The Tasmanian tiger - an extinct treasure

About Australia and Tasmania

The largest meat-eater in Tasmania today is the Tasmanian devil. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, a much larger marsupial predator still lived on the island, which became part of the Tasmanian coat of arms – the Tasmanian tiger. There has not been a confirmed sighting of it since 1936…

The Tasmanian tiger (c) Pavel Procházka The Tasmanian tiger (c) Pavel Procházka

The Tasmanian tiger, or the thylacine, once inhabited a vast area, ranging from New Guinea through Australia to Tasmania. However, it died out in most of its original range before the arrival of the Europeans. Its disappearance was probably due to people and competition with the more successful hunter, the dingo, which settled in Australia a few thousand years ago. However, dingoes never found their way to Tasmania, and so the tiger found a safe "oasis" here for the next two millennia.

When Tasmania was settled by Europeans, the Tasmanian tiger became a thorn in their side. Farmers hounded them, in fear for their herds of sheep, "sport" hunters sought them as trophies, and between 1830 and 1909 a reward was even paid for every thylacine killed. Ironically, the last known specimen had only 59 days left to live when the thylacine were finally given protection. He died at a zoo in Hobart, the Tasmanian capital, on 7 September 1936.

More than 80 years has passed since the death of the last known thylacine, but many have speculated that they could have survived in remote corners of Tasmania. Reports of sightings, tracking, or even photographing a thylacine have been published repeatedly – unfortunately, none of them has ever been confirmed. The Tasmanian tiger has thus become one of the greatest symbols of human failure in relation to other species that share the planet with us.

In addition to (hitherto vain) efforts to rediscover the Tasmanian tiger in nature, there is also a search for thylacine in museums and other collections. The goal is their DNA – optimists believe that the tiger could be brought back to life once again. Given the current state of knowledge and technology, this seems to be unlikely, but it is probably more likely than the discovery of a live thylacine in Tasmania.

In the pursuit of DNA, the most promising source is pouch young preserved in alcohol. Until recently, only nine were known; however, four pouch young, probably also preserved in alcohol, were found at the Department of Zoology of the Faculty of Science of Charles University in Prague. This is a discovery of tremendous value; they are probably the youngest specimens of Tasmanian tiger ever found (their estimated age is two weeks after birth) and the only ones outside Australia!