Thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus)

Distribution: Prehistorically, Australia and New Guinea; Historically, Tasmania.

Last Record: Night of 7 September 1936.

The thylacine was the largest marsupial predator to have survived into historic times. Before the introduction of the dingo to mainland Australia around four thousand years ago it was widespread on the mainland and in New Guinea. When first encountered by Europeans in the early nineteenth century it was restricted to the island of Tasmania. There, however, it occurred in a variety of habitats, but not apparently the dense rainforests of the southwest.

Thylacines were rather wolf-like in shape, males reaching around thirty-five and females twenty-five kilograms in weight. They seem to have hunted singly, in pairs and in family groups (male, female and one to three young), pursuing wallabies and other prey by scent, eventually running them to exhaustion or into ambush.

Lairs were often located among rocks, and young stayed with the female until they were well grown and able to hunt independently. The Tasmanian Aborigines occasionally hunted them, but would build a curious shelter over the bones, believing that if they were rained upon then very bad weather would follow.

Thylacines were persecuted into extinction. A bounty was paid on scalps and, as they became rarer, live and even dead animals commanded ever higher prices. The species was finally protected by law in Tasmania in 1936, the year of its extinction. The law came far too late, for the last capture of a wild thylacine had occurred three years earlier, in 1933.

The last thylacine to walk the earth was a female kept in Beaumaris Zoo near Hobart. Personnel problems developed at the zoo during 1935–36, which meant that the animals were neglected during the winter. The thylacine was ‘left exposed both night and day in the open, wire-topped cage, with no access to its sheltered den’. September brought extreme and unseasonal weather to Hobart. Night-time temperatures dropped to below zero at the beginning of the month, while a little later they soared above 38 degrees Celsius. On the night of 7 September the stress became too much for the last thylacine and, unattended by her keepers, she closed her eyes on the world for the last time.

It is possible that a few wild individuals roamed the island for a decade or two after this, for authentic-sounding reports were received until at least the 1940s. One concerned an old ‘dogger’ who claimed to have ‘put up a slut and three cubs out of a patch of man-ferns’ in the area that was shortly after flooded to form Lake King William. According to author Eric Guiler, who interviewed the hunter, he ‘continually dodged the issue as to whether the thylacines were killed or not’ after the man turned his dogs onto them, but Guiler strongly suspected that they were. Now all hope is lost, for many expensive searches have been made, yet no thylacine sighting has been authenticated for many years.