The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
On 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine died at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. The species had been given protected status just two months before. Around 5,000 thylacines were in Tasmania when Europeans settled there. But overhunting combined with habitat destruction and introduced diseases quickly led to the extinction of the species.
What is thylacine?
The thylacine was the world’s largest marsupial carnivore. Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, means ‘dog-headed pouched one’. It looked like a medium-sized dog with yellowish-brown fur and a stiff tail. Female thylacines had a pouch for carrying their young.
The thylacine is commonly known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ because of the dark stripes on its back. Although it had a fierce reputation as a hunter, the thylacine was partly nocturnal and quite shy, so it usually avoided contact with humans.
The fossils of thylacines have been found in Papua New Guinea, across the Australian mainland and Tasmania. But about 2,000 years ago, thylacine became extinct everywhere except Tasmania. Partly this was because thylacines had to compete for food with dingoes, which arrived in Australia between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. Around 5,000 thylacines lived in Tasmania when Europeans settled there.
Why were thylacines hunted?
The first European colonies were set up in Tasmania in the early 1800s. Colonists cleared large areas of land for sheep and cattle farms. They believed that thylacines were preying on their farm animals. Although feral dogs were likely mainly responsible for killing farm animals, the colonists began to hunt thylacines.
As early as 1830, farmers paid hunters who could prove that they had killed a thylacine. In 1888 the Tasmanian Government began paying people a bounty of £1 for killing a full-grown thylacine and 10 shillings for killing a thylacine pup.
Hunters between 1830 and the 1920s killed at least 3,500 thylacines. The number of thylacines also fell because of exposure to new diseases and because they had to compete for food with introduced wild dogs. Also, as the colonists’ farms expanded, the thylacines’ natural habitat was eradicated.
Has anybody seen a Tasmanian tiger lately? This is a question that the Animals and Birds Protection Board will shortly cause to be circulated throughout the state. Fears exist that this unique specimen of fauna may now be extinct… Mr A.W. Burbury said there was no reliable evidence that the Tasmanian tiger was now in existence.’
The Examiner (Launceston), 10 February 1937
The Tasmanian tiger was a particularly sad case. Once found throughout Australia, it had become restricted to Tasmania by the time of European arrival. Even on this isolated island, however, the thylacine was no match for human intervention. Farmers and hunters began to kill the animal in large numbers as it preyed on their livestock.
Despite early efforts to protect the thylacine, by the 1930s it was widely believed to be extinct. In recent decades, however, there have been reported sightings and even claims of captured specimens. Whether the Tasmanian tiger still exists remains a subject of debate and fascination.
The story of the thylacine is just one example of the complex history of Australia’s unique wildlife. From the iconic kangaroo to the elusive platypus, the country’s animals have shaped its culture and identity. As we continue to learn more about the continent’s past and present, it is vital that we also work to protect its fragile ecosystems for future generations.