Believed to have gone extinct from the Tasmanian frontier by the 1930s, the strange and exotic Tasmanian tigers were once the most proficient killing machines ever to inhabit this part of the world. Though hunted with prejudice beginning in the 17th century, many people today believe this ancient animal is just too wily to ever be wiped from the face of the earth.
The Tasmanian Tiger (also known as the Tasmanian Wolf), was a large carnivorous marsupial about 5 feet in length resembling a large, short-haired dog, with light brown fur and distinctive dark stripes across its hindquarter. Originally native to Australia and New Guinea, this fascinating animal was known to Australian Aborigines for thousands of years and was depicted in numerous petroglyph rock paintings dating to 3000 BP like those found at Dampier Rock Art Precinct on the Burrup Peninsula in Western Australia. Archaeologists have found several related species in the fossil record dating back as far as the early Miocene Period (25–5 million years BP), with the first modern variety appearing about 4 million years BP. Though referred to as a tiger or wolf, this ancient animal is genetically neither and is more accurately referred to as a Thylacine.
Early recorded observations
By the time Europeans arrived in Tasmania in 1642, this remarkable nocturnal animal that had many of the same physical characteristics as other marsupials (including a pouch), had become extinct from mainland Australia and New Guinea and was only found in Tasmania. Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer who discovered Tasmania, recorded in his journal of seeing footprints of wild beasts “with claws like a tiger.” Later, in 1772, French explorers reported seeing “tiger cats,” that they likened to hyenas because of their physical appearance and behavior.
Hunted to extinction?
Quickly regarded as a dangerous nuisance after killing several livestock, these peculiar animals were hunted with prejudice. In 1826 when the Van Diemen’s Land Company, a group of London merchants pursuing a wool-growing venture in Tasmania, were granted a Royal Charter and 250,000 acres of land, a bounty was placed on the heads of “Tassie” Tigers–a move supported by the Tasmanian government. At $1 per Tiger and 10 shillings per Tiger pup, a recorded 2,184 bounties were paid out–with countless more Tigers believed to have been killed for sport or their furs, or captured for exotic zoos (like a pair that found their way to the Washington DC National Zoo by 1902). By the early 1900s, these incredible animals were hunted nearly to extinction by farmers and bounty hunters, with an estimated 4,000 killed between 1888 and 1909 alone. In 1936 the Tasmanian government finally passed laws to protect the remaining members of the species, but it was too little too late. The last known wild Tasmanian Tiger was killed by a farmer named Wilf Batty in 1930, shot outside his henhouse.
Scientific analysis of preserved specimens of the Tasmanian Tiger suggests that it had a highly developed sense of sight and hearing which undoubtedly made it an exceptionally effective hunter. Judging by the Tiger’s frame and skeleton, the animal most likely had amazing strength, stamina, and agility that would have enabled it to single out its prey (usually kangaroos and wallabies) and then run them down to the point of exhaustion. Believed to have preferred dry forests and coastal heath, they most likely lived in dens made out of hollow logs or in small caves. Surviving observations describe the animal as generally very shy and avoided humans at all costs.
It’s very unusual features
One of the Tiger’s most unusual features was its long, stiff tail which was similar to that of a kangaroo. Making it difficult to run, the Tiger used a bipedal hop (similar to that of a kangaroo), yet was able to reach amazing speeds. The most striking and somewhat frightening feature of this ancient animal was its ability to open its jaws to an unusually large angle, about 120 degrees, enabling it to consume sizable prey (like chickens) whole. These Tigers are believed to have growled, hissed, barked, and sometimes howled to communicate with other packs over long distances. Its closest biological relative was the also now extinct, Tasmanian Devil.
Although it was officially declared extinct in 1936, the last believed to have died in captivity in the Hobart Zoo (Tasmania), many people believe the Tasmanian Tiger has survived and is living in the wilds of Tasmania, with numerous sightings over the past 70 years. In January 1995, a Parks and Wildlife Service reported seeing a Tiger near Pyengana, a village in northeast Tasmania. Being the most reliable sighting in some time, the government launched an investigation to possibly confirm the Tiger’s existence.
Additional footage of Tasmanian Tigers can be viewed at the Tasmanian Devil Park at Taranna. Tiger skins and a completely preserved Tiger can be seen at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart.