bush the better."

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