Source: DROLLETTE, Daniel. 1996. On the Trail of the Tiger. Scientific American October 1996: 32-34.

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Is a Tasmanian legend still wandering the bush?

Sixty years ago this September, Benjamin--renowned for being the last Tasmanian tiger--died at the zoo in Hobart, Australia. Legends about the creature have not died, however, and debate about Thylacinus cynocephalus (in Latin, "pouched dog with a wolf's head") is quite alive. It seems that Tasmanian has its own version of the Loch Ness monster.

Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

Several months ago Charlie Beasley of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service reported seeing a creature "the size of a full-grown dog. The tail was heavy and somewhat like that of a kangaroo." A decade earlier respected wildlife researcher Hans Naarding said he saw a tiger 30 feet from his vehicle. "It was an adult male in excellent condition with 12 black striples on a sandy coat," he wrote in his report.

No irrefutable photographs, fur or plaster casts of tracks have provided confirmation, but such tantalizing sightins have helped make the tiger, also called the thylacine, into a Tasmanian obsession. Images of the two-foot high, shy, nocturnal predator can be found on city seals, traffic signs, T-shirts and beer bottles. The parks service receives notice of dozens of sightings every year; a ranger systematically tallies and evaluates all of them.

Part of the animal's mystique is the nature of its demise. The world's largest marsupial carnivore disappeared recently enough that hunters remember killing it for the $2 bounty. The thylacine was not protected until two months before Benjamin died. "There's almost a guilty conscience abit its disappeaance," says Mark Holdsworth of the parks service. "It's the idea of redemption. We killed it off, but now it's back."

Sheep raisers who settled on the island of Tasmania in the early 1800s considered the thylacine a threat to livestock. Van Diemen's Land Company first offered bounties on tiger scalps, and the royally chartered company's records show thousands of thylacines killed. The tiger population, low to begin with, was further diminished by an epidemic of a distemperlike disease in the early 20th century, says Robert H. Green, a tiger buff and further curator of the

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Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston.

Green is convinced that some tigers remain and claims their population is actually increasing. He says the animals are not sen, because they "live in the bush, where they can get all the tucker [food] they want." Green adds that the island's large size and impenetrable terrain provide plenty of room to hide. And he blames the lack of concrete evidence on the Tasmanian devil--a marsupial version of a jackal. Devils devour all the flesh, hair and bone they come across while scavenging.

Playing devil's advocate is Eric R. Guiler, retired dean of science at the University of Tasmanian and author of several books on the region's wildlife, including

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one coming out soon on the thylacine. [Actually, he had one on the thylacine out a few years ago--BSR] He holds that the tiger's historic habitat was destroyed by humans and discounts most urban and suburban sightings; the observers, Guiler says, "are quite mad, you know." He also argues that if thylacines existed, there would be some hard evidence, such as road kills.

Nevertheless, Guiler admits to the possibility of the thylacine's survival. In the early 1960s he himself found what looked like tiger tracks at the Woolnorth sheep station on the northwest peninsula. (If the thylacine does survive there, it is having the last laugh: Woolnorth is the only sheep station still owned by Van Diemen's Land Company.)

For his part, Holdsworth of the parks service finds large-scale searchers for the tiger frustrating. He thinks the focus should instead be on protecting existing endangered species. There is only one benefit of the misplaced public interest in the Tasmanian tiger, Holdsworth maintains: "The thylacine is a good reminer of extinction and endangerment. We're still making the same mistakes."

Daniel Drollette in Tasmanian

Credit: John Moore.