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The Obsessive Search for the Tasmanian Tiger

The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, was the world's only remaining carnivorous marsupial when English settlers came to Tasmania. They were hunted to protect livestock; in fact, the government paid for every tiger killed up until 1909. The last known thylacine in the wild was shot in 1930, and the last one in a zoo died in 1936 -just two months after Australia designated it as a protected species.

But then something unexpected happened. Long after the accepted date of extinction, Tasmanians kept reporting that they’d seen the animal. There were hundreds of officially recorded sightings, plus many more that remained unofficial, spanning decades. Tigers were said to dart across roads, hopping “like a dog with sore feet,” or to follow people walking in the bush, yipping. A hotel housekeeper named Deb Flowers told me that, as a child, in the nineteen-sixties, she spent a day by the Arm River watching a whole den of striped animals with her grandfather, learning only later, in school, that they were considered extinct. In 1982, an experienced park ranger, doing surveys near the northwest coast, reported seeing a tiger in the beam of his flashlight; he even had time to count the stripes (there were twelve). “10 A.M. in the morning in broad daylight in short grass,” a man remembered, describing how he and his brother startled a tiger in the nineteen-eighties while hunting rabbits. “We were just sitting there with our guns down and our mouths open.” Once, two separate carloads of people, eight witnesses in all, said that they’d got a close look at a tiger so reluctant to clear the road that they eventually had to drive around it. Another man recalled the time, in 1996, when his wife came home white-faced and wide-eyed. “I’ve seen something I shouldn’t have seen,” she said.

“Did you see a murder?” he asked.

“No,” she replied. “I’ve seen a tiger.”

The Tasmanian tiger became a legend, as there have been plenty of sightings with no evidence, just like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. But the thylacine is different in that the species was once very real. Other species have been found after we considered them extinct, so why not the Tasmanian tiger? Read the history of the thylacine, and the search for survivors, at the New Yorker.  -via Metafilter

(Image credit: Bene Rohlmann)


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