Tasmania: Hunting the fabled Tasmanian tiger
by Tim Robey
Not five hours after landing in Tasmania, I was face to face with a thing called a thylacine. This notorious marsupial, commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, and technically as Thylacinus cynocephalus (“Dog-headed pouch dog”) was once unique to Australia’s offshore state. Now it’s supposedly extinct, though you’ll get a different opinion on that from every one of the island’s half a million citizens.
Surviving black-and-white video footage of the Tassie tiger makes recognising one straightforward enough. I would describe it as part dog, part hyena: a loping, ginger-furred carnivore with a wide yawn, long tail and dark stripes down its back.
Scientists believe the last example of the species died in captivity, at Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, in 1936. Veterans of the bush claim otherwise: many old-timers will take you aside, put on a fittingly sober expression, and tell you they have actually seen one. What are the odds of a stray British film critic joining their ranks on his first visit to Tasmania (actually my first to Australasia altogether)? Infinitesimal, really.
I’ll come clean: it was stuffed. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, or TMAG, keeps several thylacine pelts, two adult skeletons and a set of pouched young in a small vault downstairs.
Their frozen gait and marble eyes give off an especially eerie vibe because of the question mark still wobbling over the species’ existence, and the strange nexus of political and cultural forces that keeps this debate raging.
Time and again on the island you can touch on the tiger issue and a flood of stories will pour forth – night-time sightings, assaults on terrified dogs, inexplicable poo. Tasmanians have a guilt-tinged sense of ownership when it comes to the tiger – they more or less hunted it to oblivion in the 19th century – but I was quickly wondering if they truly possess this four-legged spectre from history, or if it possesses them.