Is the Tasmanian tiger still with us?

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You can view the Tasmanian tiger (also known as thylacine) in what is believed to be the last remaining footage of the doomed animal at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart. For me, it was a disturbing sight and I still remember the creature's haunting cries.

So yes I admit I would be chuffed to discover that it is still alive somehow. In fact - since 1936 there has been more than 5000 sightings of the Tasmanian tiger - and this was just on the mainland.

Tasmanian tiger statue - outside Launceston library

It would be great to know that I don't have to settle for old photos and videos, or artists' impressions like these lovely sculptures outside the Launceston library.

But before I start planning my welcome back Tassie tiger party I would like to be absolutely sure.

To begin with then, what's the official stance?

The Official View

As stated by Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries & Water and Parks & Wildlife Service Tasmania:

"Since 1936, no conclusive evidence of a thylacine has been found. However, the incidence of reported thylacine sightings has continued. Most sightings occur at night, in the north of the State, in or near areas where suitable habitat is still available. Although the species is now considered to be 'probably extinct', these sightings provide some hope that the thylacine may still exist."

Wow! Maybe I can allow myself a little hope then!

In search of the Tasmanian tiger

Several searches have been conducted, including these:

  • In 1945, by naturalist David Fleay. Possible thylacine footprints were found.

  • In the 1980s, by a number of Parks and Wildlife officers. No evidence was found.

  • In the late 1980s to early 1990s, by wildlife photographers, Dave Watts and Ned Terry. No evidence was found.

Smith's rating system for thylacine sightings

Steven Smith was one of the Parks and Wildlife Officers mentioned above, who went searching for the Tasmanian tiger. He came up with a way of scoring the quality of sightings. Here are the details of his rating system:

1. Observer's reliability (10 points)
based on:

  • familiarity with native fauna
  • credibility within community

2. Circumstances of report (10 points)
based on:

  • distance between observer and animal
  • duration of observation
  • visibility
  • number of observers

3. Description of animal (25 points)
based on:

  • general body colour
  • height from shoulder
  • body markings
  • distribution of stripes
  • head
  • tail

4. Correlation with other sightings since 1934 (5 points)
based on:

  • geographic correlation
  • time correlation (if other sightings recorded within radius of 40 km)

Total score ratings

  • 38 - 50 very good
  • 25 - 37 good
  • 15 - 24 fair
  • 0 - 14 questionable

A top scoring sighting

Here are a few quotes from a report of a sighting which scored 50:

  • a Tiger, as slow as you please, just sort of loped, I guess, from under the limbs of the tree. He wasn't in any hurry. But, then, they aren't very fast, anyhow.

  • The two things I remember so well are those stripes on the back and their whippy tail which comes to a point. When they walk the tail is held straight back.

  • There was no doubt in any of our minds that what we saw was a Tiger. My Dad and Old Charlie knew that, too. They had seen many and told us stories about them, like how they can't turn around like a dog because of their back. They are stiff and have to turn around in a circle.

Resurrection by cloning?

In 1999 the Australian Museum in Sydney commenced work on a cloning project using genetic material from preserved specimens. The researchers were able to extract some good quality DNA. But in the end it was found that the DNA was too badly degraded. In 2005 the museum announced that the project was being terminated.

Since then, the project has been restarted by other parties, and some progress has been made. I will await further developments there.

In the meantime I do wonder if it is right to try and resurrect the Tasmanian tiger. As stated by the above mentioned government bodies:

"Even if cloning were possible, it should be asked whether such effort and expense is justifiable when many other species are currently threatened with extinction, and when we allow the same processes that threaten habitats and wildlife to continue.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the loss of the thylacine is to ensure that the rich natural heritage of our island State is no longer jeopardised".

Perhaps indeed... What do you think?

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