In my childhood, I lamented the passing of the dodo. How awful it was to think that this cartoonish looking bird wasn’t on the planet anymore. And how sad to think that their demise came at the hands of greedy sailors and invasive species like rats, cats, dogs and pigs that ate or trampled their eggs which lay exposed on the ground.
For some time, I thought that the dodo was the only species that had met its end because of human activity. But like so many fantasies that don’t survive our teenage years, I gradually became aware that it merely symbolised a long history of plant and animal extinctions directly linked to the technological progress and expansion of the human population.
In Australia, Europeans’ 250-year relationship with the landscape hasn't been positive. We’ve caused the highest percentage loss of mammal species in the world, of which feral predators, human hunting and land clearance are the primary causes. We’ve also caused the loss of nearly 25 per cent of Australia’s forest and woodland through agricultural activities. And even before colonisation, there is much debate about the role of early Australians in the extinction of our mega-fauna.
Of all the Australian species losses, however, many feel most guilty about the disappearance of the thylacine (the Tasmanian Tiger). Maybe it’s the photos of dead animals held-up by their legs by triumphant bounty hunters. Maybe it’s the grainy film imagery of the ‘last’ thylacine pacing its cage in the Hobart Zoo. Maybe it’s because we now know the thylacine wasn’t the threat to livestock many originally assumed it was. Or maybe it’s because we came so close to recognising the species’ intrinsic value, but let it slip through our hands. Indeed, the inclusion (in 1936) of the thylacine on the list of Australia’s ‘wholly protected’ species came just 59 days before the animal was declared officially extinct. Dead. 'Gone the way of the dodos.'
Or did it.
A couple of years back, we toured the west coast of Tasmania where the Tiger’s legacy is strongest. Stories of sightings are common, and images of the animal are everywhere. So, when we spent time bushwalking in the Southwest National Park, why wouldn’t we stay attuned to the possibility that somewhere among the dense vegetation we might spy a glimpse of a dog-like creature with irrefutable stripes? Wasn’t it possible that this amazing marsupial had survived here in this remote corner of the world?
While the mythology of the thylacine in Tasmania is well established, I’d never imagined that the animal could still exist here on the mainland. So, I was surprised to come face-to-face with one recently in a carpark in the little town of Nannup, in south-west Western Australia. In reality, it was one of many similar fibreglass models scattered around the town to celebrate Nannup’s ongoing relationship with this mysterious creature. With hundreds of sightings in recent decades, the local community is so protective of its connection to the thylacine that it claims the ‘Nannup Tiger’ as its own.
After becoming alert to the claimed existence of thylacines north of the Bass Strait, I was compelled to look a little deeper. When I did so, I learnt that thousands of people across Tasmania and mainland Australia alike have reported thylacine sightings since the late 1930s. From Nannup to the Blue Mountains, the Flinders Ranges to tropical Queensland, there are social media sites and documentaries peppered with photos and videos of alleged sightings of the creature, its footprints and scat. While some of the assertions and footage seems fantastical, others make compelling viewing. And it makes you wonder. Sure, none of the information gathered has been scientifically proven to be conclusive. But does that have to mean that it’s all made up?
While I’m a pragmatic person in most regards, when it comes to the thylacine, I’m finding it hard to remain entirely rational. Next time I see what I think is a dog or fox, I’m going to look closer. Is the tail too straight for a dog? Is the gait more like a horse than a fox? Are the marks on its back stripes rather than shadows? Does that footprint I see in the mud have the distinctive fifth toe and planter pad of a thylacine? Could it be? Maybe?
With a camera on my shoulder, and a bag of plaster of Paris powder in my backpack, I’m ready to capture the irrefutable evidence that we’ve all be waiting for. After all, as the supernatural thriller X-Files taught us, 'To find the truth, you must believe.'
And I want to believe.