The last thylacine died in captivity in the zoo in 1936, or did it? People keep seeing them. Brooke Jarvis, in the New Yorker, wonders if the sightings are real, or if they simply represent expressions of the human hankering for the survival of a romantic critter.
Tasmania, which is sometimes said to hang beneath Australia like a green jewel, shares the countryâ€™s colonial history. The first English settlers arrived in 1803 and soon began spreading across the island, whose human and animal inhabitants had lived in isolation for more than ten thousand years. Conflict was almost immediate. The year that the Orchard farmhouse was built, the Tasmanian government paid out fifty-eight bounties to trappers and hunters who presented the bodies of thylacines, which were wanted for preying on the settlersâ€™ sheep. By then, the number of dead tigers, like the number of live ones, was steeply declining. In 1907, the state treasury paid out for forty-two carcasses. In 1908, it paid for seventeen. The following year, there were two, and then none the year after, or the year after that, or ever again.
By 1917, when Tasmania put a pair of tigers on its coat of arms, the real thing was rarely seen. By 1930, when a farmer named Wilf Batty shot what was later recognized as the last Tasmanian tiger killed in the wild, it was such a curiosity that people came from all over to look at the body. The last animal in captivity died of exposure in 1936, at a zoo in Hobart, Tasmaniaâ€™s capital, after being locked out of its shelter on a cold night. The Hobart city council noted the death at a meeting the following week, and authorized thirty pounds to fund the purchase of a replacement. The minutes of the meeting include a postscript to the demise of the species: two months earlier, it had been â€œadded to the list of wholly protected animals in Tasmania.â€
Like the dodo and the great auk, the tiger found a curious immortality as a global icon of extinction, more renowned for the tragedy of its death than for its life, about which little is known. In the words of the Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan, it became â€œa lost object of awe, one more symbol of our feckless ignorance and stupidity.â€
But then something unexpected happened. Long after the accepted date of extinction, Tasmanians kept reporting that theyâ€™d seen the animal. There were hundreds of officially recorded sightings, plus many more that remained unofficial, spanning decades. Tigers were said to dart across roads, hopping â€œlike a dog with sore feet,â€ or to follow people walking in the bush, yipping. A hotel housekeeper named Deb Flowers told me that, as a child, in the nineteen-sixties, she spent a day by the Arm River watching a whole den of striped animals with her grandfather, learning only later, in school, that they were considered extinct. In 1982, an experienced park ranger, doing surveys near the northwest coast, reported seeing a tiger in the beam of his flashlight; he even had time to count the stripes (there were twelve). â€œ10 a.m. in the morning in broad daylight in short grass,â€ a man remembered, describing how he and his brother startled a tiger in the nineteen-eighties while hunting rabbits. â€œWe were just sitting there with our guns down and our mouths open.â€ Once, two separate carloads of people, eight witnesses in all, said that theyâ€™d got a close look at a tiger so reluctant to clear the road that they eventually had to drive around it. Another man recalled the time, in 1996, when his wife came home white-faced and wide-eyed. â€œIâ€™ve seen something I shouldnâ€™t have seen,â€ she said.
â€œDid you see a murder?â€ he asked.
â€œNo,â€ she replied. â€œIâ€™ve seen a tiger.â€
As reports accumulated, the state handed out a footprint-identification guide and gave wildlife officials boxes marked â€œThylacine Response Kitâ€ to keep in their work vehicles should they need to gather evidence, such as plaster casts of paw prints. Expeditions to find the rumored survivors were mountedâ€”some by the government, some by private explorers, one by the World Wildlife Fund. They were hindered by the limits of technology, the sheer scale of the Tasmanian wilderness, and the fact that Tasmaniaâ€™s other major carnivore, the devil, is natureâ€™s near-perfect destroyer of evidence, known to quickly consume every bit of whatever carcasses it finds, down to the hair and the bones. Undeterred, searchers dragged slabs of ham down game trails and baited camera traps with roadkill or live chickens. They collected footprints, while debating what the footprint of a live tiger would look like, since the only examples they had were impressions made from the desiccated paws of museum specimens. They gathered scat and hair samples. They always came back without a definitive answer.
In 1983, Ted Turner commemorated a yacht race by offering a hundred-thousand-dollar reward for proof of the tigerâ€™s existence. In 2005, a magazine offered 1.25 million Australian dollars. â€œLike many others living in a world where mystery is an increasingly rare thing,â€ the editor-in-chief said, â€œwe wanted to believe.â€ The rewards went unclaimed, but the tigerâ€™s fame grew.