Extinction happened here – the death of the last individual of an entire species. Yes, the complete disappearance of a species from Planet Earth happened right here. Extinct. Dead and gone forever. This is where Benjamin died on Monday, 7th September 1936, at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Benjamin was the nick name given to the last Tasmanian Tiger alive anywhere in the world. And when he died – the entire species died out. Or did it?
In 1982, a National Parks and Wildlife Officer, Hans Naarding, had gone to sleep in the back of his vehicle, here in a remote forested area in the north-west of Tasmania. It was raining heavily. At 2am a noise startled him, and, out of habit, he scanned the surrounds with a spotlight.
As he swept the beam around, it came to rest on a large thylacine, standing side-on some six to seven meters distant. His camera bag was out of immediate reach, so he decided to examine the animal carefully before risking movement. It was an adult male, in excellent condition, with twelve black stripes on a sandy coat.
It moved only once, opening its jaws and showing its teeth. After several minutes of observation, he attempted to reach for his camera bag, but in doing so he disturbed the animal, and it moved away into the undergrowth. Leaving the vehicle and moving to where the animal had disappeared, he noted a strong scent, which was typical with previous records and sightings of the animal.
Naarding’s sighting started a secret, two year long, government-funded tiger hunt, for the retrieval of a live thylacine. An animal which, only 4 years later, would be listed as extinct, and largely due to the impact of European settlement on the island. But what did Naarding actually see that night? Could it really have been a Tasmanian Tiger, the mysterious animal which had last been seen almost 50 years earlier, the rarest animal in all The world? An animal which had been the crown jewel in Tasmania’s untouched, biological ecosystem?
Well, join me on a journey, as we explore some of the remote areas of Tasmania in search of this rare animal, and examine the events that led to its tragic demise.
When people think of Tasmania, they often picture a small island south of mainland Australia, with very few people and very few animals. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
Tasmania, like the majority of mainland Australia, has vast regions of bush and terrain which have hardly been explored or seen by man. It’s home to epic waterfalls, majestic mountains and deep, impenetrable forests. Even to this day, over half of Tasmania’s landscape remains largely undisturbed by European colonisation, with over a third of its land area, National Parks. Tasmania is truly a breathtaking wonder of the natural world.
In 1642, the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman first discovered the island of Tasmania on his journey eastward towards New Zealand. The island would remain undisturbed for the next century or so, until European explorers began mapping the island, and the British eventually colonized it.
Over a century later, in 1792, the French explorer Jacques Labillardière was the first European to ever encounter a Thylacine. While exploring the island he came across a dead striped marsupial, which he described as a “dog-like animal”.
It was not until 1808 however, that the first detailed scientific description was made by Tasmania’s Deputy Surveyor-General, George Harris, five years after first settlement of the island. Harris originally placed the thylacine in the genus Didelphis, the family of the American opossums and marsupials, describing it as a “dog-headed opossum”.
But it wouldn’t be until 1810, that the Thylacine, along with the majority of Australia’s mammals, would be put into a separate order of classification, a marsupial class, specific to Australian wildlife.
The thylacine resembled a large, short-haired dog with a stiff tail that extended from the body in a similar way to that of a kangaroo. A fully grown thylacine ranged from 165cm to 210cm in length from nose to tail, and stood about 60cm at the shoulder, weighing up to about 30kgs. Its most notable feature, was its striped markings which ran along the centre of its back to the top of the tail, which earned its nickname, “tiger”. As a marsupial, both the male and female had a backwards-facing pouch, where its young would grow for up to 3 months before being old enough to leave its home, and to begin learning to hunt.
Another unique feature of the thylacine was its amazing ability to open its jaws up to 80 degrees, perfectly adapted for hunting kangaroo and wallaby on the island. The Tasmanian Tiger was also known to have amazing smell, being able to track its prey from kilometres away. It is without a doubt, the Tasmanian Tiger’s resemblance to a household dog, man’s best friend, that certainly has led to a nostalgia and disappointment from wildlife lovers, of its tragic demise.
Unlike the extinction of the Barbary Lion, or the Caspian Tiger, the thylacine stood alone as the final apex marsupial within the Thylacinus family. Its survival largely due to its location on an island which had been isolated from the harm of European colonization.
Today I’m standing in the remote North West area of Tasmania known as the Tarkine Forest, to see the last possible area where there is a slight chance a remnant population of thylacines could still exist. But let’s learn more about how the Tasmanian Tiger came to earn its extinct status, an icon for modern day extinction. And is there really any possibility that it still has survived to this day?
Well, even when Europeans first started to colonise Tasmania, thylacine sightings were rare, and isolated to more rural areas. This was because of the animal’s nocturnal nature, and its ability to smell people from far away, avoiding them at all costs.
Despite its elusive nature however, Tasmanian Tigers were common on the island, and at little risk of extinction. The Indigenous Australians lived in perfect harmony with the Tasmanian flora and fauna. But as Europeans began to settle the good grazing areas for their farms, the habitats of the thylacines were taken over, and so too, their hunting grounds. Sheep became a new food source for the thylacine, and because of the changes in its habitat, the animal quickly developed a reputation for attacking and eating sheep.
This famous quote about the thylacine by John Gould in 1863 predicted the tiger’s demise: “When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated, and its primitive forests are intersected with roads from the eastern to the western coast, the numbers of this singular animal will speedily diminish, extermination will have its full sway, and it will then, like the Wolf in England and Scotland, be recorded as an animal of the past. Although this will be a source of much regret, neither the shepherd nor the farmer can be blamed for wishing to rid the island of so troublesome a creature.”
Dr. Eric Guiler, Australia’s leading thylacine researcher, estimated that the total thylacine population at the time of British settlement in 1803, was between only 2000 to 4000 individuals.
The destruction of sheep by alleged thylacines, led to the establishment of bounty schemes in an attempt to control their numbers. The Van Diemen’s Land Company introduced bounties on the thylacine from as early as 1830, and between 1888 and 1909 the Tasmanian government paid £1 per head (the equivalent of £100 or more today) for dead adult thylacines, and ten shillings for pups.
In all, they paid out 2,184 bounties, but it is thought that many more thylacines were killed than were claimed for. Its extinction is popularly attributed to these relentless efforts by farmers and bounty hunters in actively hunting and killing the animal.
By the turn of the 20th Century, thylacine sightings were extremely rare, and the animal was believed to be completely extinct on the east coast, an area where it had once prospered. Despite its decline in numbers, the Tasmanian public still actively hunted the thylacine, almost securing its inevitable extinction.
By the 1920s, the amount of thylacine sightings had dropped significantly, to the point where only bushman and trappers would see an occasional dead one in their snares. The time was ticking for the animal’s continued survival.
There was little pity for its quick demise, and it was indeed the aim of the new colonisers to completely eradicate the animal from existence. Sadly, it was a task they had already completed with the native Tasmanian Emu that was also hunted to extinction in 1865.
And so it was, that the last known thylacine to be shot in the wild was done so in 1930 by Wilf Batty, a farmer from Mawbanna. He had hoped to capture the animal alive but his shot had fatally wounded the large male specimen. There’s a photo which proudly shows Batty with his prize.
But it wouldn’t be until three years later, in 1933, that the last known thylacine, also referred to as “Benjamin”, was trapped by Elias Churchill and sent to the Hobart Zoo, where it would live for the next three years. Churchill was a renowned trapper, having trapped at least eight tigers during his life. In later interviews he was adamant that the thylacine was still alive and strong, in the remote areas of the Florentine Valley.
Up until 2022, the last known footage of a thylacine was captured by the naturalist David Fleay, and the images are truly haunting. During the filming of the animal, Benjamin took a bite at Fleay, and he had a scar on his bottom which would remain for the rest of his life. It would not be the last time, that Fleay would encounter a thylacine however. On the 7th of September, 1936, a zookeeper at Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, walked into the thylacine cage to find Benjamin locked outside of his den. He had died from the cold weather, neglect, and lack of care, such were the times at the height of the Great Depression.
According to one account of the incident, upon finding the corpse of the last known thylacine, the keeper ended up throwing it in a nearby bin. This would be the last time anyone would ever see a thylacine in captivity. It was only 59 days earlier, that official protection of the species was introduced by the Tasmanian government, but too late to save it from extinction.
Benjamin’s death at the zoo would barely make the morning paper, and the zoo already went about making plans to find another specimen to replace him. A task which they were prepared to pay handsomely for. But they would never find a replacement.
And despite the death of Benjamin, the public opinion remained that the thylacine was still alive and vibrant in the wilderness, an opinion which would perpetuate for decades to come.
And so the searches began. With most people reluctant to declare Benjamin as the last official thylacine, expeditions began to the remote areas of the west coast and central highlands, in hope of capturing or photographing a specimen.
And since that fatefully 1936 extinction date, over 3000 sighting have been reported by locals and bushman throughout the Tasmanian wilderness.
In 1937, Harry Pearce a farmer, claimed to have seen a thylacine near Mt Hobhouse, observing the tracks of many others in the snow. When told of the news of its potential extinction, he was surprised, claiming there were many still around.
In 1946, David Fleay himself went on a search in the Tasmanian Wilderness to find two specimens for breeding purposes. On his month-long expedition exploring the Jane River, he managed to snare a thylacine, but the snare he was using had extra padding so as not to injure or damage the animal, which allowed it to escape, leaving behind a tuft of its hair. This tuft of hair, upon later examination, was positively identified to be that of a thylacine. This was certain evidence that the thylacine still existed, at least until 1946.
In 1953, Ber Maher, a 28-year-old rabbit trapper claimed to have captured a Tasmanian Tiger in a snare he’d set for a wild dog. When police authorities turned up, they confiscated the corpse, and it was never to be seen again. Maher was adamant that the animal he had captured that night was without a doubt a Tasmanian Tiger.
In 1957, a photograph was taken from a helicopter flying over the west of the island, which the pilot claimed was definitely a thylacine. An expedition was at once mounted in order to capture a specimen, which would be released again after it had been studied. But despite the best efforts of a Disney film crew and an expedition led by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1960, no specimen was found.
In the 1960s, a woman claimed that she and her family had observed a group of thylacines eating lobster scraps in the remote fishing village of Temma on the Northwest Coast. Like many others from that era, the thylacine was viewed as just another animal, and she observed them amongst Tasmanian Devils as well.
In 1980, a woman in her own garden found herself face to face with a thylacine standing on her chicken coop. She would describe the event, “It stared at me and I stared at it. It was really quite beautiful. Sort of golden. It had a big head and stripes across the base of its rump.”
But it was in 1982, that the most famous sighting occurred by the National Parks and Wildlife officer, Hans Naarding, here in the north-west of the state. A sighting which would begin a government-funded search and expedition in the area in order to find evidence of the animals’ continued existence. Because of Naarding’s professional position and honest reputation, a two year long secret search began in the area, a distance of over 250 sq.kms was covered. But despite their efforts, little to no evidence was found during this time, further adding to the mystery of the animal sighted.
The area where Naarding had spotted the thylacine was an area of wilderness which had been set aside as a protection environment in case Thylacines did still exist there. Today, it has largely been deforested, and the natural habitat where it would have once existed is no longer there. And yet, still the sightings continued.
In 1990, a thylacine was reportedly shot and photographed near Adamsfield, in remote Tasmania. The photos appeared to match the thylacine specimens from museums, but the body was never found. By this time period, people were less open to the continued existence of the thylacine, and the reports were quickly hushed in the morning papers. There was no doubt however, that the photos were that of a thylacine.
Turk Porteus was a northwestern Tasmanian bushman who had interacted with Thylacines when he was young, where they would follow him and his brother home as they walked through the forests in remote North Western Tasmania. In 1986, the ageing bushman came face to face with a tiger near the Arthur River, within 10km of where Naarding had had his sighting 4 years earlier.
Turk’s interview, his genuine nature, and his expertise and knowledge of this remote area of Tasmania, was hard evidence that the Thylacine did indeed survive into the North West region of Tasmania, at least well into the late 90’s. Turk was able to see an extra pair of small footsteps in the mud as he tracked the female thylacine, noting that her pouch was carrying some small pups.
In 2005, a German tourist name Klaus Emmerichs, claimed to have photographed a live Tasmanian tiger near Derwent Bridge in central Tasmania. While the photographs were certainly that of a Tasmanian tiger, skeptics quickly came to criticise the photo as a possible forgery and so opinions were mixed on their credibility. Emmerichs however, remained adamant that his photos were not a hoax, and that his sighting should be taken very seriously.
Most recently, the Tasmanian Government released a statement outlining their eight official sightings between 2016-2019 in Tasmania. These eight sightings, were official reports of the animal, and there were many other sightings from this time period which weren’t included.
So there you have it! Witnesses and testimonies of people who claim to have seen the animal post its extinction.
Whether the thylacine is extinct or not, we don’t know, but there is one thing that is certain, and that is that its demise is an absolute tragedy, and people everywhere want to believe that there is a chance it could truly still be out there.
Today, new footage of the Thylacine filmed back in captivity continues to be found and in 2021 the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia released footage found of the Thylacine which was captured in 1935. This makes it the most recent footage ever captured and the 21 second clip show cases the animal prowling around his cage at Beaumaris Zoo.
You know, it doesn’t matter what culture or religion you’re raised in; whether you’re an atheistic, agnostic, or Christian, there seems to be this deeper level belief inside each and every one of us, that protecting and looking after our natural environment is very important.
Today, in the 21st Century, we are on the brink of the largest mass extinction event in our humanity’s history. One study estimates that as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species could be heading towards extinction by the middle of the century.
On the 7th of September every year, millions of people celebrate National Threatened Species Day, to commemorate the death of the last Tasmanian tiger at Hobart Zoo. National Threatened Species Day is a day when we shine a spotlight on all the Australian native animal and plant species that are facing similar fates to that of the Tasmanian tiger.
Did you know that caring for the planet was one of our key responsibilities when we were created? The Bible states very clearly, that looking after our natural environment is more than just a nice thought. Here’s what it says in the first book of the Bible, Genesis:
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)
“Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So, the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” (Genesis 2:19)
So, you see the first job given to humanity was the work of caring for and looking after our natural world. Caring for God’s creation is one of the most fundamental things we are called to do.
Whether it’s pollution, deforestation, overfishing, nuclear disasters or the illegal animal trade, we’ve done a pretty bad job at being good stewards of our world.
We all know that the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger isn’t a unique situation. We humans seem to continuously destroy the animals and environment around us. Whether it’s the dodo, or the rhino, the whales in our ocean, or the fish in our sea, we’ve certainly become the masterminds of environmental destruction.
So where do we go from here? Is there really any hope for the future? Well, sure there is, if we work together and take seriously the responsibility that God’s given us. The care and well-being of planet earth is the responsibility of all of us.
All religions respect the world around them and offer guidance on environmental issues. Christians believe that God made the Earth and it belongs to Him. The Bible says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1).
It’s our responsibility to care for the earth and all living things in the way that God would wish. This is our calling, and it is one that is rooted deep within us. To care for the earth is to care for its future generations. To care for the earth is to show all people the beauty of God’s love.
If you care about Planet Earth, and would like to know more about God’s plan for its future, then I’d like to recommend the free gift we have for all our viewers today.
It’s the booklet The Fingerprints of God. It’s our gift to you and is absolutely free. I guarantee that there’s no cost or obligation whatsoever. So make the most of this wonderful opportunity to receive the free gift we have for you today.
If you have enjoyed our visit to Tasmania in search of the Tasmanian Tiger and our reflections on the need, and importance, of caring for our planet, then be sure to join us again next week when we will share another of life’s journeys together. Until then, let’s pray to the great Creator God who made our world – and who cares about you and me.
Dear Heavenly Father, we thank you for the wonderful world that you have given us to live in and care for. It’s filled with an abundance of fabulous creatures that bring us great joy and pleasure. Father, you love this world and everyone in it. Thank you for your promise to care for us and guide our lives. Please bless us and our families. We ask this in Jesus name. Amen.