COULD YOUR GRANDCHILDREN GROW UP WITH TASMANIAN TIGERS?

by Whit Gibbons


July 11, 2004


What do Tasmanian tigers and mountain lions have in common? For one thing, a century ago each species was the largest and most widespread modern-day predator native to its continent. Although mountain lions (aka cougars or panthers) still persist in parts of North America, Tasmanian tigers (aka thylacines or Tasmanian wolves) are presumably now extinct. Virtually everything known about their biology and history are in the book "Tasmanian Tiger: The Tragic Tale of How the World Lost Its Most Mysterious Predator" by David Owen (2003, Johns Hopkins University Press).

Tasmanian tigers inhabited Australia, until dingo dogs arrived with the aboriginal peoples a few thousand years ago. Tasmanian tigers disappeared from the main Australian landmass but held on in the southern island state of Tasmania, approximately the size of West Virginia. Then European settlers arrived. The Dutch settled in Tasmania, and sheep farming became the dominant culture. In many situations where another animal is perceived to hinder human farming, development, recreation, or other pursuits, attempts are made to eliminate the troublesome species. Although kangaroos and wallabies were probably the main prey of Tasmanian tigers, no doubt a few grabbed a lamb once in awhile. That spelled their doom. Bounties were placed on the hapless predator by the late 1800s, and by the time the Tasmanian people decided it was kind of neat to have the largest marsupial predator in the world it was too late.

The last captive died in the Hobart Zoo on September 6, 1936. But like North America's ivory-billed woodpecker that some ornithologists hold out hope of finding in remote forests, some people think Tasmanian tigers still exist in the wild interior of Tasmania. Every year sightings are reported, but never verified. Between 1936 and 1980, 320 reports of Tasmanian tigers in the wild were made, many of which, mainly before the 1950s, were believed to be authentic.

Tasmanian tigers had a large, dog-like head and a body with more than a dozen distinct stripes like a tiger. Adults reached the size of a Dalmatian dog. But as with many wildlife species today, only minimal information was documented about their ecology and behavior. According to one source females had four babies. Tasmanian tigers were no threat to humans themselves, and probably were not even a serious problem for livestock. But like so many native U.S. predators, the species was constantly getting a bad rap and being persecuted. Tasmanian tigers were declared to be aggressive based on an incident where one ran past a man who broke his walking stick over the animal's back. The Tasmanian tiger turned and growled at the man, and then ran into the forest. Sounds to me like the man started the fight, which makes him the aggressive one.

Ironically, whereas a controversial move was afoot less than a century ago to keep the Tasmanian tiger from disappearing, equally conflict-ridden steps are now being taken to bring the species back. Cloning has become an all-too-real and, to some people scary, prospect proposed by some geneticists for extinct species. All that is needed is a body part with DNA. The Australian Museum proposes to clone the Tasmanian tiger, using three pups that were preserved in alcohol. The plan is to complete the project by 2010, but we all know that projects like this always take longer than planned. So, let's count on at least 30 years before baby Tasmanian tigers will be romping over the Australian landscape.

Would cloning be an ethically appropriate move to make for Tasmanian tigers? What would we do with a mini-population of the predatory marsupial? Keep them in zoos? Put them in the fast-disappearing Tasmanian forests? Release them on Maria Island, a sanctuary formerly established for the species off the east coast of Tasmania? What if a cloned endangered species were later perceived to have become a nuisance?

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in understanding some of the attitudes that influence conservation issues, learning about unusual animals, and finding out how we might do a better job for our native wildlife in the future. Before our grandchildren actually share the world with Tasmanian tigers, many tough questions will have to be asked and answered.



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