The last thylacine to die in captivity came to its demise here, at this former zoo site in Hobart’s Domain park, in 1936. Its name was – possibly – Benjamin. It may have been a female and died of neglect; after a hot day, the animal was locked outside of its shelter overnight in suddenly freezing temperatures. Her body – known to be the last captive specimen in existence – was thrown in the rubbish.
Colloquially known as the Tasmanian tiger for distinctive black striping along its spine, the thylacine looked more like a wolf, but was in fact a marsupial related to neither. It evolved on the Australian continent and in New Guinea to fill a niche fitted by dogs and wolves elsewhere, although was made largely extinct through the impact of humans and/or dingos about 2000 years ago. Its survival on the island of Tasmania, however, made it the largest carnivore there, and its apex predator.
Aboriginal Tasmanians are believed to have called the thylacine ‘corinna’, among other names. It is believed that it was hunted and eaten by Aboriginal bands. Diplomat-missionary George Robinson recorded some mythology surrounding the thylacine – namely that dramatic weather events were ‘attributed to the circumstance of the carcase of the hyaena being left exposed’.
Dutch sailor Abel Tasman reported seeing footprints like those of a tiger’s on the shore in 1642. Upon European settlement, the thylacine was treated as an enemy. Known also as a ‘hyena’ and exclusively carnivorous, thylacines did indeed attack sheep flocks and disturbed agricultural practices implanted by the migrants. A bounty was put upon the thylacine as early as 1830, and between agriculturalists and the Tasmanian Government, over 2000 bounties were claimed over a number of decades.
Benjamin was caught in the Florentine Valley by Elias Churchill in 1933 and given to the Hobart Zoo. The manager of the zoo was Alison Reid, who said that the animal had no pet name; debate over the animal’s gender continues to simmer.
Since, though, the thylacine – Thylacinus cynocephalus – has come to adorn the logos of cricket teams, beer bottles and local councils. It’s on the Tasmanian number plate. The tragic history of the thylacine has been depicted in books and films, and used as an example to promote the conservation of other rare and endangered animals.
Was Benjamin truly the last thylacine on Earth? There are believers and sceptics on the topic. Conversations about the thylacine sound much like religious debate. The dramatic level of loss in Tasmania adds to the weight of the discussion: for there have been extinctions, as well as the erasure of huge amounts of indigenous knowledge and culture, all throughout the island since Europeans arrived.
The outcome is a matter of eternity too. For after all, if there are no more tigers in the forests, they are gone forever.
Or is it? Can scientific methods recreate Thylacinus cynocephalus? If we can, should we? Can we repopulate the forests with this poorly-understood and much-maligned creature? Or can we simply let go, own up to our sins, and let dead wolves lie?
In Tasmania, it seems even life and death isn't clear-cut.
There is, as well, the story of a man named Bert, who is said to have once upon a time snared a tiger in the forests of Tasmania’s north – but that’s a yarn for another time.
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