Chasing the Ghosts of Tigers

Today we publish our latest report in 'The Vanishing' series, a gathering of responses by writers and artists, not only to extinction but to the quieter extirpations, losses and disappearances that are steadily stripping our world of its complexity and beauty. Kim Schnuelle writes about the loss of the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) and subsequent scientific attempts to restore its existence. With artwork by Kate Tume.
has spent time as a horse trainer, palaeontology student, marine biologist, coroner's assistant, parolee educator, family law attorney, and occasional poet. She lives in the northwest corner of the United States with her husband and their Texas stray hound Chucho.

 Imagine you are in rural Tasmania a century or so ago, camping under a full moon and a star-filled sky. The Southern Cross is bright on the horizon. A cool westerly wind whips past, generating an eerie hum that awakens your senses. There is a rustle in the bushes beside your tent. You look quickly outside and see what appears to be a mid-sized dog trotting by. However it is striped. And doesn’t look like any dog you have ever seen before. 

You are not dreaming. Rather you are seeing one of the last of the largest marsupial carnivores – the nocturnal thylacine or Tasmanian tiger. An ancient animal, dating back to the Miocene and once spread across what is now Australia and New Guinea, it passed your tent with a bounty on its head and on the cusp of extinction. Because Australia had few native placental mammals, only several species of bat and a handful of different rodents, marsupials filled every available ecological niche. The thylacine took up the apex predator niche that wolves, cougars and feral dogs filled in the Northern Hemisphere. In a classic example of convergent evolution, thylacines came to look like those predators as well.

Like carnivores everywhere, they killed livestock when the opportunity arose. English settlers arrived in Tasmania in 1803 and their desire for land and resources was immediately at odds with the rhythms of the native human and animal inhabitants. Immigrant ranchers and sheep farmers faced hard conditions and dwindling profits and so in 1830 the Van Diemens Land Company placed a bounty on the thylacine. The Tasmanian government followed suit in 1888.

The predictable mass slaughter ensued.

The final bounty was paid in 1909. The last known wild thylacine was captured in 1933 by a local hunter who sold it to the Hobart zoo. It died three years later, on 7th September, 1936, after being left outside on a particularly cold evening. Black and white film of a pacing marsupial tiger is available on YouTube for the curious.

Due to the occasional promising report of a wild sighting however, the thylacine  was not officially declared extinct until 1986.

Even into the 21st century, would-be cryptobiologists and those hoping, Lazarus like, to “discover another coelacanth”, took field trips into the wilds of Tasmania hoping to find a remnant thylacine population. Social groups, such as the Thylacine Research Unit and the Booth Richardson Tiger Team, examined grainy footage of supposed thylacines and sometimes set bait, hoping to find the elusive ghost tiger. To date, none of these explorers has met with any demonstrative success. Despite the wistful hopes of a handful of obsessive optimists, as well as financial rewards proffered by both the Australian magazine The Bulletin and media mogul Ted Turner, the thylacine is considered functionally and for all practical purposes extinct.

Thylacines in a Washington, D.C. zoo (c. 1906)

The 20th century loss of the thylacine is lamented as a sorrowful event in Australian history. An extinction based in greed – the sheep farmers’ drive to turn a larger profit that created the resultant slaughter. Could we have done more to save the species? A painful remorse lingers in those that know the history. Guilt is a weighty human sensation however. We are acculturated in the western world to avoid it when possible. Thus, rather than mourn the fullness of this loss, a movement has arisen instead to ‘fix past mistakes.’ This movement seeks to restore the living thylacine.

However, one cannot atone for the crime committed against the thylacine, the decimation of their species, through the very same mindset that caused the destruction. The extermination of the thylacine was borne, at least in part, from declaring the tigers to be mere nuisance objects. Thylacine were thus not worthy of their own lives. They were rather objectified, identified as threats to human property, and therefore exterminated. Not surprisingly, efforts to atone for their extermination try to undo this objectification of the thylacine, an abstraction that led to its demise, by objectifying them once again. Through de-extinction processes or resurrection biology, the thylacine can be reborn and the tragedy of their extinction can be expiated. Any residual collective guilt can be expunged and any painful lesson from this calamitous folly can be discarded. Everyone can be comfortable again.

But what would be restored? Surely not a thylacine. Not a living mammal enlaced in a web of connection with others of its kind and within a wider natural world.

In 2008, Andrew Pask, a researcher at the University of Melbourne, inserted thylacine DNA into mouse embryos, thereby creating a living mouse with functioning DNA derived from an extinct marsupial. Pask went on to use 108 year old DNA, taken from a young thylacine joey removed from its mother’s pouch, to sequence the tiger’s entire genome. His work has been publicly  supported by Mike Archer, a ‘de-extinction expert’ from the University of New South Wales and himself a prior proponent of thylacine cloning. With this encouragement, discussions on bringing back the thylacine have resurfaced. One idea is to use other distantly related marsupials, thereby objectifying them as well, as a form of ‘rental pouches’ to gestate the cloned thylacine embryo. Scientific articles such as ‘Return of the Living Thylacine’ have surfaced online. One can hear an increasing drum-beat to use the costly techniques of 21st century genetics to restore the thylacine to Australia’s eucalypt forests and grasslands.

But what would be restored? Surely not a thylacine. Not a living mammal enlaced in a web of connection with others of its kind and within a wider natural world. Rather, what would surface is a man-made curiosity. A lone animal, or small group of animals, divorced from any wider context. Not a living being as much as a monument to man’s ability to create. And, like the wizard when discovered by Dorothy in the Land of Oz, a prayer to ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’.

Thylacine Tribute Cabaret, Dark Mountain Base Camp – a homage to the thylacine on the 80th anniversary of its extinction. Photo by Warren Draper

For what is ‘behind the curtain’ in cloning extinct species is a hubristic hope for restitution and a ‘second chance ‘. If mankind can fix its mistakes, mistakes that decimate whole ecosystems and render extinct some 200–2000 species every year, then mankind can continue on its path of fracking, clear cutting, and big game hunting, secure in the knowledge that a test tube and sufficient fortitude can amend these ‘errors’ in the future. The species-revivalist arguments are logic based and frequently dismiss any critiques as a ‘Jurassic Park’ type of fear based fatalism. Obstacles to restoration are seen as concrete and not, for lack of a better word, soulful.

You couldn’t just create one thylacine or it would simply go extinct again. And is there any habitat remaining that would even support a thylacine colony? How much would it cost and should we be using those funds instead to restore habitat and possibly stave off the next round of species extinctions?

All of these musings focus not on the thylacine but on the human actors in the great restoration play. Will we as a species feel better if we can rectify the extinctions we ourselves caused? Will we raise a glass to the gods of our own genius, a sort of masturbatory ouroboros where our ingenuity makes more likely the very thing that we are trying to fix? Will we be heroes by creating bio-reserves instead and therefore ‘saving’ the Sumatran rhinoceros or other species on the waning days of their existence?

No one seems to ask what the thylacine might want here. If we are still and listen, without the hubbub of our brilliance interfering, perhaps the ghost tiger will tell us. It may be that the final indignity to the thylacine would be to be thwarted from passing into history in peace and instead to be resurrected just to placate its killer’s moral pain. In the balance of giving and taking, in which nothing was in fact given to the thylacine, are these clever de-extinction plans yet one more taking?

The myth of human centracism, of human supremacy, has been the driving force of western civilization for millenia.

Rather than asking how to rectify what has already happened, the better question then is what is the best path to honour the thylacine rather than objectify it yet again. What benefit could be obtained by not trying to numb the grief brought about by this collective murder but instead by accepting what is true and what we have done? The Remembrance Day for Lost Species, started in southern England and now held every November in locations worldwide, comes close to making visible this question yet it emphasizes our human need to grieve over the desires and autonomy of each lost species themselves.

An outward shift is still needed here. If humans as a species could face this sort of truth and could move the centre of focus externally to the plants and animals themselves, how would that inform our future actions, both individually and collectively? If our consideration was ‘other centred ’, mountaintop removal mining and sea bottom trawling would be inconceivable. The myth of human centracism, of human supremacy, has been the driving force of western civilization for millenia. But that myth means far less than a single clear running stream to the matrix of plants, animals, rocks, water, and wind that we humans all live within. What if instead of creating committees and engaging in environmental cost/benefit analyses where a healthy biome was just one of many factors for consideration, we instead turned and asked the river what it wants?

The road historically taken usually yields the results historically seen. In the face of widespread extinctions, of both individual species and wide swaths of habitat, a shift to centring on the ‘more than human’ other would be a road not historically taken, one that would yield a different result. What seems impossible is therefore just a shift in focus.

It’s not impossible to clone the thylacine. Scientists are working on it as I write. But if we really wanted to use our human capacity for ingenuity, we would choose a much more challenging goal. We would stop asking ourselves only what might make us feel better. We would stop building monuments to our genius, monuments divorced from consideration of the needs of anyone but our human selves. We would instead ask what the ‘more than human others’ want. And sometimes, as with the thylacine, the answer may just be to be to simply give them the dignity of their fate.

 

 

Image: Katie Tume
Saint Benjamin from ‘Extinct Icons’
Hand embroidery on cotton with gold passing, copper, carnelians, sequins, cotton thread

The last captive thylacine, Benjamin, lived in the Hobart Zoo for three years. He died on 7th September 1936 as a result of neglect – locked out of his sleeping quarters, he succumbed to exposure.

Extinct Icons is a series of six pieces depicting lost species’ ‘endlings’ in a highly embellished and textured hand embroidery work that suggests religious iconography amongst other visual clues, and invites the viewer to learn the stories of these ‘natural martyrs. Two other icons  from the series, the bubal hartebeest and the great auk, were published in Dark Mountain: Issue 13.

Katie Tume is an embroidery artist from Brighton, East Sussex. She is a fifth-generation needleworker who first learned her craft at her mother’s knee. She attended the Surrey Institute of Art and Design as a Fashion and Illustration student, but is largely self-taught in hand embroidery techniques. Katie’s work is influenced by folklore, mythology, pagan societies and the old gods. She is currently working on  projects around ritualising animal death and lost species

 

Private: Dark Mountain: Issue 15

The Spring 2019 issue is a collection of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and artwork that responds to the ‘age of fire’.

 

Read more

Comments
  1. Thank you, Kim, for this. I wish that the scientists working on cloning the thylacine could read your piece. (I hope they have!) There seems to be no end to our arrogance and delusion, but words like yours help to bring us back to facing the consequences of our collective actions and find our seemingly lost spirit.

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