Mythology Still Larger than Life in Tasmania

The Age / March, 2005

Thylacinus cynocephalus, believed to be extinct, is a symbol of an eerie absence that fascinates people from around the world, writes Martin Flanagan.

In 1926, a London newspaper report about the arrival of the animal known as a Tasmanian tiger at a local zoo ran under the memorable heading "Too Stupid To Tame".

Now that it is feared to be extinct, far from being seen as stupid, the Tasmanian tiger is a fabled creature like the unicorn. It continues to be seen regularly, not only in Tasmania and parts of Victoria but as far away as Western Australia.

What is remarkable about the tiger, if we call it that, is how little we really knew it. Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, means "pouched dog with a wolf's head". In the 1860s, when it was confidently declared there were two species of the creature, what was being observed were the skulls of different sexes. Its other names - hyena, dingo, wolf, tiger, zebra wolf and zebra opossum - give an idea of the long search made for an accurate idea of its identity.

One reason the name tiger does not fit is the sound the animal made. It did not growl or roar. Such noise as it made is variously described as a yip or a yap. But no doubt the reason they were also known as hyenas - surely among the most unloved animals - was because they were accused of killing sheep. This was the offence for which they were eliminated.

One of the last bounties, in the early 20th century, was for a tiger killed near Longford, northern Tasmania. At the time, it would have been typical tiger country - semi-open bushland. It was not speed that enabled them to kill - they ran with an odd, loping canter - but endurance. They hunted like wolves and that was another name for them: native wolf, marsupial wolf.

Dogs were scared of them and so were people. While not being that tall, the animal could be as long as 290 centimetres and its tail was an extension of its backbone. Folklore insists that, like the kangaroo, it could both leap and stand erect, balancing on its tail. It also had jaws that splayed open like a snake's to an angle of 120 degrees.

The animal was the world's largest marsupial carnivore. Once found throughout mainland Australia, and possibly New Guinea, it may have inhabited Earth for up to 4 million years. In the end, it held on in one island - shy and untrusting. The animal never bred in captivity. Nor did it return to carcasses from which it had eaten, and was therefore difficult to poison. What of the island's original occupants? How did they see the animal? With a touch of fear and reverence, it would seem.

On Flinders Island in December 1833, Quaker missionary James Backhouse recorded seeing Aboriginal men "in a state of nudity" perform what he called a VDL (Van Diemen's Land) tiger dance, in which the animal is wounded while threatening children.

Earlier, George Augustus Robinson, the Protector of Aborigines, had observed that when the animal died, his native companions insisted on making a hut, "a tent-like cover of greenery", to cover the bones. Failure to do so, they said, invited turbulence from the heavens.

To grow up in Tasmania is to grow up with a powerful sense of absence in one of the world's most beautiful settings. The Tasmanian tiger is a symbol of that eerie absence, which fascinates people from around the world.