Saturday, July 11, 2009 the forests of the night

Like most islands, Tasmania has benefited from its isolation. Give a land a few thousand years of peace and quiet and you’re bound to end up with some creatures that don’t exist anywhere else. That’s as much a result of what doesn’t evolve as what does. Australia as a whole didn’t throw up any large, hoofed ungulates like deer or antelope, so that niche in the ecosystem was filled by enormous jumping mice (kangaroos and wallabies). And until a few thousand years ago, Australia didn’t have many large carnivores either – no lions or wolves – so small scavengers and herbivores were able to live unmolested.
Unfortunately, around 5,000 years ago or so the aborigines who lived in northern Australia met up with some wandering Polynesians who introduced them to this really cool companion animal they’d domesticated, and before long there were dogs – and later their wild cousins, dingos – running all over the country, gobbling up anything that wasn’t fast or fierce or poisonous or camouflaged.
For whatever reason, though, the natives who lived across the Bass Straight didn’t take to dogs. It could be that they just didn’t travel to the mainland much – having 200 kms of the most storm-tossed ocean in the world to cross may have had something to do with it. So the devils and the thylacines survived. At least the devils did. The thylacines – marsupial dog-like creatures also known as the Tasmanian Tiger -- were doing alright too, until Europeans decided they didn’t really like having their sheep eaten and started hunting them. In the late 18th century there was a bounty on thylacines – up to one pound a head, an enormous sum at the time. The last known animal died in a Hobart zoo. There have been hundreds of sightings since then, but nothing confirmed by scientists.
We recently visited the Bonorong Wildlife Park, a rehabilitation and rescue centre just outside Hobart. We hand-fed kangaroos, petted a wombat and an imported koala (another creature that never made it across the Bass Straight), and marvelled at the weird sound produced by devils (it’s a cross between a growl and a shriek – a bit higher pitched than the one on the Bugs Bunny cartoons. If you imagine yourself as a newly arrived settler in Tasmania, huddled in your hut and hearing those noises echoing through the dark, it’s not hard to see why they earned their name). On a wall outside the gift shop is a tribute to the thylacine. I was surprised that it said “some believe the thylacine to be extinct,” so I asked inside. I ended up chatting with Greg Irons, an energetic man in his 20s who runs the rehabilitation centre. I asked him if he thought thylacines still existed. “Ten years ago, I would have said almost certainly,” he said. “Today, probably not.”
More than a decade ago, he said, a hunter he knew and trusted said he had spent a full minute observing a thylacine from about 20 metres away, and had even taken a plaster cast of the print. Irons thinks that may have been one of the last ones left. “We still get people in here who say they’ve seen one, or who claim to know where they breed, but...” and he dismissed their credibility with a shrug.
But why, I wondered, was he so sure they had died out? While driving to the Hastings Caves and Cockle Creek we had seen just how dense the Tasmanian rain forest can be, and that area was just the beginning of a massive wilderness region that stretches for hundreds of kilometres. Surely there could be thousands of thylacines still roaming in the forest undetected? Irons said that’s not the kind of habitat these cats need. “They weren’t fast animals, but they had endurance. Lots of things could outrun them but they would just keep going and going until they caught up.” They were hunters of the open land, he said, and that land is pretty heavily used by farmers and shepherds. If there were still thylacines there, someone would have seen them.
If the thylacine really is gone, though, it certainly still lives on in Tasmanian iconography. From license plates to beer labels, t-shirts to shot glasses, thylacines are everywhere in Tasmania. In downtown Hobart, I walked past the former headquarters of the Cascade Brewery – Australia’s oldest brewery, founded in 1834. Atop the grey stone building was a carving of a beer cask, and perched on that was the unmistakeable striped figure of the thylacine. Since the building was constructed in the 1870s, the sculpture dates from a time when thylacines were still roaming the fields and hedgerows, still being shot on sight and poisoned for a bounty.
And that, it seems to me, is the oddest thing about the way thylacines are used in Tasmania. Yes, it’s a romantic animal with a great name (Tasmanian tiger), but it didn’t just die out by accident. It was wiped out on purpose by the great-grandparents of those who now celebrate it. It would be like coming to North America and seeing monuments to the passenger pigeon everywhere, or finding out that the international mariners federation had adopted the dodo or the great auk as its symbol.
I hope there are still a few thylacines roaming the forest. It could happen – ten years ago, most scientists agreed that mountain lions no longer lived in Ontario; now there’s a broader consensus that they may still exist in the wild.
I also hope someone manages to find a cure for a disease currently sweeping through the wild population of Tasmanian devils. It doesn’t look good, though: in the past ten years the population of wild devils has dropped by 70 per cent. Most people like Irons are focused these days on building “island” populations, keeping a few devils disease-free so they can be reintroduced if a cure for the disease is ever found. They’re also trying to stop new logging roads from being built into areas that are currently disease-free, and even talking about building a devil-proof fence to keep infected animals out of clean parts of the island.
If all that fails, there’s a very real possibility the Tasmanian devil could go the way of the Tasmanian tiger.


Dave C said...

Facinating stuff. I had never heard before of the thycaline. A product of my ignorance, or what ?

Andrew said...

I don't think I'd heard of them until I started reading in preparation for this trip. It certainly wasn't the first surprise I had about Australia, nor will it be the last.