A few weeks ago, I sat down for breakfast, checked my phone and almost choked on my crumpet. Twitter was shouting at me. Somebody had found a Tasmanian tiger. The reason that this news was such a potentially monumental, breakfast-stopping event is that the Tasmanian tiger has been extinct since 1936.
If you’ve never heard of the Tasmanian tiger just imagine a stripy dog with a stiff tail and a kangaroo’s pouch and you’re most of the way there.
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Ruthlessly persecuted by humans and hunted into oblivion, the last known individual died a pitiful death from neglect in captivity in Hobart Zoo. But this hasn’t stopped legions of people armed with cameras and an overabundance of optimism scouring Tasmania for evidence that the animal still survives. Every now and then a blurry image will surface but it only serves to prove that if Tasmanian tigers are still out there, they have developed an uncanny ability to remain defiantly out of focus when photographed.
This 2021 tiger sighting would apparently be validated by a video. All this gave me some personal cause for concern as I had just finished writing a book about extinct animals. Had the Tasmanian tiger waited for 85 years in the shadows and re-emerged now just to troll me?
It wasn’t long ago that I had come face to face with a Tasmanian tiger while I walked amongst the galleries of the wonderful Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. Here a faded taxidermy tiger shared a glass cabinet with remnants of other animals who had also, through human actions, been consigned to extinction.
This seemingly depressing exhibit was an unlikely cause of inspiration for me. It rekindled a childhood obsession with extinct creatures, heroic naturalists and lost worlds, and was the starting point for my own adventure, which led me from Brighton to New Zealand via the sand dunes of San Francisco and the museum store-rooms of Helsinki and Copenhagen. My quest was to get closer to these legendary animals, experience the places where they once lived and investigate where they survive within our culture today.
We have resurrected the dodo as an absurd cartoon creature, a comical bird too stupid to survive. And by caricaturing the dodo we have distanced ourselves from the crime we have committed
The next time I bumped into a Tasmanian tiger it was being ridden by a laughing child on a merry-go-round in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. This fibreglass tiger was part of a curious carousel – a whirling cavalcade of extinct and endangered creatures which included a panda, a gorilla and that extinction A-lister: the dodo. I had already encountered many dodos throughout my journey. Most museums held a display of dodo leg bones discoloured from centuries spent in a swamp on the island of Mauritius (the dodo’s idyllic home until we arrived in 1598 and ruined everything).
But I had also found dodos lurking in museum gift shops, grinning at me from key-rings, mugs and T-shirts. Today we have resurrected the dodo as an absurd cartoon creature, a comical bird too stupid to survive, complicit in its own extinction. And by caricaturing the dodo we have distanced ourselves from the crime we have committed. It wasn’t until I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and was granted an audience with the world’s best-preserved dodo remains that I could look upon these pieces of crinkled skin and bare bone and finally see the dodo for what it really was. The dodo had been an incredible bird that lived on an island in the middle of the ocean. And we had killed it.
Sometimes it feels the enormities of extinction are buried under the smiling gift shop dodos or drowned out by the Twitter arguments which erupt with every new Tasmanian tiger photograph. Headlines regularly declare that within the next few years dodos or woolly mammoths will be raised from the dead by scientists, Jurassic Park style.
But behind these distractions the creatures that we share our planet with are disappearing at an alarming rate. In 2019 a United Nations study on global biodiversity concluded that one million of the world’s estimated eight million species now face extinction, many within decades. Current extinction rates are higher (somewhere between tens to hundreds of times higher) than they have averaged over the past 10 million years, and that rate is accelerating.
Within a few days of the Tasmanian tiger’s rediscovery, the apparently irrefutable video proof of the animal’s existence was swiftly dismissed by experts. The trail camera footage didn’t show a predatory Tasmanian tiger but a pademelon, a small kangaroo-like creature. Hey, we all make mistakes.
Don’t get me wrong. I would love to hear that the Tasmanian tiger had been rediscovered. In some ways I’m envious of these believers who spend their spare time searching for footprints in Tasmania’s scorched soil. I wish I could share their optimism. Because a belief in the Tasmanian tiger’s existence is a belief that there is still enough wilderness to hide these creatures, that the human race has not completely wrecked this planet, that the Earth can still withstand us.
Gone: A Search for What Remains of the World’s Extinct Creatures by Michael Blencowe is published in hardback by Leaping Hare Press, priced £18.99