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Tasmanian Wolf: an Extinct Species




Was Thylacinus cynocephalus a wolf or a tiger? It was neither. This remarkable animal looked like wolf with tiger stripes on its back and tail, but it was more closely related to kangaroos than to either tigers or wolves. The Tasmanian tiger-wolf was a marsupial; it had a pouch for its young just like a kangaroo.

Marsupials are found almost exclusively in Australia and certain surrounding islands such as Tasmania. They died out in most of the rest of the world. On thing the Tasmanian tiger-wolf does share with its tiger and wolf namesakes is vigorous persecution by human beings. The Tasmanian tiger-wolf is now extinct.

Despite its similar name, the Tasmanian tiger-wolf is not the same creature as the cartoon-famous Tasmanian devil. There really is an animal called the Tasmanian devil, and like the Tasmanian tiger-wolf, it is a carnivorous (meat-eating) marsupial.

Although Tasmanian devil populations were reduced by disease at one time, they have recovered, and there probably are more Tasmanian devils now than there were at the time of European settlement. One possible reason for this is that the Tasmanian devil no longer has to compete for food sources with the extinct Tasmanian tiger-wolf.

The Tasmanian tiger-wolf became extinct on the mainland of Australia long ago because it could not compete for food with an introduced species, the dingo, a kind of wild dog. Tasmanian tiger-wolves continued to thrive on the dingo-free island of Tasmania off Australia’s south coast until Europeans arrived in the region.

At that time, settlers began clearing the tiger-wolf’s habitat for sheep farming. Habitat destruction reduced the natural prey available to tiger-wolves.

With its natural prey base reduced, the Tasmanian tiger-wolf began to kill domestic sheep for food, much to the dismay of the local farmers. The farmers mounted a campaign to destroy the carnivores who were preying on their livestock. In the mid-1800’s, landowners paid a bounty for killing Tasmanian tiger-wolves, and the government introduced an even larger bounty in 1888.

The programs were quite successful and the Tasmanian tiger-wolf was poisoned, shot, snared, hunted with dogs, trapped, and otherwise exterminated through the early 1900s.

An unknown disease decimated the remaining population in 1910. By 1933 it was believed that the species had become extinct in the wild. In 1936, the last known Tasmanian tiger-wolf died in captivity.

Although the species was believed extinct, reports of tiger-wolves in the wild continued. The species received protection from the Australian government, and the search to find any remaining tiger-wolves began. Expeditions in the 1930s, 40s and 60s found no Tasmanian tiger-wolves.

However, possible evidence that the species was not extinct surfaced when it was claimed that a young male Tasmanian tiger-wolf had been accidentally killed on the west coast of Tasmania in 1961. Had the Tasmanian tiger-wolves survived in the wild all those years? Was this young male the last of his kind, or were there more survivors?

Five years later, 1.6 million acres in Tasmania were declared a sanctuary for any remaining Tasmanian tiger-wolves. However, whether there were any Tasmanian tiger-wolves to inhabit the sanctuary area remained an open question. The most comprehensive search yet for remaining Tasmanian tiger-wolves was completed in the 1980’s. No tiger-wolves were found.

Questions for Thought:

How can we ever know if a species is truly extinct in the wild? How long after the last verifiable sighting should a species be officially declared extinct? Does it matter whether a species is officially declared extinct?

Assuming there are no more Tasmanian tiger-wolves, should the sanctuary law be revoked, even though it also provides protection for two rare egg-laying mammals, the spiny anteater or echidna (Tachyglossus setosus) and the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), as well protecting the Tasmanian ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus leachi) and other rare animals?

Do ranchers have a right to kill predators that feed on their livestock? Under what circumstances? Do they have the right to eradicate a species if it is causing them economic losses?

Compare the persecution of Tasmanian tiger-wolves by ranchers to the persecution of Caribbean monk seals and Mediterranean monks seals by fishers What are the similarities and differences?

Activities: [CS3-2,C3-1,C3-2, General]

Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.

Bagheera is Produced by Endangered Species Journalist Craig Kasnoff

to Promote the Plight of Endangered Species and the Efforts to Save Them.