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Authors: David Owen

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BOOK: Thylacine
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First published in Australia in 2003

Copyright © David Owen 2003

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10% of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
Email: [email protected]

National Library of Australia
Cataloguing-in-Publication entry:

Owen, David.

Thylacine: the tragic tale of the Tasmanian tiger.

Includes index.

ISBN 1 86508 758 0.

1. Thylacine. 2. Rare animals—Tasmania. I. Title.


Typeset in 11pt Garamond 3 by Midland Typesetters, Maryborough, Victoria
Printed by Ligare Book Printer, Sydney

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

For Leisha, Hilton and Larry




1 What's in a name?

2 In the beginning: evolution

3 At the end: extinction

4 ‘Pathetically little is known'

5 A rugged and determined front

6 Before the fall: Trowenna

7 A land in need of taming

8 Tall tales, tiger men and bounties

9 ‘Them bloody useless things'

10 A bad finish: 7 September 1936

11 A lost object of awe

12 We wake up too late

13 The tiger in commerce and art

14 Beating a seventy-year hiccup: cloning

15 Sightings and the science of survival


Select bibliography


On 7 September 2002, Threatened Species Day was once again observed across Australia. In Hobart the blustery, windswept conditions didn't prevent stalls and exhibitions springing up on the lawns at Parliament House. Conservationists and politicians gave interviews for television and radio. The deliberately chosen date is a sorry one in Tasmanian history, for it was on 7 September 1936 that the last known thylacine, commonly known as the Tasmanian or ‘Tassie' tiger, died in captivity at the Hobart Zoo, victim of the Depression, neglect and a century of deliberate species persecution.

In an unintended, eerie coincidence, the northern city of Launceston hosted an auction that very morning, the centrepiece of which was a rug made of eight thylacine skins. It had reputedly been purchased for three pounds early in the twentieth century, since when it had remained in private hands. Now the State's two main museums and a hotel group had jointly purchased the rug for over a quarter of a million dollars. Was it right to spend all that money on memorabilia of an extinct species on the very day devoted to raising funds to help endangered ones?

This is but one more controversial and sadly ironic chapter in the ever-expanding saga of the Tasmanian tiger, the mysterious marsupial predator that evolved over tens of millions of years and was hunted to extinction in the blink of an eye, because of its supposed attacks on sheep. But why is it that the longer the animal stays dead, the more we are fascinated with it?

Guilt, remorse and the tantalising possibility of its continued existence go some way towards providing an explanation. Arguments rage over its ability to have withstood its systematic persecution through trapping and snaring, poisoning and shooting. Even now, every third Tasmanian has a ‘true' tiger-sighting story. Then there is the future. The Australian Museum's dedicated scientific team hopes to clone the thylacine by the year 2010. Preposterous or possible, no one yet knows. The only certainty is that the thylacine's story is not yet complete.

This book, one of just a handful devoted to the thylacine, is intended to be the most comprehensive yet in its coverage. Evolution and extinction, pre-European Tasmania (Trowenna), the rapid colonisation of the island with all its consequences, and the fierce conservation clashes of more recent times each have their place in the mystery-shrouded story. This nocturnal wolf/dog striped carnivore, with its huge jaws, continues to fascinate writers, artists, the true believers out there looking for it and those who, unexpectedly, become convinced they have seen one, crossing a rural road, disappearing into the bush at dusk, or trotting on a remote Tasmanian beach. All enrich the world of the thylacine.

The science of survival does not rate the animal's chances highly. But many people do, and Australia's large island state, with its great tracts of untouched wilderness and small human population, already has a strange and unlikely history, as these pages will show.

The thylacine
Tasmania. To that extent alone, it lives on.


This is a book of many voices, contemporary and long silent. Each one, no matter how modest, is part of the never-ending thylacine saga. My lengthy and varied research has particularly relied upon a number of individuals and institutions without whose generosity this book would not have taken the form presented here.

At some point in 2001 Richard Flanagan put me on the trail of the Tassie tiger—I am enormously indebted to him for this.

The staff of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG) have been unfailingly helpful over a period of two years. In particular, vertebrate curators David Pemberton and Kathryn Medlock, who oversee the world's most diverse collection of thylacine material—and who field innumerable thylacine requests from all over the world—have shared valuable information and provided invaluable critical analysis; I am grateful to them both, and haven't forgotten my beer promise. Particular thanks also to Jacqui Ward of the TMAG's Photographic Collection and to Director Bill Bleathman and Deputy Director Dr Andrew Rozefelds.

The thylacine existed safely in the island of Tasmania for tens of thousands of years prior to European settlement. A chapter in this book attempts to reconstruct something of that pre-1803 environment. I thank Greg Lehman, Assistant Director of the University of Tasmania's Riawunna Centre for Aboriginal Education, for his generosity in this regard and Eve Mills, Senior Curriculum Officer, Aboriginal Education, Department of Education.

Nick Mooney, Nature Conservation Branch senior wildlife officer, has for many years been the official responsible for thylacine sightings and research. I am grateful to him for his ongoing sharing of his specialist knowledge.

Thanks also to Robert Paddle, both for the generous use I have been able to make of his landmark work on the thylacine and for his subsequent advice.

The research process was considerably aided by my having access to the Peter and Elizabeth Mercer Tasmaniana Collection, Jane Franklin Hall, Hobart.

Needless to say, in the end, where they may appear, any errors of judgement, argument or fact are exclusively mine.

I owe a significant debt to my publisher, Ian Bowring at Allen & Unwin, for commissioning this book; and it has been a great pleasure to work closely on the project with senior editor Emma Cotter.

I thank the following for granting interviews: Mike Archer, Garry Bailey, David Boon, Bob Brown, Geoff Law, Heather Rose and Steve Thomas.

The book is enriched by the addition of certain material, for which I thank Vita Brown, Jane Cooper (daughter of the late Jackson Cotton), Ian Faulkner, for his beautiful thylacine drawings, Carol Freeman, Pete Hay, Christine Lucas, Michael McWilliams, Daniel Moynihan, Jonathan Nadji, Ian Pearce and the staff of the Archives Office of Tasmania, Dan Sprod, publisher of Blubber Head Press, whose Tasmanian Tiger competition in 1981 features in Chapter 12 and as each chapter opener (it was pleasing to be able to make contact with four of the 39 entrants, Geoff Aschman, Kath Doherty, Betty Holmes and Elizabeth Okines), Chris Tassell, Director, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, and Malcolm Wells.

Thanks also to Col Bailey, Jennifer Broomhead, Heather Felton, Georgiana Fien, Margaret Harman, Christine Holyoak, John Long, Richard Lord, Dianne Mapley, John Pemberton, Tracy Elizabeth Robinson, Michael Roe, Randy Rose, Emma Singer, Don Stephens, Ann Sylph, Christine Tarbett-Buckley, Margaret Valentine, Cate Weate, Gerard Willems and Richard Wilson.

Finally, much is owed to Eric Guiler for his lifetime's devotion to the Tasmanian tiger.


The rather timid-looking creature was biscuit coloured, and I immediately thought it was a Labrador dog. But there was something strange about the head and face which puzzled me. It was higher and wider across the forehead than a Labrador, and the face was longer and thinner. Perhaps it was just a ‘bitzer', with some Labrador in it. I was quite alone as my companions had gone off to look for a track leading towards Macquarie Harbour. Not even a bird call, a creaking branch . . . disturbed the peace and quiet around us as we continued to stare at each other.


ncertainty, confusion and misinformation—deliberate or otherwise—have always been part of the baggage of discovery. Familiar names combined with the words ‘false' and ‘mistake' were often applied to the phenomena of the New World. NASA and other space agencies regularly lose, or fatally programme, exploration modules and equipment. Astronomers and astrophysicists are obliged to constantly contradict and overwrite existing theories. Palaeoanthropologists continue to backdate the origin of hominids. Through history human fallibility has, arguably, been the only constant.

Thus it was that in December 1642 Dutch mariner Abel Tasman's landfall on the south-east coast of the temperate island that now bears his name, although not actually a mistake, was supposed to have had an entirely different outcome. The economically greedy and commercially secretive Dutch East India Company, under its Batavia-based Governor-General Antony Van Diemen, fully expected Tasman to discover a vast land of great riches and fertility, inhabited by a civilised, friendly people. Its fabled existence had been the subject of European speculation for centuries. It was
Terra Australis Incognita
, the unknown south land, a land mass whose antipodean weight must balance the great Northern Hemisphere continents.

In the event Tasman and his two-ship expedition spent only a few days at anchor, from the first to the fourth of December, near Blackman Bay on Tasmania's Forestier Peninsula, before sailing further east to discover the islands that became New Zealand— which, he speculated, was the main continent of the unknown south land and might also be joined to Cape Horn.

BOOK: Thylacine
10.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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