An undeniably very weird animal in terms of its appearance, the thylacine was a distinctively striped marsupial that looked like a cross between a coyote, a hyena and a tiger. As is typical of marsupials, and as is most famously seen in kangaroos, the creature, which grew to a length of around six-feet, carried its young in a pouch. And it had the literally-jaw-dropping ability to open its mouth to around 120 degrees.
As for its time on our planet, the thylacine is known to have lived for an incredibly long period in Australia, New Guinea, and Tasmania – hence its more popular name of the Tasmanian Tiger. Indeed, fossilized examples of its distant ancestors date back to the Miocene period. In simple terms, we’re talking about millions of years.
Although examples of artwork displaying undeniable imagery of the thylacine can be found in aboriginal cave paintings that date back at least three thousand years, the creature is thought to have been gone from the mainland long before the arrival of European settlers in the 1700s. Tasmania is a very different matter, however. It was thanks to those surviving pockets of the creature on the island, which is located approximately 150-miles from the Australian mainland, that the thylacine lived on.
Come the early-20th Century, however, deforestation led to the destruction of much of its environment, a large and fatal outbreak of disease followed, and the thylacine’s time was finally up, aside from in the form of those few remaining examples that lived on, until around the mid-1930s, in zoos and private enclosures. So much for then, but what about our time: does the thylacine still roam, triumphantly defying the odds day by day?
In the 21st Century, no-one, anywhere, should be seeing a living thylacine. Not everybody is quite so sure the beast is gone for good, however. Even the Australian Government keeps an open and balanced mind on the possibility that there may still be some around, to its refreshingly welcome credit. The thylacine, it might then be said, is a beast not just unusual in appearance, but one that is unusually stealthy, too; to the extent that, perhaps, it never really went away at all.
And, while hard, physical evidence is lacking to suggest the thylacine still lives, witness testimony abounds, and much of it is on-file with the Australian Government. Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service have been particularly forthcoming on this matter.
Of cases that post-date 1936, the year in which the last thylacine in captivity died, in Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo, the TPWS says: “Since 1936, no conclusive evidence of a thylacine has been found. However, the incidence of reported thylacine sightings has continued. Most sightings occur at night, in the north of the State, in or near areas where suitable habitat is still available. Although the species is now considered to be ‘probably extinct’, these sightings provide some hope that the thylacine may still exist.”
As the agency’s records show, in 1937 – prompted by many reports of thylacines in the vicinity of the Arthur River and the Pieman River of northwest Tasmania – an expedition was launched to try and find isolated pockets of the creatures, but with no success. Eight years later, notes the TPWS, an Australian naturalist named David Fleay spent time scouring the land along Tasmania’s Jane River and found what very closely resembled thylacine paw-prints.
Similar prints were discovered in the northwest in 1959 by Eric Guiler, a man also fascinated by the possibility that the thylacine still existed. Then, in 1968, an extensive expedition was launched by the team of Bob Brown, James Malley and Jeremy Griffiths. They uncovered a lot of then-recent reports, but unfortunately no smoking-gun.
Even the TPWS’s very own people have got caught up in the controversy: in both 1982 and 1983, a TPWS employee, Nick Mooney, headed to Tasmania’s Arthur River, where a wildlife officer named Hans Naarding had his very own encounter in 1982. Despite a detailed quest, Mooney failed to find any concrete evidence. But that had no effect on the frequency of reports, however. As the Freedom of Information Act has shown, more than a dozen reports – all strongly suggestive of thylacines – were received by Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service between mid 1996 and the latter part of 2001.
None of this (so far) failure to come up with either a living specimen or a corpse in the modern era has detracted those that still seek the thylacine and believe it to be out there. Certainly encouraging is officialdom’s admittance that, even on the Australian mainland and moving away from Tasmania, sightings are hardly what one might term scarce: from 1936 to 1998, the Australia Government’s Department of Conservation and Land Management recorded sixty-five sightings from Western Australia alone, files demonstrate.
Whether it’s as dead as a dodo, just about clinging on to life, or thriving and hiding very successfully, the thylacine captivates not just those fascinated by the field of cryptozoology, but significant elements of Australian officialdom too.
Nick Redfern is the author of many books on unsolved mysteries, including Monster Diary, There’s something in the Woods, and Wildman.