YOUR GRANDCHILDREN GROW UP WITH TASMANIAN TIGERS?
by Whit Gibbons
July 11, 2004
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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