This is my 4th year taking part in the Earth Hour, a global event aimed at raising awareness about sustainability issues. This year, I have decided to write a daily post during the month leading to the event in order to share some thoughts about the environment and give tips the little changes we can make in our daily lives. There will also be some guest posts by fellow bloggers who will share their own views on a topic related to the environment. You can read my introductory post here and access the Earth Hour website here.
I encourage you to comment and share your own tips, ideas and experience. In the last couple of days before the event I will do a few posts about what readers had to say. I believe we can learn a lot by sharing!
Today a guest blogger is joining me. Shannon blogs @Giraffe Days about books. A while ago, I posted about The Tent by Margaret Atwood and discussed in particular a story entitled “Thylacine Ragout”. The Thylacine is an extinct species from Tasmania. Shannon commented on this post as the Thylacine is of special interest to her as she is originally from Tasmania. So, today, she is going to discuss this sore topic.
“When I went home recently for the first time in five years, my parents were excited to see me again and filled my ears with stories. My dad’s favourite was how Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe had been hanging out in the nearby town of Deloraine, eating lunch at the new fancy gourmet pizza restaurant, Red. The actors, along with Frances O’Conner, were in the state working on a new film The Hunter, based on the book of the same name by Julia Leigh (trust me, movie stars don’t often come to our small island state, so they tend to cause a bit of a stir when they do). The Hunter is about the obsession to find the last Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, a dog-like marsupial that has been declared extinct since the last one died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The story of the thylacine is an utterly tragic one, and speaks vividly to our human tendency to clash with nature, to fear first and be rational later (if ever), and it’s that story that I wanted to share today.
Fossils of the thylacine have been found across the country, some as old as 30 million years, but for the last four or five centuries – since the dingo was introduced by the Aborigines – it was an animal only found in Tasmania. A carnivorous marsupial (meaning it had a pouch like a kangaroo and all other marsupials, although the thylacine’s pouch was rear-opening), the thylacine lived on kangaroos and other small marsupials, often hunting in pairs. They were quiet, reclusive animals with a distinctive coughing bark whose descent into extinction occurred when the first European settlers landed in Van Diemen’s Land. Early illustrations made it look hunched and rodent-like, but it was an upright, stiff-looking beast with a golden brown coat, distinctive darker stripes (hence the nickname of “tiger”), a stiff tail, rounded ears and a powerful jaw that could open wide like a crocodile’s. It couldn’t run fast, and it hunted at night. When up on its hind legs, it was easily the height of a grown man, and it was a close relative of the Tasmanian Devil. They were also commonly called the Tasmanian wolf, and with their dog- or cat-like appearance and hunting instincts, they quickly became easy scapegoats for the settler’s missing sheep, and were hunted to extinction – with a bounty on their scalps. In reality, the missing sheep would have due to the dogs the settlers brought with them, and in some cases the Aboriginals themselves, who had no concept of private property.
Considering that nothing like the thylacine had been seen before, that it evoked images of dogs, wolves, tigers – all potentially dangerous animals that were known to go after livestock in other colonies – perhaps we might feel sympathetic towards the settlers for fearing and believing that the thylacine threatened their livestock, their sheep and chickens. Perhaps it is with the arrogance of “presentism” that I look back and feel anger boiling up in me, but considering the fact that wherever humans go, we have a propensity for exploitation, decimation and misunderstanding – either towards other humans, native animals or the land itself – and because the thylacine is gone forever because of deliberate human actions, that I think it’s more than presentism making me feel this way.
The history of white colonial settlement in Tasmania is a bloody and violent one; at such odds with the stunning, pristine environment, the ancient rainforests and peacefulness that fills you up as soon as you arrive. The thylacine wasn’t the only thing hunted to extinction: the Tasmanian Aborigines were also wiped out, deliberately and systematically. The Black War killed most of them, and the remaining survivors were rounded up, shipped to Flinders Island (located between Tasmania and the mainland), and left to whither away and die of European illness as well as the kind of sickness that comes with being separated from your native land and your culture. (For an excellent novel on the Black War, I recommend English Passengers by Matthew Kneale; and for a book that details the last years of the surviving natives, try Richard Flanagan’s Wanting.) Both crimes are just as heinous, and yet it is the thylacine that provokes such romantic interest.
There are stories of thylacines helping stranded explorers or men living in huts in the mountains, guiding them home when they became lost. There are present-day stories of footprints spotted, a glimpse of a stripped back disappearing among the trees in the wilderness of the west coast. And there is a great deal of hope that such a remarkable creature as the thylacine simply hides out, keeping away from humans. It is a romantic hope, because between our desire to conquer and the voracious logging industry, there isn’t much pristine wilderness left in Tasmania (don’t get me started on the evils of Gunns, a private company, or Forestry Tasmania, the state-run logging industry – really, the two run the entire state, although recently Gunns has foundered and looks to be taking a nose-dive into solvency).
About ten years ago, a state-wide hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger began, spurred by the golden promise of cloning. Nothing came of it. The thylacine adorns the state logo, commemorative coins, the licence plates on cars, tourism information and appears in books and films, as well as having sport teams named after it. The Hobart Museum has a collection of taxidermied thylacines and preserved foetuses, and you can see footage of the last known surviving thylacine, the one that died in Hobart Zoo (and watch it restlessly pace it’s small cage, the epitome of the trapped and doomed – and depressed – animal).
There is no real mystery surrounding the thylacine – blamed for the loss of livestock, it was successfully hunted to extinction and is no more – but it’s also part of the Australian national consciousness to suspect all manner of mysteries abound in our dense wilderness. With a long history of white settlers disappearing in the bush, never seen again; with movies like Picnic at Hanging Rock feeding the romanticism; and especially thanks to the efforts of settlers to turn Australia into a farmable English landscape that ended instead with the land creating a new breed of people, not as in tune or respectful as the Aborigines but definitely hard to knock back, we have an instinctive, respectful fear of the bush, the wilderness, and the secrets it may yet hold.
That, and I’d say it’s one of our biggest regrets, killing the thylacine.”